Telling Your Story Alphabetically

Kerry Madden-Lunsford, associate professor and Director of Creative Writing, teaches her creative writing students to shape their life stories alphabetically.

Kerry Madden LunsfordKerry Madden-Lunsford is an associate professor in the Department of English and director of the Creative Writing program.By Kerry Madden-Lunsford

Thirty years ago, my husband and I were teaching English in China at Ningbo University on the East China Sea. I’ve never figured out how to write about the time, even though I wrote letters every single day from China on an old electric typewriter. Recently, poet and UAB English alumna, Ashley Jones, asked me to read some nonfiction at the Nitty Gritty Magic City Reading Series at Desert Island Supply Company, terrific places of support for writers in Birmingham.

Ashley had introduced me to the work of Amy Krouse Rosenthal. She wrote a kind of lyric essay memoir called, “Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life,” which is Amy’s life alphabetically as an encyclopedia. I’ve often used it as an example to get my own creative writing students to shape their stories. One student wrote about her family’s obsession with “Everybody Loves Raymond.” One wrote about a bossy aunt named Aunt Fred under “F.” One wrote about being Jewish in Trussville, Alabama. One wrote about earning her Girl Scout badges — all alphabetically. Here are some other entries by UAB students:

A - Albany, Georgia. That’s where I was born, but I grew up in neighboring Leesburg (home of Luke Bryan and Phillip Phillips!). When asked where you’re from, you still would say “Albany” (pronounced all-BEN-ny). It’s sort of like people who live just outside of Atlanta. It’s easier to say “Atlanta” rather than explain where your little town is. It’s also known as Agony, Georgia, which if you’ve ever been there, you’d understand. Elizabeth McAlister

F is for fainting, something I did frequently when I was a child if I ever came in contact with blood. Especially if I had my blood drawn. There’s a funny story my mother always tells about how my sister was bleeding and it freaked me out so bad I fainted. Elliot Moe

J is for Jazz, the music I grew up to. My mother was obsessed with Jazz, and she always took me to the many Jazz festivals that would pop up throughout the seasons back in Miami. Our house always echoed with the melodies of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Thelonious Monk. I first started writing around six, mostly terrible short stories based on the lives of my toys, and it was the sound of fingers playing upon the piano keys to the lull of the saxophone that carried into my room. To this day, to even attempt to write something, I must have some sort of Jazz radio playing in the background. Chase Coats

Amy Krouse Rosenthal begins her book with a timeline of her life, categories, and finally an “alphabetized existence.” My students could see how simple and ordinary it was, but not only that, they could see they had a story to tell, too, because of how Amy did it using the form of a lyrical essay, which invites the writer to explore and play with memory and story.

But I’m so deeply saddened that Amy’s story has ended way too soon—she just recently lost her battle with ovarian cancer. A week before her death, she wrote a beautiful essay for the Modern Love column in “The New York Times.” The essay is presented in the form of a personals ad for her husband, whom she knew would survive her.

Amy’s essay broke my heart in a million ways, because I’m not much older, and we have kids the same age. It also made think about Ningbo, China, and beginning a life 30 years ago with my own husband, whom I love dearly but have lived apart from for eight years because of our tenured jobs (yet somehow this distance has made us even closer). It also made me remember our first year of marriage in China and the place I discovered Carson McCullers when I was losing my mind with culture shock.  

Then I had my proposal accepted for this summer’s “Carson McCullers in the World” symposium in Italy to commemorate her 100th birthday. So with Amy’s Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life in mind I tapped out a creaky alphabetical beginning and realized that I could possibly write it alphabetically – Atlanta Falcons, Black Hole, Bourgeois Liberalism Campaign, Carson, China, escaping the South, Thornton Wilder’s Long Christmas Dinner, Kramer Vs. Kramer (the only film in Ningbo at the time),– all of it. Somehow. I’d never been able to lasso any of it chronologically, but with Amy as my guide, maybe I could find the story the way my students did with their own radiant lyrical essays.

To learn more about Ashley Jones, Amy Krouse Rosenthal, and the organizations listed above visit:

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