Shelter and Write Prompt 20: The Worry Solution

What is your biggest anxiety right now? Imagine that you hear a knock on the door and it is someone who has the solution to your worries. 

Who is it who shows up? Is it someone you’ve been missing? A doctor with a vaccine? Someone offering you your dream job? Your fairy godmother? A better version of yourself? Who can help fix these worries and anxieties?

Write a conversation in which you tell your worries to this person in detail. What advice do they offer? What solutions do they have? What do they bring or do in order to quell the worries? What is the outcome?

This post is part of a series I am doing that includes 30 prompts for 30 days of sheltering at home. You can read more about my reasoning and also find other prompts here. I would love to see what you come up with. Feel free to share here or to tag your work #shelterandwrite.

Shelter and Write Prompt 19: The Lasting Image

What is one image, one photograph (from the news, or your social media feed, etc.) that has left a lasting impression on you? 

Describe this image in detail. Do not use your memory. Actually look at the picture and describe exactly what you see. What did you remember about it and what details do you notice about it now? You might even want to do a little research about the image. How do these details make meaning for you? Why and how has this image impacted you?

Now that you have all the details in mind, use your description of this image as the starting point for an essay, a story, or a poem. Create the world around this image. What happened before, after, and during the image that we see? What happened behind the scenes?

This post is part of a series I am doing that includes 30 prompts for 30 days of sheltering at home. You can read more about my reasoning and also find other prompts here. I would love to see what you come up with. Feel free to share here or to tag your work #shelterandwrite.

Shelter and Write Prompt 18: The Plot Twist

Think of a character (or even yourself!) for whom the pandemic is a major turning point, a plot twist. 

What was the trajectory before this year? What were they aiming for before the outbreak occurred? How does the virus affect them? How does the tension rise? 

Then comes the major turning point! How does this pandemic change things for them? It should be big, something that will change their major life decisions and their goals. How does it change them as people? 

What is the resolution? How does everything end?

This post is part of a series I am doing that includes 30 prompts for 30 days of sheltering at home. You can read more about my reasoning and also find other prompts here. I would love to see what you come up with. Feel free to share here or to tag your work #shelterandwrite.

Shelter and Write Prompt 17: Write a Letter to Your Old Self

Write a letter to yourself 3 months ago. 

Think about the changes that have happened since 2020 began. What were your thoughts, hopes, and experiences at that time? How have things changed since then? What are the things you didn’t expect? What would you want to tell yourself from back then? Would you make different preparations? Try to be in a different place? Would you savor something just a little bit more?

This also works well for an imagined character. What would they want to say to themselves? What would they do differently?

This post is part of a series I am doing that includes 30 prompts for 30 days of sheltering at home. You can read more about my reasoning and also find other prompts here. I would love to see what you come up with. Feel free to share here or to tag your work #shelterandwrite.

Shelter and Write Prompt 16: Writing Together

Collaborate on a piece of writing. 

Find at least one other person to write together with. Perhaps you create a thread on social media, or enlist your family. This would work really well with a poem or with a short story. 

Start with just a line or sentences. Allow each person involved to add a line that relates to their current experiences and then allow the next person to respond to that line and add their own experiences. 

Where are the similarities? The differences? Is there a tug-of-war in the perspectives, or are you and your collaborators using similar images and ideas?

This post is part of a series I am doing that includes 30 prompts for 30 days of sheltering at home. You can read more about my reasoning and also find other prompts here. I would love to see what you come up with. Feel free to share here or to tag your work #shelterandwrite.

Shelter and Write Prompt 15: Upside-Down Fears

This one’s a little fun and funky. 

Free write for 10 minutes about your fears. Choose 5 nouns from your free write that stand out to you. Then choose 5 verbs, and 5 adjectives. 

Next, turn your paper upside down and “read” the upside down text. Find five “words” that stand out to you upside down. For example, if you read the word “words” upside down, it looks like “sporm,” which might make me think of sport, sperm, or spore. 

Next, think of a phrase someone from your past used to always say and a phrase that you have heard over and over again in recent weeks. 

Now, create a piece that incorporates all of these things: the 5 nouns, 5 adjectives, 5 verbs, 5 upside-down words you chose and the two phrases, one from your past and one from the present. It could be an essay, a poem, or a fictional story, but it must include all of these elements. Have fun!

This post is part of a series I am doing that includes 30 prompts for 30 days of sheltering at home. You can read more about my reasoning and also find other prompts here. I would love to see what you come up with. Feel free to share here or to tag your work #shelterandwrite.

Shelter and Write Prompt 14: Everything Changes

Think of one very small change that gives a window into life right now. It could be the coloring your toddler left on the wall since they are home all day, the seeds you just planted, the mountain of toilet paper at your sister’s house. 

Brainstorm everything that comes to mind when you think of this change: people, places, thoughts, feelings, etc. Write down everything that pops up in your mind when you think of the small detail. Where are the connections between this one small detail and other things in your life and your world?

Show us this change. Tell us about the colors, the textures, everything you notice about it as you look closely. Let us see it along with you. What do you notice about it? What is the history of this thing? What is its meaning to you?

Then, tell us why you noticed this particular change. What is it about this one small detail that has captured your attention? How does this thing connect to something larger happening in your life?

This post is part of a series I am doing that includes 30 prompts for 30 days of sheltering at home. You can read more about my reasoning and also find other prompts here. I would love to see what you come up with. Feel free to share here or to tag your work #shelterandwrite.

Reading for Writers: Englishes in Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Foreign Soil

A former Tamil Tiger in an Australian detention center. A transgender grandmother in New Orleans. An Australian woman trapped in an abusive relationship in Uganda. With this wide, global view, Maxine Beneba Clarke’s collection of short stories, Foreign Soil: And Other Stories, examines issues of identity and displacement across an expansive swath of space and time. Clarke uses a poetic attention to vernacular to bring her readers past the narrative, offering an immersive experience with each story.

From the epigraph of the book (“Let no one be fooled by the fact that we may write in English, for we intend to do unheard of things with it.” –Chinua Achebe), Clarke sets high expectations for her readers and she delivers. Throughout these stories, Clarke uses nonstandard English to tell nonstandard stories. The first story of the collection, “David,” follows a chance meeting of two Sudanese women in Australia, one who is Australian-born and one who was born in Sudan. Each woman’s voice mirrors the life she has known. These two voices side by side highlight the ways in which language shapes one’s view of the world but also the connections that can happen despite linguistic differences. From the outset, Clarke is playing with language. It’s no surprise that she is also a poet. Her attention to the smallest details of accent and sound are evident throughout the collection.

Clarke’s use of nonstandard English goes beyond dialog. For example, in “Gaps in the Hickory,” the narration is in third person but affects a dialect of the Southern United States that would be comfortable for the characters. “Ain’t no buckin up gon cover up how much Carter miss his gram,” (131) Clarke writes. Though the dialect is not always authentic (most Americans would use the term “bangs” for “fringe”), it nevertheless adds to the ambiance of the story and sets it more firmly in place. The use of dialect also requires the reader to set himself into the language and world of the characters, instead of trying to put the characters in a vernacular that is not their own.

Her most poignant use of language happens in the story “Big Islan.” In this narrative, which is written in a Jamaican dialect, we follow Nathaniel Robinson as he learns to read English. The language gives him a sense of place as he can find his home of Jamaica on the globe, but the language is inaccurate for his experience of the world. Nathaniel learns “E is for Inglan” (182) and “A is for Owstrayleah” (188). The letters don’t match his own speech. His newfound ability to read is a mixed blessing, giving him both H, which “always gwan stand fe home” (185) and “E fe envy” (189). In the end, his ability to read the newspaper makes “de city im grow te love so-so dear, Kingston, feel insignificant small” (191).

Clarke’s use of dialects makes her reader feel acutely the theme around which the stories in this collection rotate: displacement. Clarke does not stick to any one vernacular or voice. Instead, the stories cycle through some of the myriad Englishes that have evolved around the globe. Because of this, the reader can never settle in to one style of writing, but is constantly recalibrating her reading in order to adjust to the narrators.

The variety of characters, voices, and places in Foreign Soil underscores the variety of forms of displacement. One of the most compelling aspects of Foreign Soil is its “globality” (181), to use a term coined by the character Nathaniel in “Big Islan.” Clarke does not focus on one people or one part of the world. Nor does her exploration of displacement end with being in a new country. The collection explores racism, gender identity, immigration issues, and religious intolerance, to name just a few themes. Far from feeling scattered, the range of stories brings home Clarke’s point: that displacement in a global world can happen to anyone, anywhere.

The newest story in the collection, added for the 2017 edition, is “Aviation,” the tale of a Sikh child, Sunni, in need of emergency foster care. Sunni ends up on the doorstep of Mirabel, whose husband was killed in the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center. In her attempt to provide a home for a child in need, Mirabel comes face to face with her own prejudices. In the end, the reader does not find out whether or not she fosters Sunni. This story, like many in the collection, is a story of people who find themselves in impossible positions. The narratives resolve and feel complete, but they also often leave their main characters and their readers to sit in the discomfort. Nathaniel, of “Big Islan” is left restless in Jamaica. The eponymous main character of “Harlem Jones” is left holding a Molotov cocktail. Sunni is left waiting to be fostered. These stories are not about how displacement dissolves or is overcome, but about the displacement itself, about being in the thick of it.

Her final story, “The Sukiyaki Book Club,” feels strikingly autobiographical. The struggle of a young single mother trying to make it as a writer, told in first person, is juxtaposed with a story she is writing about Avery, a girl who is stuck upside down in an impossible position on the monkey bars. Once again, Avery and the writer are characters displaced. These narratives side by side highlight the constant question throughout the book: can Clarke’s characters find a way down, a place to land?

*This post is part of a series on the craft of writing called Reading for Writers.  This series examines a variety of authors to ascertain the choices they’ve made in their writing and the effects of those choices so that we as writers can make better decisions in our own writing.

Finding the “I” in Creative Nonfiction: Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story

Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story examines what makes a good piece of nonfiction. She writes, “Every work of literature has a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say” (p. 13). Gornick examines several essays and memoirs to explore how the situation and the story work in creative nonfiction. She stresses that we cannot just tell the situation, but must also know what the story is that we are trying to tell.

Finding out what the story is in the piece then allows the writer to organize their writing around this insight. We can then look at the narrative line of the work and tie this to the wisdom that compels it. Gornick pushes us to ask: “Who is speaking? What is being said? What is the relation between the two?” How does the insight gained come to bear on the structure of the narrative? Is the reader along for the same journey of discovery as the speaker? Or does the reader know the outcome at the beginning and watch the narrator struggle with it?

She looks especially at the narrator of these nonfiction pieces to see what they can tell us about how we can coax the story out of our own experiences. We don’t always have to know who we are, she says, but we have to know who we are at the moment of writing. This is an important insight. It is easy to think of the nonfiction self as a given. We could assume that we are cohesive selves with only one voice and when we write nonfiction, we use that voice. But this is far from true. Our voice and perspective change with different situations and with time. Which aspect of yourself is telling the story? Gornick suggests crafting a persona based on the insight that drives the piece. What is the story of this situation? Which aspect of yourself is best suited to tell that story? Answering these questions will allow us to know who we are at the moment of writing.

One aspect of The Situation and the Story that really stuck with me was Gornick’s discussion of how to treat subjects. She insists that writers of nonfiction must treat their subjects, including themselves, with empathy and dimension. Is it true that you are completely innocent and your foe is all monster? Gornick pushes us as writers to make things more complicated, more dynamic than that. She asks us to look at situations from multiple perspectives to get at the stories. This includes looking at ourselves from multiple perspectives. We can’t just rely on being the hero or heroine of our own story, fighting the forces of evil. That story’s been told and doesn’t resonate as honest. After all, we’re all more complicated than that, aren’t we?

*This post is part of a series on the craft of writing called Reading for Writers.  This series examines a variety of authors to ascertain the choices they’ve made in their writing and the effects of those choices so that we as writers can make better decisions in our own writing. May contain affiliate links.

Eschewing Genre in Creative Nonfiction: Richard K. Nelson’s Make Prayers to the Raven

Make Prayers to the raven book cover

Make Prayers to the Raven: A Koyukon View of the Northern Forest by Richard K. Nelson is a documentation of the plants and animals that frequent the forests of interior Alaska. It’s true that this book is about a place I am currently enthralled with. It’s also true that there’s a soft spot in my heart for any book about plants and wildlife. However, what makes this book really interesting is the ways in which Nelson eschews nonfiction genres to come up with something all his own.

This book could have been a narrative of his experiences living in a Koyukon village in the 1970s. It wasn’t. It doesn’t occur in chronological order and doesn’t have much of a narrative arc. Instead, the book is structured in chapters such as “The Birds” and “Ecological Patterns and Conservation Practices” with subheadings for individual species and phenomena. This sets the tone for the work feeling like a guidebook to the forest.

Instead of listing facts about animals and plants, however, Nelson draws on a multitude of sources in order to give a greater picture of how the Koyukon people view and interact with the world around them. He uses the research of anthropologists who have come before him, anecdotes from his experiences of living in the village, and excerpts from his own journal. The effects of these sources are interesting. What is structured and presented as a catalog of facts about the forest becomes a little less black-and-white. This is apropos given the nature of Koyukon beliefs and knowledge about the forest, which is up for interpretation and change based on personal experience. It is also appropriate given Nelson’s awareness of his own status as an outsider, which makes him wary of speaking for the Koyukon people. By using this variety of resources including his own experiences and journal entries, he can give his readers the same impressions that he had without putting words in other people’s mouths.

Nelson as the writer is interestingly placed in this book. For a book that uses anecdotal evidence and journal entries for much of its information, the narrator is surprisingly absent. This is because all of the personal writing and experience that Nelson uses is always about something other than himself. His journal is only used to further give information and rarely gives his own ideas or thoughts. Nelson very consciously positions himself as an outsider in the village and the culture about which he is writing, and he does a good job of keeping himself an outsider in the book that he writes.

The end result is that Make Prayers to the Raven is not an anthropological study of the Koyukon people, or a wildlife guide to the forest of Interior Alaska, or a narrative about Nelson’s experiences there. Instead, there’s a melding of these possibilities. For me as a writer, it made me think a little more broadly about the ways that I can structure and inform my nonfiction. Nelson shows that the structure, the sources used, and the position of the I do not need to all line up to one traditional standard genre. Instead, using these things in unconventional ways can allow us as writers to come to greater truths than following convention alone.

 

*This post is part of a series on the craft of writing called Reading for Writers.  This series examines a variety of authors to ascertain the choices they’ve made in their writing and the effects of those choices so that we as writers can make better decisions in our own writing. May contain affiliate links.