September 2019 archive

Walk Like a Writer

ARGH!! I’M STUCK! I’ve written myself into a corner and can’t find my way out. While I stare at the screen, hoping the right words will magically appear, I feel an inner nudge. It’s my smarter self trying to get my attention. She’s thinks I should power down my computer, put on my sneakers, and take a walk. And she’s right. Whenever I’ve taken a writing issue out for a thirty-minute hike around my neighborhood, that issue has magically been resolved. Every time.

And it’s not just me. In Brenda Ueland‘s classic book, IF YOU WANT TO WRITE, she says, I will tell you what I have learned myself. For me, a long five- or six-mile walk helps. And one must go alone and every day. I have done this for many years. It is at these times I seem to get re-charged.

A few years ago, THE NEW YORKER published an article called “Why Walking Helps Us Think. In it, writer Ferris Jabr asks, What is it about walking, in particular, that makes it so amenable to thinking and writing? The answer he discovered has to do with how walking affects our bodies—including our brains, which balance atop the narrow column of our necks and benefit from the increase in oxygen a good walk delivers.

So, yes, like all exercise, walking gets our energy moving. But different than a yoga class or gym visit, a good walk also provides a stream of images to fill our creative well. When we walk, we see things: people, trees, big yellow steam shovels shifting mounds of earth. All these visual elements “fill the well,” providing us with increased creative fuel, which is why Julia Cameron recommends a weekly walk in her Artist’s Way books.

Walking and writing are both independent acts. Both are self-fueled. They stroll happily hand in hand. Today, walk like a writer. Head out onto the nearest path with a literary dilemma in mind. Walk until it’s resolved—then marvel at the elegant solution you and your feet have found.

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The illustration for this post, “Walk,” is by chilangoco, and is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

The Waiting Game: A Tarot Writing Prompt

IN THIS IMAGE, a young man rests on his hoe and gazes at the not-quite-ripe coin fruit he’s been tending. Clearly, he can’t make it grow any quicker—but he doesn’t seem perturbed. In fact, his patience is a trait many urban-dwelling, multi-tasking, traffic-jamming folks might benefit from emulating!

But that would be boring. Wouldn’t it?

Tarot writing prompt

Make a list of ten or more situations in which common sense would tell us there’s nothing for it but to wait. Got it? Now, pick one, put a character in that situation, and assign the character a superpower that would allow him or her to speed things up … a little or a lot.

What would the consequences be of, say, speeding up the rate the earth circles the sun? Or having the state award your two-year old a driver’s license?

Think the Tom Hanks character in BIG or the Adam Sandler character in CLICK and let your imagination take you as far (and as fast!) as you can.

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This exercise was created for and first published in Christiana Gaudet‘s TAROT TOPICS newsletter.

Thanks to U.S. Games Systems, Inc., for kind permission to use the image of the Seven of Pentacles from the RIDER-WAITE TAROT.


Lucky Number 7: Seven Flash Fiction Contests for Fall!

FLASH FICTION IS FUN! Requiring the snap of poetry and the arc of narrative, it challenges us to home in on elements of voice and story that will benefit even longer-form writers’ work.

To learn a bit more about flash fiction, check out my Writing Short post, where you’ll find links to some excellent flash resources. Otherwise, just fly your crafty little stories off to the following contests. May the micro force be with you!

Flash fiction contests (with deadlines)

1. October 1st: Stories Out of School Flash Fiction Contest, presented by the Academy for Teachers
This annual contest was created to inspire unsentimental stories about teachers and the complex world of schools. The story’s protagonist or narrator must be a K-12 teacher. Max 749 words. First-prize winner will receive $1000 and publication. The second-prize winner will receive $500.

2. October 15th: SMOKELONG QUARTERLY‘s Flash Fellowship

The SMOKELONG Flash Fellowship for Emerging Writers is an award and year-long virtual residency for new and emerging writers. The winner of the 2020 Fellowship will be considered a virtual “writer in residence” at SMOKELONG for four quarterly issues. The winner will also receive $1000.00.

3. October 31st: CRAFT‘s flash fiction contest
Judged by Benjamin Percy, three winners will be awarded $1000 each. (That’s a buck a word, since CRAFT’s word limit is 1000.)

4. November 2nd: Weird Christmas Flash Fiction Contest
350 word max. $50 first prize, $25 second prize. Stories should be weird or strange or odd: They can be “Haha!” weird or “Oh, Jesus, no!” weird. They can be genre weird or just off-kilter. They  must be related to any winter holiday (Christmas, Hannukha, Kwanza, solstice celebrations, etc.).

5. September 30th and December 31st: FLASH 500 Flash Fiction Competition
This quarterly open-themed competition has closing dates of September 30th and December 31st. The results will be announced within six weeks of each closing date and the three winning entries each quarter will be published on this website. Entry fee: £5 for one story, £8 for two stories. Prizes: £300, £200, £100

6. December 31st: FICTION SOUTHEAST‘s Ernest Hemingway Flash Fiction Prize
Though many writers have helped to shape the history of flash fiction, Ernest Hemingway’s first short-story collection, IN OUR TIME, easily makes him one of the form’s primary pioneers. For this reason, FICTION SOUTHEAST has chosen to honor his accomplishments through the Ernest Hemingway Flash Fiction Prize. Entries should be 1500 words or less. Entry fee is $10. All entries will be considered for publication in FICTION SOUTHEAST. Winner: $200 and publication.

Lucky Number 7. December 31st: RIVER STYX‘s Microfiction contest
500 words maximum. First, second, and third place winners will be published in Issue 104.

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The image of the Eight of Wands is from the ANNA.K TAROT, published by Llewellyn Worldwide and used with Llewellyn’s kind permission.

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Making Stone Soup from Words and Breadcrumbs: A Writing Prompt

AS A CHILD READER, I hungered for the dishes fictional characters devoured. British kids in Noel Streatfeild’s SHOES books breakfasted on “fry ups” of sausage, eggs, sliced bread, and kippers, while Hansel and Gretel feasted famously on marzipan windows and cookie-dough sills.

Back then, fairy godmothers impressed me less than huge castle feasts, the treacle from Alice’s well, her little cakes and comfits, and the Snow Queen’s Turkish delight.

And then there was “Stone Soup.” A ravenous little girl, I salivated when clever Fox, after declaring to the other Animals that he could make soup with just a stone, enticed his guests to add herbs, lentils, carrots—a stalk of celery, here, a grand, round potato there—until, voilà! Boiling in Fox’s cauldron was a magnificent soup made (almost) from a single stone.

Now that I’m a still-peckish adult, the journal ALIMENTUM: The Literature of Food feeds my need for pages of pasta, potatoes, porridge. Publishing fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction exclusively about food, ALIMENTUM delivers a tasty meal, complete with napkin, right to your inbox.

Writing prompt

Dig into the cupboards of your imagination and the crisper drawers of your creativity and cook up the story of an unexpected soup. Metaphorical or actual, let whatever you dish up have unexpected benefits—or unexpected consequences!

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Thanks to U.S. Games Systems, Inc., for kind permission to use the image of the Seven of Disks, from the ANCESTRAL PATH TAROT.  

A version of this prompt appeared on a previous blog, Workshop Porkchop.

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Self-Inspiration: An Archeological Dig Into Your Own Writing

NOTICING WHAT’S MISSING in a piece of writing is a bit of a parlor trick—but one that comes in very handy! This exercise will show you how to apply this trick to a piece of your own, whether you’re in the parlor or at your desk.

Today, dig into your writing stash—journals, notebooks, files, blog posts—whatever you’ve got. You’re looking for a piece that still interests you, one that you suspect has something left to say. Something you’re willing—even excited—to experiment with a bit more.

If it’s not in hard copy already, print the piece out and read through it with a highlighter in your hand. Highlight anything that feels potent, alive, or shiny—any idea or phrase or image that intrigues you. (If you’re looking at a book-length manuscript, take it one chapter at a time.)

Once you’ve finished freckling the pages with neon yellow or green, cruise through again. This time, at each highlighted spot, ask yourself, Is there more to say about this? Can I take this image further? Does this idea interest me enough to say more about it? Have I fulfilled the promise of this phrase?

Circle the bits you think might have more to give in a different color. Choose one idea, image, phrase, etc., from those that most interest you, and write it at the top of a fresh page. Then start writing from or about it, as if it had never been part of another piece. Take twenty minutes to free associate, free-write, dig in—going wherever your mind takes you.

If you slow down or feel you’ve emptied the well, rewrite the original phrase or image on a new line and take off in whatever direction comes to you.

At the end of twenty minutes, look at what you’ve just written. Did you discover something fresh to bring back to the original piece? Or do you have the start of something new?

You can also apply this exercise to a piece of current writing—one that’s not going so well! You know the one. It might be a chapter or a paper for school. Maybe it’s half-finished, but you don’t have the will to keep going. Or maybe it’s “done,” but you’re not sure you’ve gotten to the heart of the matter.

In WRITING WITH POWER, writing teacher Peter Elbow talks about the “center of gravity” of a piece of writing. When you’ve got a piece that’s flagging—seems underdeveloped, unfinished, unfulfilled in its potential—he suggests we ask these questions: “What do you sense as the source of energy, the focal point, the seedbed, the generative center for this piece?” Chances are good the “center of gravity” won’t be what we consider the main point of the piece—that’s why we’ve practiced feeling into particularly compelling images, phrases, and ideas.

Professional writers often develop previously written, even previously published, material. A short story may be expanded into a novel, or an article might become a book-length memoir or biography. For (fabulous!) example, Susan Orlean’s THE ORCHID THIEF was originally an article for THE NEW YORKER, titled “Orchid Fever.” 


Thanks to Annie Spratt for use of her garden photo.

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