• One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.
    Jack Kerouac
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Just Write (54)

Happy (almost) Thanksgiving! This will be a food-free post (though rest assured I will be baking pies shortly). This week's writing prompt is a bit naughty, which is how I like most things. Have fun with it:

You've had a really rotten day, you're mad at the world, and in an evil moment you decide to give a classroom full of impressionable, hopeful young writers [SCHOLARS: insert your chosen field (historians, botanists, ethnographers...) here] all the worst possible advice anyone could give...

--The San Francisco Writers' Grotto, 642 Things to Write About (Chronicle Books, 2011)

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The Prodigal Blogger Returns

“We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”
—Ernest Hemingway

So it turns out that advice I give writers about keeping a schedule--about making writing a habit, even when you don't feel like it--is totally spot on. I've spent the last year eyeball deep in yoga-land. I went through an intensive teacher-training program and started teaching. I still edit a lot, but between that work and all of the yoga, I let the blog/Facebook/communication side of things go...and man, when that habit falters, it falters.

But this morning I came across this quote. So many of my favorite writing quotes come from Papa, even though I don't suffer from HWS (Hemingway Worship Syndrome). This succinct little gem made me want to come back here. To talk to you about yoga AND words because it's such a perfect fusion of yoga wisdom and writerly wisdom.

In yoga, we learn (or try to learn) to approach things with a beginner's mind--to remember what it's like to first try, to be curious and unsure, to be always honing your practice--and this is so much like facing a blank page. Every time we return, every time we pick up our pencil again (or open a new file), we should approach things with a beginner's mind. 

Are you ever going to be a master? Maybe in some things. Hopefully, we master the habit of writing (ahem)...of not dreading the solitary blinking cursor. But there's always ways to grow, new ways to see the world, different questions to ask.

So take a nice, deep, yogi breath and remember there's some good stuff here in apprentice land. Not being a master means we can try new things, we can remain curious. If we are not masters, we are not stuck in a perfect, unchanging box. 



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Just Write (53)

I've spent the last week on an island, waking up to this view. There were no events. All deadlines and assignments were soundly ignored (hence my absence from here). If I overlook the presence of two crabby and bored teenagers, it was bliss.

Turns out bliss, sunshine, and Presidentes greatly diminish my intelligence and drive....I'm fairly certain I could be one of those strange souls who drop out and live in a permanent state of vacation. I have never uttered such bizarre sentiments as "I think I'd get island fever," or "I'd just miss the structure of work and normal life." Needless to say, my reentry into real life has been sluggish and frequently stalled. 

Perhaps you could turn my hedonistic, drop out tendencies into a writing prompt...making them constructive and helpful? Write a scene in which a vacationer refuses to return to her real life. Why does she stay? What does she leave behind? Capture the rhythm of travel, the nuance of life in the surreal space of the tourist destination. What happens when that space becomes your permanent reality?

My scholarly darlings: there are so many actual examples of people jettisoning their lives in favor of permanent vacation...pick your favorite and do a mini research project. But for authenticity's sake, you should absolutely visit the far-flung new home of your subject. 

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Just Write (52)

There was yet more snow when I woke up this morning. And that flat, grey light that signals winter. I know I should not be surprised to find winter outside my door in February. I've lived on the plains long enough to know, damn groundhog or no, winter will consume most of March too. But we have cruel little pockets of warmth and sunshine that are so deceiving. Days that breed hope. Days I pull my sandals out of storage and take long walks, thinking spring is coming. And then there's snow when I wake up.

So for me, please, please write about somewhere warm today. A beach. The desert. Mars. Just make it downright hot. Poem, research project, romance---doesn't matter as long as the locale is steamy and has a starring role in the piece. Bonus points if you include a very cold editor from Nebraska. 

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Just Write (51)

You might have noticed I love Natalie Goldberg. I am a woman obsessed with words and yoga, which places the wise Ms. Goldberg at roughly the intersection of my obsessions. 

Today's writing prompt comes from her new book, The True Secret of Writing: Connecting Life with Language, which you should all go buy. Using a passage from William Kennedy's novel Ironweed about kissing (in which he catalogs kisses and then zeroes in on a specific kiss), Goldberg offers this gem:

"Let's consider the structure Kennedy gave for the kiss. First examining the different types, then plunging into the real experience. Let's pick something we have a passion for--a football player, our last lover, a cup of coffee, a thick shake, snowboarding, peace, lips, knees.

Let's do it like he did. First categorize it. For instance, what different kinds of running shoes are there, how do the work--what can you say new about them? Then pause, let it rip--tell us about a specific pair, yours. Where have you been with them, why, what, who--throw in the whole universe, what it's like to run, walk, to have a foot, to be on pavement, grass, tennis court. Break down category, idea, boundary. Follow your own trail out into the rain."

*The Kennedy passage comes from page 155 of the paperback edition at Goldberg's library; the chapter, "Kiss," begins on page 95 of Goldberg's book and includes the Kennedy passage.

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Just Write (50)

Today's writing prompt is our 50th, which I decided justified a bit of a repeat. We've written before about the newspaper (yes, I'm that much of a luddite--I still like my news to be paper-y) as a source for inspiration, regardless of your writing style or genre. I was reminded of this yesterday as I read about intrigue and bad behavior in the world of chess that includes  "a former world chess champion, now a Russian opposition leader; a former president of an obscure Russian republic who believes that he was abducted by extraterrestrials in yellow suits who invented the game of chess; and an ex-fashion photographer turned chess official." It just doesn't get better than that.

Here are five stories (in their non-paper format) to get your creative juices flowing, but I'm sure your morning paper has at least one more:






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Just Write (49)

Short and probably not sweet...today's writing prompt:

Write a letter from a forty-five-year-old Lolita to an elderly Humbert Humbert about the way he destroyed her childhood.

--from 642 Things to Write About (Chronicle, 2011) by the the San Francisco Writers' Grotto

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Just Write (48)

This week's writing prompt is for all of my scholarly friends out there (though it wouldn't hurt you fiction folks to try your hand at it). Most of you are likely up to your eyeballs in a research project. Hopefully it's something with which you are obsessed, or it's going to be a long slog; regardless, there are always days we wish we chose differently. Today is your chance to dive into that fantasy.

Put your all-consuming and brilliant project off to the side. Make a list of five of your favorite unserious things that have absolutely nothing to do with your academic pursuits. Be specific; rather than music, list "All Her Favorite Fruit," for example. Choose one of these items and write a really great, fairly brief paper on this topic. Imagine a conference of awesomeness and this is your panel. 1500 words should do. 

ps..should anyone actually choose "All Her Favorite Fruit," I'm going to need to read that.

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Just Write (47)

Today's writing prompt seems appropriate as I lay bed with my fourth cold of the season...


Deja Vu

Write a short sketch of a scene in which a character has an experience that causes her to recall a startingly similar past experience. Juxtapose the present scene and the past scene on top of each other, writing, for instance two or three sentences of the present moment, then alternating back and forth between present and past that way. You could show the reader the remembered scene by use of italics. Why would a character be haunted like this? Think of a convincing reason for the deja vu experience--don't tell it but make the reason a basis for the details. Or don't worry too much about convincing reasons--just let a strange set of events impinge on the present moment of your character. Be playful with the relationship. 500 words

--The 3 A.M. Epiphany: Uncommon Writing Exercises that Transform your Fiction, Brian Kiteley (Writer's Digest Books, 2005)

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Just Write (46)

Tis this season to resolve. Since most of you are resolving to write more, we thought today's writing prompt could help. Craft a list of unusual resolutions, invented or real. Let them be a jumping off point--for a poem, a new short story, an essay--or perhaps the list is the story.

If you are working on a nonfiction or scholarly piece--did your subject make any resolutions? Could you imagine what their list may have included? Was there such a tradition in the time/country/culture in which your story takes place? Alternatively, make a list of resolutions for your project (I will use fewer adverbs. I will research 17th century weaponry. I will write every morning. I will avoid jargon).

If you need a bit of inspiration, check out this great list of unusual resolutions including my favorites from Woody Guthrie: "Don't get lonesome. Stay glad. Keep hoping machine running. Dream Good"

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Just Write (45)

We are belly deep into the season of excess. Booze, fun, family, food...not much comes in small doses this time of the year. This cruel exercise from Ursula Le Guin is an antidote to glut. It won't help you make it through the last holiday hurrah, but it will keep your writing lean. Salut.

A Terrible Thing to Do

Take one of the longer narrative exercises you wrote...any one that went over 400 words--and cut it by half.

If none of the exercises is suitable, take any piece of narrative prose you have ever written, 400-1000 words, and do this terrible thing to it. 

This doesn't mean cuttin a little bit here and there, snipping and pruning--though that's part of it. It means counting the words andreducing them to half that many, while keeping the narrative clear and the sensory impact vivid, not replacing specifics by generalities, and never using the word "somehow."

If there's dialogue in your piece, cut any long speech or long conversation in half just as implacably. 

--Ursula K. Le Guin, Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew (1998, Eight Mountain Press)

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Just Write (44)

We had our first real snow yesterday. Despite the fact that it came with words you never want your weather person to say ("arctic" and "bitterly cold," for example), it was beautiful. Bare trees limned in white and holiday lights dusted with snow are always a bit magical. "Silent Night" becomes a perfect song. Everything seems new and possible, especially when you are hypothetically still in slippers and sipping warm beverages.

For this week's writing prompt, let's take that sense of possibility as our jumping off point. Write about a clean slate, a do-over, real or imagined that was like waking up to a new snow. What twist of fate freed your character from imminent doom, ruin, or sorrow? What does their clean slate look like? How do they greet it, cherish it, or abuse it?



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Just Write (43)

It's been a long weekend. One filled with cream, butter, and far too much cheer. Our brains are fuzzy and our bellies still so very full. We need a straightforward assignment today. Maybe it will lead to writing, or maybe it's just some roughage for the brain: 

Make two lists:

1. Everything you know about your subject

2. Everything you want to know about your subject

--from Monica Wood, The Pocket Muse: Ideas & Inspirations for Writing (Writers Digest, 2002) 

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Just Write (42)

I woke up in a complete state of panic today. It wasn't a looming deadline or forgotten meeting that sounded warning bells in my sleep. It was pie. Pie. I was momentarily overwhelmed by the pie-making, turkey-brining, grocery-shopping insanity that lay before me (alongside that looming deadline).

To make my pastry insanity more helpful, I offer it up as today's writing prompt. Imagine someone who goes just a teensy bit nuts preparing their feast of gratitude. What drives them? What does their day look like? Do they secretly know it's not worth it? (My pies, by the way, are totally worth it--not that this should sway your creative process). 600 words.

*this gorgeous pie picture comes from www.smittenkitchen.com, who also suffers from pastry insanity. If you are looking to develop a similar compulsion, I highly reccommend her Pie 101 & 102

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Just Write (41)

A (mini) Research Project

Select an object you interact with daily--be it Moleskin, neti pot, toaster, or pencil sharpener--and uncover its history. Pretend I live in a cave and have never heard of this device you call the Q-tip. Who made it? Why? How? Has it changed over time? Keep it fairly brief, interesting, and include a human element. Try to avoid Wikipedia. 800 words maximum. 

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Just Write (40)

A Picture is Worth....

Let's start with a picture this morning. Any picture will do. For those of you enmeshed in a project, choose an image you've discovered in the course of your research, or one that has inspired you. Describe the image and how it came to exist. What is the story behind it? Who are these people? What brought them together? Use creative license here--the goal is not to exactly recreate the history of the photograph, but rather to bring it and its subjects to life. For those of you engaged in a serious research project, this recreation can help you dive into your subject's world, even if this flight of fancy has no place in your final project. Is it wrong to say 1000 words?


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Just Write (40)

This week's writing prompt comes from Amy Peters who offers some perspective for those of you faced with shady characters. The issue of a character's likability has a vicious cycle, as the latest Claire Messud kerfuffle reveals. While it may impact a novel's reception, likability also becomes an issue for nonfiction writers. I've been told by several writers of serious nonfiction that they turned away from projects because they discovered they really didn't like their subject. Peters suggests here that often it's these unlikable characteristics that make your subject most interesting: 


The most interesting person that I have ever met...

Often, the most interesting person you know may not be someone you like or even respect. No one knows this better than Robert Caro, award-winning biographer of both Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson. Caro was drawn to the stories of powerful men. In his words, he felt compelled to expose their less-than-ideal sides: "To show power truly you not only have to show how it is used but also its effect on those on whom it is used. You have to show the effect of power on the powerless."

For this prompt, see if you can discern the difference between someone you admire and someone truly interesting. You might find these two features overlap. Or, you might discover that the most interesting fact about the person you have a high regard for is his or her less less-than-admirable qualitites. 

--Amy Peters, The Writer's Devotional: 365 Inspirational Exercises, Ideas, Tips, and Motivations On Writing (2012 Sterling)

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Just Write (39)

Today seemed like a good day for a re-writing prompt. This one is drawn from William Zinsser's On Writing Well.  All nonfiction writers should have a dog-eared copy of this classic guide. While his advice skews toward the journalistic, all writers can benefit from it.  I often recommend it to academic writers, as much of his advice attacks unclear language--something in which scholars are often drowning.

On this Monday morning, let's set our sights on one of those clarity-destroying imps of language, which Zinsser calls:

Little Qualifiers.

Prune out the small words that qualify how you feel and how you think and what you saw: "a bit," "a little," "sort of," "kind of," "rather," "quite," "very," "too," "pretty much," "in a sense," and dozens more. They dilute your style and your  persuasiveness. 

Don't say you were a bit confused and sort of tired and a little depressed and somewhat annoyed. Be confused. Be tired. Be depressed. Be annoyed. Don't hedge your prose with little timidities. Good writing is lean and confident....The large point is one of authority. Every little qualifier whittles away some fraction of the reader's trust. Readers want a writer who believes in himself and in what he is saying. Don't diminish that belief. Don't be kind of bold. Be bold.


Choose a chunk of your current writing project (some discrete portion, be it chapter, section, or article) and drive out these quiet destroyers of authority. To Zinsser's list, please add "perhaps," "maybe," "might," "possibly," and all of their kin. You'll be left with something leaner, tougher, and more direct--as if your chapter woke up and discovered it was Dirty Harry. 

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Just Write (38)

I entered a new world this weekend.

One of the hats I wear involves lots of beer. As part of my professional responsibilities, I had to spend the weekend at the Great American Beer Fest in Denver.  Over three days, 49,000 peopled descend on the convention center to drink 2700 beers from 580 breweries. This is roughly like stumbling into the illegitimate offspring of Mardi Gras and a trade show. With lederhosen. 

While I drink a lot of water and detox, you all should try this writing prompt:

Imagine a world within a world--something that could or does actually exist--and use it as the setting for your writing this morning. What are the rules, ethics, and rituals of this world? Are there costumes, outfits, or pretzel necklaces? Create this unique realm for your reader, allowing them to see the complexities at work, to smell and touch the weirdness of these little pockets within our big culture. 600 words should do just fine. 

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Just Write (37)

We have developed stratospheric tendencies towards hyperbole in contemporary language. Descriptions land squarely at the awesome or horrific ends of the experience scale, without ever visiting the just fine middle. This can give the impression that well and good are no longer acceptable. It also belies the truth that the average person is pretty darn lucky to dwell in the land of fine, even if it means they never touch the stratosphere. 

Naturally this leaks into writing. There are few novels about the slow grind through teen boredom and angst, for example. Holden Caufiled would need to turn into a zombie to find a starring role in today's bestseller. Even in more serious-minded nonfiction, character profiles tend toward the hyperbolic ends of the spectrum; most are works of hagiography or condemnation, with few uncovering that complex middle ground. 

So for this Monday writing prompt, we're staging a coup de fantastique. Whatever your genre, pick a very average person and describe their very average day, or their very average existence. Is there still something profound or beautiful in that quotidian existence? Can something powerful happen in a day or a life in which nothing powerful happens? This is not a license to be boring--just find a little quiet on this fall morning. Keep it to 300 words. 

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