Creative Well Running Dry? Try a Writing Prompt

by Susan Bearman

water well and bucket

Today’s post is written by regular contributor Susan Bearman.

After decades of professional writing, it took me a long time to give myself “permission” to be a “creative” writer.

Now that those floodgates have been opened, I rarely find myself facing writer’s block. But I do occasionally fall into a slump and need to get those creative juices pumping again. That’s when writing prompts can really help.

I’ve never been much of a visual thinker. When I look at a magazine, my eyes go straight for the words, not the images. So recently, I started trolling through my stash of photographs and posting a weekly Wordless Wednesday writing prompt on my blog. I pretend that it’s an altruistic gesture for my fellow writers, but in truth, it’s a virtual kick in the butt for my own writing.

On the Web

The web is a great source of visual writing prompts. Pinterest is the hot new rage when it comes to posting striking images, but there are plenty of other wonderful sources of inspiration. Here are a few of my personal favorites:

  • Tumblr.com—visual blogging by artists, techies, designers, and fashionistas.
  • Behance.net and TheServed (via Twitter)—serving up visually interesting design across a variety of industries.
  • Brainpickings.org—curator of all things interesting.
  • DailyCandy.com—what’s new in fashion, food, and fun.
  • Creativecommons.org—nonprofit organization that enables the sharing and use of creativity and knowledge (photos, images, music, video and other media) through free legal tools.
  • MorgueFile.com—a public image archive for creatives by creatives.

If these websites don’t spark a writing idea, then it’s time to take up accounting. Some of them offer their work free for your personal (sometimes even commercial) use, some require attribution, but all are free to look at and provide a wealth of inspiration at no extra charge. Pick an image and let your imagination run wild.

Word Prompts

A few years ago, Anne Ylvisaker, author of the lovely Little Klein, came to speak to our writing group. At the time, she was just emerging from her own version of writer’s block and came to discuss how that fallow period actually fed her creativity.

She also talked about her critique group and how they had a word bucket (or maybe it was a hat). They would put all kinds of words into the bucket and when they were stuck for a good idea, they would draw three words from the bucket and write for twenty minutes. The only rule was that they had to use all three words. It’s a good exercise. Start your own word bucket and give it a try.

Some time ago, writer and teacher Lisa Romeo set up an e-mail writing prompt system. Writers signed up to receive a word or phrase a day by e-mail and were charged with using it as a writing prompt.

In response, I started a little mini-blog called SFD @ 2KoP (which stands for “Shitty First Drafts” [via Anne Lamott, author of Bird by Bird] at Two Kinds of People, my “real” blog). I posted my responses to Lisa’s prompts every day for a month. I still post there occasionally. It’s a great place to play. One of her prompts—“Required Reading”—even inspired me to try my pen at poetry, a far fling from my usual genres.

I don’t know when (or if) Lisa will ever offer her writing prompt project again, but you don’t have to wait. This is a perfect project for a writing/critique group. Set up a blog (free and easy to do), post a prompt and have members submit their responses in the comments. You can even make your blog private so only invited members can view your SFDs.

If you still want someone else to provide the prompt, try Sandy Acker’s blog, Strangling My Muse. Her site is full of creativity spark plugs; you can also download her free Creative Bursts Workbook and sign up for twice-weekly e-mail writing prompts.

Or just Google “free writing prompts”.

Other Writers

Another speaker at our writing group, story teller Janice Del Negro, suggested a writing prompt that I thought I would hate, but I kind of fell in love with it. She had us write the entire plot of a story in Haiku—that 5-7-5 poem format. She recommended that we use a fairytale or folk tale, since the plots are so familiar, but that didn’t work for me, so I turned to my favorite story, The Great Gatsby. Here’s my effort.

Gatsby wants Daisy
Nick visits, Tom cheats, three die
Dreams live best as dreams

Whether you like my haiku or not, it proved to be a light-bulb moment for me. First, I think this is a great exercise for creating an elevator pitch for your book/novel/story/script.

Second, it showed me that I have to know my story as well as I know Fitzgerald’s masterpiece—so well that I could distill it down to 17 syllables.

Third, that I need to hone my story until it is concrete enough, substantial enough in its theme and plot, to be expressed in 17 syllables. Think that’s easy? Give it a try.

See where someone else’s great words take you. Start with the first line of your favorite novel and use it as a jumping off point for a writing prompt. Now try changing the point of view, or setting the story in a different time or place, or making the villain or a supporting character into the main character. Has a great opening line inspired similar greatness from you?

Use All Your Senses

Photo prompts are great, but it’s important for writers to use all their senses. Take your notebook or laptop to a local dive diner or ethnic restaurant and soak up the smells and sounds.

Spend some time at a florist shop and just breathe in the beauty. Take sensory notes. Search for your similes and metaphors within the explosions of scent and color. In my hometown we have a wonderful little shop called The Spice House that offers an olfactory feast to all who visit.

Be a sensory explorer, but do it with the mind of a writer. Walk the nearest beach and really feel the sand beneath your feet and the water lapping at your ankles. Set up a sensory playground in your kitchen, filling bowls and pots with anything and everything that will tickle your senses:

  • rice
  • Jello
  • water of different temperatures
  • mud
  • pine cones
  • marbles
  • ice cubes
  • shaving cream
  • syrup

Play like you haven’t played since you were three years old. Close your eyes and dig in. Allow yourself to feel every sensation and then try to describe it. Think about the different kinds of “sticky” you encounter. How is the sticky of syrup different from the sticky of play dough? How is the cold of the ice different from the cold of the Jello. Wash your hands, but don’t bother cleaning up until after you have done some writing.

Inspiration is all around. There’s really no excuse not to write about something. Just because that work-in-progress has screeched to a grinding halt, doesn’t mean that you can’t write. Try something different. It won’t hurt, is perfectly legal, and may even make that work-in-progress come back to life.

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