A Writing Prompt from John Branscum

Each Friday we post a new writing prompt created by one of our authors. Prompts like this one are included in our reader's guides along with discussion questions and suggested further reading to accompany each title. So if you can't wait a week for the next prompt, visit our Reader's Guide page to find them all in one place!

Today's prompt comes from John Branscum, editor of Red Holler.

Meeting Your Parents for the First Time
Meeting a person for the first time is exhilarating. We are caught up in the dance of being constantly surprised and continually revise our understandings of them at every turn. But, sooner or later, we feel we have “read” the book or “watched” the movie and so we quit revising our understandings of them minus the occurrence of some traumatic event (Earl stole my car and robbed the liquor store!). Hence, people will sometimes make the accusation of “I never knew you” when it would be more accurate to say “I closed off my understanding of you too soon, gosh darnit.” This happens commonly of course with stereotyped cultural groups like Appalachians. But, on the individual level, our parents and parental surrogates are perhaps the most significant and simplified characters in our lives. We are so busily defining them in relation to ourselves, as “good” parents or “rotten” parents, etc., that we lose almost all sense of them as individuals with their own mysterious depths. This is often evident when we first move out of our “rotten parents’” homes. Usually, our relationships with them change – generally in the direction of becoming more friendly and sympathetic. We get the sense that, gasp!, our parents are not just our parents. No, these odd little characters are in fact individuals with their own flaws and virtues, dashed hopes and realized dreams, teen crushes, tiny little bits of madness, and an inner sense that they’re not much past seventeen themselves. 

The exercise below is meant to encourage and remind us as writers to work against our closed perceptions of our parents and to become aware that, although we tend to close down our attempts to understand people at some point (afterwards regarding them as basically static characters in the novel of our lives), we can easily arrive at startlingly new understandings of our loved ones or strangers as if meeting them for the first time. It is also meant to show the important role of informal interviewing for our writing.

 Your Exercise
Think about what you know about your parents and what you don’t know. Think of all the questions you’ve ever wanted to ask or things you wondered about them. Next, think of the questions you would need to ask a complete stranger to get a grip on who they really are. Finally, brainstorm any other questions that occur to you. If it helps, think of this activity in terms of how you would analyze a character from a movie or book. And remember to ask open-ended questions. By this, I mean questions that don’t simply elicit a yes-or-no response but rather which allow your parents to answer in their own way and to go off on whatever tangents they feel are appropriate.

Sample questions include the following:
*Have you ever had your heart broken? How did you react?
*What’s the strangest or craziest thing you believe?
*What are your best memories from when you were a child?
*What sort of daydreams or fantasies did you have as a child and what sort do you have now?
*How were you different from your brothers and sisters or parents?
*What were you obsessed with as a child? What scared you? What mystified you?
*How did you meet “mom” or “dad”? What did you think of them at first? Who else were you in love with? What were they like?
*What’s the best thing you’ve ever done? What’s the worst thing?
*What are your secret regrets?
*What do you like about yourself? What do you dislike?
*What has the process of getting older been like for you?
*What big things have you changed your mind about?
*Give me a day from when you were seven and detail what happened that day.

Once you have a preliminary list of questions to ask your parents, interview them, making use of a notebook or a digital recorder, and document a few of your findings and a brief reflection on how your perception of your parent has changed. Keep in mind the results of your interview when attempting to create multi-dimensional characters in your work.

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