August 2019 archive

Dueling Pens: Writing Together

MONA AND I WRITE TOGETHER EVERY FEW WEEKS. Well. “Together.” Since she lives in Colorado and I’m in Florida, we meet by phone, pulling prompts from our back pockets and slinging them down the phone line like challenges, then setting a timer, and writing as fast as we can.

Generally, we write three times—never for long. Five minutes, ten at the most. But why write together at all? Because we find working this way freshens our brains. It pushes us to write faster, stretch further, and let ourselves get just a little bit wilder. We loosen up, timed writing by timed writing, until, usually, we both end up with something we like, even if it’s just a few sentences.

Today, we started with Natalie Goldberg’s “I remember” prompt. While I wrote about palmettos and pines and a sweet, young calico cat who followed my friend Mary and me on a meandering walk in the woods, Mona wrote about a recently stolen bike, remembering it as “thistle-colored,” like the favorite Crayola crayon of her youth.

For our second prompt, I texted Mona a photo of an abstract painting. After we wrote, we read to one another, and I learned that while I saw the red-and-black center of the painting as a black box of shame going up in flames, Mona saw it as a poppy. Hmm.

For our final prompt, I read us the poem “How to Listen,” by Major Jackson, from his collection LEAVING SATURN. Because time was short, we wrote for just three minutes.

Mona started from Jackson’s imagery, then left him behind and blazed her own trail:

The crackly stars, gray corkscrew curls pull into the feeling of listening, how we might listen to our loved ones, friends, and neighbors. The Vietnam War. How could we not listen to that crackling sound of guns and whirr of helicopters on the nightly news? How could anyone turn away.

For my part, I made some wild associative leaps:

What?

Did I tell you about my deaf ear?
And my mother’s? And my grandmother’s?
“Is it on purpose?” you ask.
“Maybe. It’s easier that way—to hear less.”

And Winter the cat, with mangled cartilage for ears.
“How is his hearing?” I asked the woman who’d fostered him.
“Selective,” she said.
Which has proved to be right.

But when I tried to explain my own hearing
to the eager girl on the yoga mat beside me,
whom I can never understand,
her words, sentences, ideas, baffling, like moths,
furry in my ears,
she told me, as clearly as anything she’s ever said,
“I’m blind in my right eye.”

Group writing inspiration

In WRITING ALONE AND WITH OTHERS, Pat Schneider shares many wonderful writing prompts and offers valuable guidelines to keep writing with others safe and productive.

Natalie Goldberg‘s WRITING DOWN THE BONES and WILD MIND have provided seemingly endless inspiration for myself and the writers I work with, encouraging us to be fresh and free-minded, and to seek the healthy companionship of other writers.

7-Minute Autobiography: A Memoir-Writing Prompt

FOR YEARS, I BEGAN EACH NEW WORKSHOP with this exercise from WRITING ALONE AND WITH OTHERS. It’s a great way to get to know other people in a group—and also a great way to get to know yourself, so I’ve adapted it here for your personal-writing use.

Memoir-writing prompt

Set a timer for seven minutes. Then, writing fast, hit the high and low points of your life, skimming across the years—from birth to this very moment—like they were so many tumbleweeds.

When the timer rings, stop and read over what you wrote. Mark three events that stand out to you. Pick one (you might save the other two for another day, when you’re looking for something to write about).

Take another ten minutes to write in detail about the incident or period you’ve chosen. Why is it important to you now? How is it relevant to the bigger story of your life-to-date?

Extra credit: Was a shadow* illuminated by your attention? If so, how can you write your way to a deeper understanding of what was hidden?

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Image is of a Free 3D stopwatch. Find them here.
*Thanks to Bonnie Cehovet for seeing the possibilities here.

Besting the Beast: A Tarot Writing Prompt

MAKE NO MISTAKE: SWEET AS THIS SCENE may appear, that lion has teeth. And claws. And a ravenous hunger! Oh, my!

Most days, we could catch sight of him happily slurping the blood of his prey. But not today. Because, with kindness, skill, and patience, this character has tamed the beast, creating an ally of him—and becoming his ally as well.

Tarot writing prompt

So. Who’s the beast in your or your character’s world?

And what clever trick do you or your character pull out of your or her backpack to turn that beast into a purring pussycat?

* * *

Thanks to U.S. Games Systems, Inc., for kind permission to use the image of Strength from the DREAMING WAY TAROT. 

Writing Comes from Writing (Thanks, Bruce!)

POET AND CREATIVE WRITING PROFESSOR BRUCE AUFHAMMER introduced me to this basic operating principle: Writing comes from writing, not from inspiration. Now a teacher myself, I sometimes hear people say they aren’t writing because they’re uninspired. But inspiration is a fickle mistress! For just one month, rather than awaiting any version of the muse, try this daily, no-inspiration-required exercise and see for yourself whether the quiet act of writing isn’t a more steadfast friend.

Writing prompt

Get yourself a diary, maybe a kid’s locking diary or a small spiral bound memo book. Starting this evening—and for the next month—take a few minutes each night to jot down something from your day. Even if you only list what you ate for lunch!

Novelist Heidi Julavits did just this. Using the phrase “Today, I …” to get started, every evening she jotted down as many associations as arose in the time she allotted for writing. The (fascinating!) book she made of these diary entries—THE FOLDED CLOCK—was published in 2014.

A diary—less demanding, perhaps, than a “journal”—offers a low-stress way to nurture your daily writing habit. And that writing habit, once established, makes a resilient diving board from which to spring into your next writing project. Also, as in Heidi J.’s case, when you look back over your diary, you may find something you’ve written there suggests a direction for you to develop.

We’re aglow with possibilities when we start something new—but we may be a little shy of setting our hopes too high. For your first entry, use your diary to whisper in your own ear. Tell yourself on its pages what you hope to accomplish or uncover over the next thirty days.

EXTRA CREDIT: This week, use your diary as a Fitbit. At the end of each day, make a note of every bit of writing you did that day. I bet you’ll be surprised at how it all adds up!

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Thanks to Thought Catalogue for permission to use the diary image above.

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