During these months of the pandemic, we are all lost in new contemplations. Creative writing is a wonderful outlet for exploring the strange landscape of our current world and our own place within it. Give these writing prompts a try! Find your voice. Play with words. Read. Write. Share.
Writing Prompt 4: Quiet Moments Unplugged
Please read the flash nonfiction essay “Ritual” by Kelly Morse from the literary journal River Teeth (linked below).
Discussion: Kelly Morse tells us about a quiet moment in her day when she is nursing her baby in the dark of her bedroom. Here she has time to look around and describe what she sees and hears and notices in this still moment. She chronicles how this room and this ritual have changed over the months she has been nursing her baby. She used to notice the radiator kicking on, the ice crawling up the window. Now, she notices her daughter’s chubby toes against her elbow and the songs of frogs out the window. There is nothing showy about this short poetic essay. It is just a woman in the world noticing small beautiful things.
The Prompt: Write a flash essay like this one. Pick a quiet moment of your day, one that repeats like a ritual. Is it the quiet time you spend in the morning sipping coffee? The shower you take before bed? The drive to the grocery store? Alone time in the kitchen cooking dinner and listening to the radio? The weekend hour you spend mowing the lawn? Describe what you experience during this ritual. What do you see, hear, think about? How has this ritual changed over time? What detail (like the sound of frogs) do you focus on in the last moment of the ritual today? Being a writer is mostly about stopping to notice the small details of the world, these wonderful gifts.
Writing Prompt 3: Noticing Small Things in Fiction
Please read the short story “The Day of Small Things” by Emily Dezurick-Badran from the literary journal Smokelong Quarterly (linked below).
Discussion: This fictional story by Emily Dezurick-Badran is very short but fully captures the life and world of its narrator on the day before Christmas. The narrator’s first person voice is blunt, plain-spoken, sparse. The narrator tells us about their job, about an interaction and conversation with a patient at work, which is the last in a series of interactions. Then the narrator is home, imagining Christmas tomorrow, enjoying a moment of solitude and a memento from their patient. The story ends on a powerful note as the narrator tells a line of rotting apples on the windowsill that they are doing great, a reassuring thing that the narrator usually tells patients but that now they tell the rotting fruit as though telling themself. (Note: I’m using the ungendered pronoun “they” here because not only is the protagonist not named, but we don’t know their gender either.)
The Prompt: For your short short (a story under 1000 words), imagine it is the day before a holiday. You choose which holiday. Choose a very specific and interesting workplace for your protagonist, such as the oncology ward of a hospital, a job that you know well enough to notice the small details (such as each decoration used to make an oncology ward festive for Christmas). Show us what your protagonist is like by showing us how they do their job (Ex. The protagonist in the story above tells all her patients they are doing great; she is a comforting person.) Have your protagonist narrate the story in their own voice. Have them mention an element of their upbringing and talk about their relationship with someone in their current personal life that they won’t see but will think about on the day of the story (like the sister). Show us a brief scene with the protagonist at work in an interaction with someone else who tells your protagonist a secret. Show us a brief scene of the protagonist at home, where they have brought back something from work (like the apple). What does your protagonist say or think about the object brought back from work, and what does this comment tell us about that person and how they live their life? Don’t forget to pay attention to and show us the smallest details of your character’s world. A great short short gives us a vivid glimpse of someone else’s life, and somehow we can imagine the entire span of that life just from that small glimpse.
Writing Prompt 2: A Poem of Hope in a Crisis
Please read the poem “The Conditional” by Ada Limón from the Academy of American Poets webpage Poets.org (linked below).
Discussion: The conditional tense in grammar is used when we speculate about something that might happen. This explains the title of Ada Limón’s poem “The Conditional.” The first line of the poem is “Say tomorrow doesn’t come.” The poem speculates about the possibility of a catastrophe. We can’t tell if the possible catastrophe is a personal one or if it is more nationally or globally widespread like the pandemic. The poet gives us images both large and small, glimpses of the catastrophe that hint at more than is on the page. The moon turning into a pit. A beloved tree turning to stone. The sun a toxic black fire. The shirt the speaker is wearing found as a scrap in a ditch. The personal space of the speaker’s kitchen becomes a wrecked carcass. But in the last moments of this imagined apocalypse, the speaker is holding hands with someone and the poem ends on a note of gratefulness. This made me think of our current moment during this pandemic.
The Prompt: Poets, both new and experienced, often write Imitation Poems. This means that they use a poem published by an author and imitate the style to create a new poem. Great artists do this in all disciplines. We pay homage to the poet whose idea jump started our own poem by including an acknowledgment under the title of the poem: “After Ada Limón’s ‘The Conditional.'” Write an imitation of this poem. Use Limón’s repeated phrase “Say. . .” or another similar phrase like “Imagine. . .” Write a series of images–things you see, smell, taste, touch, hear–that show glimpses of an approaching apocalypse or the aftermath. Each line should start with the same first word just as Limón does. Despite all the grimness, end on a hopeful image that creates a turn in the poem.
Notice that Ada Limón doesn’t use rhyme. There is a misconception that good poems must rhyme. But when you work on making a poem rhyme, the rhyme controls the poem. It becomes the thing you start with, a rhyming word, and you work every line around the rhyming word. That can be very limiting for a poem. It also takes over as a very dominant element that can overwhelm all the other elements in the poem. Most contemporary poets do NOT rhyme. Try writing this poem as Ada Limón does, without rhymes.
Writing Prompt 1: Food Ruminations
Please read the short essay “Vegetexting” by Jennifer Bal, from the literary journal Alimentum: The Literature of Food (linked below).
Discussion: What makes this short essay so compelling? The writer’s vivid description of the strange vegetable romanesco. Her anxiety about texting an acquaintance a vegetable picture that might be silly. Her shift from joy to annoyance at receiving a farm share box with strange vegetables that she must learn to creatively turn into delicious meals. The boiled worm: a metaphor for her exhaustion with meal preparation. The stark contrast between her own spoiled appetite and her family’s delight with dinner. A change moving forward with her relationship with sharing her food adventures.
The Prompt: Growing, buying, preparing, and sharing food are rich parts of our lives, but can also be fraught with complicated feelings. The process of feeding ourselves feels both difficult and important during the pandemic. Successful memoir explores tensions in our lives, both large and small. Write about a time you were preparing a meal (ten years ago, today): cooking something elaborate or slapping together a snack. Describe the food with vivid sensory details. Tell us what you were thinking about as you made the food. How did your mind wander? Tell us about yourself through your relationship with that food. Reveal an underlying tension in your life. Describe the setting around you. Show how other people’s response to that food is similar or different from your own. Reflect on what that meal revealed to you.
Use these prompts as inspiration. Follow them as closely or as loosely as you wish. If you have writing questions or wish to share your writing and get feedback from a trained and published author, feel free to email librarian Tessa Mellas: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can email Tessa whether you’re young or older. Happy writing, friends!