Johnny One-Arm

Thirteen years ago, nearly to the day, The New Yorker published a short story called “Asset” by David Foster Wallace. The story, a fictional Q&A in which the Qs are curiously (and brilliantly) excluded, subsequently appeared in a collection of Wallace’s stories entitled Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, also published in 1999. But it wasn’t until 2008, after the author’s death, that I came across “Asset.” And, since then, on numerous occasions, I’ve used the story as the basis for a writing prompt.



How it works is you first read aloud the opening paragraph of “Asset”:

“It’s the arm. You wouldn’t think of it as a asset like that would you. But it’s the arm. You want to see it? You won’t get disgusted? Well here it is. Here’s the arm. This is why I go by the name Johnny One-Arm. I made it up, not anybody being, like, hard-hearted—me. I see how you’re trying to be polite and not look at it. Go ahead and look though. It don’t bother me. Inside my head I don’t call it the arm I call it the Asset. How all would you describe it? Go on. You think it’ll hurt my feelings? You want to hear me describe it? It looks like a arm that changed its mind early on in the game when it was in Mama’s stomach with the rest of me. It’s more like a itty tiny little flipper, it’s little and wet-looking and darker than the rest of me is. It looks wet even when it’s dry. It’s not a pretty sight at all. I usually keep it in the sleeve until it’s time to haul it out and use it for the Asset. Notice the shoulder’s normal, it’s just like the other shoulder. It’s just the arm. It’ll only go down to like the titty-nipple of my chest here, see? It’s a little sucker. It ain’t pretty. It moves fine, I can move it around fine. If you look close here at the end there’s these little majiggers you can tell started out wanting to be fingers but didn’t form. When I was in her stomach. The other arm—see? It’s a normal arm, a little muscly on account of using it all the time. It’s normal and long and the right color, that’s the arm I show all the time, most times I keep the other sleeve pinned up so it don’t look to be even anything like a arm in there at all. It’s strong though. The arm is. It’s hard on the eyes but it’s strong, sometimes I’ll try and get them to arm wrestle it to see how strong it is. It’s a strong little flippery sucker. If they think they can stand to touch it. I always say if they don’t think they can stand touching it why that’s O.K., it don’t hurt my feelings. You want to touch it?”

Afterward, you begin to write a piece of prose or poetry about a character who, like Johnny One-Arm, has a handicap that becomes, in some way, an attribute, an asset. Though, unlike Johnny One-Arm, your character’s so-called handicap could be mental, emotional, or spiritual, rather than physical.