1. Warm up
What are you afraid of? What chills you to the bone or makes your heart race? Make a list of your fears or things that scare you. Aim for at least 10-15 fears, ranging from the common (ex. spiders) to larger issues (nuclear war) to the personalized (never being published). If you find it difficult to write 15 fears, include phobias or fears of others. Get creative and invent a few for fun!
2. Read through your list and choose one fear to write about for at least 10 minutes. Don’t worry about writing utter crap. Just keep the pen moving. Ready, steady, write!
3. Read What Scares You by Lance Larsen
What Scares You
Wednesday afternoon at the YMCA
The girl lounging on the floor said, Rabbits—because their pink eyes glow like lasers. Rabbits are nada, said her friend. Try blood. We carry it around every day. Every day it tries to get out. The boy who wore flip flops even in winter described an apocalyptic Sunday when he woke up and his Xbox and three brothers were gone so he was forced to read a book. The boy without thumbs said, Once I dreamed I was a broken-legged deer being chased by a thresher machine, then I was the thresher machine chasing the deer. Twin one said, Eggs—the way they might hatch into dinosaurs. Her sister said, Me too, only baby scorpions. One girl wearing her brother’s football jersey said, I’m afraid of getting my face burned off like that freaky mom who ends up loving the world anyway. . . Actually, forget her. What scares me most is my parents getting back together. The boy by the window took off his glasses. You know that sound the stars make, he said, when you go walking by the river, between a hiccup and a hum—I can’t abide it. One girl braided and re-braided her friend’s hair. I’m afraid of my school picture, she said, the one hanging above my Mom’s bed when I still had baby teeth. The more bad stuff I do the more beautiful I look in the picture. Someday I will become so beautiful and bad I’ll just disappear.
4. To some extent Larsen’s prose poem is a type of list poem. The lines are descriptions for the characters’ unique fears. As readers, we’re drawn in not only by the fears, but are left wondering about the stories behind them that may have created the fear. What happened that apocalyptic Sunday when the boy who wore flip flops even in winter woke up to find his Xbox and three brothers were gone so he was forced to read a book? The boy without thumbs describes a frightening dream. Did he lose his thumbs from a machine? Did the horrible way he lost his thumbs turn him into some kind of monster machine that attacks back? With the twins, we could interpret their fear of producing monsters in the world. Do they believe they are some kind of freak of nature because they’re twins? The girl wearing her brother’s football jersey is also afraid of becoming a freak by getting (her) my face burned off… Actually, she says, what scares her most is her parents getting back together, suggesting to the reader that perhaps the trauma of her parents reuniting will possibly drive her crazy and turn her into something far worse than a freak with her faced burned off. Throughout the poem, it is the characters’ internal conflict or interpretation of the external elements that creates their fears. The boy with the glasses fears the external – the sound the stars make. But it’s how his mind interprets the sound – a sound between a hiccup and a hum – that creates his fear. Finally, the girl braiding her friend’s hair is afraid of the change she sees in herself. As readers, we’re left with a sense that she will inevitably become the bad monster she fears.
The Family Phobia Album
5. Write the names of 5 friends or family members. Or, if you want to keep those close to you out of this, the names of 5 acquaintances or 5 famous people. Then, write a descriptive phrase for each of the 5 people about their personal fear. Don’t be afraid (ha ha!) to play with this. Get surreal if you like.
My Family Phobia Album might look something like this:
1. Seven years later, Carlos is still terrified and unable to watch any films about aliens…
2. My father has been afraid of doctors since his arm was amputated after the accident…
3. Vanessa, my best friend since high school, bites her nails when she talks about cheerleaders…
4. My six year old is afraid of teddy bears. She says the one we gave her at Christmas used to steal children in the old days…
5. I dream of losing my teeth. My mouth looks like a piano missing keys…
6. Now, choose one person from the above exercise and begin your story. You could write about the origin of the fear or a situation where they have to face their fear head on. Freewrite for at least 20 minutes. Go!
Alternatively, you could also choose one of the characters from Larsen’s poem for your freewrite. Who is the girl lounging on the floor? Why is she afraid of rabbits? And what about the girl who is afraid of her school picture? How has she ended up on a Wednesday afternoon in the YMCA? This girl has a story waiting to be written. Why not have a go?
7. Go back and read what you’ve written. Think about a possible ending.
8. Keep writing!
Lance Larsen’s fourth collection of poems, Genius Loci, was recently published by University of Tampa Press. His earlier collections include Backyard Alchemy (2009), In All Their Animal Brilliance (2005), and Erasable Walls (1998). He holds a PhD from the University of Houston. His work appears widely in such venues as Georgia Review, Southern Review, Ploughshares, Poetry, River Styx, Orion, The Pushcart Prize Anthology, Best American Poetry 2009, Poetry Daily, and elsewhere. His nonfiction has twice made the Notable Essay list in Best American Essays. He is currently working on Seventeen Ways to Float, a collection of essays about place, family, and memory which won first place in the 2011 Utah Original Writing Competition. He grew up in Idaho and Colorado and lived in Chile for two years while serving an LDS mission. He collects antiques, plays basketball, occasionally walks on his hands, grows daylilies, hikes, and loves Indian and Thai food. He sometimes collaborates with his wife, Jacqui Biggs Larsen, a painter and multi-media artist. Since 1993, he has taught literature and creative writing at BYU, where he currently serves as associate chair. In 2012, he was named to a five-year term as Utah Poet Laureate.