Family Narrative Project Writing Group
The Family Narrative Project Writing Group offers writing prompts on Tuesdays with Dr. Darlene O'Dell. We also offer tips, articles, contest announcements, and FNP resources. We’re excited about your writing, whether you are a beginner or a professional!
Below are the first 8 prompts. For more, click to join our FNP Writing Group on Facebook. In this group you can share what you write or not. Because this writing is raw and unrevised, we are asking that people refrain from offering criticism, critique, or even suggestions to the writer. This place is a safe one for a writer’s early thoughts to be seen and heard. Please join us!
March 26, 2020
A Squirrel’s Nest
I was walking through my neighborhood a few days ago and looked up through the still bare trees to see a squirrel’s nest. It always amazes me that these homes could survive the cold and windy Appalachian winters because, to me, it looks like someone just smushed a bunch of leaves between two branches.
So I looked it up, and it turns out that the nests are elaborate structures, requiring some degree of forethought and planning. The squirrel begins by gnawing off twigs that still have their green leaves. This step must be done early in the season because green leaves adhere better than brown ones as they are woven together to form the flooring of the nest. With the base complete, the squirrel adds moss and damp leaves to reinforce it and then follows this step by weaving a spherical outer shell around the flooring. Finally, it gathers more twigs, leaves, or paper to stabilize the shell.
In the summer months, you’ll find mother squirrels teaching their young how to make these houses, though sometimes instead of building its own home, a squirrel will simply move into an older home. Squirrel nests have been known to last 10 years, though as anyone who has lived in an older dwelling can confirm, they require constant upkeep.
On top of their primary home, squirrels may have two or three other homes. They’re like the 1% of the animal kingdom.
The Prompt: Tell us about a place you’ve resided in that will live in your memory, for better or worse. Or tell us about the people who inhabited it . . . or about an event that occurred there.
March 25, 2020
Yesterday, I posed this question to the group, “What is one thing you would say about this historical moment to the generations that will follow you?”
Today, I’ve been thinking more about what the earlier generations might say to us. Back in the 1980s, my grandmother told a story (a fragment of a story, really) to my sister after we were both grown, and my sister shared it with me. I then forgot it, and my sister and I didn’t speak of it again.
Recently, the story resurfaced and I asked my aunt about the details, or what I could recall of them. Mostly, as I discovered from my aunt, I had the story wrong. It was, in other words, a story that couldn’t find a clear foothold in the family narrative, the family’s sense of itself. It floated around untethered in our family’s history, though my aunt seems to be the one person who kept it grounded.
What my grandmother had told my sister back in the 1980s was this: When my grandmother was two-years-old, she came down with the Spanish Influenza. While her mother was caring for her in the bedroom, she (my great-grandmother) had watched as her own sister’s funeral procession moved down the road. Her sister had died of the influenza.
And that’s all I know of the story. I wish I knew more. I wish I knew, for instance, how they had kept themselves going. But perhaps it should be enough, for the moment, to know that they did.
The Prompt: What do you imagine your ancestors might tell you right now?
March 24, 2020
You know, I tried to sit down this weekend and outline the prompts for this week, but our lives and circumstances are moving so quickly that the prompts seem to become outdated from one day to the next. Your writing, of course, is not outdated. The generations following you will find your work helpful, perhaps even lifesaving.
In my family, ice cream was the great pacifier, that and chocolate oatmeal cookies. If my sisters and I were sick, my mother made us ice cream floats. If we were bored on a Sunday afternoon, we made homemade ice cream with a churn. If we were sad about something, we drove over to the local dairy barn, the one with the neon dip cone lit on the sign above.
Tell us about your comfort food. Tell us how this food came to be associated with comfort in your life. For instance, I might go into detail about the times we churned ice cream. Or I might go into detail about the clinical depression I experienced in my early 20s and the cone of chocolate mint ice cream I’d get nightly from the local place in town. Tell us your story.
March 23, 2020
We all have a lot on us right now. I was feeling unnerved by it all, but coming across this photograph helped. The image was recently exhibited by the Library of Congress in its show “Not an Ostrich.” The bird is, in fact, a goose—a Floradora Goose, specifically. And the woman holding the goose is British actor Isla Bevan. The occasion: the 41st Annual Poultry Show in Madison Square Garden, held in 1930.
The Prompts: Can you tell us about a time when you (or someone you knew) decided to carry your burden with pizazz?
Or were you ever mistaken for an ostrich (metaphorically, of course) when you were obviously a Floradora Goose?
Or, and thinking of this actor, were you ever hired to do a job that clearly was not worth the money?
Tell us about it.
March 20, 2020
According to the website All about Birds, we normally think of the American Robin as “a harbinger of Spring.” The truth, though, is that most Robins haven’t gone anywhere, except up in the trees, where we don’t see them as frequently as we do when they are foraging on our lawns.
The Prompt: Tell us about something in your life that represented new life or renewal, but that you couldn’t see, even though it was there with you all along.
Photograph by Ruby Feng
March 19, 2020
For today, I’d like to share with you one of the selections from our forthcoming prompt book on freewriting about your own photographs.* It goes like this:
“I remember my first-grade class photo. I remember the boy who gave me a paper cut and the child who wore the patch over his eye for 6 weeks. I remember the girl who shut her hand in the car door after school one day and the bandage she wore for a month. I remember my friend who loved ribbons and bows and put them in her hair, on her dresses, around her wrists. She and I played Hi-Ho! Cherry-O together on her kitchen table, even though most of the plastic cherries were missing from her game. In the class photo, I wore a paisley shirt and navy stirrup pants. We all sat in our desks behind a sign that read ‘Mrs. Brown’s First Grade Class.’
The Prompt: Consider the group photograph, the one of a class, unit, team, squad, band, etc. Tell us the story of the group. Why was the photograph taken that day or at that particular moment? What was the context? What had the group accomplished? You might tell us about an individual member of the group, about their personalities or their quirks. Did they ever show courage? Cowardliness? What happened later in their lives? As always, don’t feel as if you have to answer all the questions. You might prefer to go in deep on one of them.”
Please be gentle with yourselves as you write, never more than during these days.
*Forthcoming: Dr. Dar’s Freewriting Prompts: Writing about Your Photographs, Volume 5
March 18, 2020
I was thinking yesterday about crises other generations have endured and realized that my father was born the year World War II began in Europe and my mother was born the year it began here in the United States. When my father was 3 years old, his father left to become a paratrooper in the Pacific.
I thought back to my grandmother’s experience with the Spanish Influenza, of the stories I heard about my family in the 1929 and 1934 wave of strikes that hit the textile industry, about those who owned grocery stores and feed stores during the Great Depression. . . .
I thought about people of color and people from other groups often targeted in the national narrative. I thought of Little Rock, Selma, Stonewall, Wounded Knee, the Japanese Internment Camps.
The Prompt: Tell us about a local, national, or international crisis experienced by your family’s earlier generations. What impact did it have on a particular family member? Maybe you don’t know the details. If so, feel free to speculate and to wonder.
You might, also, speculate about how that historical moment has affected the later generations in your family.
It might be that your family member wasn’t the hero. Maybe they responded in ways cowardly, destructive, or violent. For instance, maybe they were connected to the Klan in Selma.
Or maybe they showed a way out of the chaos to the later generations.
Tell the story as you understand it.
March 17, 2020
One cold January morning, I took this photograph of the frost through a slanted window in my friend’s Appalachian farmhouse. The shape frost takes can be influenced by a number of factors, including irregularities in the glass, residue left after cleaning, and even by a single fingerprint. Forming when the cold air on one side of the window meets the moist air on the other, it can cover our car windows at the most inconvenient of times, and, often, we cannot scrape it off quickly enough.
But maybe frost should be savored, like the mountain sunrise, like the bare oaks on the hills, like the morning call of the birds.
I’m thinking about several possibilities here.
1. What in your life should be savored right now? What are you overlooking? What remarkable beauty is right in front of you that is quiet, unobtrusive, easily passed by?
2. Can you tell us about something remarkable in your life that was formed when two different forces came together?
3. When did your fingerprint (your presence) change the shape or outcome of an event? Or when did you witness the presence of someone else influencing an outcome?
Tell us the stories. Put us there. Appeal to our senses of sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste. Take our hand and help us walk into the page.
Freewrite: We set the timer at 10 minutes.
More than ever, be gentle with yourselves right now. We’ll come together again tomorrow. Thank you.