The following prompts all draw from and are inspired by Chloe Caldwell’s essay collection Legs Get Led Astray, and are written by students in the Fall 2014 graduate creative nonfiction class.
- Write an essay about what you wanted to be when you were younger. Cite early memories.
- Write an essay about a time your parents caught you doing something sexual.
- Write about something you feel strong emotions about. No sentence can be more than 12 words long. Present tense.
- Write about who you wanted to be and who people thought you would be and how that changed/stayed the same.
- Pick a phrase and start a majority of your sentences with it (at least every paragraph).
- Write about three songs from your childhood or adolescence that you know by heart—the more embarrassing the better.
- You return home one night to find your house/apartment building has been condemned. You can go back in to get only what you can fit in a backpack. What do you take?
- Write about a time when you snooped on someone.
- Write a segmented essay in the present tense, organized by sections involving different people you’ve had relationships or friendships with.
- Write an essay where each sentence contains no more than ten words.
- Have the first line of your piece begin with “You told me…” Do the same for your last line.
The ‘Someone who you used to be close’ Prompt
Write about someone who you used to be close to but have grown away from. List at least twenty memories from when you were close to this person. Each memory should fill one short paragraph and be written in second-person as if you are talking to the person. Each paragraph must include a common word or phrase. Write three short paragraphs at the end stating how the relationship has changed.
The ‘Recent awkward experiences’ Prompt
Write about recent awkward experiences you have had with adults. Use stories about children to show the similarities between youth and adults. Show the ways the adults have stayed the same and how they have changed.
The ‘Place you lived or worked previously’ Prompt
Write about a place you lived or worked previously. Show how your feelings of the environment connect to the sexual relationships you were involved in at the time.
Inspired by Caldwell’s “That Was Called Love” (37) essay:
Pick a time period in your life when a roommate moved in or you developed a new friendship that took up much of your time and life. Write about some seemingly inconsequential days spent with this person and give as many specific details as you can. (Think about how Caldwell refers to the moments when she fell in love with you/ that person.) Use specific addresses for the occurrences as subtitles. Don’t use names! Use first person “I” when writing about your own actions, second person “you” when referring to the actions of the roommate/friend, and plural “we” for shared experiences. No names: just I, you, we, or a friend or a roommate.
Inspired by Caldwell’s “The Shit You Say” (135) essay:
Write an essay about a lover/partner/husband/wife/boyfriend/girlfriend and begin 90% of your sentences with “You say” referring to that person, and of course, the think he or she has said. Always refer to the person in the second person. Write about specific things this person said. Use at least one serious encounter and one silly encounter. Separate the two encounters and then write a paragraph that combines the two. Consider how Caldwell uses a line of dialogue from this person as her final line of the essay.
Inspired by Caldwell’s “True Love” (155) essay:
Caldwell’s material is very risqué, to say the least, but she also includes a few lovely essays about her relationship with children that give a different dimension to the collection. Write about a time when you had a startling revelation about life through the eyes of a child and perhaps because of your relationship with the child. Use dialogue to show the innocence and imagination of the child and to juxtapose how adults sometimes forget what is really important. Include that moment with the child where you realize something crucial about life. For Caldwell, it’s that “Duh” reaction from Henri before he says what he and Caldwell have—True Love. Reflect on this moment toward the end just like Caldwell does at the end of the essay when she reflects about how she has progressed as a person, maybe because of this relationship with Henri. Try to find important or poignant words spoken by the child to use as your title like Caldwell.
The Girlfriend Prompt
This prompt comes after reading Chloe Caldwell’s “Girlfriend” on page 75 of Legs Get Led Astray. Caldwell often writes in the second person POV, which makes readers feel as though they’re looking at a letter she has written to someone who’s influenced her life.
To complete this assignment, start by thinking of someone you were once close to, but have drifted apart from. Who stands between you and this person? If there isn’t a person to blame, then ask yourself what caused the rift in your relationship. Was it a specific event? Once you’ve identified the catalyst, lead with it. For example, Caldwell opens with “You have a girlfriend now, but…” By starting with this, she tells readers exactly who/what stands between her and this person from the past.
Next, identify a timeframe. When was your relationship active? When was the last time you remember spending time with ____ in a meaningful way? Caldwell’s timeframe spans eleven years, from age eleven through age twenty-one.
Once you’ve identified the timeframe, pick a memory from each week, month, or year of your relationship. Make each memory a paragraph in your piece. Caldwell begins each paragraph with “You have a girlfriend now, but…” You, too, should consider starting each paragraph the same way you opened the piece.
Once you’ve written a paragraph for each memory on the timeline, include a paragraph recapping the entire relationship: a snapshot, if you will. What things did this person often say or do? How did this person show that he/she cared about you? What is special about this person? Consider starting each sentence or memory the same way you started the piece, but do not give each memory its own paragraph, and do not feel obligated to mention where the memory fits on the timeline. This paragraph should end with a note about what the estranged friend/lover/relative is doing now.
Include one last paragraph that ruminates on the person or event that caused the rift between you and the estranged friend/lover/relative. This paragraph may be as short as four sentences. Try to distill your thoughts about the change into short sentences. Try to begin each sentence the same way you opened the piece.
The Expectations Prompt
This prompt comes after reading “My Mother Wanted To Be Betty Boop” on page 48 of Chloe Caldwell’s Legs Get Led Astray.
Start by thinking of someone who has attempted to shape you in several different ways throughout your life. Though this is likely a parent or caretaker, it could also be a friend, lover, or close relative. In the “Betty Boop” piece, Caldwell writes about her mother.
In Caldwell’s piece, she mentions a few of her mother’s expectations for her, but mentions several of the mother’s expectations for herself. The ratio in the piece is 3:9. Try to maintain this ratio in your own piece by remembering what your friend/lover/relative expected of you, but more importantly, what that person expected of him/herself.
Begin each paragraph with “ _____wanted.” After you state what your friend/lover/relative wanted, reflect on his/her desire to fulfill that expectation. Caldwell begins by stating that her mother wanted to be a dancer. She goes on to remember moments when she and her mother danced together. Include yourself in _____’s expectations as much as possible—even when the expectations mostly concern your friend/lover/relative.
When you discuss what _____ expected of you, make sure you adhere to the rule that you must start each paragraph with “_____ wanted.” Caldwell does this by using the phrases “My mother wanted me to…” or “My mother wanted her daughter to…”
After at least twelve paragraphs that begin this way, you are allowed to break the rule. Caldwell breaks the rule by using the phrases “ ____says that” and “____ told me.” Think of a few tid bits of advice you’ve heard from this friend/lover/relative that could fit into this mold.
Finally, give your readers an image of this friend/lover/relative. Caldwell does this by including a few paragraphs made up of sentence fragments. These paragraphs should sound like somewhat of a list. Begin each sentence fragment with the tag for your friend/lover/relative. The first paragraph should be about places he/she often went. Try to relate these destinations to the expectations you’ve recounted above. The next paragraph should state a few important items this person owned. Where were these items kept? Remember that these items should relate to the expectations above. The final paragraph should state a few actions or activities this person often did/does. For example, Caldwell writes, “My mother: Standing at the counter reading the newspaper and eating pretzel rods” (51). Remember that like the other two paragraphs, the final paragraph regarding actions/activities should relate to the expectations you’ve listed at the beginning of the piece.
The Location Prompt
This prompt comes after reading Chloe Caldwell’s “Underground” on page 131 in Legs Get Led Astray.
Think of a place where you’ve had several poignant experiences, including some with the same person—preferably an estranged friend/lover/relative. The place you choose may be broad enough to have sub-locations, or may simply be one definite location. Caldwell’s location is the subway, meaning she has the option to discuss different trains within the subway system. Perhaps you could choose something like “France,” and discuss several different cities within the country. Perhaps you could choose something more limited like “my bed.”
Think of several anecdotes attached to this location. Make a paragraph for each. Begin each paragraph by stating the location. For example, Caldwell writes, “On the G train…” or “On the L train…” Discuss each anecdote in the present tense.
Some of the anecdotes should tell of experiences you’ve had alone in that place, and some should tell of experiences you’ve had with the estranged friend/lover/relative. End the piece with an experience (or cluster of experiences) that occurred after the friend/lover/relative exited your life. If you’re looking for a ratio to abide by, then consider Caldwell’s Us:Me ratio, which is 19:10.