This prompt is in three parts. First, writers divide their page in half, and they generate two lists. At the top of one list they write, “Things that are golden,” and at the top of the other they write, “Things that are not.” I encourage everyone to generate as many words, images, or phrases as they can for each list in about five minutes: a quick free write.
Then I ask everyone to choose three from each list they feel comfortable reading out loud. We read them around, one at a time, until we’ve gone around the room six times, leaving a pause between each person, so we can let the images or words of the other writers sink in, and we may also want to jot down a few that stay with us. Then we choose at least one phrase or image and write for 20 minutes.
I think list exercises are particularly effective, because the free association gets us right into the dream space, the place where we allow images or ideas to float through our minds. And you can do just about anything with the list titles, although I find opposites generate the most interesting writing. Another one I’ve done is, “Things that are buried,” and “Things that float or fly.”
For the golden exercise, I chose these three phrases: seeping puss, hospital rooms, and memorials.
Here’s what I wrote:
It was a right of passage, watching you die. An honor, really, after so many other people I had loved were taken so early in life. When you were in your late eighties, I said to myself, “I will get to know him through the end of his life.” And I understood the gift in that.
I didn’t account for all of the hospital visits though, the surgeries, the broken bones, the blood clots. My sister and I looked at you—then at one another—across hospital bed after hospital bed, and we knew we were in it now: the final stretch, the September of your years—choose the cliché that fits. It was a slow process, that narrowing of your life, that portal you slipped through that last day, the day you waved good-bye.
You’re a box of black and white photographs now. Curly hair slicked back with pomade, or flopping forward in the heat of a late Chicago afternoon. The El roaring behind your apartment, Mom still trying to get pregnant—eight years you tried and tried—her tiny waist in a 50’s cotton dress.
I like you best when you are young, before you had to worry about mortgages, or retirement funds, or car payments. You both worked, taking the train together in the morning, meeting at the supper club on Fridays, live music, high heels, scotch on the rocks with a water back. I like you slim, but not skinny, before the big belly from years of sitting at a desk, lounging at home all weekend, cheese and wine and ice cream sandwiches, the closest parking spot you could find.
I like you best before there was me, or four siblings, or an old dog to put to sleep, medication, a cane, walkers or wheelchairs. Before you became a cook or wore lavender ties with matching handkerchiefs, before you appeared at my graduation, before you taught me to make risotto, or asked me if I wanted to marry a man, or came to me those many months after you died letting me know you were okay, that you were safe on the other side.
I like you best before all that love, when there was only the two of you, still figuring each other out, still making love on humid nights, still young with your whole long life ahead of you.