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.
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The photo illustrating this post is “Pulitzer prize winning photo” by betke2 and is licensed under CC0 1.0.
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 Cehovet for 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 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.
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.