The poem “Autobiography in Five Short Chapters” by Portia Nelson appears in her book There’s a Hole in My Sidewalk: The Romance of Self-Discovery. The speaker in the poem describes walking along the street, falling into an unmarked crater in the sidewalk and having a difficult time getting out. This happens several times, once by accident, again after pretending not to see it, another time after studying it carefully. Eventually the speaker walks around the crater, and then, in the last “short chapter,” decides to go down a different street.
There is always something ridiculous about a self-destructive habit. Today, have a little fun with the ridiculousness of being self-destructive by expanding on this “autobiography.”
The story of the crater could have a kazillion chapters. One for climbing over the safety barrier before falling in. Another about preparing for the dangerous street by packing splints and bandages for the inevitable injuries, or a headlamp and belay ropes in hopes of averting them. Certainly a chapter for taking a running, screaming swan-dive into the open crater. Perhaps a story of losing entire days walking around the crater, studying its myriad features in the changing light.
There would be conversations. An effort to convince the crater to fill itself up. Interactions with strangers and authorities over whether or not the crater should even exist. Nods and murmurs from the ring of faces peering down from the rim of the crater, telling each other the familiar news.
Write a story of self-destructive habits that unfolds as a cartoonish series of mistakes in the physical world, the kind of mistakes you’d think a person would only make once.
You can stick with the idea of falling into a crater in the sidewalk. Or you can use a different mistake—riding a current over a waterfall, stepping through a plate glass window, stubbing your toe on a rock in the living room, or lighting a candle that burns down the house. There are zillions of mistakes out there, just waiting to be made.
Decide on a “speaker.” You can use the autobiographical “I” like Portia Nelson does in her poem. Or you can invent any other person or creature to be the star of your story.
Finally describe all the reasonable and ridiculous ways the star of your story experiences the mistake—and the possibility of the mistake—over and over again.
You get to decide how the story ends.
If I was the star of the crater story, I would end it by climbing down one last time, nimbly and carefully, of course, because of knowing all the steps and handholds so well by now. At the bottom I’ll sit in my favorite corner, eat a couple of candy bars and lay a feather on the ground. The crater will fill behind me as I climb out. Thereafter, I’ll walk safely on every street.
However you decide to write your story, give it a title and be sure to write the date on it somewhere.