In 2015, at the Sanibel Island Writing Conference, I attended a great craft talk on short-form nonfiction given by Leslie Jamison that ended with a writing prompt, and she’s kindly agreed to let me share the prompt with you.
Jamison began by introducing the class to the concept, originating in the 16th century, of the wunderkammer – the cabinet (or room) of wonders, which held collections of interesting human-made artifacts, specimens of natural history, and treasures collected on expeditions. Wunderkammer were carefully curated and arranged to inspire awe (taxidermied alligators, drinking vessels carved from rhino horns) curiosity (narwhal tusks, intricate puzzles, or navigation tools), titillation (jade sculptures of unusual sexual positions), even fear (poison rings, shrunken heads).
Jamison challenged the class participants to explore the idea of the personal wunderkammer, a cabinet of wonders stocked with objects from their own pasts. “The idea is to remember objects that feel charged with emotional electricity,” she said, “ideally objects whose significance you haven’t figured out, objects whose categories haven’t yet been determined. In particular, I’d like you to focus on objects that feel dangerous – that might hold some kind of pain or explosive charge.”
Next, Jamison had us take out notebooks and create a list of five objects and list the emotional charge attached to each one. Then she had us select the most intriguing object from our list and gave us some time to write a one-paragraph piece.
Here’s what I wrote in that Florida classroom, with the noise of scribbling pens all around me, and a buff gecko doing pushups on the window by my shoulder:
I didn’t have a grandpa, so I studied my friend Lara’s. He dozed before the TV in his wool cardigan. He walked without lifting his feet from the floor. Sometimes in the afternoon he shuffled to the hall closet, ducked inside for a moment, then shuffled back to the couch. Lara’s eyes didn’t swerve from Mighty Mouse, but I had to know what Gramps was doing in that closet, I had to. The next time he shhhed open the door, I snuck up behind him. He whirled around, wild-eyed, but when he saw it was me, only me, he smiled. He allowed me to witness him easing from a coat pocket a palm-sized white paper bag, McDonald’s. He noiselessly uncrimped the top, spread its mouth with his thumb and index finger, reached in and pinched out a single fry. I understood that he was sneaking it. I understood that we must hide things from the mommies and the daddies. He held it out to me, a tiny sword, cold as if pulled from the heart of a stone.
Give Jamison’s assignment a try. Consider objects from your personal history as potential entries in your wunderkammer. Stock your cabinet with items from your past that inspire curiosity, awe, titillation, and fear. Review the items on your shelves and then choose one to realize more fully. Don’t go for the obvious – evoking danger through a knife, for example. Select an object with an unexpected powerful emotional charge and tell its story in one paragraph.
Are you ready to let someone peek into your wunderkammer?
If so, submit your previously unpublished one-paragraph (no longer than 200 words) micro-memoir to The Writer by emailing it as an attachment to [email protected] with the subject line “Micro-Memoir Contest” by Aug. 8th. (One entry per writer, please.)
I’ll judge the finalists, and the winner will be published in our December 2017 issue!