Exam: Essays 101
Nonfiction by Jonathan Duckworth
There is no wrong way to read this. There is no wrong way to engage this. If you X-out the Word-Doc or PDF, if you turn the page over, or close the book (wouldn’t that be wild, this ending up in a book?), you are making the choice not to engage the text, which is its own form of engagement. In a sense, a battle has already been lost irrevocably, but let’s not think in such antagonistic terms, because I like you—I like you a lot. In fact I’m so in-like with you it borders on a crush. Whether you take this exam or not, and however well (or poorly) you perform on it, here’s a fact for you: unless you’re reading this in a sterilized Antarctic research station, there is a spider in your personal space, this spider is aware of you, the giant, but you are not aware of it. We hate spiders (don’t we?) no matter how tiny or invisible. But fear not, this test will take your mind off the spiders, as well as all that fun cosmic radiation your bones, brain, and sweetbreads marinated in the last time you flew in an airliner.
Note, there are no wrong answers, only “right” answers and *interesting* answers. Be interesting, be beautiful.
1. What’s the best way to begin a personal essay?
A. Deep self-exploration.
B. Call a relative you resent.
C. Recall childhood memories.
D. Eat Oreos and misplace a thin sliver of your life.
2. “Essay” comes from a word meaning
B. To say.
C. To weigh.
D. Lighter colored pigeons.
3. A man without legs is:
A. A cripple.
B. More down to Earth.
C. A metaphor for something.
4. How many fingers was I holding up when I wrote this?
B. All of them.
C. The question offends me.
5. True or false: you are skimming this. Circle one: T F
6. Men with beards:
A. Are statistically socialists.
B. Wrote this.
C. Control 79% of the observable universe.
D. Should only wear sweaters.
7. Eating a flag is ____________________.
8. One day you walked around your neighborhood for a good ten minutes not realizing there was a living wasp in your left shoe, ensconced in the narrow cushion of space between your instep and the sole. The wasp flew out (its spindly limbs and the greenhouse chitin of its wings amazingly undamaged) the instant you removed your shoe. Although you weren’t harmed, it took you a few hours to feel at home again in your own skin. If you had the sense to understand omens, you’d have realized:
A. It meant your eventual death will sneak up on you.
B. Things are never as bad as we might fear.
C. Nature is not always red in tooth, claw, or stinger.
D. You’re still hung up on how the wasp got there.
9. True or false: It’s possible to “waste” “time.” Circle one: T F
10. Short response: A question mark resembles an Assyrian sickle sword, but don’t let that distract you. Minimum 50 words (but aim for shorter):
11. True or false: the word “true” has the same Proto-Indo-European root as “tree,” and this is a relaxing fact. Circle one: T F
12. So far you’ve given all the right answers. Name at least three things wrong with this statement. ______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
13. Gargoyles are _______________ and represent what we could be if we could ever manage to step outside of our need for _____________.
14. How many dates before you allow a sexy sentence to take you to bed?
D. Refer to my answer to question #4.
15. Name someone you would like to show this essay to. What did they do to/for you? _______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
16. Jean Paul-Sartre is:
B. The idea of a dead man.
C. I can’t discern tables from propositions.
17. Scale of 1-10, minimum 3, how many sequels to this text would you consume? ___________
18. Name three annoying friends who remind you of post-Modernism. ___________________________________________________________________________________________
19. When a tree falls and no one’s around:
A. It’s still true.
B. Sound waves still exist, duh.
C. The real question is why it fell.
D. Suddenly I can see tonight’s moon from my window.
20. Which of these statements is most true:
A. The Appalachian accordion snake is a fearsome predator because it can elongate its body to double its striking range.
B. The Appalachian accordion snake’s one major shortcoming as apex predator is that its prey is alerted to its approach by the sounds of Paris.
21. I once built a cerement of pine straw for a dead mockingbird.
A. Nothing about this was pointless.
B. It was at sunset.
C. No one saw me or would have cared.
D. Wind nudged the bird’s flight feathers as if trying to wake a sleeping friend.
22. Lyric essays are: ___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________and yet significant.
23. What I can never understand:
24. This is not an entrance, this is not an exit. What is this? ____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
25. Words that make you feel safe:
A. Small reasons to be unafraid.
B. Little treasures.
C. Just another set of nice things you can’t take with you.
26. Name one thing you’ve unlearned since beginning to read this text: ___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
27. Describe the obsidian doll’s eyes of the spider from our nightmares. __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________but it wasn’t so horrible.
28. Yes or no. Is it day where you are? ______
29. True or false: I am you in this essay. Circle one: T F
30. True or false: I have always been honest. Circle one: T F
31. List all the occasions in your life you’ve felt like a seagull in an oilspill. _________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
32. Lyric essays are:
A. Sometimes a real thing.
B. Intentionally confusing.
C. That one cool kid who was the first in his/her school to one-strap a backpack.
D. Flies that can’t (or refuse to) find their way out of an open window.
33. Learning to write is most like:
A. Waiting for a pear to ripen.
B. Flounder gigging; no one really knows a damn thing about it except the experts.
C. Googling flounder gigging, which takes you to a bizarre site with a horrendous design that can make eyes bleed.
D. Building a railroad in a snowstorm. Why would you attempt this? Everyone else knew better, now look, fifteen workers dead of frostbite and the union up your ass.
D. All and none at once.
34. Draw a stick figure in the space below, go on, I’ll wait.
36. If you did not draw anything for #34, please feel free to use the space below to explain just why your personal time is so precious _________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
38. True or false, it bothers you just a little that #37 is blank. Circle one: T F
39. If you’re still reading this, please indicate the reason why:
A. I’m a principled reader.
B. It isn’t so bad.
C. Someone told me to.
D. To spite the writer who probably wants me to stop reading.
40. If you’re not in fact a perfect unique snowflake, you might at least be:
A. A fiddler crab with an above-average sized pincer, one that’s just big enough to scare off your rivals without tipping your whole body over.
B. An airplane that takes off with only a single passenger: an elderly Turkish man who wants to see the wonders of Madagascar before he dies (again, you’re the airliner, not the old man, ignore him).
C. A bronze-colored Statue of Liberty in a parallel dimension where corrosion doesn’t exist.
D. A soccer player who comes onto the pitch as a sub in the 73rd minute. You lose your left shoe, get a yellow card for holding up the game while fixing your laces, and then you play a lackluster quarter hour (the commentators call you “rubbish”) before falling ass-backward into the opposing box and butt-bumping a loose ball in for the game winner past a goalie who’s watching helplessly with a face like “whaaaat?” and suddenly his face is an Internet meme and your ass is a hero.
41. True or false: a good man is hard to find. Circle one: T F
42. Wombats. What’s the deal with them? __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
43. True or false: you’re dead, an ex-person, to people you haven’t seen in years. Circle one: T F
44. Which are good reasons to write a poem? Check all the following that apply.
45. True or false, we like structure and Botticelli, but sometimes it’s fun to write Picasso. Circle one: T F
46. The hardest part about figuring out what to write about is:
A. The agony of choice; that there’s so much to write about, so little time.
B. We feel the need to ask permission before writing, even permission of ourselves.
C. We labor in the shadow of giants.
D. We’re trying to keep pace with our own futures.
47. Outline below your plan to becoming famous, and then outline your plan for how, once famous, you’ll deal with the fanatic who wants to clone you from the root of one of your pre-molars, and yes, they brought pliers with them: ________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
48. True or false, the revolution will be televised, just not on a channel your package provides. Circle one: T F
49. Short response: write in the final joke of this essay, and make it a good one: _____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
50. What’s the best way to end a personal essay?
A. With a strong image.
B. With a “wise statement” that ties up the whole thing in a neat bow, the sort of bow that would denote that a cartoon character otherwise identical to her male counterpart is female.
C. Circle back to the beginning.
D. Make it heartrending, make the reader think it was a trap designed specifically for them, show them their heart, and then pass the heart back, planting a few pecks (for luck) on the spurting tubes of the ventricle. Wipe your blood-stained face off with an aloe-treated tissue.
© Jonathan Duckworth
[This piece was selected by Valerie O’Riordan. Read Jonathan’s interview]
Jonathan Louis Duckworth received his MFA from Florida International University. His fiction, poetry, and non-fiction appears in New Ohio Review, Fourteen Hills, PANK Magazine, Thrice Fiction, Cha, Superstition Review, and elsewhere. This is his second appearance with the Forge Literary Magazine.