The following prompts are inspired by various memoirs and autobiographies that I have recently read. In one way or another, they all focus on craft— a commitment to art and storytelling— and how it contributes to survival, self-perception, and healing. Keep these things in mind.
Dorothy Allison Two or Three Things I Know For Sure
You may know Dorothy Allison from her bestselling novel, Bastard out of Carolina, which was also an NBA finalist for fiction in 1992. Or maybe you saw the film, based off the landmark novel and released in 1996. Perhaps you read Cavedweller, Allison’s second and heavy-hitting novel? Or maybe you have no idea who or what I am talking about. Regardless, please know this: Dorothy Allison can write better than you. And for that reason, Dorothy Allison has inspired the first prompt from the vault.
First read this. In Two or Three Things I Know For Sure, a provoking short(er) piece of memoir nonfiction, Allison tells stories of her memorable family. This piece focuses on memory, family, home place, sexuality, and storytelling. Allison tells a story, or stories, then reflects on the simple statement, “Two or three things I know for sure and one of them is … ”. These statements are succinct and deepy relatable.
List at least five “two or three things I know for sure” statements; be sure to write out the entire statement. Then, take one of them and build a poem from it. Channel family, home place, and childhood stories. Contemplate how you remember the story, how you tell the story— if you tell the story. Don’t forget trauma. Never forget trauma.
Suzanne Scanlon Her 37th Year: An Index
In Her 37th Year: An Index by Suzanne Scanlon from Noemi Press, Scanlon offers us an A-Z index of highly lyrical narrative anecdotes as her own autobiography. Admittedly, I was not familiar with Scanlon’s work before reading this little book. I can say that I have never read anything quite like it. For example, Scanlon begins the book “(A): Anecdote,” offering the reader an anecdote of a “she” and “he” story: a novel, first kisses, and a letter years too late. She then goes on to “(B): “Belief,” “Beauty (see also: Morality, and Weakness),” “Body,” and one of my favorites, “Butler, Judith (see also: Meaning); If I cannot tell a story about myself, then I will die.” Each title word has its own anecdote; anecdotes about loves, bodies, sex, grief, and loss.
Take one letter and write a series of anecdotes beginning with that letter in the form of an index. Or, write an anecdotal poem for each letter of your name (also in the index genre). The tricky (and real metaphorical work) is to link all the anecdotes with an underlying idea. Reference the Judith Butler entry from Scanlon’s work, “If I cannot tell a story about myself, then I will die.” Tell that story.
Example of my own (because this is complicated):
BM Bowel Movement (see also: nerves, digestive ecology, sex appeal) — as in something you can trust your body to do when appropriate— as in shit— as in “Babe, I shit myself this morning from nerves and no food and all coffee— all school— and I am going to write about it for class.” The last time this happened I was 22 and years away from rehab— Then, it wasn’t surprising. Then, my body failed me all the time. Now, I am disappointed in my body and my self-care. Now I am regressing. Then, it was whisky and heroin— now, it is Goals. I called dad and told dad. I called Babe and told Babe. I called Bunny and told Bunny. Dad= laugh. Babe= “but I am supposed to want to fuck you.” Bunny= “I heart you.”
BM Body & Myth (see also: mother, Mariology, breath) — A body will often wait for the last moment to breathe. My mother is a long skin line of sacrifice. Her body is a tool for service. At Easter Mass we always saved the fronds for months. They dried and became spines, became a mess, but they were still symbols. Once I used the fronds for fodder— I built a fire in the woods and when it blazed too close to homes, my body had to apologize. At Mass all I wanted was to breathe and feel a holy spirit— a cold finger down my throat. But my body is an insurgent— I would not have birthed a mystery baby. Who would.
Patti Smith Just Kids
In her autobiography Just Kids, Patti Smith, warmly and quite delicately describes her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe and their experiences living in New York while creating art. While the details Janis, Jimi, Jim Carroll, Sam Shepard, Warhol, to name a few, are magical, the real magic is witnessing Patti and Jim’s commitment to their individual creations. It is astounding and lovely. It is pure and loving. Patti intentionally writes this book about her and Robert; she tells their story. And because of that, Patti invokes true nostalgia, careful and respectful. The whole book has a hazy feel. There is no judgement, no blame.
To complete this seemingly more traditional prompt, tell a linear, nostalgic narrative. Be loving behind the controversy— be loving behind the scandal. Use caution and reverence. Be appreciative, but do not leave out any gritty details. Give them all. And oh, someone must die in the end.
Adele is an MFA candidate in poetry at Virginia Tech. She is a pastry chef and dog mother to an ornery and manipulative English Bulldog.