Writers often hear the advice, “write what you know,” but my philosophy is, “write what you WANT to know.” A good way to begin discovering your story’s theme is to ask questions because we come to understand who we are and our place in the world by asking questions.
In the 12-minute video below, the creators of the animated movie “Inside Out” share how the theme of their story emerged for them over time as they went on a quest of discovery.
Ok, I lied. This post isn’t really about writing advice from a Tasmanian cave spider—more like life advice.
Hang with me for a moment. You’ll see what I mean.
After taking nearly a year off from writing poetry, I had an idea to kick start 2015 with the goal of writing two to three new poems a week for the month of January. But I wasn’t feeling very inspired. Some pretty heavy stuff was going on in my life, and I felt drained.
Then, a gift arrived in the mail.
My blogging partner Carly sent me The Crafty Poet: A Portable Workshop, by Diane Lockward (I hadn’t even mentioned my goal to her…scary how we think alike, isn’t it?)
Now, I’m normally NOT a “prompt” person but being the good friend that I am, I felt I should at least flip through the book so I could extend my sincere gratitude to her. (Wink. Wink). Late one night, I dragged the book to bed with me and the strangest thing happened—the pages reached out and grabbed me and wouldn’t let go.
Hands down, best poetry craft and prompt book. Ever. Nine of the ten poems I’ve written so far this month were inspired by the book.
But what does this have to do with a Tasmanian cave spider? Read more
Do you ever feel a bit of restlessness about writing? It’s as though an idea or epiphany is dancing at the edge of your brain. You know you want to write but can’t quite settle down to do it.
Those are times when I like to pick a prompt and freewrite. The prompts put me in a groove and help work out the fluttery energy that’s holding me back.
If that sounds like something that might help you, check out the five prompts below. Set a timer and see what your writing reveals. You might turn your ideas and images into an essay, a poem, a short story, or a scene in a novel.
1. Write about something you lost. Don’t you hate it when you misplace something? I feel so out of sorts. Maybe it’s not a possession you lost, but a relationship or an opportunity. No matter what the loss, it can be painful in its own way. Note your emotions about the loss. What are the consequences of the loss?
2. Write a letter. Is there someone you want to reach out to? Maybe there’s something left unsaid to someone important in your life. Maybe you want to write a mash note to someone. Go for it.
3. Write about something that made you angry in the past week. Are you stewing about something that happened this week? What small or large injustice needles you? Write it out.
4. Describe the backyard of your childhood. What kind of games did you play. Did you have a vegetable garden? I remember my sister and I opening the windows and turning on the stereo in the house and dancing in the yard with our girlfriends.
5. Write about the place you love most? If you could live anywhere you wanted, where would it be? What is your definition of home? Where do you most feel at home? Where do you feel most at peace? Whether you’re there now or long to be somewhere else, write about it.
Sometimes I get into a writing funk. It’s as though I’m frozen in place.
Maybe this has happened to you. You’ve gone through a stressful event, you’re not sleeping well, or you’ve been consumed by work deadlines. Stress and fatigue are known to affect creativity and inhibit the brain from generating creative ideas.
I find that the harder I think when I’m in my slump, the more I blank out. I’ve learned that I need to think differently. I need to activate the part of my brain that comes up with new ideas, instead of the part that is sparked by stress.
One of the things I do to re-energize myself is read good works of literature. I also find that doing a few writing exercises helps me out of my rut.
One of my favorite books for this is The Daily Poet: Day-By-Day Prompts For Your Writing Practice by Kelli Russell Agodon and Martha Silano. If you’re in a slump, try this prompt from The Daily Poet.
Choose a color. Now write a poem only using images of that color. For example, if you chose white, your poem might include clouds, snow, yogurt, angels, paper, ping-pong balls, or plastic bags. The poem may or may not evoke an emotion associated with your chosen color.
Here are two more prompts from another of my favorite writing books, Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir by Natalie Goldberg. This book is geared towards writing memoir but the prompts are equally good for writing essays and poems and even coming up with the seed of an idea for a short story or character. Here are two sample prompts from the book:
Knew. What did you know that you didn’t want to know? Go. Ten minutes.
Repair. What have you tried to repair? Write for 10 minutes.
One of the things I love about teaching is what I learn from it myself. In a recent memoir writing class, I gave students a writing prompt based on a story I’d heard about a man who only wrote in lists.
I told the student to write their memoir in 20 statements.
What they wrote was revealing, funny, and at times sad. I also realized that each statement could be a springboard for writing an essay, a chapter for a longer manuscript, or a poem.
If you’re searching for a way into your writing, try it yourself and see what you come up with.
For more ideas about ways to write a memoir, read my posts Four ways to write about your life and Four ways to write about your life, part 2.
I believe you have to make your own writing inspiration rather than waiting for it to happen. I’ve found I can generate inspiration by being observant, reading, and by using writing prompts and freewriting. Even when I feel resistance, I find that if I just start, I surprise myself.
One of the most effective prompts I use is one in which I type or write in a notebook, “I remember.” Then I time myself for about 20 minutes and list everything I can think of. If you’re trying to access memories for a memoir or to spark a short story or poetry ideas, you’ll be surprised at what this exercise reveals.
The second step is to do the same thing with the phrase, “I don’t remember.” You might think, “how can I write about what I don’t remember if I don’t remember it?” Have faith. These prompts are a good way of letting go of writing resistance. These exercises, especially done together, have a way of revealing themes and emotional moments that will take your writing to a whole new level.
What are your favorite ways to warm up for writing or excavate new ideas?
For more ideas to nurture writing inspiration, read Carol’s post, Four ways to cultivate writerly inspiration.
Some people think writing exercises are a waste of time. I heard one writer once say, “just write your story.” But I’ve found that writing prompts can be a doorway for something surprising – an intriguing plot or the birth of a character.
In one writing workshop I attended, participants were instructed to write about the tools they needed to do their job. I didn’t expect anything compelling but found that as I wrote, the words picked up steam, spilling out a very emotional essay about a story I had reported on as a journalist.
Since then, I’ve collected interesting exercises and think of them as warm-ups when I need to flex my writing muscles. As I was doing some reorganizing recently, I ran across a favorite book called The Write-Brain Workbook: 366 Exercises to Liberate Your Writing, by Bonnie Neubauer.
Here are a couple exercises from “The Write-Brain Workbook.”
Exercise 1 – Spoiled Rotten Read more