Sonja Livingston’s “Nota Bene: On the Bodies of Poor Boys”

One of my favorite essays from 2019 was Nota Bene: On the Bodies of Poor Boys by Sonja Livingston. It’s a short read, but dense, lovely, rhythmic, and heart pinching. She’s also one of my favorite writers.

Here’s her author bio:

SONJA LIVINGSTON is the author of four books of nonfiction, including her latest collection of lyric essays, The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotion, and, Ghostbread, an award-winning memoir of urban and rural child poverty. Her work is widely anthologized and taught in creative writing and social justice classes around the country. Sonja teaches in the MFA program at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Sonja Livingston’s Essay Collection, The Virgin of Prince Street.

I also think that her essay is a helpful model, and I’ve put together an exercise in reference it.

Writing Exercise:

Tell a story about a family member or a friend or yourself, but identify them by a feature of their demographic or experience rather than by name or their personal relationship to you. Examples could be “Midwestern fathers” or “asthmatic children” (be sensitive to how those of any given demographic want to be described). Connect that person to broader themes and conditions. Anticipate the possibility of overgeneralizing, perhaps through internal contradiction (i.e., “Sick cats swallow their medicine loudly, fitfully. Except when they don’t.”), or assuming an exaggerated, unreliable persona (“if someone tells you that you’re wrong, you can dismiss them easily. They don’t know what they’re talking about.”) 

This kind of exercise could easily hit the wrong note, however, so it might help to do a sensitivity check with those the essay represents.

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