In Banned Book Writing Prompts, a new series in Teachers & Writers Magazine, we aim to push back against the growing movement to censor what students can read and to show what happens when we enthusiastically embrace banned works rather than fear them. You can read an introduction to this series by Susan Karwoska here, and you can find more Banned Book Writing Prompts here.
When I was 15, my family and I moved from Akron, Ohio, to Columbia, South Carolina. That same year, I discovered Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower about a lonely 15-year-old boy named Charlie who has finally found people who understand him. To add to the romance of it all, it was an epistolary novel. Charlie was pouring his heart out in anonymous letters to a stranger while I was pouring my feelings out on diaryland.com—the only place I felt safe being vulnerable. I wanted intimacy as much as I was wary of it.
Charlie was wading through childhood traumas, what it meant to love for the first time, a friend’s suicide, the death of an aunt, abuse, alcoholism, PTSD, siblings he didn’t understand, a mental health crisis, queerness, masturbation, consent, and what it was to find himself in books. But what hit me most was that Charlie was simply trying to accept the life he’d been given. It struck me as a noble pursuit. Heroic even. From Charlie, I learned to love the Smiths and that accepting one’s life requires making choices. “We accept the love we think we deserve,” is how Charlie put it. He also taught me that accepting one’s life doesn’t preclude change. It would be a couple of years before I felt like I was living a life that felt parallel to Charlie’s. I felt too much, turned inward too much, and like him my favorite book always tended to be “the last one I read.”
Like Charlie and his friends, my friends and I made and exchanged mix CDs which were only ever two variations on a theme: subtext or vibes. We listened to Sublime’s “What I Got” and “Garden Grove” on repeat and got high while Ty drove us around every inch of backroads with all the windows down, making the whole world throb and South Carolina beautiful to me for the first time. It wore nothing but its trees, miles of dark except our headlights, even our funny bones relaxed in the sap-thick heat, and it was like the iconic scene when Charlie leans out the car and yells, “I feel infinite.”
That was the moment when my sense of belonging to other people clicked—and if not for having read The Perks of Being a Wallflower, I don’t know if I would have been able to recognize it as it was happening. It was one of the first times I was able to directly connect what a story could do to a single person. I remember picking up my pen and wondering, could I do that, too?
Writing Prompt 1
Dear friend, I am writing to you because she said you listen and understand and didn’t try to sleep with that person at that party even though you could have. Please don’t try to figure out who she is because then you might figure out who I am, and I really don’t want you to do that. I will call people by different names or generic names because I don’t want you to find me. I didn’t enclose a return address for the same reason. I mean nothing bad by this. Honest. I just need to know that someone out there listens and understands and doesn’t try to sleep with people even if they could have. I need to know that these people exist. I think you of all people would understand that because I think you of all people are alive and appreciate what that means. At least I hope you do because other people look to you for strength and friendship and it’s that simple. At least that’s what I’ve heard. So, this is my life. And I want you to know that I am both happy and sad and I’m still trying to figure out how that could be.—from The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Imagine someone you only know from afar. In any genre, write to them divulging your innermost desires. What do you hope for? What do you fear? Who do you love that you haven’t told?
Writing Prompt 2
It’s like when my doctor told me the story of these two brothers whose dad was a bad alcoholic. One brother grew up to be a successful carpenter and never drank. The other brother ended up being a drinker as bad as his dad was. When they asked the first brother why he didn’t drink, he said that after he saw what it did to his father, he could never bring himself to even try it. When they asked the other brother, he said that he guessed he learned how to drink on his father’s knee. So, I guess we are who we are for a lot of reasons. And maybe we’ll never know most of them. But even if we don’t have the power to choose where we come from, we can still choose where we go from there. We can still do things. And we can try to feel okay about them.—from The Perks of Being a Wallflower
In any genre, write about someone (or yourself) who finds themselves at a crossroads. What is that crossroad? How did they get there? What choices lay before them? And what will they choose?
Hafizah Augustus Geter
Hafizah Augustus Geter is a Nigerian U.S. writer born in Zaria, Nigeria, and raised in Akron, Ohio, and Columbia, South Carolina. Her debut memoir, The Black Period: On Personhood, Race, and Origin (Random House, 2022), is a New Yorker Magazine Best Book of 2022, a Good Morning America Anticipated Book, winner of a 2023 Lambda Literary Award for LGBTQ Nonfiction, and winner of the 2023 PEN Open Book Award. She is the author of the poetry collection Un-American (Wesleyan University Press, 2020), an NAACP Image Award and PEN Open Book Award finalist. Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Bomb Magazine, Boston Review, The Believer, The Paris Review, The Funambulist, and Harper's Bazaar, among others. She is a literary agent at Janklow & Nesbit and lives in Brooklyn, NY.