The following prompts all draw from and are inspired by Kiese Laymon’s essay collection How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, and are written by students in the Fall 2014 graduate creative nonfiction class.
– On page 47, Laymon writes “I’m a walking regret, a truth-teller, a liar, a survivor, a frowning ellipsis, a witness, a dreamer, a teacher, a student, a failure, a joker, a writer whose eyes stay red, and I’m a child of this nation.” Come up with a list of descriptions that fit you (not all of them have to make sense, some of them can be contradictory) and write an essay about them. Include at least one thing you cannot actually be (a frowning ellipsis) and justify how you fit that description.
– Inspired by “Our Kind of Ridiculous.” On page 57, Kiese Laymon writes about his girlfriend’s friend recapping the abuse from police officers who falsely accused the author. “She nervously says ‘totally’ and ‘ridiculous’ a few more times,” writes Laymon, “She never says ‘afraid,’ ‘angry,’ ‘worried,’ ‘complicit,’ ‘tired,’ or ‘ashamed.'” Think about a time you had a misunderstanding with someone–anyone. It could be your parents, your lover, a friend, a teacher, the cops. Choose carefully and make sure it’s a disagreement that especially stung. Write about what was said during the most intense moments. Then write about what you wish was said. Try to make connections between this moment and other challenges you’ve faced in your lifetime.
– Inspired by “Prologue.” On page 18, Kiese Laymon imagines an exchange between his late Uncle Jimmy and his former self. Think about someone who has died and write about your own missed opportunities. What would you have said to that person if he/she were still alive? Write in the second person, as if you are writing a letter to the deceased. Imagine a conversation you could have had, and explain why that conversation never happened.
– Inspired by “Hip-Hop Stole My Southern Black Boy.” Think back on a hobby or interest that spanned a number of years in your lifetime. Was your participation a group effort or was it all about you? How were you introduced to the hobby? Where did you usually practice? Where do you stand now? Write about your journey. State how your interest in this hobby/activity has grown and changed over the years. How did your participation ultimately shape you?
– Based on “Kanye West and HaLester Myers are Better at their jobs…” Write an essay about a celebrity and how they had an impact on your life. Tell the story through the voice or perspective of another person: Your mother, your brother, or the kid that sat next to you in the third grade. Use the person telling the story to guide your experience with this celebrity.
– Based on “You are the Second Person.” Write an essay about a conversation you overhead. Speculate the history based on what you see and what you hear. Describe the person(s) in full and give quotes. Tell us where you are in your life and why you’re listening. How is it affecting you in this moment?
– Based on “Hip-Hop Stole My Southern Black Boy.” Write an essay based on a place and build a story around it. Make it a weird place. Try and steer clear of the simple places: bedroom, living room, classroom, whole towns, or vacation spots. Instead, give us a tree, a kayak, or a chair in your doctor’s office.
– Prompt inspired by Laymon’s “Prologue” (15). Write a letter to a dead relative. Find a way to connect the letter, and the relative, to your own life, your own fears, your own insecurities. Find a way to show how the dead relative represents something inherent within you, about you that you’ve just come to realize or accept about yourself. Apologize to the dead relative for never having a real conversation about these things and for never really getting to know all of the nuances of this relative.
– Prompt inspired by Laymon’s “Kanye West and HaLester Myers Are Better at Their Jobs…” (85). Find a connection between something happening to a family member or a friend and the release of a popular album. Both need to occur within the same month. How does the situation with a family member or friend connect thematically to the music? What are they both saying about this moment in time in our culture in America? Find correlations between the two and then add your own narrative thread to the mix. In other words, once you’ve established a connective thread between the family/friend narrative and the music, add a personal narrative thread from the same time period and find a way to connect your personal narrative thread to the greater thematic impression that you are making about the culture in America during this time period.
– Prompt inspired by Laymon’s “You Are the Second Person” (127). Write about yourself in the second person. Everything that you do should be framed around writing to yourself in second-person point of view. Like Laymon, see if you can center the narrative around your writing experience and the frustration you feel when your writing is critiqued or just not understood. Really trudge through the emotions of sharing work with other people (in his case, it’s his editor, but it can be a teacher, a workshop group, etc) and examine your own role in how the work can be misunderstood and how it can be better. End the piece on a high note that pays attention to the work of writing and gives a hint of praise or appreciation for just doing it every day, head down, writing.
– In his title essay, Laymon has a powerful line on page 47 where he identifies himself as many things—“I’m a walking regret, a truth-teller, a liar, a survivor, a frowning ellipsis, a witness, a dreamer, a teacher, a student, a failure, a joker, a writer whose eyes stay red, and I’m a child of this nation.” Write an essay that begins with a line like this one. State at least seven different identities for yourself, some simple (teacher, student) and others that go a step further (a writer whose eyes stay red). In the essay, explore different situations that led you to identify yourself in these ways.
– Write an essay in which you explore your awareness of how you’ve benefited from your position of privilege—whether it’s race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religious belief, ability, etc.