Category Archives: Writing Prompts

Facing It: Poetry Writing Prompt

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Kenneth Koch’s Rose Where Did You Get That Red is classic book of poetry invention exercises geared to fourth graders. He uses the structure and premise of existing poems as a template or recipe for a new poem. For example, the recipe you might extract from William Blake’s “Tyger” is: ask a magical creature how it was made and what makes it tick, and make each question describe an awe-inspiring aspect of the creature using metaphor. This recipe technique is a common writing prompt for adults, also.

Inspired by Koch and the “Where I’m From” poetry template broadly available online, I developed a template based on Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem “Facing It” which has resulted in some excellent student work in my college introduction to creative writing classes.

If you haven’t already, outlining some basic components of poetry reliably steers students in the right direction, especially those afraid of poetry.

Rough Poetry Rules

Poetry usually:

  • Uses images and more than one of the five senses to show rather than tell
  • Balances concrete and abstract word choices
  • Uses the space on page for evocation (line breaks to emphasize last and first words, white space and stanza breaks, etc)
  • Comes from the unconscious and speaks to the unconscious
  • Reverberates with more than one layer of meaning the more you read it
  • Uses language concisely (is compressed)
  • Involves leaps of association (from light to dark, inside to outside, etc)
  • Progresses (as in change of mood, plot, character-development, or perspective)

Good class discussions also occur when I ask students to extract their own recipes from published poems.

The Writing Prompt

Preparation: Yusef Komunyakaa’s  poem “Facing It” takes place in front of the black, reflective surface of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C.  Read the poem two or three times, each time asking students what images they remember ( as per Sheridan Blau’s literature workshop).  Note how Komunyakaa uses reflective surfaces to shift from outside to inside the reflection, from flesh to image, from surface to depth, from past to present, and from illusion to reality.

Directions for students:

Compose a poem following these steps. Break the rules wherever inspired. The numbered directions loosely correspond to the lines of the poem. When confused, notice how Komunyakaa’s poem does it and substitute your own images/ideas. Read the rest of this entry

Writing Prompt: Use Setting to Show Character and Theme

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Wind swept cedar at Kylemore Abbey in Connemara County, Ireland. Photo Credit: Lâle Davidson 2019

The way we see things is influenced by our mood. Setting detail can be used in a story to show character and highlight themes concretely, to “show instead of tell.” It’s also a way to make setting do double duty, which, Janet Burroway says in her many fine texts on writing, it is always good to do. Setting should never be mere decoration.

  1. Write a description of the tree in the picture above from the point of view of a man whose only son died at the age of ten. Do not tell us that his son has died. Do not refer to the death or the son directly in any way. Show his mood and imply the death by the way he looks at, talks about, or describes the tree.  We want to see, smell, hear, feel the tree and surroundings. Use words to describe the branches, bark, leaves, and posture of the tree that evoke his mood without telling us about it– or even mentioning the son. You can have him talking, or writing, or merely describe the tree in a dark way without the father’s presence at all. I leave that to you.
  2. Now describe the same picture from the point of view of a woman who has just given birth to a child.  Again–do not tell us that mention her pregnancy or body directly. Instead, show her mood by the way she looks at, and talks about the tree. Let us see, smell, hear, and feel the tree in concrete detail.

Often, in response to this prompt, students narrate the father and the mother’s thoughts as they look at the tree, or they create memories of the child. This isn’t a bad thing. After all, narrating people’s thoughts is one of many ways to show character, but the point of this prompt is to use concrete detail to create an image and to closely observe and then to chose diction that evokes a mood.

Toenail-Tombstone: a Group Writing Prompt

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typewriter.jpgAs I’ve mentioned somewhere before, I balk at the typical kind of writing prompt, like “Write about a secret” or “Imagine you just won an award.”

I like prompts that give you the material to manipulate, preferably with some element of chance, so that it causes you to trip over a stool and fall into a new piece of writing.

Here’s one I developed after walking in late on a session at a conference long ago. I never quite found out what the directions were or point was, so I developed my own.

Writing consists of splitting the brain between conscious and unconscious choice, between free association and deliberation. This exercise builds on that, isolating the activities so you can hone them in the same  way you would build up to a back hand spring.

Sit in a circle. Begin by warming the group up with quick associations. One person should say a word, say, toenail or pomegranate. The next person says the first thing that comes to mind, no pausing, no thinking, no passing. Then the next person says a word, then the next and the next. Keep it moving. If you freeze, say ugh, aaak!, lemon, blah, anything. Laughter is good. Do this until the words are flowing easily and no one is getting stuck. It may take as long as ten minutes.

Now slow down. Instead of choosing the first thing that comes to your mind, pause after the spoken word and allow your mind to leap from one word to the next until you come up with a peculiar, contrasting, truly unusual association, an association that causes friction or wonder. The next word should never be something that bears any close or common connection like toaster – oven. But toaster – tornado would be acceptable, or tornado – omelet.

Say the word slowly, savoring its flavor and texture.  Maybe even say it a few times, pronouncing short vowels long or long vowels short, or pronouncing odd spelling the way it looks, like veg-et-able, vege-table. Everyone should write it down on their pad.

If someone’s association is lame, don’t correct them. However the group facilitator may at some point ask people to slow down, pause longer and search farther. It is essential that that you not choose the first word that comes to mind, but the fourth or fifth, always going for the delightfully surprising, mysterious or strange. Do this until you have about 100 or so words – a thick, paragraph-sized chunk. Then throw it on a floured board and knead — oh wait, where was I?

Now write something and use every word in the chunk you collected.

Feel free to share results in your comments below!

Metaphor Writing Prompt 2

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Jonquils_and_English_Leaves (1)Here’s a prompt I got from Discovering the Writer Within: 40 Days to More Imaginative Writing by Bruce Ballenger and Barry Lane.  It won’t generate a poem or a whole piece like my synesthesia exercise, but it will produce a clever line or two for an essay. I don’t make a big distinction between similes and metaphors in this exercise, though I think they have different emotional impacts. (Metaphors, without the inter-mediation of the word “like” are more immediate, atmospheric and magical, hence better for stories of that nature. Similes are better for essays, but work fine in stories, too.)

Step 1: Put a line down the center of your page and fold in half.Then write down a random list of abstract concepts.  Then flip the page over and write down an equally random list of concrete things that you can see, taste, touch, hear or feel (try not write things that relate easily to the first list). Like so:

Abstract/General Concrete/Physical
Love

War

Peace

Prejudice

People

Nature

Cayenne Pepper

Marshmallow

Dirty sneaker

Swamp

Rust

Bitter cucumber tip

Step 2: Next, fill in the blanks of this sentence below  using one word from the abstract side and one word from the concrete side.

____(abstract noun)_________ is (like)____(concrete noun)__________.

When you do this, don’t pick things that match — pick something that seems oddly mismatched or is truly random.  This is important, because metaphors have more power when they take big leaps. If the leap is too small, there’s no snap. If the leap is too big, it’s called a conceit (which is a no-no for some — but I’m not a big nay-sayer).

Step 3: Now write a sentence that helps to explain.

For example:

  • Love is like cayenne pepper.  A little bit goes a long way.

Here’s one a student wrote years ago:

  • Love is like going to the moon.  It takes a long time to get there, but when you do, the earth looks very different.

Give it a try and have fun. Please feel free to reply with surprising outcomes.

 

Synesthesia, Metaphor and Oranges

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Citrus

  1. In a recent interview with The Collagist, I spoke about how metaphor is the core magic of writing. For many, metaphoric thinking comes naturally, but more and more of my students have difficulty going there. Here’s a foolproof way to fall backwards into metaphor, and if you’re trying to overcome an addiction, it can be a good substitute high. 
  1. Acquire an orange or other fruit. Don’t do this from memory. Get the physical thing. Describe it physically using all five senses:

Look at it and describe it in extreme physical detail.

Touch it and describe.

Squeeze and chew it, listen and describe.

Smell it and describe.

Taste it and describe.

  1. Next write all the things you associate with this fruit: smell, color, taste, etc. This is a a very quick exercise where you do very little thinking and choosing, you just blurt. Don’t worry about whether it makes any sense. The definition of brainstorming is that no idea is wrong or stupid. Put it all down whether it makes sense or not, but keep coming back to the fruit and branch out from there.
  1. Answer the following questions to create metaphors. You are now being asked to free-associate like in question 2, but to go one step further…keep free-associating until you find a truly unusual correspondence between two things which on the surface are very different, but which in some essence are similar. In other words, brainstorm, but don’t always chose the first thing you come up with. Keep brainstorming until you find a certain resonance between the physical sense of the orange and the animal or thing you are comparing it to…when you find the right word, you will literally feel a sense of release or expansion in your body, an internal “ah” where the feeling and the words reverberate with each other and make each other seem bigger or more rich. If you don’t experience any of this, don’t worry, just be silly.

a) How does the smell move inside your nose?

b) If the smell was a kind of animal with a distinctive movement, what kind of animal would it be?

c) How does the taste move inside your mouth?

d) If the taste was a world event (a party, a war, a rally, a nap), what kind of event would it be?

e) What kind emotion is the color of this fruit?

f) If this fruit was a building, what kind of building would it be?

g) If you went inside this building, what would it be like?

h) If this fruit was a kind of weather, what kind weather would it be?

i) If the feeling or texture of this fruit was a certain habitat (beach, forest, desert, suburb, city), what kind of habitat would it be?

j) When you take the skin and bend it next to your ear, what does it sound like?

k) If this fruit were an instrument, what would it be and how would it sound if you played it?

l) If this orange was a form of locomotion, what would it be (a plane, a train, a flying dragon) and how would it feel to ride it?

See, who needs drugs? All the benefits and none of the side-effects.

  1. Now look at all this mad scribble, and pull out the best parts. Fashion some kind of statement about this in a paragraph or three, making sure that it is full of surprising images and physical descriptions and associations.

      5. Now see if you can fashion this into a poem. Start with the sensory information and       try to end with a leap or discovery. Here’s something I wrote from it: 

Strawberry

This strawberry is my daughter’s pursed red mouth

that my husband fell into the day she was born

and never recovered from.

This strawberry is a song in my mouth

full and soggy as a French horn

A cellar’s cool respite on a hot

summer’s day.

This strawberry is a furry heart, the ripped

valves of my sister’s,

The dark, blind love between my siblings that

never blooms

This bruisable flesh,

this gravity’s center,

this Tibetan temple with no doors

guards secrets

attained only by

silence

 

 

 

Use the Random to Write

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510-playing-cards-randomI read a poem in a magazine recently by someone famous who shall remain nameless, and it made absolutely no sense. Each line/image seemed random and unrelated to the next.  He/she then wrote an explanation of what the poem meant or what life experience it rose from, and again, it seemed to have nothing to do with the poem.  What a great writing prompt, I thought.  So here it is:

Write ten random sentences. Just look around you and write down ten thoughts that occur as you look. Be sure to get something concrete/physical/visual in each line.  Or if you’ve been writing in the same spot for 100 years and are sick of your surroundings, pick ten random lines from 10 different poems by other people. If you happen to miss-read the lines, even better.

Then write a preposterous explanation of what it all means.  Or, if you like, somehow fashion these 10 lines into a coherent piece, changing them all to make them your own, of course.

This exercise has never failed to generate new material for me. Hope it does the same for you.