I started Abigail Thomas’ book Thinking About Memoir this week. It’s a book on craft so in every chapter she has at least three writing exercises; I’m going to try and do at least one or two a day. I like having prompts that tell me what to write about, that act as a bouncing board, because sometimes it’s just too hard to come up with topics. In the book, Thomas says some simple things, but in such a beautiful way.
For example: ” Writing memoir is a way to figure out who you used to be and how you got to be who you are,” and “The writer of memoir makes a pact with her reader that what she writes is the truth as best she can tell it. But the original pact, the real deal, is with herself. Be honest, dig deep, or don’t bother.”
The exercise I did today was: Write about a time when you were dressed inappropriately for the occasion. What occasion? Who thought you were inappropriate? That’s up to you.
In ninth grade I gave a speech in class on how to start a fire; Girl Scouting had taught me well. I used pretzel logs and marshmallow stones to make a kindling tepee that would be engulfed in Twizzler flames. I even brought sets of candy and pretzels for each student so they could participate as I gave the speech. Who wouldn’t love that?
Oh, here’s another thing: I was home schooled, so the class consisted of around thirty fellow homeschoolers ranging from ninth to twelfth grade. We met once a week to be taught speech and debate by one family who had written their own speech textbook. We all sat in the same room learning together, like it was a modern day one room schoolhouse. Except there was a drinking fountain instead of a communal pump and it was in the basement of a church instead of a cute wooden building.
I gave my speech in a small rectangular room, me at the front, the other students in my grade sitting at a long table. It was one of those tables with dark artificial wood on top, but plywood underneath. Like it was trying to be something it was not, and it was fooling everyone. I gave the speech and it was a hit, mostly because I had bribed everyone’s favor with sugar and salt. The teacher handed me my critique form, filled with checks and “x” s, eights, nines, tens and then at the bottom in polite cursive, this: “Please make sure to wear more modest clothing (a shirt with a higher neckline) the next time you give a speech.” Hold up. Fourteen-year-old Abby was no slut. In fact, the shirt I was wearing at the time– the neckline hit right below my collarbone. How much more modest could I be? There was no way I was going to wear turtlenecks or jean skirts like her children. No way.
The next week I retaliated full force. I wore a bright pink miniskort (A skirt with built in shorts. Don’t ask.), a black t-shirt with a lower case “a” displayed across the chest, pink converse high-tops, and rubber bracelets up my arms. It was hideous and wonderful, and I thought I looked awesome; I listened to too much Avril Lavigne. I walked into the classroom at the beginning of the day, eyes straight-ahead, fidgeting with the red, green, orange, pink, purple, bands around my wrist.
And it began. Every table of girls I passed stared at my clothes then huddled, whispering to each other. It was like I had walked into the room naked. The whispers grew more intense as I walked to the end of the room and sat at the table WITH ALL BOYS. I liked sitting with them because we had the same taste in music, they liked passing notes, and their poop jokes were obviously hilarious to me. But to the girls and their mothers, I might as well have been Hester Prynne, the small innocent “a” on my chest morphing into something capital and red. I didn’t fit into that world, but I didn’t belong in public school either.
Maybe that’s okay.