Vivian Faith Prescott: The Dunce Chair

At five years old I was sent to the dunce chair. Back in the day, my kindergarten teacher didn’t call it a “time-out” chair— it was a place for dummies. I’m not sure if I wore a pointy dunce hat or not, but I wouldn’t doubt it. It was the first week of kindergarten, which was held in the Episcopal Church in Wrangell, Alaska. I was deep in mid-story when the teacher asked me to be quiet. I continued talking. Likely I was telling my friends Dawn and Scotty about the strange happenings at my house. Momma and her friends were always talking about the flying saucers that came and went above Elephant’s Nose, the island out in front of town. A man named Einstein was helping them learn to fly the space ships. But he could only help them when they had their eyes closed.

After I was sent to the dunce chair I spent a half-hour turned away from the class staring at the cracks in the wall and the tapestries of Jesus (It was probably a needlework of Jesus talking story with people gathered around). Undeterred, I spent my time twisting my braids and thinking about yet another story. After all, at the age of five, I already knew a good story when I heard one, when I experienced one.

You’d think after spending time in the dunce chair I would’ve stopped telling stories. Actually, I almost did. After that day, I suffered from an acute sense of shyness. Instead, I started observing human behavior. I wondered why my friend Yoko could dance better than I could. I watched my big sister punch a boy for calling me names. I wondered why Momma and her weird friends said that orange Volkswagens were really dragons. I’d touched an orange Volkswagen and it didn’t bite me.

Had I been living in another culture, another time, I might’ve been encouraged to continue telling my story. In fact I might’ve been recognized as a promising storyteller. Some adult might’ve stepped forward and mentored me. But instead, I almost lost my courage. That’s why I’m telling you this story now, so that you can muster up the courage to tell your own story, whatever that may be. I don’t want you to have to sit in the dunce chair. Speak up. Tell it like it is. Tell it like it isn’t. But however you tell it, as a writer you must be able to train your brain to recognize a story or a poem.

I don’t know how many times I’ve been in a situation with another writer while something spectacular is going on around us and I’m the only one who takes out a notebook and starts writing. The other writer doesn’t. Maybe the other writer has a better memory than I do (or maybe he’s more polite). Sometimes when I overhear something really fascinating, I nearly jump out of my skin, Oh, oh, that’s a good one! It’s like the T-shirt says, “Oh, this is So going in my next novel.” It doesn’t matter if those words or images slinking across your brain aren’t a complete story, one with a beginning, middle, and end, or even a poem with deep insight.

Someday that note might work itself into a cohesive form. Besides if you don’t write it down it’ll be lost to someone else’s muse. Maybe mine. You should write it down.

No, I don’t mean you should text while driving. Find a safe place to pull over and write. It’s okay to rub your temple like Carnac the Magnificent and say to your friends, “Just a minute, there’s a poem coming.” It’s okay to pack a pencil and notebook with you everywhere you go (author Craig Childs does that). And right now I give you permission to go into a corner and pull out a chair and write something. Just write it down.

Vivian Faith Prescott is a fifth generation Alaskan living in Kodiak and Sitka, Alaska. She recently received an MFA from the University of Alaska. Vivian’s poetry has appeared in Yellow Medicine Review, Tidal Echoes, Cirque and elsewhere. She’s a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee and was recently awarded the Jason Wenger Award for Literary Excellence. Vivian’s first book of poetry, The Hide of My Tongue, will be published by Plain View Press in the spring of 2012. She also writes young adult and middle-grade fiction under the name L.K. Mitchell. Keeper of Directions, a middle-grade fantasy novel, will be published by Euterpe on January 6th, 2012. She blogs here and here, and she also tweets (@poet_tweet and @planet_alaska).

4 thoughts on “Vivian Faith Prescott: The Dunce Chair”

  1. Vivian, the secret reason why I love Carhartts so much is not because they're my fisherman uniform, but because there's always room for my mini-notebook in the left butt pocket, and a pen (or two) in the right hip pocket. When we finally meet, friend, we'll be scribbling notes right alongside each other!

    (Have you experienced some folks being uncomfortable with this? My friends are used to the "just a minute, let me write this down," but people less familiar have sometimes gotten edgy.)

    SO glad that little girl didn't stop telling stories!

  2. Tele, I think some people might be uncomfortable with me taking out my notebook. But my children and close family are used to it now. And I loved my MFA residency at UAA: everyone was scribbling in notebooks!

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