AS A CHILD READER, I hungered for the dishes fictional characters devoured. British kids in Noel Streatfeild’sSHOES books breakfasted on “fry ups” of sausage, eggs, sliced bread, and kippers, while Hansel and Gretel feasted famously on marzipan windows and cookie-dough sills.
Back then, fairy godmothers impressed me less than huge castle feasts, the treacle from Alice’s well, her little cakes and comfits, and the Snow Queen’s Turkish delight.
And then there was “Stone Soup.” A ravenous little girl, I salivated when clever Fox, after declaring to the other Animals that he could make soup with just a stone, enticed his guests to add herbs, lentils, carrots—a stalk of celery, here, a grand, round potato there—until, voilà! Boiling in Fox’s cauldron was a magnificent soup made (almost) from a single stone.
Now that I’m a still-peckish adult, the journal ALIMENTUM: The Literature of Food feeds my need for pages of pasta, potatoes, porridge. Publishing fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction exclusively about food, ALIMENTUM delivers a tasty meal, complete with napkin, right to your inbox.
Dig into the cupboards of your imagination and the crisper drawers of your creativity and cook up the story of an unexpected soup. Metaphorical or actual, let whatever you dish up have unexpected benefits—or unexpected consequences!
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?
* * *
Image is of a Free 3D stopwatch. Find them here. *Thanks to Bonnie Cehovetfor seeing the possibilities here.
MAKE NO MISTAKE: SWEET AS THIS SCENE may appear, that lion has teeth. And claws. And a ravenous hunger! Oh, my!
Most days, we could catch sight of him happily slurping the blood of his prey. But not today. Because, with kindness, skill, and patience, this character has tamed the beast, creating an ally of him—and becoming his ally as well.
Tarot writing prompt
So. Who’s the beast in your or your character’s world?
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.
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.
SOME PEOPLE SEE THE QUEEN OF CUPS as a nurturer. Me? I see her as dialed into psychic radio A1R24/7. Just look at how she’s staring at that cup! I bet she could spill some uncanny stories if she wanted to. But since we’re not likely to get them out of her, I’ll have to hand the fortune-telling chores over to you.
Tarot writing prompts
1) Has your life ever been significantly impacted by either a psychic reading or a sudden bolt of intuition? If so, get your story down on the page (exaggerating as much as necessary to convey the full drama of the situation!).
2) Write about someone who receives a mystical message from a medium, and either acts on the message or ignores it. Be sure to include high-stakes consequences either way.
3) Develop a character who inadvertently starts channeling telepathic information. What is it about? Politics? Health? Is her information accurate? Who does she tell? Does she consider it a curse or a gift? And which do you think it is?
4) There’s a slumber party: six girls and a Ouija board. What could possibly go wrong?
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.
AS CHESS PLAYERS KNOW, figuring out a strategy takes time. You need to contemplate all your options—and anticipate, as best you can, what will happen as a result of each.
In this way, the Two of Wands is a bit of a chess player. A successful merchant, he is sitting pretty in his villa by the sea, examining the opportunities available to him and evaluating their risks. Since he’s so comfortable, any move he makes must offer enough potential return to make gambling what he’s got worthwhile.
Will he? Make the move? Take the risk?
He doesn’t have to. After examining his alternatives, the Two of Wands could happily turn his back on the possibilities and just retire to his pleasant villa, where, no doubt, a wonderful breakfast has been spread for his enjoyment.
Which is why he’s not actually a chess player. An actual chess player doesn’t have a choice. She has to make her first move, and then another, and another—until checkmate (or stalemate) occurs. In professional chess, there’s even a timer to push the players along. But there’s no timer for the Two of Wands. No real urgency to make a move. Because of this, he’s only banked embers, only stored potential—unless he acts.
So, what will that delicious breakfast cost him? If he turns his back on his opportunities, he may simply never know.
Tarot writing prompt
Put your character in a hard-earned sweet spot. Her life is just right. Describe it. Have her revel in it. Then (because if we’re not growing we’re dying), offer her an option, one that’s almost irresistible, but would require her to move out of her comfort zone. Let her equivocate. Evaluate. Then dial up the pressure. Ratchet up the stakes.
Write about two alternative outcomes:
1) She holds. (What does she lose by not taking the risk? And what cascade of events occur predicated on that loss?)
2) She leaps. (What pushed her to take a chance? And what happens—next and next and next—because she did?)
For further ideas on why a character might hesitate to act, check out this blog post on reluctant heroes.
And, even more to the Two-of-Wands point, there’s a fabulous scene in the film STRANGER THAN FICTION, in which the Will Ferrell character locks himself in his apartment trying to avoid his story—a story that finds him, nonetheless.
“Will you walk a little faster?” said a whiting to a snail, “There’s a porpoise close behind us, and he’s treading on my tail. See how eagerly the lobsters and the turtles all advance! They are waiting on the shingle – will you come and join the dance? Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you join the dance? Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, won’t you join the dance?
“You can really have no notion how delightful it will be When they take us up and throw us, with the lobsters, out to sea!” But the snail replied “Too far, too far!” and gave a look askance — Said he thanked the whiting kindly, but he would not join the dance. Would not, could not, would not, could not, would not join the dance. Would not, could not, would not, could not, could not join the dance.
“What matters it how far we go?” his scaly friend replied. “There is another shore, you know, upon the other side. The further off from England the nearer is to France — Then turn not pale, beloved snail, but come and join the dance. Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you join the dance? Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, won’t you join the dance?