Where I’m From—Writers Answer on Instagram Live
November 8, 2022 § 19 Comments
A Q&A with Alyson Shelton
By Andrea A. Firth
Over the past year, Alyson Shelton has interviewed over 50 writers on Instagram Live about their response to the prompt “Where I’m From.” The conversations start with the writer reading their response and from there Alyson and her guest spend a half an hour talking about the prompt, the process, family, relationships and much more. Andrea A. Firth spoke with Alyson about the project.
How did your Where I’m From Instagram Live project get started?
I was introduced to the writing prompt in a workshop led by Jeannine Ouellette. The prompt is inspired by a poem by George Ella Lyon. It’s basically a poem template and you fill in the blanks as directed, like insert a sensory detail, a family tradition or name, and so on. I was so struck by the poems people generated. I felt changed by it. A couple days later I thought maybe this would be a cool thing to do on social media, share a poem and talk a bit. We don’t have time in our schedules to connect in a meaningful way with all the people we know. I love hearing people’s stories. But when you meet someone casually you can’t say, “Hi, nice to meet you. What was your childhood like?” I liked the idea of having a container that could do this, one that we could share.
Who has participated? How’s it going?
Initially I solicited people I knew, a lot of writers, but also people whose voices I find interesting and other creatives. Then people started reaching out to me because they saw an episode and wanted to participate. The momentum has been building. Currently I’m scheduled out to April with an interview each week, which will make a total of 80 episodes.
Wow! Why do you think that this fill-in-the blank prompt works? How do participants respond to it?
Many will ask me if it’s ok deviate from the prompt or break the rules. I say definitely break the rules. I’m not their editor, that’s not my function. I’m just here to listen. Personally, I found the prompt freeing and also fascinating because it pushed me to do things I don’t normally do. For example, I don’t really think about smells, but when prompted to do so, I did. It’s curious because the exercise gets you out of your comfort zone, but you still feel at ease, which seems impossible, but I do think it does that for a lot of people because it’s so specific.
The prompt is described as poem and reads like a prose poem, yet by the end it feels like a complete story, with narrative movement, like an essay. What do you think?
I feel like it creates a micro-memoir. I’ve had participants reach out after our conversation and say that the exercise changed their perspective about themselves and their work. The prompt may make the writing easier. I think there’s this myth that personal writing has to be difficult and gut wrenching. Maybe this container helps us access what lives in us and validates our story.
The prompt opens the door to a range of topics like religion and family relationships. How does this contribute to the conversations you have with the participants?
I’m fascinated by what people, some who I know quite well and others less so, choose to share or not share. I’m not going to talk about something that they don’t share in the poem, that’s my boundary. Often in conversation, I think people can feel put on the spot by a question or not sure if they want to share. Here the participant gets to make those choices, and the container, the prompt, provides the boundaries. We get on Instagram Live, the guest shares their response, and we talk about it. Life is so uncertain now and has been for a couple years. I think it’s gratifying and relaxing to go into an experience and have it be what you think it’s going to be.
Another facet of the conversation that’s interesting is that you share your experiences as well.
I do. It comes naturally to me. A conversation requires give and take. I don’t expect the guests to be vulnerable with me if I respond like a neutral party. We’re in this space together. If they’re sharing parts of themselves, I share parts of myself too. It’s not a burden. It’s just how I am.
The conversations include a lot of laughter. Are there ever any tears?
Yes, but I try not to cry too much because sometimes tears can make people feel self-conscious or that they have to take care of me. I don’t want it to be about me, so I try to keep the tears internal. I find laughter is a more inclusive expression. I think a lot of people who join me are nervous. Often, it’s the first time they’ve been on Instagram Live. Laughter diffuses those nerves.
What are you learning and gaining from these conversations?
I’ve learned that things that I enjoy and that come easy to me have merit. I don’t have to do something hard for it to be worthwhile. This comes easy to me, and it’s been validating because other people are enjoying it too. And it’s increasing my connectedness with my community, which is something I strive for on a regular basis. Another particular joy of doing this series is connecting with people who I’ve become friends with online, but who I’ve not met.
I’ve always believed everyone has a story. We’re ordinary people and at the same time we are all extraordinary too. Everyone is walking around with something they’ve experienced, they’ve lived through. The more we recognize that every single person we interact with has their own own story, I feel like we move through the world with more gratitude and grace—at least I do. It’s not just what they can do for me or what is this interaction about for me, it’s about trying to be present.
Alyson Shelton (pictured here) wrote and directed the award-winning feature Eve of Understanding. She created and wrote the comic, Reburn, and successfully funded the first arc (Issues #1-#4) on Kickstarter. Additionally, her essays have appeared in The New York Times, Ms., Hobart Pulp, Little Old Lady (LOL) Comedy Blog and others. She is currently at work on a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @byalysonshelton where you can watch and participate in her IG Live series Where I’m From.
Andrea A. Firth is an editor at the Brevity Blog and essayist and journalist. She is co-founder of Diablo Writers’ Workshop.