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Taking a Stab at “Starting from Solitude” (An Exercise for Memoirists)

This week, I shared a writing exercise with my writer’s group. It’s called “Starting from Solitude,” and it was developed by Richard Hoffman. It’s intended for memoir writing, and it’s unique in that it organically gets the writer back into her own head at a (probably rough) moment in her life. Working as a sort of guided writing meditation, it sneaks up on the writer, allowing her to wade into the past, rediscovering almost-forgotten details, piece by piece, until she finds she is submerged. She is there again, entirely.

Even after completing the exercise, reviewing the list of questions in the prompt suggests the different amounts of words that should be spent on different kinds of writing within the same memoir. Most of the questions, for example, focus on the sensory details of the moment being recalled, while a sparse few call for direct reflection from the future. This is how good memoir works, focusing on the reporting of what was rather than making exhaustive sense of it.

TL;DR: I really like this exercise, and found it helpful when a mentor shared it with my group in my very first MFA residency workshop. Check it out for yourself at the link above. And, just for fun, I include my own attempt at satisfying the prompt below:

for mid blog post solitude

Nothing says “I like you” like Sumo-Cartman.

I reach the purple room like base in tag. In the afternoon, light comes through purple curtains, but at night – at my most alone – it comes from the white of a computer monitor, the blue of a TV in the kneehole of the desk, and the fishnet leg of an A Christmas Story lamp. Of the three, the computer is the star – the room within the room, by which I leave myself behind.

I am, in all probability, painted black: Hot Topic t-shirt, pinstripe pants, and something Rocky Horror somewhere on my person. The South Park watch I wear is a gift to a crush, a gift he did not accept. It’s engraved.

I love how loudly I type, annoying no one. Roseanne Barr is whispering from the kneehole. It’s so silent this late, which is freeing – no Mom or Dave complaining, just outside my door.

My back is hunched because I’m in my head. My brain is on, and I just don’t care about the rest of me. The last time I moved was to eat, or to go to the bathroom, which always involves asking my step-dad to push in his chair. If I don’t ask, and I just squeeze between the chair and the wall, he looks annoyed – like I’m reminding him that he is fat and I’m a string bean. I wish I could get where I need to go without inconveniencing others.

I sit back in my desk chair, because this is my favorite part, a Darlene moment. I pull my body into a ball, and press my toes into the fabric of my chair, to hold my position. I fear going out of this warm blue glow in the morning, into the bright high school, to be judged for my broken body. I’ll lie in bed, dreading it, and won’t get up until I have five minutes to catch the bus.

I stay up this late because I would rather be writing. If I could only write all day, then I’d sleep at night. In my story, I’m in control and no one questions the validity of the feelings I share.

I reach for a tall glass of soda. I snuck out into the kitchen for this (David asleep, no longer in his chair) – this, and some sort of chemical cake: Drake’s coffee cakes, or chocolate peanut butter Funny Bones. I’m not hungry, just tired and desperate to stay awake.

Now, I know that the perceptions of my parents and other authorities don’t trump my own, especially when it comes to who I am or what I deserve. Not that I’m never wrong about myself, but the truth does not automatically belong to she who shouts loudest.

Back then, I thought I was a broken person, and that the people who complimented me were only ever being kind out of pity.

I hear the whirring of the computer’s fan, and the brrrring of AOL Instant Messenger – Missy, telling me her story, sending me paragraphs, or reacting to paragraphs of story I’ve sent her. We are avid fans of one another’s fictional worlds, eager always for the next soap-opera twist in the plot. Sometimes we even write alternate versions of one another’s work, just to play with the possibilities.

The soda is going flat. I finish it. My teeth ache; they feel brittle with sugar. I’m getting tired. I grab the empty glass, unfold from my chair. I creep into the dining room, shutting my door behind me, making sure it makes no sound.

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