IF YOU’RE WILLING TO LEAP INTO ITS INVITATION, A GOOD WRITING PROMPT CAN catapult you out of your writing doldrums, unstick your project if it’s stuck, and fling your work in fresh and unexpected directions! And, interestingly, a prompt doesn’t need to be complicated to work its magic. Take, for instance, the writing prompt novelist Heidi Julavits used to rediscover her writing mojo—after children and other obligations had back-burnered her literary life.
Over the course of two years, most evenings Julavits started a journal entry with this prompt: “Today I …” From that simple start, she would record details of her day—her thoughts, activities, pleasures, regrets. But she didn’t stop there. Instead, she allowed herself to stray far from the day’s events. Like a dragonfly, she would flit from topic to topic, shifting freely on the winds of association, revisiting the joys and puzzlements of past experience, as well as conjecturing about the future, often with only the most tangential of connections.
I absolutely recommend reading THE FOLDED CLOCK—yes, for pleasure, but especially for inspiration if you keep a journal or are writing a memoir. But even if neither applies to you, you might want to take Julavits’s approach for a test drive. Try this: Set aside ten or fifteen minutes each evening for a week or two and write, starting with “Today I …,” then leap to whatever thought attracts your attention next.
I’ll give it a try myself!
(TRIGGER WARNING: So, when I let myself free associate, a lá Julavits, I ended up writing about cats. And, of course, the hardest thing about having cats is their inevitable loss. Which is where this writing went. Just letting you know.)
Today I … was drowsy. If not for the cats needing breakfast, I would have slept late, lying in bed, half-dreaming for hours. But the cats were not to be refused. Are cats ever to be refused? Not in my experience. Which includes a lot of cats. Present cats, of course, but past cats, too. And that’s where the heartbreak lives, with the cats of the past and their various ends—which started, in my cat-life, with the disappearance of our black Persian Sukie.
My mother was beside herself with worry—truly, I think, much more worried about Sukie than she ever was about my sister or me. I was eight or nine. Old enough to want to reduce my mother’s anxiety. So I told her I thought I could see Sukie under the house—a wooden farmhouse we were renting that year, its placement up on concrete blocks creating a long, dark crawl space beneath. Dark enough that it was plausible that a black cat could be hiding there, invisible in the murk, except for his eyes glinting if you shined a flashlight towards him. Which I didn’t, not having a flashlight. Although I reported to my mom that I had seen that green glint, wanting to buy her some hope.
In fact, that hope was fleeting. A neighbor pulled up to give us the news. Sukie was (predictably, as I all too soon came to understand) dead. Hit by a car. Like Floffleas and Wobble and, as the years unfolded, several other cats—until we understood that an indoor life for cats might be better for all concerned.
However they passed—traffic, illness, age—so many of the cats I’ve lived with have left an enduring mark. There are dents in my heart where they’ve curled themselves in its various chambers, as if that red beating muscle were a pillow. The special ones—Umphrey, Bertie, Jake, Pea Mouse, Roo—left lasting hollows behind in the exact shape of themselves, their permanent selves, the selves the cars and cancers couldn’t obliterate. “Past cats,” that’s what Jill said, when Jake and Bert died too young and within months of one another. And she was right. Because now there are Jack and Winter and Milo, present cats, each one kneading at the flesh of my heart, softening it up so it will hold their image long after they, too, have passed on.