Saturday, April 17, 2010

Defining Moments: A Writing (Story-Telling) Prompt

Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. —Virginia Woolf

The universe is made up of stories, not of atoms. —Muriel Rukeyser

Here's a possible writing prompt for any writer to try, which was inspired by an acquaintance who posed a request, based on a reflective observation: There are times in when we have a defining moment when it makes us who we are. . . . Please tell me yours. He proceeded to get the ball rolling by telling two of his defining moments: The first one is when I found out I had AIDS. The second was when I found out that love was transcendent. And it is. . . . I try very hard to live like a normal human bean but once you have tasted the fruit of transcendence, never o never will you go back again.

This led to a wide range of responses from others, but I noted that most were short, ranging in length from one sentence to one short paragraph long, and full of significance to each respondent. Many were about moments of high drama: the death of a friend or loved one; the sudden awareness of one's own mortality; confronting abuse; confronting one's own worthiness and willingness to be loved. (Love and death, the eternal spires around which we all pivot.)

So, herewith, a writing prompt: Briefly write out one or more defining moments in your life, that you look back upon as defining moments, essential in making you who you have become, here and now. I feel without being able to rationalize my intuition, that it is important to keep each paragraph written about such moments short, focused, and confined to the essences. There are limits on style for this writing, or on subject; however, I have a few comments below on temptations one might wish to navigate around.

I'll start the ball rolling with two of my own defining moment paragraphs:

When I was 18 years old, I spent the summer in Wyoming, nine or ten weeks in al, studying geology in the field. We were based at the University of Michigan geology field station on the Hoback River, just south of Hoback Junction, where the Hoback flows into the Snake River, and less than half an hour's drive south of Jackson Hole. The field camp was like a summer camp for college students; on our off days, I hiked with others to the tops of the peaks behind the camp, and onto the ridges beyond; we swam in the rivers; we drove up to town to shop, wander around, and just have fun. There were longer field trips that looped around the region, through several states. These were my first visits to Yellowstone. I fell in love with the Grand Tetons, which remain the ur-mountains in my dreams and mental imagery. I climbed the Tetons a few times, once standing on Teton Glacier just below the summit, and looking east into infinity. This summer was my introduction to the outdoor life, to outdoor living, which I have pursued all my life.

[Outer-contextual note: Of course, this wasn't really my introduction to outdoor living: I'd spent a great deal of my childhood out in Nature, for various reasons including: to get away from bullies; our family lived on the edge of town, the virtual edge of civilization, beyond which were wild ponds and fields and dirt roads; I had had my first experiences already of psychic oneness with animals and plants. What my summer in Wyoming did do, that was life-changing, was introduce me to living in the mountains; camping in the wilderness; a sense of geologic time-scale, which as any working geologist will tell you, is a kind of schizophrenic sense of time in which you have to keep shifting back and forth between everyday time, the ordinary time-sense required to drive a car or pay your bills, and the vast scale of deep time, in which the changes in the rocks over millions of years tell their own stories.]

Fourth or fifth car crash I've ever been in, as a passenger. After we'd skidded to a stop, heard my voice asking if everyone was all right. Discovered that I was the sort of person who holds it together in the midst of a crisis, and collapses later, when I'm sure everyone else is okay. My boyfriend at the time, who was also in the car, totally misunderstood what had happened at that moment, and wrote me a Dear John letter later, saying that he thought that after the accident I was controlling and manipulative, and broke up with me. Among other lessons learned that day: No good deed goes unpunished.

Of course, the temptation here will be to make each paragraph aphoristic—conclusive, neat, and self-contained—when in fact life is a continuous seam of interlinked and interdependent events, which we rank only in retrospect as defining or otherwise significant.

But life is neither conclusive nor neat. (As Virginia Woolf writes, quoted above.) What this writing prompt asks us to do is write about moments that stand out above the rest, but I think it wise to remember that such moments are still part of life's continuous flow, full of turbulence and eddies. (The metaphor of the River Of Life is enduring as a mythic and archetypal image precisely because it's apt.)

This is an exercise in memoir, in autobiography—indeed, in making memoir possible and autobiography manageable. Sometimes it's easier to break up the daunting and impossible task of life-review into smaller, more manageable quanta. As with cleaning house, or moving to a new home, thinking about the project as a whole can induce crippling panic, while focusing on one room at a time can make it manageable.

It is also an exercise in the fictional aspect of memory: the (re-)construction of the past in order to make a tangible, determinative narrative: a story that makes sense to our (rational) understanding, that helps us explain to ourselves who we are, and how we got to be that way. In fact, no such narratives exist: we construct them, we spin the fictions of our own lives. Memoir in fact is the least historically reliable, least historical accurate form of nonfiction writing available, because all too often memoir consists of defensive self-justifications.

But while we admit that life is a seamless flow, not a string of individual events, we can also admit that we might need to shape it into stories, so that we can comprehend the apparent causes-and-effects within the narrative. We make stories. Our consciousness, and our self-consciousness, are made up of the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Joseph Campbell's definition of myth is "the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves." We participate, therefore, in continuous myth-making. (As Muriel Rukeyser wrote, quoted above.)

The positive, even therapeutic aspect of retroactive myth-making is that we can go back and make it never happened. As long as we do not engage is repressive denial, we are able to reframe what has shaped us, and still shapes us, into something alive and life-affirming. Your wounds don't have to oppress you—you don't have to let them do so.

A further temptation will be to write about each personal defining moment in general terms, to universalize them, to make them mythic, to surround them with the discourse of permanence and significance—but to do so in ways that universalize our individual memories into clichés.

I urge you to resist this temptation. Rather, be as specific and personal as possible. Be detailed—one aspect of this as a writing exercise might be to go for the telling detail, giving just enough detail to make the story resonate, but no so much as to clutter it with unnecessary decorative touches. In other words, to find a balance between saying too little and telling too much. Sometimes what's universal in our stories is what we leave out, what we don't say, what we leave a gap for, that can be filled in by the reader. Let the reader find the universal within your particulars, don't force it on them.

I further encourage anyone who wants to try this writing prompt to avoid over-rationalizing and over-explaining. Don't over-think. Let the mysteries alone, and don't try to explain everything. (Or explain the mysteries away.) A defining moment may not always make sense, even now, to our rational selves, while simultaneously our emotional selves know full well how important the moment was.

I'll end with two more of my own defining moments:

The night of my birthday, in my early 30s, mid-January. Walking across Lake Mendota, from James Madison Park to Picnic Point, in the middle of the night, the ice pinging under my feet. Black ice, with no snow on top of it, so looks and feels like walking across the Void. One of those times in life when I didn't care if I lived or died, and placed it in the gods' hands. Arrived safely on the other side of the lake. Went over to the worldgate, and had several shamanic visions. Walked back around the lake, taking the long way around, rather than walking back over the ice, even though it took hours and I was wiped out already. Wanting to live.

Giving up life and career in 2006 to move back home and move in with my parents as their live-in caregiver, till they died. After they died, having to deal with everything. Simultaneously getting diagnosed with a longterm debilitating chronic illness, which as a pre-existing condition prevents me from getting any health insurance to this day. Having to buy a house and move, in the midst of my own illness, then the economy tanks and the world goes insane. 'Nuff said. Actually, I'm still dealing with the aftermath of all this. Wanting to get my own life back.

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