Tag Archives: creative nonfiction

A good prompt is hard to find

This post continues with Week 4 in a series of posts on topics that relate to writer’s residencies. See also Week 1: Preparing, Week 2: Make Writing Exercises Work for You, and Week 3: In Defense of Obstinacy. I started at Week 1 and am counting up.

drawing of a turkey running away from Thanksgiving

Now that’s creativity! CC image “Turkey Escape” via Mark Ahlness on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Ever come across writing exercises or suggestions online, and roll your eyes?

If you’ve spent any time working through your own blocks, chances are you’ve acquainted yourself with writing resources and how-to guides, and found any number of writing prompts. They usually fall into one of two categories: a) I’ve read/done this before; and b) what am I, five?

Maybe that second one’s just me. I can get snarky when I’m feeling stuck.

The third category, c) suggestions that we haven’t seen before and that do stimulate our curiosity, are less common. Copy them down and save them somewhere, because they are GOLD.

I was recently reminded how hard good writing prompts are to find, when I started my writing exercise experiment two weeks ago (you can find more info under Week 2). In fact, the process was so annoying that I inadvertently came up with some of my own prompts.

I didn’t set out to write a how-to, a list, or to be helpful to anyone beyond myself, frankly… but there it is. If you have seen any of these elsewhere, have mercy on a writer, and keep me in the dark.

Keep your writing prompts handy

A major lesson I learned is to always have a store of writing prompts, techniques, and suggestions at the ready. When I started my first day of the writing exercise experiment, I ran into a problem. The problem — this should surprise exactly no one, and sadly did surprise me — was that I needed writing exercises to start with. I’d been under the impression that I had a few lined up, which turned out to be wrong.

Looking for writing exercises threatened to derail the experiment before I was able to start. I had set limits on my time and word count for the exercises knowing how easily I slide down the rabbit-hole and lose sight of the original goal. Right out of the gate, I proved myself and my precautions right.

Well, the horse was out of the barn. That first day, I settled for a thematic starting point as quickly as I could. The second day, I allowed myself to put together a short list, based on ideas I found from other writing sources. Emphasis on short. The second week, I allowed myself to devise my own prompts.

Super bonus points: I can use these newly-invented prompts for the second fortnight of writing exercises. Ha!

My primary focus was on exercises that allowed me to get to know my main characters. You could set up your prompts to help develop setting, theme, or another facet of craft. Some of my questions form a kind of “interview” with the characters; others give me alternate ways of playing with the material. I hope some may be useful to you.

Writing exercise prompts for characters

      1. Food. We can take this theme many different ways. I have a scene in a hospital, after a child is born, and I described the meal there. The neat result of this was the way my notes illuminated the setting, AND added to my understanding of the character.
      2. Nightmares. I’ve seen plenty of writing exercise suggestions that ask us to pursue our/our characters hopes, goals, and dreams, and I thought this would be much more fun. What terrifies your character? What does your character react to with disgust, revulsion, or otherwise find awful beyond words? Do they experience literal nightmares? What about?
      3. Shame. What was your character’s most embarrassing experience?
      4. Music. As with food, this can be taken in different directions. What is your character’s favorite music (if any)? What instrument would your character play? What if they played a different instrument? What if they were an instrument?

I also messed with techniques, because I like to jog myself out of my stylistic ruts.

Techniques to change up your writing exercises

      1. Reveal the answers to any of the above (or other) questions using dialogue alone. No descriptors or actions, though tags (he said, she said) are allowed.
      2. Write (or re-write) a scene as a play or screenplay (dialogue and stage directions). This is useful if you find yourself stuck creating action in the narrative.
      3. Your character is being interviewed for the local newspaper. Write the article that results from that interview.
      4. Your character has won an award. What for? Describe the presentation/acceptance of the award.
      5. Write about your character as though they were the opposite sex. To make this extra difficult, choose one scene where they MUST be female or male (because we are confined by biological realities), and change the gender. Don’t just switch pronouns! Be honest with this and you may weirdly discover a whole other character (not to mention plot)!

My new problem is that now that I’ve gotten started on this meta-writing path, I’m in danger of developing so much new material, I already want to pretend the revision process does not exist.

What is your favorite way to stoke the creative fires?

Where to find your next story

Answer: everywhere

small person near the front wheel of a classic automobile

This won’t take a minute… CC image “The Mechanic…” courtesy of Kool Kats Photography on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

From the back, all I could see of her was a wild head of long, grayish-white curls.

“He died there, you know? So they didn’t want to treat him,” she was saying. “They were worried.”

Sitting in my chair further back in the room, I frowned. What?

The phone started ringing, and the mechanic behind the desk took a moment to put the call on hold. The woman barely let this slow her rate of conversation. “I can’t blame them,” she continued. “They would be after what happened last time.”

I was confused. A moment ago, they’d been talking about a $750 bill. Now someone was dead. Or he wasn’t? He was dead in the past… The verb tenses threw me.

“I’ve never been a religious person,” the woman said. “I didn’t know how to pray or anything. Never. But that’s how I learned that I had a gift. It was the accident that did it.”

I tried sneaking a glance at her out of the corner of my eye. Not for one moment did I want to risk being pulled into her conversational orbit. Nonetheless, my curiosity got the better of me. I might end up with a head of hair like that as I got older, if I didn’t cut it short. The woman was small and fine-boned, wearing a narrow, charcoal-gray coat. She kept her back to me, all her attention focused on the mechanic, who probably had been expecting the discussion to take a different tack.

I had breezed in a few minutes earlier, ready to pick up my car after an oil change. My transaction should have taken no longer than five minutes, but I had to wait my turn, since they were taking care of another customer when I arrived. I stifled my irritation. I too appreciated when the shop took time to explain a $750 bill to me.

Ever been there?

A perfect stranger feels the need to share, well, everything. At the time, this is less than ideal. However, if you’re a stuck creative, there are fringe benefits.

“I told him, you know, they’re concerned about your heart,” the woman was saying. “After all, you’d been dead for forty minutes. They had asked him to make a follow-up appointment to get his heart checked out,” she confided. “He’d never done that. I told him they need to put you under anesthesia for your tooth appointment, and that depresses your heart. You never got the tests. They’re worried you’re going to die again.”

By sheer willpower, I refused to meet the mechanic’s eye while this monologue unfolded. My ears, on the other hand, grew like Pinocchio’s nose. Now she was talking about the time she broke her neck… or was it nearly busted her artery?… they thought she wouldn’t live… or she’d be brain damaged. “And that’s how I learned I had the power of prayer,” she said.

The phone started ringing again. “Excuse me,” said the mechanic.

“Sure,” she said. He put two more calls on hold.

The woman wasn’t done.

“I was praying for him, praying for him, and finally I said, you know what? Just give this man a young man’s heart. That’s it. That’s all I could do.”

Another customer emerged from the back of the shop, exchanged greetings with the mechanic, and offered the woman a few chocolates from the bowl on the desk. I wondered whether he was her husband, but they seemed to be there on separate errands. I was trying to place pronouns… was she praying for the same friend who died? Was that before he died, or after?

“They made him take all these tests,” she continued. The mechanic, I could see in my peripheral vision, was leaning forward with his elbows on his knees. “They made him run, they hooked him up to all these machines, they kept on running tests over and over. You know? They couldn’t figure it out. Finally they had a specialist come in and tell him, ‘Sir, you have the heart of a young man’! That’s how I found out I had a gift.”

The woman’s thematic and tense switching was making me dizzy. I wanted her to keep talking, so I could figure out what she was talking about, while at the same time, I wanted her to wrap up, so I could get home. My fingers started to itch for a pen.

Life hands us people and situations like this all time. We’re actually on the way to do something else, or we want to talk to someone else, or we want an experience to end so that we can get on with our original plans. How unlucky, if we stay stuck in this mindset and let pig-headedness stomp all over our creativity. There are a million million different ways we can use our life experiences, ways our experiences can shape our stories, our visions, our music, our dance. Every creative act comes from somewhere, and sometimes, if we are stubborn, the universe needs to hold us hostage to get our attention. As with me at the mechanic’s shop.

Recognize opportunity

Sometimes, opportunity has a secret knock. The knock can be annoying. It’s interrupting us. But if we start paying attention, some of those knocks like to repeat themselves, like Morse code. They have meaning.

The ringing began again. “I’m sure you need to get that,” the other customer said, pointing to the phone.

The mechanic leaned back in gratitude to pick up the receiver. Meanwhile the woman turned to the other customer and started telling him about her son who rides BMX. He had called her up before doing a trick on a thirty-foot vertical ramp, to tell her what kind of injuries he could get from the jump. At this point, I was sure of only one thing: I wanted a tape recorder in my hand.

I knew I was losing glorious detail every moment I failed to capture what was happening around me.

Last year, I attended a meeting in which the keynote speaker told us, “I’m a professional speaker. I never have a bad day. I only have new material.”

I leaned over to my friend who sat next to me and whispered, “That works for writers, too.”

Even at the mechanic’s shop.

Recognize opportunity. It’ll feed your story or project idea like a king if you let it.

== == ==

What is the most unlikely place you’ve ever picked up inspiration?

Busy Bee: Buzzing or Making Honey?

Writing about my writing is interfering with my writing. For that matter, I’m using writing to procrastinate from my writing. All this writing is really getting in the way of my writing.

Is this a case of having too many irons in the fire?

Or am I just buzzing loudly to cover up the fact I’m not actually producing anything (honey…yumm)?

Hard at work
image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

I’ve got reasons aplenty to call myself a busy bee lately. In the world of writing, I have two big ongoing projects of my own. I’ve had them for a while… that is, I conceived of them a while ago, and I’ve been using my deadlines like a slide, fun to visit and scoot down every so often. One of them is a fiction project. We’ve had quite the frenemy relationship. It started with love. We hung out together all the time. There was no other story I would rather have gotten to know. We shared secrets, hopes, dreams. Then things changed. The fiction did. Or maybe it was me. We didn’t know if we wanted to hang out together anymore. We didn’t recognize what the other had become. The atmosphere between us was tense, prickly. We didn’t know what to expect from the other. Now we periodically meet for coffee, but I never know in advance if the conversation is going to be civil. It’s hard to say what lies in the future.

The other is a memoir project that may also be a series of personal essays or creative nonfiction (it’s taking notes from the fiction project, which started as a novel idea, was reincarnated in the short story universe, and has been flirting with novella status since). I have great plans for that one. I’ve got the beginnings of some great material — provided (ironically, as we shall see) by my writing practice and some journal entries. Those plans include an outline (this is if it wants to be a memoir). That’s a good, concrete goal for a writer to have. Easy to measure success there. I’m sure I put it on the calendar no later than June.

I don’t have an outline yet.

In addition to the big projects, I’ve been keeping loose and limber by working on my journal and my writing practice. But last week I noticed something funny about those latter two items.

I was doing writing exercises to keep myself from having to buckle down and actually work on project A (the fiction project). This was actually inconvenient because there was a REAL deadline looming for that one: a competition submission deadline that I used as a motivator and benchmark. Apparently, it wasn’t motivating enough. Or, and this is more likely, I permitted myself to fail.

As for project B, the wannabe memoir, I found a new writing book about memoir and creative nonfiction at the bookstore, which I’ve allowed to lead me astray. How convenient that project B is a memoir project, possibly creative nonfiction! And how convenient that I can now read about memoir, rather than actually write one. It’s so informative!

This malarky has been going on for longer than the past week, but I only recently appreciated the humor in the situation.

The good stuff
image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

It’s tantamount to refusing to do my English homework because I’m too busy doing my math homework. Pffft! the fifth-grader in me says. I’m doing homework — you can’t accuse me of procrastinating! I’m getting stuff done over here! I can cross things off my list!

Problem is, it’s not the really important stuff.

I’m not making any honey, and that’s sad. I’m doing a lot of buzzing, and sometimes it’s hard to hear myself think above the drone.

I’ve got to be careful. There’s a difference between buzzing and honey.

Which is all to say, it should be clear by now that I’m using my writing to procrastinate from doing my writing, and the writing is really getting in the way of getting any writing done.