For Those About To Write (We Salute You) #2: Prompts!

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For Those About To Write (We Salute You) will present a writing exercise to the Ploughshares community every few weeks. We heartily encourage everyone reading to take part!

Picture 5Alrighty friends, it’s been two weeks since we kicked things off by putting pen(cil) to paper—how did everyone do?

I was consistent, for the most part. Even when I could only manage a few sentences, it felt good to commit to the process. I forgot on only a couple of days, which was frustrating, but I believe the best way to support a new habit is to accept the fact that things aren’t always going to go as planned—and to keep barreling through in spite of the hiccups.

As a little addendum to this exercise, I dug through a dusty closet shelf and pulled out some of the stacks (and stacks) of composition books I’ve filled intermittently over the years; flipping through at random was a trip. I was blown away not just by happenings, both major and minor, that I had completely forgotten about, but also how deeply they affected me at the time. Heart-bursting highs! Hugely upsetting (and quite unsettling) lows! Confusion! Resolution!  Mundanity galore! It’s remarkable how many of these details from my very own life would have been lost to the ages had I not been taking notes.

So I propose that we keep on keeping on putting pen(cil) to paper, in addition to all the other writing we do this year. Three weeks in means we’re well on our way to establishing this as routine—we might as well rage on, right?

And on that note, it’s time to kick off the next step in our creative awakening.

#2: Prompts!

Now, I will admit that I’m pretty rusty in the fiction department. It’s been almost a decade since I got an MA in creative writing, and conjuring up stories just isn’t as easy as it used to be. Or, to be more accurate, it’s not easy at all. It feels impossible. I don’t know where to begin, so I don’t begin—and not beginning is, of course, incredibly ineffective.

This is where prompts come into the plan. Fresh out of ideas? Not a problem! These short exercises will help build momentum from a standstill. Here’s where we have a chance to escape that echo chamber of self-reflection, to cast aside our daily documentation of actual goings-ons, and to go wild making stuff up.


-Something to write with/on. Computer, pen(cil) and paper—whatever works best for you.


-Tackle at least ten (10) prompts in the next twenty-eight days, when I’ll be posting our next exercise. Anything above and beyond that is gravy.

So how does it work? Simple! Below are 27 prompts. Read ‘em all. Pick one that gives you a bit of a thrill, sit down, and start writing. Repeat.

Don’t think too hard about these; there’s no need for structure, for coherency, for anything other than making something from nothing. It’s very likely that afterwards you’ll want to burn whatever it is you put down. This is normal. Keep at it, and there’s a good chance you’ll happen upon a thought that seems worth expanding upon, or a turn of phrase you’ll save for later. That’s valuable stuff, even if it takes some trudging to find it.

There are millions of other prompts out there, too—this is only a tiny sample. So if you have any that have served you well, share them in the comments!

Time commitment: 

-Allow *at least* ten (10) minutes per prompt.

Totally doable. Easy peasy. And if you’ve got another story you’re currently working on, consider this cross-training. We’re getting in shape here.

And now, in no particular order …

(1) Write down everything you can think of related to a particular color. Use that list of words to describe a room. Write a scene that takes place within that room.

(2) Someone finds an unopened letter in a library book. What book is it? What does the envelope look like? What does he/she choose to do with it, and why?

(3) “If anyone asks, tell them we’re doing fine … “

(4) Describe the nitty gritty of a photograph that you have in your possession, and the circumstances surrounding the moment when it was taken.

(5) In On Writing Short Stories, Andre Dubus discusses the habit of writing. “‘You must know what a glass of beer feels like in her hand … you must know everything.'” Start a story with a woman holding a glass of beer. Describe every possible detail about her/her surroundings/why she is there.

(6) Bob Dylan is an amazing source for narrative inspiration. Start a story around the opening line from Visions of Johanna: “Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet.”

(7) There’s a Swedish dating site that connects people based on the leftovers they’ve got on hand. Describe the contents of two fridges; then describe the people those fridges belong to; then describe the date.

(8) She put her hand on his thigh.

(9) “How do you know my name?” “Because you are wearing a name-tag.”

(10) Read James Richardson’s Aphorisms and Ten Second Essays. Pick one that resonates with you and run with it.

(11) A flock of birds emerges in unison from a tree, and flies away. Who is watching them?

(12) Write a sincere letter of apology to someone who’s been wronged.

(13) Why would an antiques dealer leave town? (via)

(14) Read about the Swampy Cree naming poems. Write your own name at the top of the page, then take down anything and everything that comes to mind related to it.

(15) There just wasn’t enough time.

(16) Build a story around a very distinct scent. Describe it in detail, then let the narrative unfold. (via)

(17) Sweat prickled under my arms and in the gentle curve at the small of my back.

(18) He stepped over a pile of discarded clothes strewn across the sidewalk.

(19) Write a story composed entirely of dialogue between two characters.

(20) She said that wearing big, dangly earrings put her “in real dialogue with the world.”

(21) Write a note to present-self from your future-self. Include advice, wisdom, guidance, and reassurance.

(22) Two friends are dining together, and when the bill for the meal arrives the waiter has left hand-written a note at the bottom. What does it say? (via)

(23) Slowly—almost imperceptibly—the mist turned to rain.

(24) Her bag was empty.

(25) I flicked the Bic with my right thumb—once, twice, three times—until the cigarette finally caught on the fourth.

(26) Write a story composed entirely of verbs. “Sleep. Wake. Walk. Piss. Brush. Drink. Wait. Sigh.” Etc.

(27) It was a dark and stormy night …

(special h/t to Erin Wheeler for her suggestions!)