Posts Tagged ‘poetry’

Teacher’s Pet: A Tarot Writing Prompt

IN TAROT CIRCLES, the Hierophant, also known as the Pope, can get a bad rap—for being an uber-conservative, repressive, by-the-book sort of guy. But, really, he might just represent any clergy person, mentor, or teacher—however rule-bound or not. And I’ve had some great teachers!

My first-grade teacher, Mrs. Nethercote, for instance, gave me props for my mad reading skills. The next year, my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Smith (who looked like Aunt Bea from THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW), thought I was a fine communicator and took the time to introduce me as such to my third-grade teacher, who subsequently always listened to what I had to say!

High school was tough, but my tenth-grade English teacher, whose name is lost to memory (and to various adolescent indulgences), was a bright light, encouraging my poetry-writing. In Seattle, at Shoreline Community College, theater instructor Charlie gave me a directorial role, saying she thought I had leadership potential.

As I make this list, other teachers—a horseback-riding instructor, an art teacher, a math professor—arrive at the threshold of my mind, nodding approval across the years. Their long-remembered encouragement has boosted my self-esteem and bolstered my belief in my own abilities when I’ve needed it most.

This, then, is a thank you to them all.

WRITING PROMPT

Revisit your memory of a supportive teacher—or create such a champion in the life of a character who could benefit from one just about now.

Alternatively, if your life has been stingy regarding mentors, consider this your chance to rewrite history and provide yourself one you wish you’d had. Once you’ve got him or her on the page, let your self-created mentor provide a bit of guidance. Chances are it will be some of the best advice you’ve ever received!

When I told my art pal Paula Jeffery about this prompt, she shared this poem with me:

Just Words
       by Paula Jeffery*

Before home time, every day,
That sleepy, can’t-write-any-more
Time of day,
Low sun picks out chalk dust
Suspended in air, over kids,
Who only want to meander
Across the park,
For tea and Thunderbirds.

Most kids. Not all kids. Not us kids.
We were Mr. Gardener’s kids,
And the slowest of us perked,
Eyes bright, legs crossed
At the end of the day,
Warm with anticipation.
Home was not pressing
On our nine-year-old minds

 Unexpected Mr. Gardener,
Generous, mild, and
Gentle sharer of knowledge,
Balancing on the brink
Of retirement,
Who, at the Christmas concert,
Awed us, floored us
With soaring solo Emmanuels.

Before the bell, we gathered round.
He held the book aloft and cracked open our little worlds
With Beowulf.
No diluted, convoluted picture story form,
This was all bloody battles,
Dragons, a severed arm.
A teacher transformed
Animated, passionate, Mr. Gardener
Held us all in thrall

 We went home through the cloakroom,
Summer air heavy with the smell
Of plimsolls and sour milk,
Minds alive and buzzing with heroes and monsters,
Chasing sword play across the park.

I thought, Imagine. You can have all that
With just words.

MORE WRITING INSPIRATION

TEACHER, by Sylvia Ashton-Warner

THE FREEDOM WRITERS, by The Freedom Writers and Erin Gruwell

EDUCATING RITA, 1983 dramatic comedy, starring Michael Caine

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Need help with your book? I’m available for book coaching! And check out Should I Hire a Writing Coach” in THE WRITER magazine.

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*Artist, writer, self-publisher Paula Jeffery lives in the middle of England. Visit her at http://www.paulajeffery.com.

Thank you to U.S. Games Systems, Inc. for kind permission to use the image of The Hierophant from the RIDER-WAITE (SMITH) TAROT.

YOU Are a Collector’s Item: A Really Excellent Writing Prompt!

POET ELLEN DORÉ WATSON starts her poem “The Body Speaks” from her collection WE LIVE IN BODIES, like this:

So? I’m a collection of oversized bones, blind in so much
casing, I’m a pair of lonely shoulders and a snip of a nose
turned up at the word cute. 

This made me wonder: What am I a collection of? Cats? Years of memos jotted on sticky notes? My father’s anger? My mother’s early orphan-hood? The fairy tales I read by the faint light let in by the narrow crack in the door when I was supposed to be asleep? College courses? Jobs? Friends? My paternal grandmother’s heavy breasts? My maternal grandmother’s shapely calves?

Writing prompt

And what are you a collection of—for better or worse? Family stories? Genes? Body parts? Or are you made up of memories? Books you’ve read? Relationships? Write about the collection that is you—or use this question to explore a fictional character.

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Need help with your book? I’m available for book coaching and manuscript review! And check out Should I Hire a Writing Coach” in THE WRITER magazine.

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Thank you to U.S. Games Systems, Inc. for kind permission to use the image of the Seven of Cups from the GOLDEN TAROT by Kat Black.

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How to Keep Going: A Writing Coach’s Lowered Expectations (now, with Writing Prompts!)

WELP.  MANY OF MY CLIENTS ARE SOLDIERING ON. In the face of global pandemonium, they are managing to get words on the page—and good ones at that! If you’re making significant progress on your book, I salute you! And, really, what else are we going to do? I mean, suddenly we have all that time we’re always saying we need to work on our big, ballsy writing projects.

On the other hand, if we’re following strict protocols, every single thing in our lives is taking, like, twelve times longer than usual. For instance, although I was a late adopter of the sanitizing-your-groceries-before-bringing-them-into-the-house routine, as of yesterday, I am fully on board! Which means it took three hours to conclude my “quick” face-masked, gloved, hand-sanitized grocery run yesterday.

And once every disinfected item was in place, I was exhausted! Partially by the close attention I was paying to NOT GETTING INFECTED and partially, I think, just from vibrating to the tune of others’ panic.

So, while I could be working on my book-in-progress, I find myself alternately consumed by mundane tasks—watering my new sod lawn for example (it’s hot as hell here in Central Florida)—or watching YouTube videos. (AMERICAN IDOL* is shaping up to deliver a series of nicely dramatic live shows this spring!)

I still journal most days, though, which helps me sort my anxiety from that of those around me. And (obviously) I’m continuing to write posts for my blog. But as for other writing? Nada. I just don’t seem to have the focus. And I’m coaching myself to be okay with that.

I’ve lowered my expectations, understanding that I may have maxed out my writing mojo for the week simply by writing this note to you.

How about you, though? if you’re channeling your energy into a writing project—big, ballsy, or otherwise—that’s great! It’s the perfect time to explore your vivid imagination and write about what you find there. The perfect time to follow your characters into the wilderness of stakes-raising adventures. The perfect time to organize the past events of your life into a meaningful arc for the encouragement of future readers.

However, if you need permission to just ride the roller coaster of our current reality—even if that means your creative output looks more like making to-do lists than it does completing your fantasy trilogy—here it is: Permission granted!

Low-expectations writing prompts

If your pen is itching for a little workout, though, here are a few less-is-more “writing opportunities” you might want to avail yourself of while waiting for the storm to pass.

1) Sending letters or greeting cards through the mail is a risky business these days. But you could write a newsy email to a friend, attaching a (virus-free!) image that illustrates your current state of mind.

2) There’s a curse attributed (rightly or wrongly) to the Chinese that says, “May you live in interesting times.” (Hmm. Think this counts?) In the face of so much to be “interested” in, you might write a haiku about living in such an interesting time. Have you forgotten the rules of haiku? Esther Spurrill-Jones reminds us in her article “How to Write Haiku,” which you’ll find on the very helpful, cool The Writing Cooperative.

Poet MK Swanson of Writing Dreamer was kind enough to share her call-and-response haiku, “Fifth Element,” written with this prompt in mind:

Fifth Element

Coronaviridae,
enveloped, positive-sense,
one-strand RNA.

Humanity, though,
we are made of stars
and fragility.

3) Not feeling poetic? Taking your cue from fishermen and -women who, famously, mend nets when they can’t go to sea, you might dig out some short pieces of not-quite-completed (or not-entirely-successful) work and, picking a likely candidate, spend a happy hour or two piddling with it to see if you can make it better do your bidding.

Of course, if all that fails, there’s always AMERICAN IDOL.*

* Oh, well, We’ll have to find something else to keep us busy, as I just learned AMERICAN IDOL has suspended its live finals. Of course. 

Writing inspiration

LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA, by Gabriel García Márquez

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Need help with your book? I’m available for book coaching and manuscript review! And check out Should I Hire a Writing Coach” in THE WRITER magazine.

Cartoon by Maddie Dai, published on THE NEW YORKER cartoons Facebook page, March 23, 2020.

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A Not-Too-Sweet Love-Letter Writing Prompt

BACK IN THE DAY, Shakespeare, sick of the sticky-sweet love sonnets of his time—the kind that compared women’s eyes to placid lakes and their tresses to molten gold—penned a send up, “Sonnet 130.” In it, the Bard refutes any likeness his lover might have to the beauties of nature. Instead, mocking his sonnet-making contemporaries, Shakespeare harshly negates his love’s charms. And yet … and yet …

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun (Sonnet 130) 

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun; 
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun; 
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks; 
And in some perfumes is there more delight 
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know 
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.     
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare      
As any she belied with false compare.

—William Shakespeare

Writing prompts

1) Now, that you’ve read (and enjoyed?) “Sonnet 130,” try modeling it! Is there someone (or something) you love in an unconventional way? Or whom you see as unconventional? How does your love stray from the ordinary way of things?

Even trickier, can you do the opposite of damning with faint praise by, as Shakespeare does, praising with a two-edged sword of truth?

2) Alternatively, write a love letter (or a poem or a personal essay or a scene for a novel or a short story) in which you or a character declares love for someone—at length and in detail—without using the word “love” or any of its synonyms!

(Bonus points for creating a sonnet! You’ll find descriptions of various sonnet forms and some instructions to help you get a sense of how they’re constructed on the LITERARY DEVICES website.)

Writing inspiration

Want some musical inspiration? Here’s a link to Sting’s song “Sister Moon,” which appears on his album NOTHING LIKE THE SUN.

Need help with your book? I’m available for book coaching and manuscript review!

Cut and Paste: A Crafty Writing Prompt

WHEN I WAS A LITTLE KID, I was mesmerized by the sound of Captain Kangaroo’s scissors chomping through construction paper. I still love paper crafts—so it was a given that I’d love this LITERAL cut-and-paste writing exercise.

This prompt, which appears in poet Pat Schneider’s wonderful book WRITING ALONE AND WITH OTHERS, is a bit complicated—but, to me, the scissors and glue (not to mention the sometimes eerie results) make it worth it. (And, of course, it’s almost as cool if you do an electronic cut and paste!)

Writing prompt

STEP ONE: WRITE
Create (or dig out from your writing journals), two short poems, five to ten lines each. One poem should have a gentle, happy, or peaceful tone. The other poem should have an agitated, angry, or distraught tone.

Alternatively, you might use a paragraph (of equal-ish length) of two prose pieces. Again, one piece should have a gentle, happy, or peaceful tone, and the other, an agitated, angry, or upset tone.

STEP TWO: CUT
Cut your poems—or paragraphs—apart, line by line as they appear on the page (NOT sentence by sentence). Here’s an example from the beginning of a paragraph I found in my journal to demonstrate how/where to cut:

I wandered in my neighborhood today and saw that the Halloween 

cut here >  – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

decorations were up everywhere, giving a sort of orange-and-black cadence 

cut here >  – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

to the crisp October afternoon. This lifted my spirits, almost as if . . . 

cut here >  – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

STEP THREE: PASTE
Alternating lines from your first and second pieces, paste them together to make a single new piece. Don’t worry! It’s not supposed to make literal sense. But the poetic sense the juxtaposed lines create can seem quite uncanny.

FOR EXAMPLE
I’ve created an example for you using two short poems—really just two ideas, only a couple of sentences each. The green lines are the first piece I wrote—the quiet one. The black lines are the second—the uneasy tone. I didn’t edit, just broke the lines apart and shuffled them back together. I did tweak the punctuation—and I’m not sure it improved matters. Maybe it would be better without punctuation?

Quiet now, neighbors gone to sleep, to rest.
The tension builds like paint; it flakes in scabs.
No more radio, backyard conversations
that reveal the raw red rash of remarks beneath
the buzzing tools that tame the yards,
the civility that is thinner than the peeling paint.
No more laughter
that chips when hands are extended to be shaken.
Only swaying branches, a quiet cloud,
or the window rolled down to wave, like in self-defense,
the bats dipping and silent on the invisible breeze,
the white flag of proximity.

If you’re struggling to loosen up your writing, this is a great way to lose control of intending a meaning and, instead, discovering the meaning that happenstance may provide.

Writing inspiration

The Dadaists, and then William Burroughs, created similar techniques. Check out the Cut-Up Machine on the Language Is a Virus site to play further with this and other writing games for grownups!

Need help with your book? I’m available for book coaching and manuscript review!

Quick-Start/Fast-Finish Writing Prompt! For Writers with Little Time

THIS IS A QUICK WRITING PROMPT, great for when you want to stretch your creativity but don’t have much time to play!

Writing prompt

First, pick a short form to write in today. Poem? Flash fiction? Short story? Snapshot memoir? Profile? Exposé?

Next, pick the first line of a published novel, poem, essay, or even a particularly enticing recipe!

For instance:

Then, pick the last line of a different published novel, poem, essay, recipe or _____ (fill in the blank), that’s not necessarily in the same genre as the first line.

For instance:

Finally, using the published (or found) first line as your first line, and the published (or found) last line as your last line, write your way from first line to last line, taking as many lines as you need to incorporate the ending in a way that makes (some) meaning of the journey from first to last.

Writing inspiration

Need more examples? Writer’s Digest has a list of Best Opening Poetry Lines just for you!

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That photo of someone stretching a rubber band like you stretching your creativity is from Science Generation.

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Writing Prompt: A Rose by Any Other Name

WHEN I WAS A KID—six years old—I had a classmate named “Frederika.” A fine name, my six-year-old self thought, and, promptly, I renamed myself for her (although my parents never quite caught up). Then, at twelve, I first heard the name “Zoë.” That was it! A perfect name for me. But, again, my parents wouldn’t sign on, and the Zoë I could have been died an unremarked death.

When I was sixteen, I named myself “Star,” and faithfully penned a red-Bic star onto my forehead every day for a year. This was a slightly more successful renaming. (In fact, having now returned to the town where I endured teen-hood, occasionally, I run into someone who greets me with a “Hi, Star! It’s been a while!”)

At nineteen, after watching SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER for the thirteenth time, I adopted a new last name: “Mangano,” in honor of John Travolta’s social-climbing love interest, Stephanie Mangano. (And, okay, although I’m a little embarrassed to admit to it, I was known as MJM by my closest friends for a few years after, for “Marvelous Jamie Mangano.” What can I say? I was young and the actual requirements of being truly marvelous in this world were still a mystery to me.)

In an earlier blog post, I talked about POEMCRAZY, in which author Susan Wooldridge discusses the act of renaming as a way to resuscitate some aspect of ourselves that may be starved for oxygen. “New names seem to change people,” she says.

In the POEMCRAZY chapter “Our Real Names,” Ronnie, a young man in juvenile hall renames himself, thusly:

Let’s talk about death.
Yesterday my name was James.
Today, it’s tossing helium dream.
Tomorrow, my name will be
Gerald Flying off the Cliff,
Dave Mustang.
Inside my name is
dying heart,
sorrow
guilt
and a lotta hope.

My parents named me for a racehorse, Jamie K., who gave Native Dancer a run forjamiek his money in the Preakness and the Belmont a few years before I was born. This naming, perhaps, explains my early interest in horses—in a family in which no one else has ever ridden or owned a horse. And while that’s a fun story, and “Jamie” is a perfectly acceptable name, I have always wondered…. If I had lived my life as a Frederika or a Zoë—or even as a Grace or a Claire—would I have experienced the world differently?

I guess I’ll never know. Because, ultimately—unlike actress Sigourney Weaver, who, born “Susan Alexandra Weaver,” renamed herself, at the age of fourteen, after a minor character (Sigourney Howard) in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel THE GREAT GATSBYI let the name I was given harden around me. Until, now, it’s hard to tell where my name ends and I begin.

Writing prompt

How about you? What secret names do you have hidden in the roll-call of your deepest self? Make a list of them! Next, write out a pivotal scene from your life as you remember living it. Finally, take one of your secret names and begin a third-person account of the same situation, starring someone who bears a strong resemblance to you, but who answers to the name you chose. Allow the scene to deviate from the one you remember—and allow your other-named self to experience a different outcome.

Sometimes Art . . .

12191752_796580270470921_1313248362431253998_nDSCN0534IF REVISION* WERE A DOG, it would wear a hat and be foolish in public, because revision would want to get the most DOG out of each moment that it could. If revision were a fish, it would be out of water and dragging its school behind. If revision were an interior decorating scheme, it would cry out for spangle-y pinks and purples—unless it wanted the heat of reds and oranges—unless it wanted the cool underwater of blues and greens.

Sometimes art is the answer—but sometimes it’s revision. Sometimes it’s about seeing your work-in-progress as so many puzzle pieces, which you have to turn and match and try to fit. But sometimes it’s about diving deeper.

Sometimes revision wants to be smacked around, which can be a little scary—unless you have a safe word, and sometimes revision does have a safe word, in which case, it’s okay to play rough, which, sometimes, revision likes.

Revision’s about re-visioning, it’s about looking at what you’ve already done and asking what else you can do. But revision’s not “editing.” If writing were an injury, revision would be surgery, not massage.

Revision is a bit of a shepherd’s crook, tugging you off the stage when you think you’re ready to be out there. Revision knows when you haven’t fully paid your dues. Revision wants you to work harder—it’s stubborn like that. But revision will reward your work with a bag of gold so full you’ll be able to scatter coins far and wide, feeding the entire populace of your life—once you’ve done what revision wants you to do.

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* The art illustrating this post is a before-and-after of a piece I created in one of my art journals. It’s easy, often, to get stalled at an early stage of a piece of art or a piece of writing. Difficult, sometimes, to push through to the next level. Risky, always, to do so.

I’m grateful to Tammy Garcia—creator of Daisy Yellow Art and the extraordinary Daisy Yellow Facebook group—for her continuing inspiration. The lessons I’ve learned from Tammy and crew have helped me be more courageous on the page.

 

Writing Prompt: Singing the Blues

IN HONOR OF THAT OTHER AMERICAN tradition, join me and make a list of your current woes. Together, we can sing the blues! (I know. This runs counter to the most fundamental of Thanksgiving philosophies—but once we’ve purged our troubles, I’m betting we’ll be better-primed to list our blessings come November 26th!)

Writing prompt

So, we’ll start by creating our lists. Go ahead and jot down your current afflictions—as many or as few as you choose. Here’s my short list:

  • My BFF from wild-childhood just turned 60. Which means—guess what—I’m not far behind.
  • According to my periodontist (my relationship with whom is, in itself, worthy material for a blues song), I’m gearing up for a third gum graft.
  • If you look closely enough (and please don’t) you can see that my hair is thinning at the part.

Okay, now let’s turn our blues into blues LYRICS!51Z8W1N5JRL

12-bar blues lyrics are pretty simple: The basic verse pattern is AAB, AAB, AAB . . . for as long as you’ve got something to sing about. All three lines of each verse rhyme—and the first two lines of each verse are (almost) identical. Oh! And don’t forget to give your song an awesomely pitiful title. Here’s mine:

The Not Getting Any Younger Blues

A. My ol’ best friend’s gone way past the halfway point
A. Yeah, my ol’ best friend’s gone way past life’s halfway point
B. Now, I’m shuffling along just a step behind her,
hard of hearing and creaky of joint

A. My ol’ periodontist, he’s tellin’ me my gums are too thin
A. Yeah, my ol’ periodontist’s sayin’ my pink ol’ gums are thin
B. I gotta lay back in his chair again an’ let him patch some roof-of-my-mouth skin back in

A. My good ol’ hair’s thinner now than when I was young and fine
A. Oh, my good ol’ hair’s thinner than when I was young and fine
B. So I’m doin’ a swoop-di-doop comb-over just to cover up the ever-widening line

A. My ol’ best friend’s gone way past the halfway point
A. Yeah, my ol’ best friend’s gone way past life’s halfway point
B. I’m just shuffling along, hard of hearing, creaky of joint, and only one step behind

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If you’ve shuffled along this far with me, and want to learn more about the blues, check out PBS’s Blues Classroom and Danny Chicago’s “How to Write the Blues”!

Tarot Writing Prompt: Charming the Muse

MUSE DISAPPEARED? NEVER FEAR! Tarot poet Tabitha Dial and oracle creator Carrie Paris present … a muse you can fold into your pocket: The Muse Board!

the muse boardThe Muse Board’s playful directions jump-start creative-writing adventures. Click the image for your free, downloadable Board and print it. Then, like Arriety in THE BORROWERS, collect tiny household objects for game pieces. A needle threader, an acorn from last fall, a bead, a bullet (eek!), or an incense cone, will do nicely. Or ransack your game closet for Monopoly tokens or Scrabble letters.

Tarot Writing Prompt

After gathering your charms, toss a few onto The Muse Board. Now, free-write about the interface between your charms and the directions on the spaces where they fall! Have dice? Tabitha says, Toss a die or two before casting your charms. Let your roll indicate the number of sentences you’ll write, the words per line for a poem, or characters per story.

A random creativity-generator, The Muse Board is a great way to launch a family story, a poem-with-kids, or a lazy-Sunday-morning musing. (Sorry.) (Nah, not really!)

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Writing coach

Need help with your book? I’m available for book coaching and manuscript review!
Click to read Should I Hire a Writing Coach in THE WRITER magazine.

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