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    Get out of yourself: "Joan Didion and Bob Seger Meet in a Bar" & "Where I'm From" Exercise 

    Exercises for the nonfiction workshop to overcome the problems of the "I" and "me" 

    Ethan Gilsdorf | | Grub Street, Inc., Boston


    1) "Joan Didion and Bob Seger Meet in a Bar" Exercise


    Goal: What didn't happen is as fruitful a road to travel as what did. But, too frequently, writers of nonfiction tend to write only about the actual details of their lives, and neglect the goldmine of regrets and "what if" musings that (to me, anyway) seem as "real" as real life. This exercise forces nonfiction writers to reflect about possible/probable outcomes in their lives, had they made different choices. The goal also is to get writers to include imaginary "what if" scenes and passages of musing and specialization about their choices and actions.


    Method: Make a short list of key moments/choices/actions/conversations /turning points in your life. Now, choose one and begin to imagine how things might have been different had you made a different choice or had (or did not have) information at the time you made the choice or took action. Ideas for topics include: that you married a different person; that you spoke up when you remained quiet; that you took back something you said; that you had been courageous instead of fearful.


    Now, begin to free-write for minimum of 15-20 minutes using one (or more than one, if you want) of the following lines as the first line for an extended passage of writing. The passages you write should include real details from your life but also speculate and imagine a possibly different turn of events and life you might have had. In addition to exposition and musing, you are encouraged to include imaginary scenes with imaginary dialogue in this exercise.


    1) If I only knew then what I know now ...


    2) If I had only X (done something, made a different choice, etc ) instead of Y ...


    3) Begin with this line by Joan Didion (from her essay "Goodbye to All That”) and see where it takes you: "It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends."


    4) Here's another Didion line: "Of course it might have been some other city, had circumstances been different and the time been different and had I been different..." Think of a "city" from your personal experience, or substitute "city" for some other noun: person, summer camp, car, father, college, wife, etc.


    5) And because I could not resist: Use this line from the Bob Seger song "Against the Wind" as a way to reflect on your own life. "Wish I didn't know now what I didn't know then ..." (it's a double negative, so take a sec to figure it out.)


    2) Where I'm From
    (adapted from and

    Goal: Often nonfiction writers worry that they need to make their personal experience "universal," and in that worry, they can sap all the specific, local and personal details from their prose. This exercise gets nonfiction writers to include specific concrete detail from their lives into their writing: actual names, phrases, local information, family secrets and stories, period products, species of plants, etc. This exercise teaches the power of a simple list in creating a rhythm and lyric quality in prose. On its own, this exercise also makes a lovely, stand-alone self-portrait.

    Method: "If you don't know where you're from, you'll have a hard time saying where you're going," said Wendell Berry, voicing the idea that we need to understand our roots to know our place in the world. This prompt has a way of drawing out memories of the smells of attics and bottom-drawer keepsakes; the faces of long-departed kin, the sound of their voices you still hold some deep place in memory. You'll be surprised that, when you're done, you will have said things about the sources of your unique you-ness that you'd never considered before. If you remember the silly fill-in-the-blank word game Mad Libs, then you'll love this exercise. It's completely foolproof. Follow this template, but feel free to improvise or stray from the categories once you get the hang of the voice and rhythm -- just be sure to make your examples specific and concrete.

    The Where I'm From Template

    I am from ________________________ (specific ordinary household item), from ________________________ (product name), ________________________ (another household item), and ________________________ (common household odor from your childhood).

    I am from the ________________________ (home description: adjective, adjective, sensory detail).

    I am from the ________________________ (plant, flower, natural item), the ________________________ (plant, flower, natural detail)

    I am from ________________________ (family tradition) and ________________________ (family trait), from ________________________ (name of family member) and ________________________ (another family name) and ________________________ (family name).

    I am from the ________________________ (description of family tendency/trait/habit) and ________________________ (another example).

    From ________________________ (something you were told as a child) and ________________________ (another example).

    I am from ________________________ (representation of religion, or lack of it). From ________________________ (further description).

    I'm from ________________________ (actual place of birth and/or family ancestry), ________________________ (two food items representing your family).

    From the ________________________ (specific family story about a specific person and detail), the ________________________ (another detail or anecdote), and the ________________________ (another detail about another family member).

    I am from ________________________ (location of family pictures, mementos, archives and several more lines indicating their worth).


    Sample: Where I’m From, by Ethan Gilsdorf

    I am from plungers and wood bins, from the Downy bottle that scared me from across the kitchen, straw brooms and the smell of cat urine. I am from the rotted floorboards of a house built in 1803. I am from the lilac hedge, and chives, and garden tomatoes. I am from going to the movies on Thanksgiving, from the land of avoidance, from Florences, Briggs and Normans, from a triumvirate of mothers: Alice, Sara and Susan. I am from keeping your options open. I have climbed from deep trenches of passive-aggression. I am from keeping your expectations low and having a Plan B (better yet, Plan B and Plan C). I am from the church of the forest, the cathedral of sandpits and swift rivers. From the Teachings of Yoda and Gandalf. I'm from Lee, New Hampshire, and from surviving pot roasts and meatloaf made from your bare hands. From the cousin who robbed a bank, they say, the mother who learned to smoke in her high school play, and the father who finally got away. I am from the round box that might have housed an elaborate hat, or perhaps a drum, which I keep in my office, under a pile of books, and look at only when I dare.

    Where to Go with "Where I'm From"

    While you can revise (edit, extend, rearrange) your “Where I'm From” list into a poem, you can also see it as a corridor of doors opening onto further knowledge and other kinds of writing. The key is to let yourself explore these rooms. Don't rush to decide what kind of writing you're going to do or to revise or finish a piece. Let your goal be the writing itself. Learn to let it lead you. This will help you lead students, both in their own writing and in their response as readers. Look for these elements in your WIF poem and see where else they might take you:

    • a place could open into a piece of descriptive writing or a scene from memory.

    • your parents' work could open into a memory of going with them, helping, being in the way. Could be a remembered dialogue between your parents about work. Could be a poem made from a litany of tools they used.

    • an important event could open into freewriting all the memories of that experience, then writing it as a scene, with description and dialogue. It's also possible to let the description become setting and directions and let the dialogue turn into a play.

    • food could open into a scene at the table, a character sketch of the person who prepared the food, a litany of different experiences with it, a process essay of how to make it.

    • music could take you to a scene where the music is playing; could provide you the chance to interleave the words of the song and words you might have said (or a narrative of what you were thinking and feeling at the time the song was first important to you (“Where I'm Singing From”).

    • something someone said to you could open into a scene or a poem which captures that moment; could be what you wanted to say back but never did.

    • a significant object could open into a sensory exploration of the object-what it felt, sounded, smelled, looked, and tasted like; then where it came from, what happened to it, a memory of your connection with it. Is there a secret or a longing connected with this object? A message? If you could go back to yourself when this object was important to you, what would you ask, tell, or give yourself?


    Remember, you are the expert on you. No one else sees the world as you do; no one else has your material to draw on. You don't have to know where to begin. Just start. Let it flow. Trust the work to find its own form.





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