I asked the students in my creative writing class at Antioch College to try this. Because it was a good exercise for me as a writer to type up the sentences of these writers, I am posting it here.
Read Colson Whitehead’s “The Port Authority” and/or the fragment from Joan Didion’s “The White Album” (section 12, pp 44-45) again. Find a spot from which you want to take inspiration, and write for 10 minutes (or longer). This is a rather open-ended option.
OR, for a tighter frame:
Use one of these fragments below—You might even choose one sentence, or one image. Read it aloud, and then write for 10 minutes (or longer).
“It is the biggest hiding place in the world. The inevitable runaways. The abandoned, only recently reading between the lines. After the beauty contest this is the natural next step. All the big agencies are there. He saved his tips all summer and to see them disappear into a ticket quickened his heart. Not the first in the family to make the attempt. The suitcase is the same one his father used decades before. This time it will be different. The highway twists. She will be witty and stylish there. With any luck he will be at the same address and won’t it be quite a shock when he opens the door but after all he said if you’re in town. Hope and wish. In the light of the bonfire she realized the madness of that place and was packed by morning. They will send back money when they get settled, whatever they can. A percentage. Reliving each good-bye. Practicing the erasure of her accent, she watches her jaw’s reflection in the window. Wily vowels escape. No one will know the nickname that makes him mad. This is the right decision, they tell themselves. And then there is you.”
—Colson Whitehead, from “The Port Authority”
“During the years when I found it necessary to revise the circuitry of my mind I discovered that I was not longer interested in whether the woman on the ledge outside the window on the sixteenth floor jumped or did not jump, or in why. I was interested only in the picture of her in my mind: her hair incandescent in the floodlights, her bare toes curled inward on the stone ledge.”
—Joan Didion, from “The White Album”
“I believe this to be an authentically senseless chain of correspondences, but in the jingle-jangle morning of that summer it made as much sense as anything else did.”
—Joan Didion, from “The White Album”
“There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
—Leonard Cohen, “Anthem”
Overheard, Yellow Springs, Ohio, on a single day in my grateful life: People singing show tunes around the piano at Emporium Wines & The Underdog Cafe this morning; Antioch College students singing together in the Olive Kettering Library; Grace itself in the form of the World House Choir singing, this evening, singing to the Mother of us all, the earth.
The world feels full of beauty and love, at the moment. I’ll cling to this notion, make it my lifeline, for the rainy, dark days that are surely ahead.
It seems I’ve been spending a lot of time lately in the unknown. Or maybe I’ve been here all along, and I’m just now realizing (or accepting) the way my feet feel on that cold, clammy ground.
Anyway, a couple of things I’ve read lately got me thinking that it would be okay to impose this idea on the students in my advanced creative writing class at Antioch College. (As with most of my teaching, I always feel like I’m learning more than my students, and certainly I risked imposing my shit onto my students in this case.) Last night, we tried this prompt, and I thought it would be fun to likewise impose my shit onto anyone reading this blog post. (If you try it, please post here about how or whether it works for you!) Here it is:
Writing prompt: Step into the Unknown
(inspired by Nick Flynn and Lynda Barry, February 2015)
Lynda Barry writes about the two questions that plague her: “Is this good?” and “Does this suck?” “To be able to stand not knowing long enough to let something alive take shape! Without the two questions so much is possible. To all the kids who quit drawing…Come back!” –Lynda Barry, What It Is, Drawn and Quarterly, 2008, p. 135
Nick Flynn, in his memoir The Reenactments, writes, “It was easier, when high, to take photographs than to write—photography requires focused attention, and I could focus when high, my world in fact was nothing but focused, reduced to a pinpoint, to a chunk of hash impaled on a pin. But writing requires both clarity and a willingness to step into the unknown, and there was nothing clear about my days, not then. Getting fucked up every day is about maintaining the status quo‑it has nothing to do with change, or the unknown.” (Nick Flynn, The Reenactments, p. 77)
If these ideas resonate, then writers must “step into the unknown,” and “stand not knowing long enough to let something alive take shape.”
Start with a situation that you have in mind, one that is unknown to you. It might be something you are facing, a new phase of life. Or start with the phrase, “I don’t know” and do a freewrite.
I’ve been invited to read from my novels and shorter work at the Antioch College Local Writer Series. The reading will be on Wednesday, November 12, at 7pm at the Coretta Scott King Center at Antioch College (Livermore Street, across the street from the main Antioch towers). The event is free and open to the public, and I hear there will be snacks (and maybe a little glitter!).
As a writer, the story of my baby’s birth is the hardest thing I’ve ever written. The fact of the birth is alive; any any words I can arrange to convey what happened, inside my heart, soul, body, inside the room where Merida was born, inside my family, are limbless, lifeless. What I write should be as perfect and amazing as what happened. (Impossible.) What I write will never match the experience. The space between facts and feelings and any paltry words I can summon to convey them is too huge, so as someone who is a dedicated recorder of things into words, I am in worse shape than a non-writer. The words to tell my story become too precious, have too much weight, so it’s difficult to write them. They come out too detached, like clinical records, too tame and devoid of color: how can any sentence convey, capture, hold my experience? Many writers face this with life events and experiences. But every sentence I write tastes like weak tea. It only makes you have to pee. No flavor, no lift. This feels impossible to write.
Horace Mann, education reformer and founder of Antioch College, admonished the graduates in 1859, “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.” This banner sometimes feels like an unattainable burden, and becomes a curse. As a 41-year-old first time mother, within the current medical climate, being able to have my breech birth naturally felt like a victory of which Mann might be proud. And yet, women’s bodies are made to birth babies, even breech babies. So the paradox: my story should not be so unusual.
And I keep working on the draft of the story of her birth…