Memory & Adventure 1: Matters of Life and Death

Image courtesy of Brendan Ross

The following exercise comes to us thanks to the amazing Melanie Rae Thon, who has generously provided me with an expansive set of exercises that will be published here over the coming weeks. This particular exercise is not meant to be completed all at once. Rather, it’s a set of lists, meditations, responses, and ways that you can move those earlier portions into creative work. Enjoy!


Wilderness always speaks to human beings of Transcendence: in the widest possible sense it says, You as a Human Being are part of a System which is not just about your needs and your concerns. Like it or not, you’re part of something immense and very mysterious.
~ Doctor Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury
In Part Five of the film series Planet Earth

Memory and Adventure
Entering the Wilderness: Impermanence, Interdependence, and Compassion

I hope this series of meditations will inform your work directly or indirectly. Individual choices about form, genre, balance, etcetera are all spectacularly open! Please feel free to translate/transform/re-imagine these explorations in any way that makes sense for your unique explorations. My questions are meant to open, not confine—to suggest possibilities that lead you into your own territory with more curiosity and awareness, more passion and wonder.

This experiment is designed to “break down syntax,” to jolt us outside the comfortable parameters of our rehearsed autobiographical narratives, to help us appreciate the complexity (and chaos) of our own lives and make us more responsive to (and curious about) the wide variety of human (and more-than-human) experience we encounter in fiction, memoir, poetry, drama, film, the nightly news, our daily lives …

(with thanks to Anna Deavere Smith for the three questions that first inspired this meditation)

Part 1: Brainstorming
Matters of Life & Death

Have you ever been close to death? (Your own, or someone else’s—a loved one’s, or a stranger’s?) Think of illness, injury, wild risk, accident. Consider the deaths of non-human beings (birds, deer, fish, insects, saguaros, cities, rivers, glaciers, frogs, lilies—a golden spruce, a belovéd chinchilla—a creature you dissected, an egg you consumed, a pork chop you devoured . . . ). List as many as you can. Some may exist in “clusters.” Consider times when you feared for the life of someone / something you loved, whether or not that being was in real danger. Think about times when you felt responsible for the harm that another being suffered.

Have you ever witnessed or committed a crime? Have you been the victim of a crime? Have you ever been accused of something you did not do, or escaped punishment for something you did do? What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done? What’s the worst thing that’s ever been done to you?

Crimes may be subtle! As Father Zosima says (in The Brothers Karamazov): Woe to him who offends a child. . . . Keep company with yourself and look to yourself every day and every hour, every minute, that your image be ever gracious. See, here you have passed by a small child, passed by in anger, with a foul word, with a wrathful soul; you perhaps did not notice the child, but he saw you, and your unsightly and impious image has remained in his defenseless heart. You did not know it, but you may thereby have planted a bad seed in him, and it may grow, and all because you did not restrain yourself before the child, because you did not nurture in yourself a heedful, active love.

Have you lost something that can’t be replaced? Is there an incident in the life of a sibling or parent or child that seems disturbing and/or mysterious and/or miraculous to you? Are there secrets in your family, stories that are known, but never discussed? Are you capable of physical violence; and if so, how do you know? Are you capable of focused, unselfish love? Again, what experiences revealed this to you?

Have you ever received, offered or witnessed an apology that seemed to have life-changing potential? Was the apology embraced or resisted? Have you ever been trapped in a small place? Have you been lost? Are there any incidents in your life that have changed you (internally or externally), or any events that have revealed some hidden part of your personality, especially a part you did not like, or a part that surprised you because you discovered unexpected compassion or wisdom or resilience? Have you ever experienced racism, prejudice, or discrimination (as a victim or as an instigator)? Have you ever witnessed extraordinary kindness (in a stranger,
yourself, a friend, a family member)?

What were the circumstances of your birth? Do you have any remarkable scars, small or large, hidden or visible? Tell the story of a scar (or reveal your entire history through the “map” of your body!) Have you ever feared for the life of someone you love, especially a sibling, child, or parent? Have you ever done something wildly, stupidly foolish, something you see with awe and/or fear now that you’re older?

Are you different from other people in some way, clumsy or agile, sensitive to sound or light, susceptible to anxiety or depression, often sick, unusually strong? Have you been labeled by parents or teachers or siblings or doctors? Does the label help you rise to your most inspiring vision of yourself, or trap you in someone else’s assessment? Is there something strange (weird, wild) in your life or family history that you have known so long it has become ordinary? Have you witnessed an “ordinary” moment that seems remarkable to you (oh! that Asian woman in the Chicago airport singing in her own dialect while simultaneously taking rapid fire orders from harried English-speaking travelers and making perfect individually composed salads—a miracle!)?

Have you ever been surprised by your own strength or courage, or dismayed by your own failure to act with conviction? Have you ever seen “the face of God,” i.e. have you ever had an experience (in the more-than-human environment, with another person, while meditating . . .) that seemed transcendent? Can you evoke this experience fully enough for the reader to share it?

List as many of these moments or episodes as you can. Try brainstorming a least three separate times. If other questions occur to you, ones I haven’t imagined, please feel free to explore them!

Yes, I am using autobiographical material as a base for the experiment. But this is only a starting point! Any life becomes rich and complicated when you look at it closely. The questions you ask of yourself can be asked of any living being you know/remember/imagine (in the world still to come, on this earth past or present). Let them answer these questions in ways that astonish you! Recounting the mysteries and turning points in your own life may give you a source of ideas to tap for the lives of the beings in your stories, or may open your heart to the ones you encounter in life and in literature.

John Ashberry says, I write out of my experience, not about it. And Michel Foucault says, One writes in order to become other than what one is. My dear friend Mark Robbins told me that writing is prayer, the dedicated concentration of your being on that which will help you become the person you know you should be.

Imagining what it is like to be someone [something!] other than oneself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality.
~ Ian McEwan


We will continue this exercise with part two in the near future. That second exercise will draw heavily from and refer back to this one, so hang on to your brainstorming results!

Melanie Rae Thon Author PhotoMelanie Rae Thon’s most recent books are Silence & Song (September 2015) and The 7th Man (November 2015). She is also the author of the novels The Voice of the River, Sweet Hearts, Meteors in August, and Iona Moon, and the story collections In This Light, First, Body, and Girls in the Grass. Thon’s work has been included in Best American Short Stories (1995, 1996), three Pushcart Prize Anthologies (2003, 2006, 2008), and O. Henry Prize Stories (2006). She is a recipient of a Whiting Writer’s Award, two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association Reading the West Book Award, the Gina Berriault Award, the Utah Book Award, and a Writer’s Residency from the Lannan Foundation. In 2009, she was Virgil C. Aldrich Fellow at the Tanner Humanities Center. Originally from Montana, Melanie now lives in Salt Lake City, where she teaches in the Creative Writing and Environmental Humanities programs at the University of Utah. She is a 2016 Guggenheim Fellow in Fiction.