All-Time Favorite Writing Prompts

To round out this year of blogging about writing prompts, I polled writers and writing teachers for their favorite writing prompts–generally, simple prompts that have been useful to them as writers, students, and teachers. One such prompt that I found extremely useful in my early days of writing was, “Write about an obsession.” From this straightforward suggestion, I learned a lot about what can drive a compelling story.

Some of these prompts are accessible and instructive; others offer wonderfully evocative images and ideas. For ease of reference, I’ve grouped the prompts into several categories, but certainly some would fit into multiple boxes. It is my hope that these twenty-nine prompts–some specific, some quite open-ended–will help you jump-start any stalled works-in-progress and generate lots and lots of new material.Continue Reading

Round-Down: The Black and White Business of Confronting Racism in Literature

eric garner protests nyc

Like most Americans, I’ve been stunned the last few months by the verdicts in Ferguson and New York. Tens of thousands of protestors, black, white and brown, have taken to the streets and to social media to voice their protest and outrage at the implicit message received from these verdicts that black lives don’t matter—but who is putting pen to paper in attempts to record such moments in literature?

I ask this question as a young white poet at UNC Wilmington—a city that is no stranger to racial tension and violence. This semester, I took a graduate-level poetry workshop called “Gazing In, Gazing Out” where we discussed poetry under two lenses: that which speaks more confessionally and personally versus that which speaks more politically and socially consciously. The essential question that arose from that class—from, I couldn’t help but notice, a room full of young, white writers—was this: How can our art be political without being preachy? Rhetorical without turning into a rant? Sensitive to identities other than those we were born with?

But after reading a series of articles in the news lately about art and our current times, I can’t help but ask now: Who else has the luxury of debating this but white artists? And who else has more of a responsibility to step up to the challenge now more than ever?Continue Reading

Seven Under One Hundred

Baby with a Goat CartThere are a lot of age-based lists of writers out there. A lot. Of. Lists. Here’s another one.

Jake Strand, 34, after twelve years in the corporate world, recently found the courage to apply to MFA programs. He didn’t think he’d get in, but he did. His writing is extraordinary. In six years, when his first novel, Lick the Toad, is published, it will tear your heart to little pieces. It will be your favorite book. Right now, he and his wife are figuring out if they can both afford to move to Iowa. If she stays behind to work, it would strain their marriage. He’s not sure this is worth it.

Gladys Hollinghurst, 82, was an English major until she met her husband. That was a different era, and although she’ll never regret the time she spent raising her children, she does wish she’d done something sooner with the novel manuscript she’s been writing and rewriting for the past few decades. Her husband would have been scandalized, of course. He died three years ago, and that’s when she decided to make a go of it. The publisher who finally took a chance on a debut by an eighty-two-year-old is, rather than hiding Josie’s age, making a bit of a fuss about it. She finds this slightly embarrassing.

Emma Lopez, 13, has just written her first poems, her first real poems, in purple pen in a Moleskine notebook, starting on the last page and working her way forward. She mostly writes in study hall. She will spend the next twelve years working on her craft, and will almost have a book-length manuscript ready before the MS diagnosis. Ten years later, she’ll be well enough to revisit the manuscript and submit it to a few contests. She will be runner-up in two of them. Her first collection will appear when she is 40 years old. It will, unfortunately, be her only collection. But my God, those poems.Continue Reading

Triangular Relationships

Kathleen Skeels

Kathleen Skeels

In a previous blog post, I mentioned my difficulty with conflict and tension.  For this reason, I love triangular relationships, which bring up conflicting desires, competing loyalties, and dilemmas. All the things that make a juicy story go. When I was just starting out writing fiction, when my writing tended to be a formless blob and I learned that good writing needs a shape, a design, I turned to the idea of things happening in threes, and then I turned to triangles. As I learned along the way, there are many, many ways you might use triangles in your fiction.Continue Reading

The Ploughshares Round-Down: The Right Way to Write

salem witchAs the year wraps up, I’ve been collecting articles that encourage writers to trust ourselves: To find our own practices for creativity, or shun the idea of practices altogether. To choose between quick first drafts or taking more time, based on what works in the moment. To define success case-by-case rather than comparing our work to someone else’s. These articles ask, “Is there a right way to write?” And the answer, of course, is no.

It’s almost strange that such reminders are necessary–that creatives are so prone to Impostor Syndrome. But despite our aptitude for invention and world-building, despite frequent, wild leaps into formless voids, we’re easily convinced that the “real world” is the one we’re not allowed to explore or map–the one in which we have no right to name or define, or to even call ourselves “writers” or “artists.”Continue Reading

The Abstract Mathematics Behind Freelance Writing

Marey_-_birdsAbout two and a half months into new motherhood, looking to get back into the swing of things, I applied to several blogging gigs. The editor at one publication, with whom I had been in contact in the past, emailed back almost immediately, saying she thought the rates might be a bit low for me. She did want me to know, however, that they were hiring for another position that paid a bit more.

What followed was a lengthy back-and-forth—10+ emails—in which I asked about rates, frequency, word count, the proportion of pitched pieces to assigned pieces, etc. I agonized for days over what I should do. In the end, I decided against the gig I’d initially applied for and took on the alternative the editor had suggested to me.

But I swear, it wasn’t about the money.Continue Reading

The Ploughshares Round-Down: “Not Everything We Need Is In Ourselves”

B1TRDNaIYAAYGDo Creation is often imagined as inherently isolated and intimate: a Walden Pond-esque activity improved by seclusion and destroyed by wifi, phone calls, and . . . well, friends. So I’ve been thrilled this month to see a few books being celebrated for challenging the Lone Genius Myth: Walter Isaacson’s The InnovatorsJoshua Wolf Shenk’s Powers of Two, and Stephen Johnson’s How We Got to Now. All three contradict the myth by emphasizing the creative significance of collaboration, connection, and incremental societal change.

Many of us have been enticed at some point by the Lone Genius Myth: wanting to believe that the world’s significant successes were achieved by a creator who was holed up in a spare room with only a beaker, a cup of coffee, or a pen for company. Such romantic scenes get perpetuated by author interviews and bite-sized bios that leave out any of the banal details that would mar them. But why are we drawn to this myth in the first place? Why do we want it to be true?

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The Tangible, The Visceral

Hieronymus Bosch (c.1450-1516)

Hieronymus Bosch (c.1450-1516)

Touch is the sense common to all species. So wrote Aristotle in Historia Animalum and De Anima. And so is the premise for the art show Ann Hamilton: the common S E N S E, which I’ve been helping out with here in Seattle, and which explores the sense of touch and our relationship to nature, as well as our ability to be touched, emotionally and intellectually, through the private act of reading.

This got me thinking about the importance of touch in writing. Like the sense of smell, touch is a tad neglected when compared to the senses we gravitate toward first: the visual and the auditory. But think about how connected you’ve felt to a text when the author captures a particular tactile sensation or visceral reaction? How do those moments create emotional and intellectual resonance?Continue Reading

You’re So Vain, You Probably Think this Post is About You

mirror 1A friend once asked if I’d based the guinea pig (mentioned, but offstage) in my first novel on his daughter’s imaginary friend (of whom I’d never heard tell). In his defense: they had the same, unusual name. In my defense: ?!@&?#*%?

Maybe people want novels to be true. Maybe they want to be in those novels. Or maybe they’re terrified of this same thing—of having their secrets exposed. But all authors get asked if we’ve “based the characters on real people”—something that in my experience is actually extremely rare. So w­hat happens when friends and family convince themselves that they’re the ones you’ve written about? I asked a few friends to weigh in with their juiciest stories of supposed identity theft.

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What’s Done is Done is Done Again

yawnAs a creative writing instructor, I get asked two questions more than any others. The first is easy enough to answer: “How do I find time to write?” There’s no secret here—set a schedule and get to your desk. The second question, however, continues to stump me, both as a writer and as a teacher. “How do I know when I’m finished?” This question seems as open as it is insoluble, and yet we writers need to tackle it if we’re ever to move past our first attempts.

During my stint teaching academic writing at a university, my undergrad students never asked me how to know whether their essays were complete. The answer was quite simple—they’d work until the deadline, hand it in, and that was it. My students worked hard, and they cared about the success of their arguments and the grades they received. They just didn’t have the luxury of worrying whether or not their papers were complete.

Still, they learned the necessity of revision and how to diagnose the effectiveness of their arguments. To help them do so, I devised a list of five aphorisms to consider before turning in their work. The list aimed to help identify lazy thinking, which inevitably leads to lazy writing. We memorized them as a group and used them as we provided feedback for rough drafts throughout the semester. I’ve found these truisms equally helpful for my own creative work, and I hope they’ll do the same for you. Continue Reading