Dear Universe, Please Give Me Stories to Tell

give me bizarre encounters with strangers

As with most high school populations, I have students of all spiritual stripes – believers, seekers, dreamers, hopers, doubters.  So, when I stumbled upon a prompt for prayer in Georgia Heard’s wonderful book Writing Toward Home, I thought it would meet my diverse group wherever they were. All prompts in Heard’s book draw on the past and the introspective, on reminiscences and musings to generate memories for drafting memoirs or vignettes. But for this prompt, Heard suggests the writer call out to the universe and ask for some kind of blessing, for simplicity or courage or wit.  

To launch a long day of drafting vignettes, I introduced the idea of writing a prayer, and my students were intrigued.  I explained that while a prayer may or may not be religious, it’s true power lies in the petition itself, the framing of a supplication.  The power of prayer lies, I suggested to them, in the clarity and self-awareness required in the act of asking for something.

Their prayers overwhelmed and touched me.  I have posted some of them below.

Dear Universe, Please give me stories to tell. Give me bizarre encounters with strangers and hilarious absurd misfortunes, give me whirlwind romances and heartbreak so devastating I can fill a whole notebook with it.  Give me journeys to unfamiliar places, allow me to get lost for days, to break rules and try new things, meet new people. Give me grief, rage, infatuation, regret, fear, shame. Give me stories. Amen.                               

Please fix these broken walls I’ve smashed in anger for I felt incompetent. My writing just gets by, it’s nothing great. I lack inspiration, a set muse. The foundations of my inner house crumble. There is not a front door, only a worn frame.  Ideas do not linger long in the cold and I find myself chasing after them only to find they’ve disappeared. Gone.  I sit in silence.  Waiting. Waiting for what will never come.  Please help me fix my house. Help me find my muse.  Create a warm friendly place where ideas will want to grow and prosper.  To anyone who will listen; to anyone who cares; I pray for my inspiration.

Thank you God for all the gifts you have given me and for Jesus and the sacraments, and the Oreos, and other sacred things.  Thank you for letting Stanford lose, I really appreciate it.  But God, I want to ask you today for something important. I need inspiration, a continuous stream of it, so I’ll never have to stare blankly at a piece of notebook paper ever again.  Also I could use a good notebook, so I don’t have to use a single piece of paper again. And I’m not trying to be a nag or anything but where were you at Notre Dame’s last game?! I mean, come on, it’s your wife’s team, we really needed you. Don’t disappoint me at the BYU game. Amen.

Give me the strength to get over myself. Fill me with humility, with graciousness, with anti-ego and radiance. I have been blessed in my life and want to bless others. Give me the strength to communicate in a way that is meaningful. Wrap my knuckles and tendons and fingernails in lubricant, not so I can pleasure myself, but can pleasure others with pen or key strokes.  I have lived happily in my life and want to bring happy to others. Give me the strength to be satisfied in my life, but still look to the heavens.

 Lord thank you for all that you have blessed me with. You have given me a pen. You have given me a paper. You have given me a support system. You have given me a head full of thoughts. You blessed have blessed me infinitely. Forever I am yours for this. Just one or two quick questions: Do I have what it takes? Can I make a living off this? Thank you again for those blessings. Amen.

I am afraid of losing the desire, the juice that keeps me writing. I am afraid that it will be finished with me before I am finished with it. Please, make sure that it never goes away. I love the desire, the motivation to write. If it leaves me, I will not know what to do.  It keeps me inspired and driving. Will you make sure that it never goes away? Will you make sure that the feeling of contentment that I feel when I sit down at a keyboard or stare at a piece of paper stays with me until the end? 

Writing the Vignette: A Lesson Plan for Generating Memories from Place

generating memories from a top-to-bottom space

This lesson takes about 30 minutes to complete, and it has three parts: visualizing, listing, and writing.  The objective is to generate memories from a specific place.

In E.B. White’s luminous essay “Once More to the Lake,” White writes about taking his son on a vacation to a lake in Maine that he visited with his own father during the summers of his youth. White recalls his memories of the lake, the cabin, the local restaurant, and the summer weather in clear, sharp prose. While his writing is a model for eloquent, simple style, he also tells us a thing or two about recalling memories. On reminiscing, White writes: It is strange how much you can remember about places like that once you allow your mind to return into the grooves which lead back. You remember one thing, and that suddenly reminds you of another thing.

For some reason, my students, who range from 14 to 18 years old, have as difficult a time remembering their childhood as many of the adult students I teach during summer workshops.  While it might seem unbelievable to adults that someone who is only 10 years removed from their 6-year-old self would have just as hard of time remembering those moments as someone who is 40, this experience has proven true in my classroom over and over.

In order to help my students of all ages to “return into the grooves which lead back,” I ask students to draw on the physical realities of a place before trying to mine that landscape for significant memories.

Visualizing: First I ask students to close their eyes and visual a small interior space from childhood—a bedroom, a porch, a hall, an attic, a kitchen.  The space should be a place they can imagine walking through and noticing things to the left and right of their walking path.

I say: “Imagine you are walking through this space. As you walk, stop often and look to your right.  Notice the individual items there –the floor, the walls, the paint, the light switches, the tables or bookcases or lockers, the plants, the windows.  Are there animals or people there? Now look to your left; notice the individual elements there – the walls, the floors, the ceiling, the furniture, the hardware, the plants, the animals, or people.”

Listing: I spend about three minutes having students silently visualize this space with their eyes closed before they ever start to write anything. Then I ask them to get out their writing notebooks and draw three vertical columns on a clean, fresh page.

I say: “Okay, we are going to walk through this space again, but this time with our eyes open and taking notes about the things on either side of us.  Imagine yourself at the bottom of this space. Maybe you are standing at one end of a hall or at the door of a room or on the edge of your grandmother’s front porch.  Walk through this space again slowly, and starting at the bottom of your page, jot down all the items that you noticed as you walk through.  Write down all the things you notice on your right in your far right column. Write down all the things you notice on your left in your far left column.  Leave the middle column open.”

Writing: I give students about seven minutes to list as many things as possible. I encourage them to fill both columns, from the bottom up, with items without describing them in too much detail. The list is only to serve as a reminder of the physical items that were present when a memory was made.

I say: “Now that we’ve recreated two lists of items that would be in this space if you were to return to it and walk through it, I want you to write, in the center column, the memories that you associate with this place. You might want to list, number, or bullet these items or you can just start describing the memories that you have of this space.   Once you have filled up the center column, continue on to the back of this page using the whole page to explore the memories that this space holds for you. If you get stuck, return to the three columns and put yourself back into that space, using the items that you noticed as you ‘walked’ through to jog your memory.”

I give students 20 minutes to write.  During this time, I creep around the room, peering over their shoulders to see what memories have surfaced.  I often jot down two or three lines that startle, surprise or tear my heart out to read to the class later when I wrap up the lesson.

This writing activity may or may not lead to a finished piece, but students have resurrected something from their past that they might choose to write about in the future.