Category Archives: Prompts


A defense of prompts, an opportunity, and a goldfish

The other day I may have bought a few books at the Half-Priced Books 50% off sale. While the checker was scanning each book (took a while), one book (John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction) sparked a conversation about writing. Would this be a good book for creative writers?, the college-faced checker wanted to know, blowing his blond bangs off his face from one side of his mouth. Chris, who was standing eagerly behind me, said oh, yes, the prompts are fantastic. Hmmm. The checker, replied. I never write to prompts.

At that point we gathered our books and left, never knowing the real story of the HPB checker, who clearly had some aspirations to write creatively. But the moment made me think about prompts and why and what we use them for, how I feel about them. Look at the writing section of any bookstore and you will see oodles of books full of nothing but prompts. I’ve owned a number of these books. One that influenced me greatly as a young writer was Writing Down The Bones, a narrative with prompts meant to help you write fluidly and freely without fear.

Between the ages of 17 to say 25ish, I was part of several writing groups, some more successful than others, one or two at least that never grew beyond me sitting alone in a coffee shop writing to prompts, sure that next week some other writer eager to connect with other writers would join me. During this time, I wrote often to prompts. Sometimes those prompts became stories.

Now, I’ve written four novel-length stories and more stories than I can count. I’ve also learned the art of editing, the most important part of the writing process. Yet I still think it is important to write to prompts. To write without regard for what will come of what you’re writing. As writers we should have notebooks full of writing that is just for us, just for practice. That practice is how we become better writers. Use prompts to warm up. Use prompts to get unstuck. Use prompts to spend some time simply playing with words without the pressure of how those words hold up in service of the work you are doing for real, the art you are hoping to send out to the world.

So, today I give you a prompt. Write something with the word goldfish in it. If you send me what you wrote and your mailing address, I will send you a thank you for playing with me. In case you can’t find it anywhere else on this page, my email is eatyourwords,


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Now, having written for twenty minutes, including a line of dialogue in which a girl asks her parents “Well, can we at least get a goldfish?”, I am getting to my work of the day, picking up the novel I’m working on to see if I can find my way to the resolution of Chapter 3.


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Timed-write challenge

Assignment: At least four times this week, set a timer for at least one hour and sit down to write.

The rules:
1. Don’t answer your phone, check your email or Facebook, or get up to make tea during that hour. Stay in your writing space.
2. Seek solitude. Go to a cafe to be alone or tell the people you live with that for that hour you are unavailable and stand your ground.
3. Make some brief notes on what you accomplished in each writing session and how you felt.
4. Post your reflections on this experience as a comment here next Sunday, May 8.

I will be writing with you!


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Fiction Excercise: Pick an object you’ve encountered today and write a piece of short fiction that includes that object.

What Liz wrote:

Dry-mouth, her neck in a knot, she kicked her foot a little to the right to check. Was he still there? Shit. He was.

She stretched her arms and legs out wide, rolled over and pulled him toward her until she was cradling him against her belly. She pressed her breasts against his back and nibbled his ear. When she was sure he was awake, she rolled him over, climbing on to him.

Two hours later, the Zen alarm clock began it’s slow chiming them back to consciousness. They’d both fallen back to sleep. They’d both orgasmed. This time when she rolled over, he was already on the edge of the bed, sliding his leg into his worn out jeans.

“You going so soon?” She didn’t mean it.

“Yeah. I’ve got an interview today. Need to go get cleaned up. It’ll probably be nothing.”

“Well, good luck. Who does interviews on a Saturday anyway?” She hadn’t meant to ask out loud. She was just making conversation.

“Not everyone works an easy Monday through Friday, nine to five, you know.” He was buckling his belt.

She tried to remember what he’d said the carving on his belt buckle signified. Something about willing his own destiny. The contradiction had occurred to her at the time, but sitting in the pulsing light of the dance club, she’d chosen to hold it back. It didn’t matter anyway. She knew what he’d meant. She’d taken another drink of her gin and tonic, said, “That’s cool. Means something. I respect that.” Then he’d looked at her like he wanted to devour her and she imagined undoing that buckle, sliding the leather belt through the belt loops of his jeans, dropping the belt to the floor. In that way, she supposed, she had willed her own destiny. She’d wanted to be devoured.

Now, having kissed him at the door, each pair of eyes running from the other, she pulled the pot of fresh coffee, brewed at just the time the machine’s computer was programmed to, off the burner. She filled a periwinkle blue mug. She read the inscription, “Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over, it became the butterfly.”

She remembered the day she bought it and why. She couldn’t will herself to face her two teenage girls just yet, not after all those hours spent waiting on a hard wood bench to be the last couple of the morning to ask the judge to please allow a divorce, to provide evidence that they’d signed all the forms, completed the necessary parenting plan.

She’d felt like an empty shoebox sitting there staring at the back of her husband’s head, watching the way his arm draped over Becky’s shoulders. She knew just the one. The one at the top of her closet filled with love letters and their secret photos. Nothing had been added to it for years. It may as well be empty now. Becky was just a friend, a colleague, a damn good broker. That’s what he’d said.

It was raining. The girls were at their father’s for the weekend. She stirred the creamer around and around with her spoon until the coffee was just the right shade of light brown. She’d have left him years ago if she’d had the nerve. But she hadn’t and so she’d gotten left.

She remembered now that she’d also bought a book that day. A hard-bound book of poetry on transformation from a series she’d read some others from and liked a lot. One collection of love. One on Joy.

When she’d arrived home from the bookstore, she’d placed it on the shelf immediately. It was dinner time, she had thought. I have to keep some semblance of order around here. For the girls.

She pulled it off the shelf now, six weeks after purchasing it, for the first time. She opened it delicately, feeling the spine bend and change in her hands. She pulled the afghan her mother had made her for her sixteenth birthday, blues, purples and greens, from the top of the hall closet and wrapped it around her. She settled onto the couch, propped her feet onto the teak ottoman, and began to read one poem after the next.

When the ring of the telephone woke her three hours later, she was on page thirty-seven.


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A prompt and how I approached it

The prompt: Write a first-person story in which you use the first-person pronoun (I or me or my) as little as possible. 600 words.

Caffeine Dreams isn’t likely to last long here in this rain-drowned former logging town. It’s the first of its kind as far as I know. Espresso shots in off-white cups and saucers, four vegetarian sandwiches, homemade soup: this place doesn’t cater to the locals. The young couple at the counter, presumably the owners, are likely hoping that either they’ll be able to make converts or to draw enough closet artisans out of their hiding places to turn the whole street in their direction. When the woman laughs I almost believe it too, and then again when she fills my coffee cup, and asks, “Can I get you something else?”
Her shoulder-length brown hair brushes her cheek as she bends to pour my coffee, peeks at my pile of novels, my stack of composition notebooks, the open one closed over my long black-painted finger nails, still holding the pen. Her black frame glasses obscure her clear brown eyes, her thick lashes.
“Do you mind if I ask you a question?”
“No. What?”
“Shouldn’t you be in school?” She apparently changes her mind before I can squeeze out a reply. “Oh, never mind. I won’t hassle you. I skipped a few classes in my day,” she laughs.
She laughs often because she’s living her dream, fighting against expectation, pushing for reform, and because she’s in love, in love with the green-eyed, muscular, goateed man drying coffee cups behind the register. He’s wearing a blue nude T-shirt and at one point I made thirteen hash marks in my notebook counting the number of times he said “right on” to customers. There are only a few customers and a few more who have passed on during the hours I’ve been sitting here.
This balding, naturally curly reddish blond man moves the index finger and thumb of his left hand up and down his beard as he sits reading something I’ve never heard of, a paperback with yellowing edges and an Asian character of some sort on front. When his attention is drawn to the young owners, laughing while they work, his brow knits and he shakes his head, smiles that if-you-only-knew-what-a-fool smile. He’s sinking into an armchair in the far corner, next to where a fire crackles and glows.
An elderly woman, clip-on sunburst earrings, prune skin, white hair, sagging nylons, a big-buttoned wool blazer is sitting nearest the door, filling in a crossword puzzle. She puckers her wine colored lips in concentration, clicks her tongue.
And then there’s him, who I will only ever admire from afar. The painter who talks so sexy, so sure, who when he speaks light and perspective and social responsibility, not even, but especially, the otherwise bright girls swoon and are worse for swooning because they didn’t imagine themselves capable. Painters are rare in this lost, work boot town. Here’s someone to fear, I think.
And then just when it’s seems to have all fallen into place, a sound unanticipated interrupts the seeming scene. The child’s wail sends the slim-hipped owner, her black half-apron tied around her hips, fast-walking through the swinging double doors to the back room. She’s smiling again when she comes back through, holding the back of his round head to press the child against her shoulder. She’s bouncing the child up and down, saying something including the phrase “your turn” to the acquiescent father who takes the child and kisses the mother on the cheek as he moves through the swinging doors to the backroom. I’m appalled by the truth. I’ve just seen the strangest sight I’ve ever seen.


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Loving Revision and a prompt

Blank white screen. That his how I began this next draft of my “completed” novel. Feeling compelled to make this partially articulated thing–this story egg–into a wonderful thing with arms and legs and lips and breath and a heart that beats, also armed with what I know, what has been suggested and advised, I began anew.
The body metaphor above speaks to how I’m approaching this draft. The story, like a body, will be greatest if like a good lover, I live in each moment of the story as it unfolds without focus on climax or resolution. I’m going to love every episode until this bag-o-bones fills its lungs and stands alive and howling.

Prompt: Write a sex scene.


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So, my mentor has given me this 78 question autobiographical questionnaire to complete as a writing exercise. The idea is to write quickly and not spend too much time on it. The hope is to gather material from the responses. Here’s a sample–the first question and my response.

1. Describe subject physically. Face, hair, hands, feet, body, gestures, way of walking, voice, clothes, etc. What are subject’s most pleasing physical characteristics? Most displeasing?

Her long face, olive-complexioned, suits the way she seems to brood even if she’s just daydreaming rainbows. In a day, she wears her hair long, pins it back, lets it down again, never settling. Her eyes probe and her gaze does not drop, except when her heart sometimes commands. She covers her hands, sandwiching them between crossed legs, draping them one over the other, putting them in pockets. Some years back her fingers were often cracked or cracking with eczema and now she’s grown accustomed to hiding them, as she’s grown accustomed to covering her mouth when watching a film that blows her mind or to a story that offends or enthralls. She prefers to keep moving, walking with long, determined strides or even run as fast as she can. Even in yoga class her voice is deep and loud enough to be heard by her students in all corners of the high-ceilinged monster of a room with no microphone. She never had the Monday—Tuesday—Wednesday underwear, but prefers to dress according to feeling. Oh, this fabric! Grown up slacks. Little girl cotton skirts. Blue-brown love knot. Red determination. Joyous mandala tye-dye. As she buys according to compulsion, she also dresses that way sometimes stylish, sometimes drab. Baby sis is designing a tattoo to cover the one on the left side of her upper abdomen of which she is ashamed. She counts the artist among the men who’ve maimed her. She can do ten push ups now and her arms show this strength. She’s never been fat, except for that one rough year, but she’s thinner now than ever and fitter because she runs, bikes, stretches, whatever she can do to keep propelling her body through time. She has trouble smiling for cameras, but not smiling in general. Her forehead is long, as are her legs compared to her torso, as are her fingers, as is her neck. She talks with her hands, preferring to move words from her mind through the tapping of fingers on the keyboard, the brushing of the pen on the page, the movement of legs over the ground, the chopping of arms through the air.

77 more to go! Woo–hoo!


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Think of one person in your life that you dread seeing, let alone even thinking about. Maybe out of fear of their manipulation (you always fall for it), their obvious ignorance, their passive aggressive attacks–whatever. Describe what it is about that person that made you pick them in one sentence. Now, change everything superficial about that person–eye color, hair color, place of residence, gender, etc. Write a story in which you bring out what it is about that person that made you choose them.


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Red Bicycle Prompt

I finished reading Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson for my first critical response paper (part of MFA program). I finished the last twenty pages sitting here at Batdorf and Bronson and wrote for a long while trying to get at how to respond to this book.
Needing a break from this type of analytical work, my gaze shifting first to the yellow dog waiting patiently at the front doors, watching intently for its owners to return, then to the rain that is coming down in force now–it began this morning with muted sprinkling–then to a red cruiser bicycle, a rain-soaked paper for-sale sign fluttering in the wind.
I began a story about that cruiser bike, the beginning of which I’ll post here.

Here’s the prompt: Find a window! Let your gaze wander and settle on something. Write about that thing.

A stranger—a man—was on his way to take the red cruiser bicycle she’d loved so much off her hands. She’d been riding it every day for three years, since the day Joseph had strolled with her through the narrow aisles of the bicycle shop. She recalled the pressure of his hand on the small of her back as they walked, the gravity of his eyes, always pulling her toward him. This one, he’d said, after interrogating the salesman with a swagger she blissfully ignored.
She’d tried camouflaging the bike, draping it with jewels—a bumper to protect her from splashes, rainbow-colored spoke covers, and on one particularly whimsical day—a shiny brass bicycle bell. These efforts proved vain. She couldn’t look on the bike without thinking of him…


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A writing prompt

Take a book you are reading and choose a passage that you like. From that passage, pluck out 25 imagery words that stand out to you. Write something that contains those 25 words.

I did this last fall with my juniors. I wrote while they wrote. We pulled the words from the book we were reading at the time, The Things They Carried.

Here’s what I wrote:

Nalgene, new canteen:
a necessity.
It’s said that our bodies are mostly water,
and water is a symbol of life, of purity,
the deliverer of all things,
so I trek up this loose-rock incline
relying on balance, repetition,
and vanilla cake goo.

Buddha blush in my cheeks,
I stop to drink in the smell of lavender,
tilt my head back to look at the sky,
wonder on the necessity of things.

By dusk, I am home,
fatigued, a killer ache in my legs.
I have not washed the dust off my feet,
because I am ignoring sensibility just now,
like when I was four and used to give my older
brother the silent treatment because it drove him mad.

There’s nothing on TV but premium rubber,
so I fantasize about throwing my shoe at the finger-smudged screen.
Boom. But I don’t.
I click the screen to black, stand up, the burn in my legs
traveling into my spine, up through the top of my head.
My posture’s been rearranged and
I can’t think of anything I can know with certaintly—and that’s the beauty
of this other trek I’m on.

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Knee highs, puddles, multi-tasking and a writing prompt

Emy and I went shopping at Tuesday Morning last Friday. Man, I love that store. I bought all sorts of xmas gifties, including three toys for the dog. I think he’ll be most interested in unwrapping gifts this year. ☺ He’s curled up in a perfect ball in my line of sight right now. We just went for a walk in the cool night air. Fog hovered in the air at the track. I let him run off leash. He ran in circles, sniffed around and sprinted through puddles. Ah, to be a dog. Mostly, I bought gifts for people, but I did buy a couple of items for myself, including a pair of knee-highs. Now, I haven’t worn knee –highs since probably the third or second grade. Do you remember how good they are? How they don’t bunch around your ankles or slide down your shoes? I didn’t. How did I ever come to think I was too young for cable-knit knee-highs?
Puddles. We’ve had some trouble with those around here with streets closed and people flooded out of their homes. Personally, I was barely impacted by the storm early this week. It did, however, inspire me to buy a pair of rain boots, which are a perfect combination with my knee-highs. From now on, when I walk the dog in the rain, no more walking around or stepping over puddles. Splish. Splash. Fun!
This time of year is always a bit of a romp. It’s a busy time at school, but I have almost no interest in school at all and am keeping my eye on December 19 (winter break) at all times. I have the usual projects going on: decorating for Christmas to complete, Christmas cards to fill out, presents to buy, crafts to make and the usual projects to complete. In fact, I’m currently seeing double. If I could just forego sleep…

Prompt for this week:

Write about a gift or write something that can be given as a gift.


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