Weekly Prompt: Living Like Weasels
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 October 5
Craft element to note: Structural image. A structural image is a hard craft technique to really nail down, partially because it's often not clear what it actually is. Essentially, when a reader has finished your essay, you want an image to stay in their head, and you want that image to be representative of your essay's idea.
Here, Annie Dillard is telling us about an encounter she had with a weasel at Hollis Pond, a wooded area tucked away in suburbia, bracketed in by houses on one side and a highway on the other. We start focused on the build up to the anecdote and the anecdote itself—what actually happened that day. As we telescope out, however, we understand that Dillard is using the anecdote to talk about a larger idea—that of how to live your life in the best way.
Now, that's a really common—one might even say cliché—topic, so Dillard needs to talk about it in a way that's fresh and memorable. This is where the weasel comes back in. To Dillard, the weasel represents everything she is not: wild, without bias, driven by need, ignorant of the suburban world just a mile or two away. To be more specific, the weasel goes after the throat. And that's the image we're left with: a weasel dangling from the throat of an eagle. We're introduced to this image in part I, and we revisit it in parts V and VI, and it's what stays in our mind once we're finished. It's an extended metaphor—a very specific, very visual extended metaphor. That's what you want to create.
- The point of Dillard's essay is summed up in the title: "Living Like Weasels." Using "living like _____" as a prompt, choose an animal and use it as your structural image for how you think life should/could be lived.
- This essay is built around Dillard's encounter with a weasel. Think about a time you too were startled. Now ask yourself why you were startled, what larger idea that encounter jiggled loose. Write that encounter in scene, and then telescope out to talk about the idea.
- Our structural image here comes from something that may or may not have actually happened; Dillard heard about it secondhand, so she can never know. Choose an absurd story you've heard or read, and choose an image to act as a structural image. Write an essay around it.
- Also essential to this essay is where it takes place: a small stretch of woods contained within the suburban world. To Dillard, this is a reprieve but never an escape, which highlights her point: we never truly let ourselves escape. Choose a place that has meaning to you and write about where that meaning comes from.
- Using the prompt "I believe ____," keep listing points until you hit on one that you can support with an anecdote from your own life. As you're writing that anecdote, list all of the images that pop into your mind. Choose one to act as the structural image of the essay. The more vivid, the better.