Uncategorized | July 08, 2011

Our website may not be the first place you’d turn for quizzes, but if you find yourself this summer, as I recently did, in a moldering motel room with a broken TV and a good friend, the questions below should come in handy. They’re taken from a mid-nineteenth-century album called Mental Photographs: an Album for Confessions of Tastes, Habits, and Convictions—a fascinating piece of ephemera that I examined during a recent trip to the American Antiquarian Society. The owner of such an album would ask his or her friends (and the society owns albums of this sort owned by both a man and a woman) to fill in their answers and insert a carte de visite photograph. You may not have lovely nineteenth-century penmanship or a handy card photo of yourself, but as a reader of TMR, surely you have a favorite poetess? Vanity Fair’s Proust Questionnaire derives from such confession albums: apparently Proust, throughout his life, loved these things. You can read his 1890 answers on (blush) Wikipedia.

Paging through the mental photographs contained in one of the Antiquarian Society’s albums, I could tell that the respondents had been aware of an audience, concocting funny or smart or pious answers not just for the album’s owner, but for whomever else might take the book up after they were through with it. But the intimacy of the album still stood in contrast to our twenty-first-century methods of broadcasting our tastes, habits, and convictions. Not as private as a letter or diary, not as public as Facebook, these mental photographs give tantalizing hints at their subjects’ personalities. What is your idea of happiness? the album asks, and a Mrs. Shoemaker answers, “A good home and a nice little husband.” The story implicit in that underscored little!

These kinds of questionnaires constitute my least favorite sort of creative writing exercise (e.g., “what’s in your character’s garbage can?”), but if you want to ask them of one of your characters, have at it.

Your favorite color?



Object in nature?

Hour in the day?

Season of the year?



Style of Beauty?

Names, Male and Female?



Piece of Sculpture?



Prose Authors?

Character in Romance?

____ in History?

Book to take up for an hour?

What Book (not religious) would you part with last?

What epoch would you choose to have lived in?

Where would you like to live?

What is your favorite amusement?

What is your favorite occupation?

What trait of character do you most admire in a man?

What trait of character do you most admire in a woman?

What trait of character do you most detest in each?

If not yourself, who would you rather be?

What is your idea of happiness?

What is your idea of misery?

What is your bête noire?

What is your dream?

What do you most dread?

What do you believe to be your distinguishing characteristics?

If married, what do you believe to be the distinguishing characteristics of your better-half?

What is the sublimest passion of which human nature is capable?

What are the sweetest words in the world?

What are the saddest words?

What is your aim in life?

What is your motto?