Author Anne Fleming has a brilliant short story called The Defining Moments of My Life, which I use in the classroom to inspire students for one of my favourite writing exercises.
Fleming’s short story is told as a series of moments that defined the character/narrator during her youth. The brilliance of her piece is that it is in two parts, the first part being “The Defining Moments of My Life as Envisioned by My Mother when Pregnant with Me.” This shorter section includes things like:
4. I am an easy baby, gurgling happily in my crib. Each stage described in the baby books I enter into promptly and exactly. At X days, my eyes focus past ten inches and I display an interest in the mobile above my crib . . .
7. I get my period. Of course my mother has lovingly explained my entrance into womanhood before the sacred event. I embrace my womanhood with bashful pleasure, feeling closer than ever to the woman who brought me into the world . . .
8. . . . I continue to be attractive, as my brother also turns out to be. We are popular and have lots of friends. Mothr makes us a nutritious lunch each day . . .
10. I have my first abortion.
Sorry. 10. I am valedictorian and give a moving speech, thanking my parents for their support.
The second section of the story is called “The Defining Moments of my Life as Seen by Me” and goes more like:
5. My adopted brother arrives. He has black hair and brown skin and hollers all the time. I can’t believe I ever hollered that much or that loudly, though I am told repeatedly it is true.
6. . . . Timmy Mills calls me and my brother ugly. This follows on my mother telling me gleefully and regularly – every time we se an infant, in fact, cute or ugly – that I was an ugly baby . . .
7. I get my period when I am ten. Not expecting this for a couple of years at least, Mom has not yet given me her Soon You Will Be a Woman speech, but I know what’s going on. I don’t think I’m bleeding to death with some mysterious disease. I know what menstruation is. I have read my friend Elaine’s copy of Are you There God? It’s Me, Margaret.
9. At seventeen, I win a part in West Side Story. I am the tomboy, always trying to get into the gang and always getting ridiculed and kicked around instead. My character’s name, interestingly, is “Anybody’s.” My mother is appalled. she knows I could not possibly be Maria, but she thought maybe a chorus girl, maybe even Bernard’s girlfriend, or Riff’s. Anybody but Anybody’s . . .
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Later in the story her brother gets arrested, her father goes to rehab, and it becomes increasingly apparent that she is a lesbian – who then falls for her best friend.
It’s a sad/beautiful demonstration of our dreams and expectations vs. reality and deliverance. (Life is often about surfing that line with grace, isn’t it?)
The EXERCISE I give to my students is to write a chapter poem or short story entitled “The 10 Defining Moments of My Life.”
What is really interesting is that I give this exercise to elementary kids as much as I give it to adults. It’s great fun to see what a 10 year old considers a “defining moment.” 🙂
A poetic version of the above might go something like:
Four year old dance steps tap a frenzy of look-at-me
I’ve got girl graces
I can fly free and free and free
the world watches and applauds
the snake charm sense spinning
the manipulation of the birth
Discover stealing small things
fingering coins, cigarettes, stones
the hidden thrill-guilt in taken tokens
like charm seeds
planting the momentum for
stealing that which I can’t return
the heart of a man
and other beating things
Now it’s your turn! Write in prose or poetry “The 10 Defining Moments of My Life.”