Saturday, March 6, 2010

Listing Your Way to a Good Writing Prompt

Writing Prompt: Lists (20 minutes)

This exercise provides a way to find out what it is you really need to write about, the subjects and themes that are so important to you that you'd don't even realize their effect on your life.  This exercise is particularly useful for writing memoir, and it can also be adapted for poetry...

Step 1 - Choose Your Subject

To start, first choose a place, a subject, or an event.  Generally, you want to find something which you are intimately familiar with - your childhood bedroom, for example, or a memorable trip you've taken.  I recommend taking the first such idea that comes to mind, regardless of how emotional or dull it might seem - you'll find there's probably a reason it's the first thing you thought of.

Step 2 - Write Your List

Next, begin writing a list of nouns associate with this place, subject, or event.  Write continuously - don't pause to think about the nouns, just write them one-after-the-other.  You might end up repeating words, and that's perfectly all right - the goal is to keep the pen to the page.  For example, I might write about the inside of my refrigerator (it just came to mind):

soy milk
orange juice
sweet potatoes
pancake mix

It seems like a simple list, possibly a little too revealing (Mold shows up three times?  Why am I so obsessed with mold?  I don't see it in my fridge that often...)  Yet this list carries interesting meanings for me.  Normally, I don't have ketchup - I never buy ketchup.  But I have some that a friend gave me when he moved to another city, and my girlfriend loves ketchup.  I could write a story about how she also likes Thai fish sauce, and now I have a bottle of the stuff in my apartment.  Then we have the sweet potatoes, my favorite food.  It's sad when I have to throw them out because of mold.  Especially since I have to cook for myself to save money.  And saving money is part of my larger plan to become a writer - which would take me to larger topics like how I relate with my family, how I chose my apartment, and other areas of my life I wouldn't post online.  Then we come to the ham, eggs, and pancake mix.  No, there's no pancake mix in my fridge - and no eggs, either.  But breakfast is my favorite meal (particularly pancakes), and my mom simply refuses too cook messy food on the stove in the morning.  So no pancakes, and I spent much of my childhood eating eggs from the microwave - again, this leads to interesting ideas for further writing.

Step 3 - Write Like the Wind

The key to the exercise is to write quickly.  Jot down as many nouns as possible over the course of five minutes or so.  And then, once you have a good list (twenty nouns, more or less - sometimes I go with ten, other times I don't hear the muse until I hit fifty), set a timer for ten minutes.  You can go longer, if you like, but use the timer - it pushes you to write faster.

Now the fun part - writing the thoughts that come from your list.  Timer set, write what you're thinking.  Write whatever comes to mind.  Go as fast as you can, never raising the pen from the page (or never pausing your typing).  Don't worry about typos or grammar - these things can be fixed later.  The goal is just to get the thoughts out on the page, wherever they take you.  It may feel chaotic at first, but you'll find that a hidden order emerges as you write.

Step 4 - Repeat

The beauty of this exercise is that you can do it anywhere, anytime, without a specific prompt to start with.  Even if you're just waiting in line with a couple minutes, you can jot down the first five words that come to mind and then scribble away from association.  And a nice variation would be to rearrange the words into a poem.  Or, if you're primary aim is poetry, then simply write out lists of rhyming words - you'll be amazed by the associations you find.

Happy Writing!



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