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!
I’VE LOOKED AT THIS CARD SO MANY TIMES. Is there anything I haven’t seen? There’s the lyre embroidered on the patriarch’s cloak; the heraldry on the archway; the shy little kid, who will barely remember her grandfather when she’s grown; the gray pups, grateful for their master’s notice; the graceful young couple; the flat blue sky of autumn. I’ve noticed all these details before.
Today, I challenge myself to find something new, something significant—at least to my understanding of the card—something I haven’t noticed before.
My gaze travels around the edges of the image. Nothing new there. I pull my focus back and take in the scene as a whole. Nope. Still nothing. Homing in on the middle of the card, I notice the woman’s fond (and familiar-to-me) glance at her husband. Following that glance, I consider the curve, like a sail, of the man’s blue cloak.
Lovely, but … significant?
Then, as my eyes travel that blue curve, I see it! The young man holds a staff, a detail I have never noticed in the hundreds of times I’ve considered this image! With this observation, suddenly his grip and his posture evoke the dynamic Magician holding his wand aloft! Although the young man in the Ten of Pentacles has yet to raise his own staff high enough to invoke its power, this subtle suggestion of The Magician’s potency changes—yes, significantly—the stories I can tell myself about this card.
Now, I perceive the courtyard within the skirt wall’s embrace as a womb, a cauldron, a place designed to protect and foster the young man’s latent powers. And, jeez, what stories could that notion conjure?
“The devil is in the details,” they say, but so is the life force animating every moment. Here, we find that force pulsing at the exact center of the image, the spot from which all the card’s energy emanates—challenging the weighty, static notions of generational obligation and inheritance that can be associated with this card.
Having experimented myself with this oh-so-familiar image, I offer you this …
Tarot Writing Prompt
Look closely at a familiar image, maybe a family photo. Jot down a dozen or so details as you scan the image, seeking the juice, the motor, among those details. Ask yourself, “Is it this? This? This?” Such close observation reveals what’s pulsing underneath. That, in turn, builds energy for writing.
Next, write the scene which occurs to you to write from either the cumulative weight of all the details you’ve noticed or from your close, fresh observation of just one. Make whatever associative leaps you need to get yourself someplace new.
EXTRA CREDIT! After writing that scene, let it cool for a day or two. Then, return to what you’ve written and to the list of details that inspired it. Reconsider both. Do you see anything that escaped your notice before? Write a new scene based on your second look.
THE FIGURE IN RED is doling out alms, and he’s doing it judiciously, measuring out equal amounts to each of the recipients. He’s also holding enough aside for his own needs. His scales help him keep his giving in balance.
As writers, we could do with a pair of scales. Not for measuring the cash we’re handing out, but for noticing how much of our precious time we dedicate to others and how much we conserve for our own use.
You see, writing takes time—and not just time that’s packed in around the corners of other obligations. Writing requires time that’s set aside as preciously as if the hours were so many gold coins.
Today, the Six of Pentacles, asks you to take charge of your time. It suggests you weigh out your minutes, hours, and days and allocate them consciously. Give generously, of course. But at the end of the day, make sure you haven’t broken the bank and left your writing to go begging at someone else’s feet.
I’M WRITING A BOOK that includes tarot writing prompts (out next year—stay tuned!). In the process, I’ve roped twenty-one writer friends into guinea-pigging some of the prompts. Which led me to BFF Jill’s kitchen table last night, where we each took a running leap at the Ace of Pentacles.
While I won’t spill the actual prompt, I am going to share my response. (Jill’s beautiful piece and the prompt that elicited it will both be in the book.) As you read what I wrote, though, see if you can reverse engineer it and find a prompt to play with yourself.
He told me this story 25 years ago, and maybe he’s past it now. But maybe not. Anyway, this is how I heard it …
He’d gone out for the evening, leaving his recovering-cocaine-addict ex-wife babysitting their eight-year-old son. When he returned, the kid was asleep and his ex was on the couch watching a movie.
He plopped down to join her. Suddenly, as the camera pulled in close on the lead actress, he found himself flushed, the sweat of attraction prickling. He was hooked, he said, the same way he’d been when he first met his ex—and the coke-head girlfriend before her.
When the credits finally rolled, his ex-wife gestured at the screen. “That woman,” she said, “had a raging coke habit when she made that movie.” Then she shrugged the whatcha gonna do? shrug of a former addict, gave him a hug, and let herself out the door.
That’s when he got it: No matter what, no matter how many meetings he attended, no matter how many hours he spent talking to his therapist, no matter how many years of sobriety he himself had, if there was an active cocaine user in any room, the beacon of her addiction would blind him to every other woman there. He would stumble towards her as if he were hypnotized. And there wasn’t a damned thing he could do about it.
Except this: From that moment on, he could remind himself that if he was suddenly and heart-poundingly desperate to accept what a woman was holding out to him, for sure, that offer would eventually prove too good to be true.
Tarot writing prompt
So, that was my response to the prompt Jill and I tackled. And it surprised me. The memory of being told that story was buried deep. But it surfaced as I began to write.
As you probably know, timed writing to a prompt—committing ten, twenty, even thirty minutes to just letting our pen or fingers fly, not stopping to censor or reread—allows us access to parts of our mind we may not usually get to when we write more deliberately.
It can produce raw, rough, open-ended results. But that’s sort of the point. Either we just enjoy the process and appreciate the unpredictable product, or maybe we take what we’ve created and use it as a starting point for something else—fodder for a fresh direction we might not have accessed otherwise.
For me, sitting at Jill’s table, rain beating down, cats sacked out nearby, the prompt I’d created for the Ace of Pentacles triggered a long-held memory. I was happy just to get it out of my brain and onto the page.
Is it deathless prose? Not at all! It’s not even an entire story (although I could make the case that it has a character arc). Still, I wrote. And sometimes that is more than half the battle.
While you’ll have to wait until the book comes out to see the exact prompt we used Saturday night, here are two clues: The main thrust of it is contained somewhere in the final sentence—and it’s metaphorically illustrated by a major element of the accompanying tarot card.
But whether you want to play detective and puzzle out that prompt, or you want to read the story I wrote and let that—or the image of the Ace, or the idea of a rainy Saturday night spent sitting at a kitchen table with a friend—trigger a memory or story of your own, have at it! Let your flying pen or fingers provide a chute for your imagination to slip through onto the page.
LIKE MOST OF US AT SOME TIME, the figure in the Ten of Wands bears a burden. She may have taken on the weight of a family conflict or, perhaps, she is staggering under a load of debt. Or maybe she’s carrying a multiplicity of stresses—long work hours, a child’s ill health, car troubles—which have added up to overwhelm.
When we feel likewise burdened, a good list-making session can help us separate out the various elements that comprise our current load. Once they’re untangled, we might find we can prioritize, deciding which big sticks to break into kindling before the camel’s back is broken.
On the other hand, our burdens might seem too amorphous, undefined, too slippery to be corralled into a list. We may only know we are teetering at the edge of our ability to cope. If that’s the case, the following exercise might help us get a peek at our more nebulous—yet still weighty—burdens.
Let’s dig in.
Tarot writing prompt
If you, like the figure in the Ten of Wands, are feeling weighed down, but, unlike her, can’t point to the precise nature of the burden that has you bent in half, give this (admittedly weird) exercise a try.
Grab a journal and describe your burden as if it were an object: Include things like the weight of it, its size, its color, its shape. Where do you carry it? How does it smell? Is it new or old? What does it sound like? Taste like? What texture does it have? Is it flexible? Or is it rigid? How many moving parts does it have? Does it need a power source? (You might find your list is the basis for a poem!)
Once you’ve spent sufficient ink to give yourself a concrete (albeit metaphoric) idea of your burden, do the following: Write a scene in which your burden (now a living beast in your imagination) plays a role. You might turn it into a character or let it act as the proverbial elephant in the room. It’s your burden! Make it work for you—at least on the page.
And who knows? Maybe asserting your authority over a fictive version of your burden will have a ripple effect. Perhaps, after doing so, you’ll find your relationship to your real-life burden shifting, even if only by a single straw.
Some writing inspiration
The classic THE THINGS THEY CARRIED, by Tim O’Brien, is a novel of lists. Heartbreaking lists. Lists of things soldiers carry as they trek through their deployment in Vietnam.
Reading poems from Dorianne Laux‘s collection WHAT WE CARRY can make us feel less alone with our burdens. (Laux is also the co-author of THE POET’S COMPANION, a wonderfully inspiring and informative book, which will enrich writing of any kind, not just poetry.)
THE QUEEN OF SWORDS IS A STRAIGHT-UP TRUTH TELLER. And she’s not worried about offending people, either. But, while this may very well make her the patron saint of memoir writers, she knows it’s not necessarily easy—nor safe—to follow her lead. Memoirists may be wary of putting their truth on the page. They may be concerned others will judge them. Or, they may feel guilt about revealing the harmful (or deceitful, immoral, or criminal) behaviors of someone close to them. They may even fear retribution from such a person.
Writing the truth can be a serious—and, sometimes, risky—business. That’s why the Queen of Swords recommended I include this in my Terms and Conditions: Writing is deep work that comes with its own risks and discoveries. While I will endeavor to support you in your writing, I am neither a therapist nor an attorney. However, as you continue on your writing path, you may find the services of one or both offer you valuable guidance.
So, yeah. Serious business.
If you find yourself stymied when wanting to tell your story while avoiding upsetting someone else, the Queen of Swords may be able to help you slice through. Hers is the sword of discrimination. It separates the hard, nutritious kernels of truth from the chaff of words written to please others. And she brooks no nonsense from family, friends, or coworkers when she’s doing her honorable work.
At least, not in her first draft.
You see, we travel a long road between our first, exploratory draft—in which we record as much of the truth as we can remember and feel and understand—and our final draft, polished and ready to send out for publication. And there are many rest stops in the miles between those drafts. Those rest stops are perfect places for us to pause and consider whether to hit delete on passages that feel too hot, too pointed, too dangerous, or to keep them intact—until our next revision, at any rate.
Tarot writing prompt
With the clear-eyed Queen of Swords as an uncompromising example, try this: Pull out a memory that stings. Perhaps it’s of a secret you were told to keep. Or maybe it’s a memory of a trusted person hurting you or someone else. Or of something you did, something about which you carry shame. Or fear. Or both.
Whatever you’re ready to uncover, write about it as fully as you can—just for yourself, for the moment. You might need to do this in increments. Start with ten minutes. Then return for another ten-minute session … and another and another, until you have all the parts of the story and the accompanying feelings on the page.
Take as long as you need. Days. Weeks. Months. Years.
While you’re in the process, you might want to hide your notebook or camouflage the file you’re creating. Do so, if it will make you feel safer. And when you review what you’ve written, if it’s too much, too hot, you might decide to delete or shred the story in its entirety. You might also, as suggested above, consult with a therapist or counselor as you journey along this path. Do whatever you need to make you feel safer, protected, supported.
With these caveats in mind, then, if you have a wound in your writer’s heart, consider lancing it with the sword of truth. It’s your life. Write it down.
I’ll go first, okay?
This is a story I’ve feared sharing, both because I might be judged harshly for my behavior and because in it I point at my father’s difficult behaviors. It’s a double-memoir-whammy-bind!
What happened is this: A long-lost relative contacted my family (damn you, Ancestory.com!). This relative had a particular interest in meeting my father. But they were my long-lost relative, too. And I got there first. Then, I opened my mouth and toads and snakes fell out as I described my early life with my father, who, good points/bad points, could be violent, and unpredictably so.
Soon after, my father died. Without this person ever contacting him.
For the next several years, I ran a losing race with guilt. But one night, as I was circling the track yet again, a friend sliced to the heart of the matter. “Did you tell that long-lost relative the truth about your father?” she asked. “Your own truth? As honestly as you could”
Well, yes. I did.
“Then,” my friend said, “it is what it is. People make their own choices.”
She’s right. My father chose to act the way he did. I chose to disclose. The relative chose not to connect.
It is what it is.
So, while this story isn’t actually about writing down the truth (although, I have now written it down), it is about the risks we take when we decide to share our truth, and about the possible consequences of doing so.
The fear of such potential consequences keeps many would-be memoirists from writing their stories in the first place. Embarking on a memoir can raise a lot of questions, like: Whom will this hurt? How will I be perceived? Will I ruin relationships—either my own or those of the people about whom I write? Even if I’m telling the truth?
When I speak with a writer who faces questions like these, I never suggest they cast aside these considerations and just publish their raw truth—consequences and concerns and family be damned. But, first draft? The one only you will read? There, you can look your truth square in the eye and let “the vorpal blade [go] snicker-snack.” Then, in a cooler light, see whether or how or if it serves you to release that truth into the world.
YOU KNOW HOW THINGS LOOK DIFFERENT IN THE REAR VIEW MIRROR?A backwards glance can offer us a new perspective on where we’ve been. Like a literary rear view mirror, backstory lets readers know where we—or our characters—have come from. In doing so, backstory can reveal a character’s motivation, which, in turn, may elicit sympathy for that character’s present, less-appealing actions or attitudes.
WHAT IS BACKSTORY? A definition
Whether we’re writing memoir, fiction, or a piece of literary journalism, backstory gives context to the story being told. It comprises events—internal (an anxiety attack, for example) or external (loss of a child, for example)—which have occurred before the story starts and are relevant to the story being told.
In a story about a dissolving marriage, the loss of the couple’s child would certainly be relevant. If the child died before we meet the couple, then the death and the characters’ subsequent emotions are backstory—relevant past events.
In a story about a woman wanting to break the World Land Speed Record, the loss of the main character’s best friend’s child would likely not be relevant to the unfolding of the main story thread.
HOW CAN WE USE BACKSTORY MOST EFFECTIVELY? Wait, wait, don’t tell me!
Opinions (of course) vary about how soon is too soon to incorporate backstory. For instance, brilliant film-and-novel-writing guy Robert McKee of STORY fame says to avoid backstory completely for the first three chapters! He believes this gives readers a chance to attach to the forward-moving story, creating a reason for them to care about what’s come before.
Other quite successful writers, however, actually start with backstory. In fact, thriller writer Julie Compton and I created a backstory workshop based on her well-received novel RESCUING OLIVIA, which introduces a fairly lengthy backstory passage quite early in the book. (CLICK HERE to read a post that uses RESCUING OLIVIA’S opening for an example.)
It is typical, though, for writers to hit the ground running. They’ll often start a first chapter in media res (in the middle of the present action), and then, in chapter two, turn back to consider earlier events to give their opening context.
Just say no to the info dump!
An “info dump” is a big chunk of information—especially backstory—“dumped” onto the page all at once. Whether your dump truck delivers your backstory via dialogue, narration, or internal narrative, readers will have trouble processing, and thus, remembering, backstory given in too big a lump.
Instead, think of backstory as breadcrumbs. Scatter small bits along the unfolding story path, informing your reader of what’s happened in the past on a need-to-know basis.
Ways and means committee
Among other techniques, you might deliver backstory via
flashback (a past experience given in scene—including sensory detail and a “real-time” unfolding of events)
dialogue (your characters simply discuss events that happened before the story started)
or as internal narrative (your character remembers events and considers them internally).
No matter how you deliver it, though, use as light a hand with backstory as you can. Err on the side of less is more.
Enough about me! What do other folks have to say about backstory?
Finally, if you want to thumb your nose at my light-hand-with-backstory approach, here’s a super-successful memoir that shovels in about one full ton of backstory—in pretty large doses—and does so beautifully: WILD, by Cheryl Strayed.
IS IT JUST ME? OR DOES WHERE WE WRITE AFFECT WHAT WE WRITE?
For instance, my novelist pal Margaret writes at home. Each morning at five she rises, lets the dogs out, puts on the kettle, boots up her laptop and settles onto her quiet porch, where she taps out lovely, quiet stories of single women, their dogs, and the porches where they sip tea.
Margaret’s kid, Sam, writes in night cafes. Scrawling long-hand, he records the frantic rattle of the twenty-something life that throngs around him. Sam’s work has sirens in it—flirtation, drugs, disaster—but no quiet stories. No dogs.
Certainly, writing doesn’t always reflect the spot where it’s produced. Just as certainly, writers—creatures of great habit—often have, in addition to a favorite pen or writing program, a favorite place to write. Like Baby Bear’s chair, the spot we’ve carved from a world of chaos can feel just right.
But once habit takes the short leap to superstition (I can only write …in the bathtub? at my table at Starbucks? in the library? at the zoo?), we’ve given our creative power away.
Where’s the last place you’d ever want to write? Where would you love to write but haven’t? Like Winter, try moving your writing chair.
If you’re a writer who needs absolute ear-plugged silence to get a word on the page (Hello, me!), take a trip to a local music hot-spot and write while guitars and synthesizers fuss and wail.
If you’re an out-and-about, hip sort of writer, settle yourself on a mossy seat in a forest or by a lake. Get your own heartbeat on paper. Write about the quiet in green ink.
It’s a big ol’ world out there. Take your laptop on a field trip. Grab some of that big ol’ energy for your writing. Who knows? Like Milo, you might find a new, just-right spot—and maybe even a new, just-right voice to go with it.
This post is a revision of a piece I wrote in 2008 for my then-blog, Workshop Porkchop. I was an adventuring writer at the time. Now, more of a stay-at-home writer, this is a good reminder for me. I hope it inspires your writing and my own!
PENNING A PLOT IS A WILD RIDE—for both the writer and the character whose story is being told. Ups! Downs! Chills! Thrills! And then … that horrifying moment halfway through your draft when you, author, realize you don’t know what happens next!
For ten years, I’ve been helping writers extricate themselves from exactly that hairy spot—using a process called the Plot Clock. A virtual AAA road map of a narrative, the Plot Clock shows writers how to organize story events to get their characters to make the changes needed to fulfill their story’s purpose.
SOMETIMES, I JUST WANT to give a tarot archetype a good shake! The Knight of Pentacles, for example. Sure, he’s got plenty of good qualities: He’s hard working, loyal, and reliable. You can trust him with your last dollar, which he’ll prudently invest for you.
But he’s so freakin’ cautious! Before taking any action, he’ll weigh every possible pro and con—leading you to ask, “How much research is really necessary before you just go to Best Buy and replace the microwave that blew up TWO MONTHS AGO?” (Did I mention I was married to this guy?)
His caution extends to writing, too. Under his influence, we might believe we should know exactly what we’re going to say before we commit so much as a word to the page. Which, for sure, will stop us dead in our writing tracks. For this reason, the Knight of Pentacles might well be the Patron Saint of Writer’s Block.
Tarot writing prompt
Making a list, checking it twice: Simple as it sounds, list-making is a stealth move that will help you slip beyond this knight’s too-careful sway. Put aside ten minutes and pick a topic. You might decide to create a shopping list for yourself or a character, or a list of your favorite girls’ names, or of a frenemy’s worst traits. How about a list of places you’ve lived? Or places you’d like to visit? Cats in your life? Street names in your subdivision? Super heroes? Planets (actual or fictional) most likely to support life?
Whatever you choose, the trick to truly inspired list-making is to push your brain past the obvious (hello, Mr. Knight?), which is what it will dole out at first. Do this by committing to a larger-than-reasonable number of items. So, once you’ve picked a topic, number your page from 1-50 and go! Then, when you’ve got your fifty, choose the most intriguing item from your list. Set a timer for five minutes and take off from that idea, writing as fast as you can. When the timer dings, pick another item and begin again.
Believe me, when you look up from this exercise, that stodgy Knight of Pentacles will be nowhere in sight. (Who knows? Maybe he’ll have finally ambled off to Best Buy!)
The Poetry Foundation has a great little article by Michael McGriffon using list-making to rev your writing engine. It includes a two-part writing exercise that can help you dig deep while you’re moving fast!