Tuesday, December 8, 2020

2020 Advent Calendar, Dec 8: Brooke Juliet Wonders, Instructions for Building a Dream House

Soon after her story collection Her Body and Other Parties blew up, I added two of Carmen Maria Machado’s essays to my creative nonfiction syllabus: “The Trash Heap Has Spoken,” about body image and queer villains, and “The Moon over the River Lethe,” about queer violence, Allen Ginsberg, and dancing until dawn. I was lucky enough to hear her read excerpts of In the Dream House at the AWP conference in 2018 and may have briefly and humiliatingly accosted Machado to tell her it would be the best book of 2019 (reader, it was). In the Dream House is composed of linked flash essays, each told in a different form or genre: from Choose Your Own Adventure to noir to an e-free lipogram. I love Machado’s work for its carnality, its irreverent approach to genre, and how it pushes hermit crab essaying to the limit.

Back when I was a graduate student, I took a poetry class from Sean Singer. He invited us to imitate our favorite poets, working line by line to attend to their language: how rhythm and syntax supported and exploded meaning. I didn’t understand stealing like an artist until his class. Flash forward to 2020, and I’m reading In the Dream House with a group of talented graduate and undergraduate students, all working on memoirs of their own. Together, we read Machado’s memoir with an eye toward theft. The prompts that follow are derived from the exquisite beats of In the Dream House and have helped me imagine writing a speculative memoir of my own. Reader, please accept them as a small holiday present.

Early on in In the Dream House, Machado cites Saidiya Hartman who, in “Venus in Two Acts,” lists four techniques for writing into an archival silence:
• advance a series of speculative arguments
• exploit the subjunctive (doubts, wishes)
• write history against the archive, and
• imagine what cannot be verified.
Machado uses these four techniques to generate her speculative memoir. (5)
  • Is there a controlling metaphor for your memoir? What is it? (9)
  • Describe your friends--your people--as a group noun. “A tender of guardians, a dearheart of guardians” (11)
  • How do you get in a synopsis of what came before this event, without boring the reader? What forms might help you disguise this list? (17)
  • If you had known then what you know now, would you have done things differently? (18)
  • Describe the first time you have intimacy (in any form) with someone important to the story you are about to tell. (24)
  • If your memoir were a fairytale, which fairytale (or tales) would it be? Retell them in your own words, staying alert to metaphoric resonance. (36)
  • Back then, what was your fantasy of what your life would be? (41)
  • When is the first time you guessed what might be coming? Write the scene where you glimpse the shadow of future doom, especially if you talked yourself out of seeing it. (44)
  • What is your greatest fear about how your memoir could be misread? Write into that fear. (48)
  • Who overheard your pain when you wanted it to be silent or private, and how did you feel toward this witness? (50)
  • What was your deepest fear back then? How did it make you vulnerable? How does your antagonist prey on your deepest fear? (52)
  • Machado’s intertexts are often speculative: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Lovecraft. Fairytale. What are your intertexts? Can you use them as metaphors? (55)
  • Overinterpret the name of something: Your antagonist’s name. The name of the place where it happened. The street you grew up on. (65)
  • Narrate the history of the land where this event took place, back to pre-colonization. Whose land is this? (68)
  • Describe an extended family member who didn’t get you then, and still doesn’t get you now. (71)
  • Instead of naming your antagonist, name them with their role (Sister, Work Friend, Lover; Evil Queen, Beggar, Sea Witch). (79)
  • Describe a true crime that happened around the same time & place as your event, whether it was national news or was a local legend. (80)
  • You reveal something to the antagonist you usually hide about yourself. They use it to hurt you. (81)
  • Write a scene that conjures how it felt to be your child self. (82)
  • Describe a moment where your antagonist is evil but you feel sympathy for them anyway. (83)
  • How does it feel when the antagonist interacts with you? (86)
  • No one knows your secret. What is it? (91)
  • Describe yourself killing something, or failing to. (99)
  • How is your health? How do you feel in your body? (103)
  • Describe a future you fantasized about, the more unlikely the better. (108)
  • Describe a moment when you thought you’d escaped. (112)
  • What other possible lives did you not get to live because you were immersed in this traumatic event? Who did you not get to be? (115)
  • Think of a monster that terrifies you. Describe the monster as a metaphor for your life. (120)
  • Describe viewing a work of art that is a metaphor for the event. (123)
  • Describe yourself as a ghost, a haunting, relative to this event. What kind of trace do you leave, and why? (127)
  • Find another metaphor for the event. Draw from the Bible, or Shakespeare, or Greek myth. (134)
  • Cite a critical scholar who writes about a type of trauma you’ve experienced. What awful things are, in your experience of the event, outside of the culture’s ability to limit, prevent, or even discuss? (139)
  • Are there any songs you listened to around the same time as the traumatic event? Research the song and the artist. Wrap this research into your narrative of how this song haunts you. (146)
  • What is evil, to you? (157)
  • Have you experienced any omens, good or bad, while writing about this event? (158)
  • What forms resemble the shape of your experience? (177)
  • Fantasize about your death, or the antagonist’s, or both. (177)
  • Does someone with your name appear in any famous works of art? Is there a celebrity with your name? Describe them as metaphor. (178)
  • Pick a non-realist genre and tell the story of the event: as fantasy, fairytale, horror, mystery. (182)
  • Describe the end of the world as the end of your world. (186)
  • Answer the worst question anyone could ask of you. (189)
  • Describe a moment in the immediate aftermath of the event when you felt loved, despite being sure you didn’t deserve love. (192)
  • The antagonist or event keeps fucking with you from beyond the grave, revenant. (195)
  • What broken coping mechanisms save you while slowly killing you? (205)
  • Describe the first time you can remember laughing, in the aftermath. (209)
  • Ask a series of unanswerable questions. Point to the unthinkable. (213)
  • Describe the rituals that kept you alive. (222)
  • What horrible things did you wish to have happen to you instead of this? 224
  • What evidence could prove your version of events true? (225)
  • Describe the way in which your story is common, and how mortifying that is. (232)
  • Write an ending and let it be unsatisfying (239)
  • How will you make peace with & show compassion to your younger self? (242)

A few final thoughts: 1) Please note that page numbers are approximate. Prompts may be derived from text on that exact page, or from a narrative arc occurring somewhere near it. 2) The term antagonist gets wobbly when applied to memoir. In my class, we glossed it as “the force working against the persona getting what they want.” Sometimes the antagonist is a parent or (in the case of Machado) a beloved. Other times, it’s a self-destructive part of the self. 3) The joy of creating this list was less the prompts themselves and more the way it allowed my students and me to imagine imagining as capaciously as Machado does in our own work. Reading In the Dream House in this way makes me want to speculate bravely and write into the archival silences of my own story.


Brooke Wonders is an Associate Professor at the University of Northern Iowa. Her work has appeared in The Rupture, Brevity, and Black Warrior Review, among others. She is a founding editor of feminist witch magazine Grimoire and also serves as nonfiction editor at the illustrious North American Review.

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