I'd be happy to come to your book group in person or via Skype to talk about the book and the writing process.
Here are some Potential Discussion Questions and I welcome your questions.
The following questions can be used in the classroom, by book groups and spiritual groups, and by solo readers seeking to deepen their engagement with the material. Many of the questions can serve as writing prompts for students in creative or expository writing workshops or gender or multicultural studies classes. Similarly, other groups might want to allow a few minutes for members to write their responses to select questions before opening them up to discussion. This will enrich the conversation and enhance the likelihood that all will participate. Some questions will intrigue you more than others. Feel free to pick and choose.
“The Death of Fred Astaire”
To what extent does your life—its shape? its texture?—feel as if it’s following an inherited script? To what extent does it feel chosen? Improvised?
To what extent have your romantic decisions been linked to your parenting decisions?
What are your early experiences of feeling different or encountering differences in others? How have these experiences affected your choices and values?
Does this essay give you any insight into how people make difficult decisions—the relative importance of research, logic, and emotion. What is your own style of decision-making and are you satisfied with it?
How do you interpret the tone of the essay’s ending? Is Lawrence at peace with her decision? Do you as reader have enough evidence to know whether you support her decision?
To what extent were your parents and grandparents restricted by the gender roles of their times? How did they react to those restrictions and were they able to nevertheless lead lives that seemed rich and meaningful?
What does Lawrence intend with her final phrase—“unbecoming heart”?
We live in an age—in the United States, at least—when many children are encouraged to express their deepest feelings. Do you approve of this trend or do you think it has gone too far?
If you were granted permission to “pour out your heart” to a particular person or perhaps to some hidden part of yourself, what would you say? (I’d suggest you write this one out—with no obligation to share it with anyone.)
“King For A Day”
The Drag King workshop held in the early 90’s taught its participants how to behave like stereotypical males of that time. To what extent do those stereotypes seem accurate today?
Why is Lawrence sickened to realize that she never left a rest room without checking her smile?
Which aspects of your own gendered behavior are innate? Which are socially constructed? And what evidence do you have for your answers?
“Fits and Starts: Notes on (Yet) Another Writer’s Beginning”
To what extent did you identify with Lawrence’s early alliance with her father? How has your life been shaped by role models or lack thereof?
Consider a painting, a book, a piece of music, or some other work of art that made a strong impression on you as a youth, and discuss why it spoke to you.
This essay is more associative than chronological. Why do you think the author chose this approach here? In the end, did you feel the parts formed a satisfying whole? How would you summarize what Lawrence wants to convey here?
While watching her young son, Lawrence is reminded that much of “adult behavior is an elaborately disguised, cleaned-up version of fears, rages, and longings” we had as children (46). Discuss whether you agree.
Lawrence questions her pleasure in her son’s stoicism while getting stitches. Discuss your own comfort of discomfort when you see people of all ages step out of the prescribed behavior for their gender.
“Karl Will Bring a Picnic”
Make a list of associations you have with a beloved (or despised) relative. Do they cluster around certain themes as Uncle Karl does for Lawrence?
On p. 60 Lawrence says that “like many of the once bedazzled, I became devoted to searching for the hidden smudges and nicks in the shiny gifts bestowed upon me. I began to consider their costs.” Do you identify? Is this process pathological? Healthy? Inevitable?
Examine the messages inherent in the folklore of your family. What stories are left out?
Have you ever found yourself considering the darker side of your devotion to people or causes?
Lawrence conveys Karl’s character through both his typical traits as well as his inconsistencies. Create a true or fictional character sketch by highlighting someone’s inconsistencies.
“Fun is what you make yourself; otherwise it’s entertainment” (65). Are you content with the balance of fun and entertainment in your life?
“Dogs and Children”
Why do you think Lawrence was disdainful of Corky’s desire to please?
If you’re a parent, to what extent does your parenting match the fantasies you had?
How much of your life feels “propelled by love?””
“Andee’s Fiftieth and The Way We Live Now”
Is the “typical American family” alive and well in your circles?
Do you buy that Lawrence’s generation is any more “caught in the middle” than other generations? To what extent does everyone struggle with “what gets passed on, what left behind” (66)?
Does Lawrence’s assessment of her cohort at the brunch seem fair-minded, or are you more inclined to see the people assembled as she imagines her father would—as “sad sacks and weirdos”?
In light of the current trend toward decluttering, Lawrence’s celebration of “other people’s junk” is surely controversial. Look around your house. Which things are gifts? Do they create a feeling bond? Which help with your “soul work” by connecting you to “ancestors and to living brothers and sisters in all the many communities that claim our hearts” (97)?
In this essay we find a big dose of Lawrence’s characteristic mix of humor and seriousness. Do you think it works? Why or why not?
Endings are always a crucial spot for understanding an author’s intentions. What ideas or feelings does Lawrence convey by her ending to “Always Someone”?
Reflect on your most and least courageous behavior. Can courage be cultivated? Is it transferrable as Lawrence hopes?
What activities do you engage in that create a sense of pleasurable single-mindedness? That make time stop still?
“The Third Hottest Pepper in Honduras”
Take an honest look at your circle of friends. Are you satisfied with the extent to which you’ve moved out of your comfort zone?
What insights does this essay provide into how to improve public education?
Why did Lawrence title this essay as she did? What idea does the title emphasize?
What is the tone of this essay’s ending? What is Lawrence’s attitude toward her current position?
“On the Mowing”
One critic called this essay the collection’s spiritual center. Why might this be so?
Lawrence says we return to familiar places to “measure our fickle selves against their steadfastness” (142). What else might we gain (or lose) by returning to familiar places?The relatively new genre of “creative nonfiction” uses the tools of the poet or fiction writer to convey facts and tell true stories. In this essay, more than most here, Lawrence includes factual information. Does her melding of autobiographical material with geographic and historical material form a satisfying whole? Do you have a preference for one or the other?
Is “grief anger’s more difficult sister” for you? Or is it the other way around?
To what extent do you agree with Lawrence’s claim that “few of us are immune to the premium our culture puts on self-sufficiency, and yet, when we open ourselves up to being helped, the rewards are many” (159). Do you find it easier to give or receive? To what extent does accepting help oblige you to reciprocate?
How do you interpret the essay’s last line, “Or so I’d like to believe.” What experiences in your life have really changed you?
What exactly is Lawrence satirizing in this essay? What exactly is she celebrating?
“My June Wedding”
While Lawrence considers herself privileged in numerous ways, when she experiences “not merely approval, but celebration” of her love and commitment, she is deeply moved. She thought of it as so delicious and so unlikely that she hadn’t “even allowed [herself] to want” it (169). Lawrence wrote this piece in 2004. Tolerance toward the LGBT community has increased dramatically. Has acceptance and celebration increased as much? Do people have an obligation to celebrate diverse cultures? How do you decide how far you want to extend your celebratory rituals?
“What Can You Do?”
As mentioned above, Lawrence experiences very little if any overt hostility or discrimination because of her unusual family; however, in this essay she alludes to a painful invisibility (181). Do you understand why such invisibility would be painful? What other populations might suffer from the same pain?
What insights into the grieving process does this essay provide?
Which version of that firefly dance do you buy? Is Sandy talking to Leslie—or are the fireflies merely talking to each other?
This is the book’s most demanding essay. Each section’s connection to the previous one is not always initially apparent. It’s an essay that benefits from repeated readings as you discover the threads connecting the parts and the logic of Lawrence’s structure. Are you able to articulate the questions Lawrence is most interested in addressing here? If you looked back on the pivotal moments in your own education and development, what moments come to mind?
How have your own tastes in art and music changed over time?
How has your conception of the divine changed over time?
How important is it for you to feel creative?
This lengthy essay raises endless questions. Articulate one that grabs you by the neck.
“At the Donkey Hotel”
In what ways is this essay a fitting ending for the collection? Which of the book’s main themes does it echo? How might it be said to bring the book full circle?
It’s a truism in the writing world that characters don’t have to be likable but they do have to be sympathetic. Lawrence seems quite forthcoming about her own flaws—her resentments and pettiness, her selfishness and jealousies. Does this make her more or less sympathetic?
In what ways is your life inside the lines? What has been your most daring step outside the lines and how did it turn out?
How many children do you know who come from families “outside the lines”? How do these children fare? What does a child need to be happy, healthy, and prepared for life? How do you think family structures might continue to evolve?
Throughout this collection, Lawrence takes a hard look at the cost and benefits of having grown up before the second wave of feminism took hold. How might your life have been different had you come of age in a time with more—or less—rigid gender roles?
What common themes do you find threaded through this collection and where do you find them?
How would you characterize Lawrence’s way of seeing the world and of making meaning out of her experiences? What are the distinctive aspects of her writing style?
If you were asked to characterize Lawrence’s pre-occupations, would you call them sociological, psychological, or spiritual?