Ten Writing Prompts from Everyday Life

Fireworks

Often our favorite stories have an extraordinary impact on us, like fireworks. Yet those stories frequently build upon fairly ordinary events. Knowing this, we may still think that our writing should amaze our readers. At the draft phase, this can dampen our authentic voice and the narratives that are uniquely ours. Try one or more of the prompts below, all of which emerge from everyday life.

1. When I woke up this morning, I thought
2. From my bed, I could see
3. This morning, I heard
4. Yesterday as I was eating breakfast
5. My neighbor is
6. I was at work for one hour when
7. Looking down at my newly dry-cleaned pants, I saw
8. The trip home from work was uneventful until
9. It was the end of the day and I
10. As I drifted off to sleep, I remembered that

If you use one of the prompts, I would love to read an excerpt from your writing.

Happy Writing!

Ruth
Need a coach or editor? Contact me at rfarmer@gmavt.net or call 802-377-3001.

Pearls and Hair

During a poetry workshop, the instructor gave the group a tip that I have always valued: Save phrases you delete in a file labeled “Pearls.” A writing workshop inevitably turns to a discussion of what to do with those precious – even brilliant – phrases that just don’t fit. Writers have fairly consistent rationales for holding onto awkward expressions:

Sentimentality (“That’s how it happened!”)
Aesthetics (“I really like the sound of that word.”)
Fear (“What would I put in its place!?”)
Emotional attachment (“I can’t imagine any other words that would work here.)

What does this have to do with hair?

I removed my dreadlocks a week or so ago. I’ve had locks for 30 years. I’ve been intending to go lock-free for at least five years. Why did I hang onto my butt-length hair when I really wanted a different look? Sentimentality, aesthetics, fear, and emotional attachment. I knew what I would do with my hair every morning. I knew how to care for it. People recognized me – and probably described me – by my locks.

pre-revision
pre-revision

Two things I knew about my dreadlocks: They were beautiful. Their length and style no longer suited me. Additionally, I believe that hair carries energy and my locks held the energy of my past. Still, I wondered: What would I look like? Would I like my new look? If I didn’t like short hair, then what? I took a deep breath and got to work. Now I have a bag filled with hair so soft I could sleep on it. I still haven’t figured out what to do with that basket of curls.

For several post-dreadlock days, my head felt buoyant as a balloon. I said

hair-in-progress
hair-in-progress

to a friend, “You don’t realize how heavy something is until you no longer have it.” She responded, “That’s true with many things in life.” She’s right, of course.

I’m making a rather obvious correlation between cutting hair and revision. As a piece progresses, I find the core of what I am thinking and how to best evoke those ideas by excising, restating, changing directions. Depositing deleted phrases into a pearl file frees me to explore, and gives me starting points for other pieces.

As I wrote an essay about leadership for an anthology on Goddard College pedagogy, I deposited into a file titled “pearls from leadership essay” quotes and viewpoints that are perceptive and thought-provoking but not pertinent. Because I am fascinated by leadership/followership dynamics, I may incorporate some of those ideas in another, more broadly conceived piece.

As I write this blog, the term “pack rat” pops into my mind. Is holding onto words and hair (and books and papers and…) a form of the hording syndrome that has haunted me all my life? Maybe. But that is a conversation for another time.

How do you handle revisions? Would the pearl technique work for you?

You Never Know

When I attended the Launch Your Business Boot Camp in Atlanta (see my May 16 blog post), I had many wonderful encounters. The most amazing one came when a young woman let me know how I impacted her life.

Several years ago, I was an admissions officer for a private secondary school. One of my responsibilities was to talk with students of color about their educational options. This woman remembered me from a visit to her NYC middle school. She told me that visiting secondary schools changed her life, as did attending the school that she chose (not the one I recruited for). I was amazed that she remembered me, including my name, after so many years. That brief encounter broadened her perspectives and led to personal and professional paths she may not have chosen if it hadn’t happened.

You never know how actions that you take for granted impact others. I have been an educator for many years. I sometimes run into students who tell me that lessons I taught, readings I assigned, or conversations we had clarified their understanding of themselves or their purpose in life. I am grateful for such revelations and humbled because I know that I did not seek to make an impact. If there was any seeking at all, it was to connect, to communicate.

Like most people, I wonder what it would mean to make a big splash or grand gesture that transforms people’s lives. Meeting the young woman in Atlanta reminded me that in our everyday encounters we touch others in meaningful and unexpected ways. No splashing. No grandiosity. Just everyday amazing.

 

Getting it Right, or Not

I spent the weekend with a hundred or so Beautiful Black Women at the Launch Your Business event in Atlanta. Rosetta Thurman’s Happy Black Woman tribe, of which I am a member, is a group of supportive, motivated entrepreneurs. Some of us are at the beginning of our journey. Others are successful leaders of six- and seven-figure businesses.

My primary takeaway from the three-day seminar is to do something every day that helps build the business, even a small thing. That might seem like a no-brainer. Still, this advice is difficult to follow if you are hampered by perfectionism, which I often am. Revising a website means doing cosmetic surgery on every page. Writing a chapter means putting the right words in the mouths of the best characters to speak them (and describing an ideal setting to support this brilliant dialogue). Doing a small thing is tantamount to doing nothing if your goal is to create a dynamic website or an exciting book.

Perfectionism requires knowing every step of the pre-defined journey and being prepared for every eventuality – before you take the first step. It is easy to procrastinate if you put that much pressure on yourself. What if you take the wrong turn? Deviating from the path is often perceived as taking a wrong turn, getting lost, failing.

At the Launch Your Business event, several women spoke about a shift in their direction once they started the process of building their businesses. Openness and flexibility, which are difficult for a perfectionist, led them to their real passions and ultimate success. But they had to take the first steps, whether or not they knew where those steps would lead and they had to be open and flexible enough to know when a change in direction was leading them to their true journey, their true purpose.

A mantra in the Happy Black Woman tribe is “Start now. Improve later.” It’s a principle that leads to having faith that every step is a meaningful one, perfect or not.

 

Mother’s Day

My Mother’s Day gift to myself is to focus on one thing at a time today. No multitasking.

I listened to Marianne Williamson’s lecture on A Course in Miracles without exercising or checking email as I frequently do.

I read my students’ papers in silence and noticed the growth in their thinking and  writing.

I sent out Mother’s Day texts and read each response with undivided attention.

I made biscuits (a treat!), measuring out flour and salt, baking powder and sugar, lard and milk slowly, enjoying the change in texture with each added ingredient. The dough’s stickiness yielded to a malleable shape little by little. Each biscuit has its unique presence and potential yumminess.

The wind outside sends leaves skittering across the yard and into the air with a periodical humpf! of sound against the windows.  A turmoil of motion greets me when I step onto my deck. The post-rain air feels refreshingly cool as I walk to the compost bin. I add food scraps to the pile, taking my time, feeling the outdoor breeze.

Today, I am grateful to be reminded of how fulfilling tasks are when you simply pay attention to each one in its turn.

 

The First of May

There is something about the first of May that makes me think I should do something significant. This particular sentiment immediately makes me feel like crawling back into bed and pulling the covers over my head. Or binging on Netflix. Or spending the day reading a crime novel. Now sleep is significant, especially for someone who rarely sleeps enough hours to feel rested. Reading is a good activity, often educational and entertaining. I have on my night table Michael Gruber’s The Book of Air and Shadows. It’s tempting to spend the entire morning reading it. Though I’ve tried, I can’t come up with an upside to binge watching Netflix, so I accept that activity as a blatant waste of time.

Wondering what I would do with my day set into motion thoughts about this blog post, which led to thinking about writing prompts. Why? Because as a writer I am always looking for places to land, emerge from, move away from, grab onto. How about you?

Writing prompts are not intended to produce “something significant” so much as to get you to write. Anything. Instead of actual prompts, I came up with categories. Here are four:

  • First thought: What is the first thing that you thought when you woke up?
  • First sound: What is the first thing you heard when you woke up?
  • First sight: ditto
  • An item across the room

It is difficult to really know the first thought you had when you woke up because it is difficult to know when you slipped from a dream state to being fully awake. In all likelihood you will filter out thoughts, sounds, and sights and choose what you believe constitutes “firsts.” That is perfectly acceptable.

I spent time debating with myself about which sound came first: the air vent clicking on in the bathroom or the patter of rain on the window (eventually, I chose the air vent). The first sight was the red bench next to my bed, whether it was or not. The item across the room? The window through which I saw gray trees backed by cloudy brightness. I have told you about my first thoughts, though I cannot determine which came to me when I was fully awake. I chose doing something significant today as the first thought. The fact that today is the first of May is coincidental. What has become clear is the desire to shift away from procrastination, which these meanderings represent, and get some writing done. Now I have four phrases from which a story, a poem, a scene might emerge:

  • Do something significant
  • The air vent clicking on in the bathroom
  • The red bench next to my bed
  • The window through which I see gray trees backed by cloudy brightness

I’m looking forward to seeing where these lead.

Prince

Two days ago, I went to my local library to pick up a book. As I walked through the door, the librarian gasped, throwing her hands up to her face as she stared at her computer.

“Oh my God! Prince is dead!”

“What?!” I and a patron said.

“He just died. Prince is dead. He’s dead.”

Now you have to understand me to get my reaction. I said,

“That’s unbelievable,” in a flat unemotional voice. The librarian was in shock, eyes wide with distress and sorrow. I kept going through the motions of getting my book checked out. I did not know how to react because I did not know how I was feeling.

“This is a real loss,” I said. This I knew to be true, intellectually.

“Were you a fan?” a man asked the librarian, as he busily punched his cell phone.

“Yes,” she said. “Yes, I am.”

My book checked out, I headed to the door.

“I’m so sorry to give you such bad news,” the librarian said.

“No. No,” I answered in a meaningless way. I drove the four miles to my house, parked in my garage, unloaded my groceries and book. I went directly to my Facebook page. Here is what I was thinking:

What if this isn’t real? What if this is one of those Internet hoaxes? What if he is really alive? Even as I write this I keep thinking that he is still alive.

He isn’t.

I have only felt this devastated about the death of an entertainer on two occasions: when Otis Redding died in a plane crash and when Marvin Gaye was shot by his father. I was very young when Redding died and quickly got over it. However, to this day whenever I hear one of his songs, I wish Marvin Gaye was still alive. This is not because I think he would have continued to produce brilliant music (though he probably would have), but because his death left a hole in the fabric of the world, one that has never mended. I suspect the same will be said of Prince.

After posting on Facebook an experience I had seeing Prince perform in person, I went on YouTube and found a video of Prince performing “Purple Rain.” That is when my sorrow broke. I sobbed and sobbed. As I thought about this brilliant performer, I kept wondering where he was now at the moment. At times like these when a person’s essence still remains in the atmosphere, death seems an impossibility. There cannot be a time when a person no longer exists. They must go … somewhere.

I have felt this way about my mother for years. It doesn’t seem possible that she could no longer exist. I think about her, dream about her, quite often. I hear her talking to me. Though she has been gone for over 20 years, I have only recently stopped feeling depressed in October, the month of her birth. Oddly, I never dreamed of my father until last night. In my dream, I was lying in my bed crying. He came into the room, put his hand on my back and asked me,

“Why are you crying?”

“I’m lonely,” I said. He patted my back in a tentative way and I felt comforted because he tried. He tried in that moment to make me feel better. It was a vivid dream, so vivid that I was crying as I woke up. And I felt loved as I emerged from sleep. I felt loved and peaceful.

Was this dream somehow connected to Prince’s death? I don’t know. Understand: I was not a huge fan. I had lost sight of his recent career accomplishments. From what I have gleaned, he continued to produce music with exuberant skill. It is clear to me that his music is a valuable gift to the world. He was a role model for artists: keep innovating, keep practicing your art, no matter what.

Looked at from this perspective, my sorrow shifts into appreciation for life and the ability to greet yet another day with joy and the music of being alive. I am smiling as I write this.

 

Fall Writing Workshops

Each workshop offers a strategy that opens writers to their imaginative selves. All genres and levels welcome.

Come explore your creative edges!
Sundays, 1:00pm – 3:00pm
Open Sky Studio; 8B Main Street; Bristol, VT
$40/workshop

  • September 27: Meditation on Art: A Way Into Writing*
  • October 18: Movement, Music, Writing
  • November 15: Writing the Discovery Draft
  • December 13: Discovering Meaning Through Revision

RSVP to Ruth Farmer at rfarmer@gmavt.net. Your RSVP helps to ensure that I bring enough materials.

*MEDITATION ON ART: A WAY INTO WRITING
Oftentimes we begin a poem or story by reflecting on familiar situations or imagery. In this workshop, we will meditate on art, allowing our words to emerge from listening as images speak to us. Participants will be asked to share their writing (though passing is fine, too). Come explore your creative edges!

Ruth Farmer has taught writing and literature in colleges, universities, and community organizations. Ruth’s poetry and prose appear in various journals and anthologies. Her most recent publication is Transformative Language Arts in Action (co-edited with Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg; Rowman & Littlefield, 2014).

Writing Your Story, Sharing Your Words

Poetry, fiction, nonfiction, mixed genre: Your story can come in many forms. Do you have a story longing for completion?

In this six-week course led by writer/teacher, Ruth Farmer, you will learn writing and revision techniques; develop and maintain a practice; share your words weekly with other writers; and build a supportive writing community. The course will cover:

Falling in Love With Your Story

Finding the Narrative Core

Discovering Meaning   

Rediscovering Your Story

Keeping it Real

Sharing Your Words

Wednesdays 5:30pm–7:00pm April 22 through May 27, 2015

Open Sky Studio: 8B Main Street Bristol, Vermont

Bring a journal, pens, and an open mind.

All genres welcome!

$120 for the series if you register before April 15

$150 thereafter.

To register, email rfarmer@gmavt.net