At some point in our writing careers we all fall prey to the Google search, “writing prompts.” Like hypochondriacs trying to self-diagnose, we’re looking for a cure to our writer’s block. And like our hypochondriac compatriots we find that the internet is filled with shabby sites that promise a cure but deliver dubious advice. Maybe it’s just me (my searches may not be worded well enough to catch the detailed SEO content of the good sites) but writing prompt websites give some pretty cliched and tired prompts. (It’s a dark and stormy night and there’s a knock at the kitchen door. A mysterious man holding an envelope enters. Go!)
If you’re truly stuck, this can be more exhausting and disheartening than writing a bunch of bunkum. Gathered from workshops and advice from writers, I’ve compiled 5 writing prompts that will actually get you writing. The best part? These prompts are nearly inexhaustible. You can use them over and over and over when you feel like you’ve hit an impasse. So what are you waiting for? Try 1, 2 or all 5!
Layers in a Space
Where are you sitting? A coffee shop? Your apartment? A park bench? Think about all the people (or things) that inhabited that exact space before you. Why were they there? What were they doing? What lesson or insight did they glean? Use the space to connect 3-5 stories together.
This one is a classic technique that started with the Dadaists and continues into present day. Take a random work containing at least 50 words (try a newspaper article, car manual, presidential campaign speech, reddit post, etc.). Sometimes the more mundane the piece the more material you’ll have! Once you have your piece, take a highlighter or pen and mark all the words you find interesting. Try to stay away from conjunctions. After you have around 20 words or more, go in order from top to bottom and use the words to create a poem or short story.
Think of something you do every day: make a cup of coffee, brush your teeth, water houseplants, etc. Now exalt that act–raise it to new heights! Praise the simplicity with complex and exuberant language. Want a different twist? Take an everyday action and decry it for a fallacy or useless action. (Do we really need socks? Are they just clever prisons created by the establishment to hinder the freedom of feet?)
Verb/Noun into Image
Inspired by William Carlos Williams’, “no ideas but in things” this prompt asks you to take a verb, noun or phrase and turn it into an image. What would ambition look like in concrete form? The slow poking through of a basil leaf in a tin can in an apartment window? A yorkshire terrier slowly de-fuzzing a tennis ball twice the size of his mouth? If starting with a verb or noun seems too intimidating try it backwards! Take a concrete image and give it a corresponding action or name.
What is your favorite poem? Your favorite short story? Your favorite writer’s favorite poem/short story? Find your favorite (or someone else’s!) and rewrite the piece. Swap out words, people, places, etc. Use your own images while mimicking the structure of the piece. This prompt is more to get your juices flowing and extract unique images and themes for use in other pieces. It’s also a good exercise to see how structure can make or break a piece. Caution should be used if you intend to publish or perform this piece. While all great artists steal (thanks, Picasso) you don’t want to be the newbie (or expert!) that plagiarized.