IT’S BEEN A TOUGH YEAR. You’ve probably heard that at least a thousand times. But it’s true. And that toughness can lend a dark and uneasy tone to our lives.
But here comes Thanksgiving to remind us of our blessings. And why not? Even if there’s no turkey (bird or vegan) for our tables, even if our families (of origin or choice) are unable to join us to raise a glass, even if we have sustained devastating loss over the last few hundred days, still, we can—if we wish—look around and find something to be thankful for.
And doing so seems to be good for us! According to an article in FORBES, focusing on gratitude improves not only our psychological well-being, but our physical health. Feeling thankful may also help us sleep better and think better. And, certainly, it inclines us more positively toward ourselves and our fellow humans.
Writing prompts for gratitude
We writers often make sense of things by writing. So here are a handful of prompts to support you if you feel the need to shift your gaze from what’s not working to what is.
1) Start a gratitude journal. Making a daily list of three to five things we’re grateful for is a simple but effective way to keep gratitude alive in our hearts.
2) Write about a time when something wonderful happened (expected or not). Remembering any boon—from the timely discovery of a much-needed twenty-dollar bill to learning that a loved one’s health concern ended up being nothing for concern at all—reminds us that, like rays of sunshine, moments of well-being can break through the cloudiest of times.
3) Create a dour character who, like Eeyore, sees life as an endless series of difficulties. Put that character in unavoidable proximity to a person you might call a “Pollyanna,” someone who is unremittingly cheerful. Perhaps they become roommates or cubicle mates; or maybe Pollyanna marries into Eeyore’s close-knit family. Or they’re stuck in an elevator together! Or on a “three-hourtour“!
However you glue them together, let Pollyanna’s sunny outlook eventually push your Eeyore to a change of attitude. (This may take considerable doing. All the better for dramatic tension!)
4) Write about a random act of kindness and its unexpected, far-reaching effect. This can be something you did for someone else, or a kindness you received. You might also use this idea to launch a short story!
5) List your own good qualities, attributes of yours for which you’re grateful. Dig deep! Don’t be modest. In addition, you could list the ten best qualities of some of those closest to you. Bonus: Make any of these lists into a poem!
These prompts are just jump-starts, a handful of ways you might incorporate gratitude and thankfulness into your writing. They aren’t (necessarily) meant to elicit high literary art. They are meant to remind you of what’s going right in your world and send you into your day (or into your dreams) with a lighter heart.
And that’s something to be thankful for.
Here are some books I turn to when I need to boost my gratitude practice. In them, you’ll find folks whose compassion and generosity and appreciation of the everyday world make their own and others’ lives better.
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.
THE OTHER DAY, MY NEW WRITER FRIENDRABBI RAMI asked me if I knew what an “ethical will” was. “Nope,” I said, “not a clue!”
WHAT IS AN ETHICAL WILL?
Turns out, an ethical will, also called a “legacy letter,” is quite different from the legal document we imagine when we think of a last will and testament. While what’s called a “simple will” indicates our wishes for the distribution of our possessions after death, an ethical will gives us an opportunity to pass on to future generations what we’ve learned through our experiences—our most profound lessons, values, and perspectives.
In addition, according to Next Avenue’sDeborah Quilter, ethical wills quite often include blessings for those who outlive us (particularly our children), our “hopes for the future, apologies to those [we] fear [we] have hurt, or gratitude to those [we] think [we] have not thanked enough.”
In a way, you might see an ethical will as a mini-memoir—one that gets right to the point: I did this; I learned this; I want to share this. And like any other memoir, there’s no need to wait until we are at the end of our lives to write it. In fact, in his article “Why Write an Ethical Will?”Dr. Andrew Weilsays, the “main importance [of an ethical will] is what it gives the writer in the midst of life.”
WRITING YOUR ETHICAL WILL
We’re living in troubling times. Taking a few hours to create such a deep life inventory could help us remember what’s most important to us. We might focus our ethical-will writing on recognizing the positive impact we’ve had on others, or on the gifts that have been given to us by others. We can name for ourselves our true values: what’s most important to us; the influence we would like to have; the legacy we would like to leave.
On the other hand, this might be a months- or years-long process, a document we begin now and add to as our lives and understanding unfold—continuing to write “… in times of reflection,” as mentioned on Everplans, “whether in moments of happiness or hardship.”
WRITING PROMPT: 10 QUESTIONS TO HELP YOU WRITE YOUR ETHICAL WILL
1) List ten turning points in your life. What decisions did you make at those crossroads that impacted your future?
2) List the three most difficult challenges you’ve faced. What did you learn from each?
3) What sacrifices have you made? Were these for others? Or have you also sacrificed pleasures of the moment for longer term goals?
4) What had you hoped to have accomplished by this point? What have you actually accomplished? Which accomplishment gives you most satisfaction?
5) Which five people have had the most significant influence on you?
6) If you had the opportunity to give three pieces of advice to the world at large, what would they be?
7) What roles have you played in your family? At work? In your community?
8) What do you love to do most? List up to 100 items.
9) Have you had what you’d consider spiritual experiences? If so, write about one or more of them. If not, how have you been guided so far in your life?
10) What would you want to see as your legacy?
WRITING ETHICAL WILLS WITH YOUR FAMILY
No matter how young we are, we have learned something from the time we’ve lived. Rather than embarking on your ethical will alone, you might create a family event—just you and your children gathered at a table responding to questions like the ones above, or several generations sharing the experience via video call.
You might all agree to respond to a single question, then write together for perhaps ten minutes, before sharing what you’ve written. If time permits, repeat the process. This could become a family tradition—a weekly or monthly opportunity to dig into deep topics and learn what your loved ones think about the things that matter most.
Some folks have published their ethical wills. Here are a few examples:
OKAY. THIS IS W-A-Y MORE THAN I SIGNED UP FOR! But here we are. Isolated. And spooked. (Or is that just me?) But that doesn’t mean we can’t connect. I sing the praises of my iPhone every day. It allows me to participate in online yoga classes, chat with friends while I walk (carefully maintaining a six-foot distance from all whom I pass), and feverishly check the latest updates from Italy to get a glimpse of our potential three-weeks-out future.
All of which is fine. Helpful, even. But I’ve noticed that—even during those virtual yoga classes—my attention is fragmented. Although I’m in regular communication with friends, I’m not sustaining much of a connection with myself.
Time, then, to get off my blessed cell phone and return to the simple practice of writing—in ways that have nothing to do with craft or publication and everything to do with creating that much-needed inner connection.
Writing to discover and connect
Many writers say they write to understand themselves better, to connect more deeply with their own thoughts and feelings. For instance, historian Daniel J. Boorstin said, “I write to discover what I think.“
Natalie Goldberg also talks about understanding herself through the practice of writing. In the introduction to her first book on writing process, WRITING DOWN THE BONES, she says she made a pact with herself, “… to write what I knew and to trust my own thoughts and feelings and to not look outside myself.”
Writing prompts for inner connection
Because I turn to Natalie’s books time and again to remind me how to reforge my inner connection, I want to share a few of her exercises here with you. Any one of them might help you find your way in—into memory, into stories you’ve carried for a very long time, into the idea of a home that lives inside you. May writing provide you some measure of comfort and steadiness in these uncertain times.
I REMEMBER: In this exercise, Natalie Goldberg suggests we simply start writing from the phrase “I remember,” allowing it to trigger memories of a years-past event or one from just moments ago. The trick, as with all of Goldberg’s exercises, is to keep your pen (or fingers) moving for a full ten minutes—rewriting the phrase “I remember” any time you get stuck and allowing it to send you off in whatever new direction occurs to you.
OBSESSIONS: “Writers,” Natalie says, “end up writing about their obsessions. Things that haunt them; things they can’t forget; stories they carry in their bodies waiting to be released.” Acknowledging the power our obsessions have—and the power we gain from accepting these aspects of ourselves—she invites us to list our current (or longest-lasting) obsessions. Name them. Bring them to light. Then, pick one and set out on the path it beckons you down. Tell all the truth you’re ready to tell—and not one word more.
WRITING ABOUT HOME: In this prompt from WILD MIND, Goldberg invites us to write about home—certainly an evocative topic and one that’s likely to bring us close to our own bone, which is exactly what we may be hungry for just now. Of course, we might want to write about our current home or one from childhood. But we could write about it “slant,” as Emily Dickinson would say. Or, as Natalie herself says, we could “Write about home and [don’t] write about any street, town, or city. Find another home.”
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It’s funny, when I tried Natalie’s slant version, I easily found a home with no street address to write about. But, in sharing it here, I see I inadvertently dived into what she would call obsession—haunting stories I’ve carried—as well.
I want to write about the orange groves when I was a kid—all the young years I lived in Florida, but especially when I was fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, riding horses along dusty rows of cabbages, then slipping back into the shadowed orange groves, the aisles between the trees strung with citrus spider webs, the huge spinners swaying at the center of their webs, invisible to us, waiting for us to gallop through and forget to duck, and shriek and swat and swipe at our heads when their sticky webs got tangled in our long, teenage hair.
Looking back, all that memory is dim, less than a shadow, just a cataract over the present. But still, I wonder about those other kids. Ali and her brothers, Jake and Lyle—Jake, on whom I had such a crush.
And Pammy, round and always red-faced among all the narrow, jodphured adolescent girls; Pammy, who was too big for her small, light-boned Thoroughbred. Such a pretty little horse. And Pammy, so kind. She asked me once to hop on her small horse and take him over a jump he’d refused because she knew I’d be gentle with him.
(Oddly, although so much of my barn years is faded, disintegrating into dust even as I lift it to the sunshine of my attention, I can still hear Pammy’s nervous laugh. She, I imagine, became a lawyer, though I’m not sure why I think so. Still, I hope she’s happy.)
And the girl who took me home for sandwiches, and whose mom served us potato chips out of a brown Charles Chips drum. And the brother and sister who shared a horse—a big, bony chestnut. They were only a year or two older than me, but seemed so sophisticated. It was they who taught us, out behind the back barn, to hold our breath until we saw stars. That was their game. And smoking cigarettes.
And the steaming manure pile we feared would catch fire during the fierce white-heat of July. And the three-pronged metal hook that hung in the tack room, meant for cleaning straps—and the story: that one of its prongs tore through the white flesh of Jake’s upper arm, leaving a raw red scar. And the farrier—who noticed all the girls’ breasts and whistled softly at us while he trimmed our horses’ feet.
There was a bit of savagery at the barn. A bit of every kid for themselves—adolescent savagery and a hierarchy of adult alcoholics. And at the top of the heap was Mr. Reeves, with his huge gut and his rangy gray open jumper Storm Trooper, who left Mrs. Reeves and ran off with a stable hand and eventually broke his neck riding to the hounds in New Jersey.
A place like all the others in my world, where you had to look both ways before crossing—and it wasn’t the spiders that bit.
DO YOU WANT TO WRITE A MEMOIR? If so, do you wonder if your story will have value for readers outside your immediate circle? Yes? Well, you’re not alone.
Often, I talk with folks whose experiences have been meaningful enough to them that they want to share what they’ve been through. They feel that, if published, their life story could benefit others—in part, by demonstrating to future readers that at least one person has survived the circumstances about which they want to write and also by offering others the wisdom they’ve gleaned in the process. These potential memoirists may have been subject to abuse or have hit a deep bottom after self-medicating with drugs or alcohol. Perhaps they’ve had a serious illness or gone through the devastating loss of a child or spouse.
Whatever their story, having undergone a life-changing trial, they’re ready to share their experience of strength and hope. But faced with the long haul of writing a memoir, they may wonder: Will others really find what I have to say worth reading? (Then there’s the not-insignificant task of on-boarding excellent narrative writing skills!)
With all that in mind, I wrote a note—both in recognition of those who have shared their memoir-writing dreams with me and with the hope that, if I send it out on the ethers, it might reach the heart of someone hesitating at the brink of writing their story.
I understand you’re concerned that your story might not hold meaning for anyone else—that it might not be a valuable contribution to literature or society. But I want to assure you, if you can dig deep and excavate the shining core of your experience and convey it in a compelling way, readers will connect with what you have to say.
Of course, much skill and craft goes into writing a compelling memoir—but with patience and diligence, those can be learned. If you are really committed to the task, that commitment will be the reliable spark that will fuel the work of learning what you must to deliver the story you want to share.
Work hard. Find techniques that will make your story strong, that will convey the deepest meaning of it, that will showcase its worth, that will help you develop its shape and create of it a presence that will make its inherent value evident to your readers.
Tall order? Sure. But having lived through something so life-changing you believe you can impact others by sharing it, I bet you can tackle this, too.
Wishing you every inspiration and a basketful of determination,
ON THE LONGEST NIGHT OF THE YEAR, my mom and I strolled softly lit paths through the wooded grounds of the Central Florida Zoo during the Asian Lantern Festival. As we wandered, we encountered illuminated lanterns shaped like crescent moons and meerkats and life-sized hippotamuses—and, yes, tigers. Oh, my!
Now that she’s 85, I treasure sharing quiet adventures like this with my mom. So I took pictures—lots of them. Of the tigers and cheetahs and dragon lanterns, yes. But also of my mom. Because these are moments I’ll want to remember, and the pictures will help me do so. But I know I can drop even deeper into those moments by writing about the photos that capture them.
In a blog post titled Why Do We Write? A New Year’s Exploration, I quick-list a dozen reasons I write (and in the post, I invite you to explore your reasons for writing, too!). While I somehow forgot to include “preserving memories” on that list, doing so is one of the wonderful gifts writing gives to us.
I’m not alone in thinking this. Natalie Goldberg says writers live twice: first in their immediate experiences and second in writing about them. Of course, if we have photos of our experiences, we have the opportunity to home in on details we might have forgotten otherwise. And vice versa: When we write from photographs of our lives, we tend to discover what’s hidden beneath a photo’s surface.
There’s even a sub-genre dedicated to writing from our pictured memories, the snapshot memoir (also known as flash memoir). In this form, we may be writing from actual images—on our phones or in our photo albums—or from indelible snapshots in our mind’s eye. Either way, though flash memoir is different from flash fiction—because we focus on our own lives rather than on the created lives of imagined others—many of the rules of flash fiction apply to this super-short memoir form, too.
Setting aside just ten minutes with pen in hand and a photo in front of you, travel back to the moment the snapshot has captured in its frame. Allow yourself to enter the picture. Look around carefully. Now, peek outside the frame to your memory of the wider context. What’s going on to the left of the image? To the right? Who’s taking the photo? Why?
You might take a deep breath and dive into the emotions the image evokes—both the sweet feelings and the bittersweet. Or maybe the photo calls to mind associated memories that add to the meaning and magic of that particular instant in time.
However deep you’re ready to delve, imagine the photo as a treasure map. It’s full of possibilities for sure! But to access the gold it promises, we need to follow the path the map reveals. When we write about the image before us, sentence by sentence, we step steadily toward riches the photo can only hint at. Because the real treasure lives inside us. And our pen creates the road that will take us there.
THE TAROT STRENGTH CARD typically shows a beautiful woman gently closing the jaws of a fearsome lion. When discussing the Strength card, we talk about taming our inner beast, controlling our impulses, or harnessing our own strength to face challenges. But we rarely talk about how the killer instincts of a lion might preserve us in times of danger or how some people won’t listen to us unless we roar!
Tarot writing prompt
For this prompt, let’s try turning tarot convention on its soft-and-fuzzy ear. Make a quick list of times you’ve loosed your own inner wild cat. (Aim for at least five examples.) Now scan that list. Is there one that still makes your hackles rise?
If so, grab that incident by the scruff of the neck and toss it onto a new page. Write about what incited you. Start by describing the scene. Where were you? Who else was present? Who said what to whom? Was there a moment when you felt yourself getting ready to spring? What was the trigger? What happened next?
Finally, after all was said and done, did you feel you used your strength for good? Or ill? Or some nicely complex combination of both?
SOME DAYS, IT FEELS LIKE AN EMERGENCY. We want to write, but don’t have anything to write about. Be prepared for such a dire situation. Paint these three mini-prompts fire-alarm red and stick them to your wall so you’ll have them on hand … in case of emergency.
1) I SPY: Did you ever read HARRIET THE SPY, by Louise Fitzhugh? In this Middle Grade novel, the awesomely unsentimental, eleven-year-old urban-dweller Harriet M. Welsch spies on friends and neighbors—and jots her sharp observations in a notebook. (Sounds like an aspiring writer, to me!)
Of course, things go badly for Harriet. Let’s hope they go better for you! Today, spy on yourself. Make notes about your life, your environment, your associates, your habits—in third person, as if you had yourself under surveillance. As if you were a spy.
2) MEMORIES: What was your life like … before you were born? Go as far back as you like. As far back as you can! Take a wild ten minutes—and keep your hand moving!
3) TOP SECRET: What’s something you’re not EVER allowed to talk about? Write about your own secret or someone else’s … then burn, shred, delete, or flush the page you’ve written it on.
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.
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 Cehovetfor seeing the possibilities here.
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 isa 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.
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!