Weekly Prompt: Allowables
For the past few months, we ran a daily social media writing prompt aimed at sparking creativity for those of us who were going on day thirty, forty, fifty of sitting inside our homes. Now that it's summer and the world is beginning to, slowly, unfurl its wings again, we wanted to think bigger. So much of writing happens in response to our experience and to other writing we encounter. The latter is what this new weekly series will focus on.
Every post in this series will include a weekly reading and a list of prompts in response to that reading. Some of them will be focused on craft; some will ask you to evaluate content. This idea was born from an MFA course I took that focused almost entirely on emulating the style of other writers and then reimagining that first draft into something that was our own but still had echoes of the original. It's also inspired by the heightened sociopolitical reality so many of us come face to face with each day. Writing can be for pleasure; it can be cathartic; it can be used as a tool; it can preserve memory; it can foster connection. Whatever it may be, I hope this series helps you find what you're looking for out of your practice.
Week of July 13
Reading: "Allowables" by Nikki Giovanni
Craft element to note: Extended metaphor. Figurative language is one of the most powerful tools any writer has at their disposal, but its use tends to be most potent in poetry. In this case, Giovanni is using an extended metaphor, which is when a writer takes a single metaphor and develops it throughout the piece of writing. In "Allowables," we spend the majority of the poem reading about Giovanni encountering, describing, and ultimately killing a spider. It's a scene that, after 11 lines, we're invested in and have imagined and visualized quite well. Then we read lines 12 through 16, and we realize Giovanni isn't talking about humans enacting violence against spiders—she's talking about humans enacting violence against humans. Specifically, police enacting violence on Black folks.
Police brutality is a huge topic, one many of us cannot completely grasp, which is another magical aspect of the extended metaphor—it compacts complex topics into comprehensible packages. Most people are afraid of spiders and have killed one, not because they were actually in danger but because of an irrational fear. It's a relatively harmless act, in our opinion, so we accept our complicity in it. By line 11, we have easily put ourselves in Giovanni's shoes, which makes the unveiling of the metaphor hit much harder. We're forced to ask ourselves: If we're complicit in killing a spider out of fear, are we complicit in killing a person out of fear? For many people, realizing the parallel between this metaphor and its real topic is much more powerful than reading a in-depth political analysis.
- As mentioned at the end of the craft element discussion, using figurative language is an effective way to take a large concept and put it into terms people can more easily understand. Make a list of the big topics you like to write about. Now, following Giovanni's lead, match each one up with a small action or scene that really captures its essence.
- Sometimes a simple statement is the best way to construe the way you feel. Head up your page with "I don't think" and then write everything down that comes to mind—no topic too big or too small. If it helps, use this list in prompt #3.
- The most persuasive writing is able to show the reader both that the writer isn't considering themselves wholly innocent and that there's a stance the reader can take. Giovanni does this by letting us know she too killed a spider and then laying out a simple claim that's pretty hard for anyone to refute. In more academic terms, she gives us evidence and then leads us to her thesis (inductive reasoning). Think about small moments you've been complicit. Is there a specific one that ties back to a claim you believe in? Can you use your own experience with fear, anger, sorrow, etc. to stand as evidence for what you believe people should or should not do?
- To help with prompt #4, try these speed-writing rounds. Set a timer for two minutes for each sub-prompt and write about a time when:
- You let someone down.
- You gave into your fear.
- You were wrong.
- You changed your mind.
- You made a mistake.
- This poem is extremely personal to Giovanni—she's writing about the attack of people she identifies with. Write about an aspect of your identity you feel is often misinterpreted, overlooked, dismissed, insulted, or weaponized. What does that look like when it happens to you or to others who share that identity?