Instructions to Somebody You Love: A Prompt

March 25, 2013 § 3 Comments

rutabaga21Dinah Lenney, author of “Instructions, As If” in the March 2013 issue of Brevity, reflects on the origin of her essay and what can happen when a teacher follows the classroom prompt:

So this is funny—at least I think it is—I couldn’t for the life of me remember how I wrote “Instructions…,” or why: though I do remember where— it was at my kitchen table on a Monday night: the Kitchen Table Workshop met once a week for a couple of years, so once a week I came up with a prompt, or three (sometimes even four—I’d get over-excited, see, about prompts). But did I keep track of them? No. No, I didn’t. I don’t. I don’t keep a journal; I don’t know what I served 12 people for dinner last month (some people, like my mother, for instance, record that sort of thing, but not I); my books are not alphabetized; my files, virtual and otherwise, are a mess; and I do not keep track of writing prompts. O I have them all here, of course I do, lists of them on scrap and file cards and post-its and occasionally typed out as if I mean business, stowed in a folder on the Parson’s table catty corner from the desk. I’m planning to sort through them one day, really I am, but I haven’t quite gotten around to that. So, you ask, are they dated? Did I happen to take notes after workshop about how and why one worked or didn’t? No—no again. Which is why I couldn’t remember about “Instructions”: not even with four versions in my computer. (That’s how I work, I keep copying a piece over and over, file upon file, trimming, adding, moving on to the next draft, but not wanting to let any of it go until I’m sure I’m finished. And even then).

So what can I tell you about the essay? Well, it was Brenda Miller who taught me, by example, to follow a prompt with everyone else. I figure if she got her beautiful essay, “Table of Figures,” from an exercise she did alongside her students, I have no business twiddling my thumbs when everyone else is writing. So, on a Monday evening last fall, I followed my own mysterious prompt. And, the next day, liked what I had well enough to dive back in—at which point I proceeded to overwrite. However—turns out some pieces are meant to be brief: some situations don’t need a whole lot of elaboration. Not that I knew that at first—in fact, I went on and on, as if I hadn’t said what needed to be said (for the time being anyway) about long-term marriage, and mid-life preoccupations, and memory, and acceptance, and love. But finally—this was days later—I got it. “Instructions, As If” wanted to come in at 671 words, period, the end.

As for how it was born—I was about to give up, when I realized (here’s the funny part): there I was searching for clues, racking my brain, emailing students—do you remember the prompts from last fall…? I’m trying to figure out how I came up with “Instructions, As If…”—when the answer had been there all along, embedded in the title: Instructions! See? Here it is on a file card from that fat manila folder: Give directions or instructions to somebody you know, somebody you love, about something that’s important to you…

Dinah Lenney wrote Bigger than Life: A Murder, A Memoir and co-authored Acting for Young Actors. She teaches in the Bennington Writing Seminars, the Rainier Writing Workshop, and the Master of Professional Writing Program at USC. Her new memoir, The Object Parade, will be published by Counterpoint Press in 2014.

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§ 3 Responses to Instructions to Somebody You Love: A Prompt

  • See . . . we always said kitty-cornered, and that would have made everything fall in place! love it. J

  • genproofreads says:

    Love it! I think that’s a universal problem — old writings and prompts getting lost in virtual (and physical) clutter piles.

  • Laura Owens says:

    I’m always relieved to read about another writer who isn’t mechanical and filed with her prompts, ideas and scraps. My desk is clutter free because I seem to need that. But, I’m pressed to have a “process” except to find an idea interesting, jot it somewhere and hope I’m intrigued enough to dig it out again. Every time I read about a writer’s habit that feels foreign to my natural inclinations, I remind myself what does work for me: writing something, revising endlessly and jotting ideas on small notepads I stick on my desk and in my purse.

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