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A Nonfiction Writing Exercise

October 29, 2008

Writers Porter Shreve and Bich Minh Nguyen (husband and wife) have each found success individually: Shreve is the author of three novels, most recently When the White House Was Ours, and Nguyen authored the award-winning memoir Stealing Buddha’s Dinner. In addition to their individual publications, the couple has also co-edited three anthologies, including a text that I’ve used often in teaching one of my own workshops at George Mason: Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: I & Eye. The book looks at several types of nonfiction writing, broadly breaking them up into personal essays (the “I” — focussing on memory, reflection, etc.) and literary journalistic works (the “Eye” — looking outward at the world around us). The collection includes some of the top names in creative nonfiction: Susan Orlean, Tom Wolfe, Tracy Kidder, Phillip Lopate, John McPhee, James Alan McPherson, Jonathan Raban, David Sedaris, Diane Ackerman, Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez, Maxine Hong Kingston, Joan Didion, Lee Gutkind, and on and on. It also includes a nice selection of “writing prompts,” from which today’s exercise is taken: 

Jamaica Kincaid’s “Biography of a Dress” begins with a photograph, and the progress of her essay is an exercise in memory. She meditates on the story behind the picture, imbuing a two-dimensional object with full and textured meaning. This prompt requires that you find an old picture of yourself and proceed to reconstruct the time in which the picture was taken. Choosing the right photograph is critical here. Perhaps it was taken at a turning point — perhaps on your parents’ last vacation before their divorce or just before you moved from one place to another. The moment should be meaningful and evocative of a specific time. Keeping in mind the necessity of writing with the senses, travel back to that room or environment by recalling the objects, sights, and associations there. Who else is in the picture? Who took it? What was the occasion? What memories or ideas does the photograph trigger?

Long before I read this exercise, I wrote a short nonfiction story about a photograph of my mother. Too long to post here (I think), but I learned something important from writing that story —both about my mother and about my writing — which makes me particularly keen on encouraging this prompt now.

— Art Taylor

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