“If You Sing That A Lot”: A Recipe for Writers

If you want to write, stop worrying about not being able to write, or what to write, or what not to write. Give up not having enough time. Not being good enough. Not being young or old enough. Stop obsessing about something someone said about your writing—or something they didn’t say. Stop reading between the lines of comments and feedback and replies. Stop waiting for someone to die so you can write. Stop waiting for the writer in you to be born. Give up your grudges and regrets. Give up the long lists of excuses and lies you tell yourself then push away the page.

But how do you give up a habit that’s become as natural as breathing? The smart parent knows the power of distraction is stronger than the word “No.”

Distract yourself with what you want. And then do it again.

Don’t waste time. Refocus on “the larger conversation.” The conversation that’s continued since the first stories were told.

Train your ear and eye on the story. Go to the ballet. Go to the street. An AA meeting. A concert. Your parent at the kitchen table. Readings on YouTube. Old movies. Get lost in stories of every kind.

If you want to write, you must read. I find this single most important act neglected by too many who say they long to write. And if writer’s block has you in its grip, and you can barely stand to look at your own last page, all the better! In the spirit of this season which calls us to hibernate, consider this idea: when you next feel the pull to check the news or Facebook, watch TV or your Twitter feed, open a book instead!

Read one poem or page—even a paragraph…

While I love the many ways we have to “connect” with each other and the world via media, I find that reading literature (as in physical books whose pages you can smell!) directly inspires and strengthens my writing like nothing else.

And rather than read a lot, read less—but go deep. Reread a sentence several times. Memorize a line. Read a paragraph/poem aloud to an empty room (even if the only empty room is the bathroom). Take a book with you everywhere. Read it to the walls. Whisper it under your breath. Whisper that line again.

If you spend a lot of time waiting—in cars, lines, waiting rooms—open a book, even if there’s only enough time to read a single sentence. Jot down a reflection or idea or a line of your own on its blank last page. Media will always be there, waiting to engage us. But literature nourishes and changes our writing at its source. Savor the sentence. Enter the image.

Bob Dylan says it best in the following excerpt from his 30-plus-minute MusiCares Person of the Year speech (2/6/15) in which he describes his songs as if they were inevitable children born of singing others’ songs:

For three or four years all I listened to were folk standards. I went to sleep singing folk songs. I sang them everywhere, clubs, parties, bars, coffeehouses, fields, festivals. And I met other singers along the way who did the same thing and we just learned songs from each other. I could learn one song and sing it next in an hour if I’d heard it just once.

If you sang “John Henry” as many times as me — “John Henry was a steel-driving man / Died with a hammer in his hand / John Henry said a man ain’t nothin’ but a man / Before I let that steam drill drive me down / I’ll die with that hammer in my hand.”

If you had sung that song as many times as I did, you’d have written “How many roads must a man walk down?” too.

Big Bill Broonzy had a song called “Key to the Highway.” “I’ve got a key to the highway / I’m booked and I’m bound to go / Gonna leave here runnin’ because walking is most too slow.” I sang that a lot. If you sing that a lot, you just might write,

Georgia Sam he had a bloody nose

Welfare Department they wouldn’t give him no clothes

He asked poor Howard where can I go

Howard said there’s only one place I know

Sam said tell me quick man I got to run

Howard just pointed with his gun

And said that way down on Highway 61

You’d have written that too if you’d sang “Key to the Highway” as much as me.

“Ain’t no use sit ‘n cry / You’ll be an angel by and by / Sail away, ladies, sail away.” “I’m sailing away my own true love.” “Boots of Spanish Leather” — Sheryl Crow just sung that.

“Roll the cotton down, aw, yeah, roll the cotton down / Ten dollars a day is a white man’s pay / A dollar a day is the black man’s pay / Roll the cotton down.” If you sang that song as many times as me, you’d be writing “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more,” too.

I think Dylan’s talking about falling in love—and letting that love become more important than anything, more important than failing. Perhaps he’s talking about letting your own writing become a reply, a call back, a letter to the beloved, God, or just another songwriter.


R in color_web resize

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Prompts for Writer’s Block

In response to comments from a few workshop participants about challenges they’re hitting up against in the writing process, here are a dozen prompts for days when you’re bored with what you’re writing or not liking your work, generally feeling stuck or asking yourself who cares?:

  1. Write a letter to yourself when you were 10 years old.
  2. Write a letter to yourself when you were 18 years old.
  3. Write a letter to yourself now.
  4. Write a letter to yourself to read right before you die.
  5. Write your obituary.
  6. Write an itemized list of the 10 dearest belongings you own (regardless of whether or not they’re “valuable”). Name to whom each should be given when you’re gone, & tell the history of the item & why it’s significant to you.
  7.  Write about the best year of your life (so far).
  8. Write about your greatest loss & how it changed you.
  9. Write a list of the things you need to do before you die. This is not a typical to-do list (i.e. write a will & etc) nor a “bucket list,” as it’s not about what you want to do. It’s about what you must do so that you can die in peace.
  10. Write erotica in any genre.
  11. Write about the very thing you’re most afraid to write.
  12. Write about the person you want to be in 5 years (i.e. a day-in-the-life portrait).
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When I Was Born

Below is a list of prompts inspired by the memoir I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb (Little, Brown 2013)

1. Write in first person as a character, or as someone you know very well, or as yourself.

Begin with or weave in one or all of the following phrases:

“I come from a country that …”

“One year ago I …”

“Now, every morning when I open my eyes…”

“I long to see…”

“Instead I am …”

“Here there is …”

“When I stand in front of my window and look out, I see…”

“When I was born…”

“I was a girl in a land where…”

2. Write about a day that the speaker’s life changed. Begin by describing what was happening right before things changed. Create a vivid before and after using sensory details (what can be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, and touched). 

3. Write about the day that the speaker was born, including what she or he has and hasn’t been told about that day. 

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A Good Knife and Chocolate

En route to a warmer climate for winter vacation, you end up stranded on a desert island paradise for 1 year. I know, that may sound rather inviting right about now.

What 3-7 sentimental objects from your home would you most want/miss/be glad you packed?

This is a spiritual/emotional survival list. Your sentimental items must be small enough to fit into a standard suitcase. And don’t worry, you already have another suitcase full of essentials like a good knife, water purification tablets, and chocolate.

Here’s the structure: Name each item, describe it, and then tell a brief story about it. Your first draft might appear as 7 numbered paragraphs. Or not…

Feel free to ignore or tailor this prompt as you like. Set a timer for 20 minutes. Enjoy!

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“Learn to Sail with Your Dad” & Other Family Recipes

When I read Melissa Queen’s “Learn to Sail with Your Dad” over at Rattle: Poetry for the 21st Century, I enjoyed the way in which it’s genre-transgressive, appears in numbered sections (which could be ordered in several different ways), and speaks to “you”—always an intriguing choice. 

To give you a taste of Queen’s work, here is how it begins:  

1. Just because the sign beside the boat launch cautions to beware of alligators does not mean there are alligators in the water for certain. Even though you are four and can’t yet read the words on the sign, you can pick up on the significance of the bright red lettering and the black silhouette in the shape of an alligator with a wide, gaping mouth just the right size for swallowing four-year-olds whole. But just because your father tells you there are no alligators does not mean there are no alligators for certain. Fathers have a tendency to say these things with confidence because they think that is what is required of them.

To read the rest: http://www.rattle.com/poetry/2013/11/learn-to-sail-with-your-dad-by-melissa-queen

Grab your notebook & a pen or open a blank document & set a timer for 10 minutes.

I invite you to:

1) Write about learning something specific from a person who is or was close to you: perhaps a parent or grandparent, child or sibling, friend or pet.


2) Write instructions about how to do something specific.  Address a reader who is close to you (parent, child, pet…).

For example, you may want to describe a family recipe in great detail, including old stories about the dish or dessert!

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When You Are Most Yourself

Here’s a powerful yet brief poem and the related writing prompt that I offered at a one-day writing retreat held last week at a private home in lovely Becket, Massachusetts. This poem is from the anthology Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry (Random House, 2003), edited by Billy Collins, which I’m currently reading and loving. Here’s a direct link if you’d like to find the book: http://www.billy-collins.com/2005/06/books_and_recor.html

I Wish in the City of Your Heart

by Robley Wilson

I wish in the city of your heart
you would let me be the street
where you walk when you are most
yourself. I imagine the houses:
It has been raining, but the rain
is done and the children kept home
have begun opening their doors. 

  • After reading this poem several times, create a brief snapshot of yourself “when you are most yourself.” Write from the second or third person point of view (“you” or “she”). Unless you feel pulled to write in a particular genre (short story, memoir, poem, & etc), just write without concern for what your “spill” will become. If you’re following my blog at https://www.writelikeariver.com/river-edge-blog, you’ll notice that this prompt is part of a portrait theme.
  • Another option: Create a brief snapshot of someone you know (or a character you’ve created) when she/he is most herself/himself.
  • Write for 10 minutes without stopping, editing, erasing, or judging. You may want to set a kitchen timer. If you like, at the end of 10 minutes, you can reset it for 10 more.
  • Read aloud what you’ve written!
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The Portrait Prompt

                                                                                                                                                          Concept: create a portrait of yourself as—

  • a solo character, or
  • a character in a specific relationship, or
  • a character in a particular family or community

Strategy: describe a painting, drawing, or photograph—of you alone, with another, or in a group—that is actual OR imagined.

Twist: if the portrait is imagined, perhaps it’s by a famous artist? For example, imagine a portrait of yourself painted by Frieda Kahlo or Pablo Picasso, or a painting of you and your lover or of your family and neighborhood by Marc Chagall, and etc…  

Other options: you might want to create an episode in a sitcom, or a scene in a movie or play, or a commercial, puppet show, or animated video or cartoon, etc.

Set a timer and write for 20, 30, or 40 minutes.

(painting: Michael Roque Collins)

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Love’s Errand

(“Love’s Errand” by American artist Elisabeth Moss)

I was hungry for painting—for thick, textural layers of color—and so I invited the artist Elisabeth Moss to visit one of my writing workshops with some of her recent work. She brought five works-in-progress and displayed them throughout the space. As participants arrived, they each had the opportunity to approach the paintings, speak with the artist, then reapproach the works. When the session began, Elisabeth briefly spoke about her process and told us the working title for each painting. I offered the following prompts and then we all wrote for 40 minutes.

These prompts offer three specific ways to engage with or “leap from” a painting (or photograph). You can click on the image above to see a gallery of Moss’ paintings, open an art book from your shelves or a library, ask to visit the studio of an artist you know, or drop by a local gallery. Choose a work that intrigues you—especially if you’re not sure why. Choose a work that draws you toward and into its frame and makes you want to linger.

Writing Prompts/Invitations:

  • The Dream: Write about the painting as if you’ve entered it, as if you’re dreaming it.
  • The Relationship: Write about your experience of the painting as if the two of you are in a relationship. Describe falling in love with this particular work. Describe approaching, remembering, and returning to see it. Write about all that you know and don’t know about it—and the ways you feel known by it. In fact, rather than call the painting “it,” give it a nickname or perhaps a gender. What are you living and learning because of this unique relationship?
  • The Translation: Describe a significant and specific image-anchored memory as if it were a painting. Essentially, translate an experience into a painting. You might want to focus on describing “your” painting as if you’re standing in front of it.

Or, you may prefer to write a scene in which your painting becomes the subject or some other plot-device. Perhaps two estranged friends run into each other at a gallery opening and find themselves talking about your painting.

Set a timer for 10, 20, 30, or 40 minutes—whatever amount of time you can “steal” for your writing today! Just keep writing. Write with a pen or type. Don’t erase or delete. Don’t stop for spelling or grammar. Don’t ponder word choice. Don’t slow to revise or reconsider a line. Just keep dancing with you pen, dancing with your fingers, watching letters and words and lines take shape before your eyes. Don’t critique or reread. Just write! And enjoy…


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Risking (Versus Ranting)

O. Span. arriscar,

to venture into danger

“Risking” is based on a writing prompt that poet Edwina Trentham brought to her recent Hill-Stead Museum workshop on the challenge of writing political poetry.

Thank you to Edwina for graciously agreeing to share this strategy with readers of Write Like a River. I’ve paraphrased her original prompt and italicized any of her original words, as well as adding to it. I recommend her politically-focused writing and workshops (click on her name above to visit her website).

“Risking (Versus Ranting)”

  1. Think of an incident, situation, or issue in your community or the world today—something that directly affects you. Perhaps it sends adrenaline into your system the first you learn of it, or you find yourself frequently thinking of it, or you tear up when you overhear someone speak of it. (Spill for 2 minutes)
  2. Consider why it affects you. (Spill for 2 minutes)  
  3. Try to connect the abstract “why” with a specific event in your life or a specific person. Write—not about the incident, situation, or issue—but specifically about the event or person you thought of. Use vivid details that appeal to the senses, so the reader experiences the event or meets the person on the page. (Spill for 40 minutes)
  4. Give your piece a title that connects it in some way to the original incident, situation, or issue.


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The Closet Artist


1) Write in the voice of one of the two girls portrayed in the photograph—as the girl, or as the grown woman looking back at the photo of her childhood.

2) Write in the voice of a woman who observes others but is relatively invisible.

Perhaps she is a nanny. Perhaps she is a closet photographer who will choose to never in her life show a single photograph to another person. Perhaps she is both (as was Vivian Maier).

Other possibilities: perhaps she is a museum guard, test proctor or airport scanner.

Or perhaps she is a he.

Write about a typical day in her life using first person present tense.

Source: Vivian Maier: Street Photographer, Edited by John Maloof (page 19). Click on photo to be taken to the original photo and official site for more information about the work of this remarkable yet largely unknown photographer.



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A Girl’s Motto Is…

















I created a list of sentence beginnings that appear in Jeanette Winterson’s first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Notice how deceptively simple yet loaded they are!

Set a timer for 10 minutes. Quickly pick a line that attracts you and begin spilling by continuing the sentence. That alone may be enough to keep you writing for 10 minutes! If not, continue grabbing starter lines from this list to keep you writing.

When your timer goes off, reset it for 15 minutes, pick another starter line and continue to spill, weaving a new line into your writing every time you’re not sure how to continue.

This is an excellent way to work with a text, letting it lead you in directions that surprise and engage you. Enjoy!

My mother liked to…

My father liked to…

She had never heard of…

Enemies were…

Friends were…

I had been brought up to…

She was bitter about…

I cannot recall a time when…

One of my earliest memories is…

Sunday was…

Usually we…

She always ____________ because of…

First of all she…

She said one of these things…

It was always the same; we…

I had to…

You can tell someone by their…

My mother would rather not _________ than…

She taught me to…

She told me all about…

A girl’s motto is…

I learnt that…

This was why, in the old days…

I discovered that everything in the natural world was…

I asked my mother to teach me…

One day, she said finally, I’ll tell you all about…

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Returning Home









Here are two writing prompts inspired by my reading of Jamaica Kincaid’s At the Bottom of the River. This rare image is from the cover of her first Aventura Edition (1985) that I’ve enjoyed since college. I was surprised to realize that other editions feature cover art with only white female figures. I find the publisher’s other covers odd at best and inappropriate at worst, as this is a book of stories by a woman of color about “a childhood in the Caribbean” according to the back cover. So, reader, I hope you enjoy this cover image–as my old copy can be difficult to find these days.  

Writing Prompt~~

1) Walk through your current home or imagine walking in a former home from some point in your childhood or adult life. Allow some of the “things” in the house or apartment to have a voice. Listen and write down what they say. Examples might include:

  • a piece of furniture such as the kitchen table or bed or rocking chair
  • a particular part of a room such as an alcove, closet or threshold
  • a window or door
  • a deck of cards, child’s toy, or item from the medicine cabinet
  • a teacup, picture on a wall, hair brush, hammer or thimble

Spill for 15 minutes

2) Write a list of things you were taught and/or told to do as a young girl or woman. The list can include things that were spoken, written, suggested without words, or simply modeled.

  • try beginning your phrases or sentences with verbs, as Jamaica Kincaid does in “Girl.” 
  • try beginning phrases or sentences with “this is how…”
  • note other ways that Kinkaid starts a line: “don’t…,” “always…,” “be sure to…”
  • don’t censor your list; allow items that might appear to contradict each other

Spill for 25 minutes

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Ten Again & In A Tent

Excerpt from Nikky Finny’s “Resurrection of the Errand Girl: An Introduction”

“Not a girl any longer, she is capable of her own knife-work now. She understands sharpness & duty. She knows what a blade can reveal & destroy. She has come to use life’s points and edges to uncover life’s treasures. She would rather be the one deciding what she keeps and what she throws away.”

After attending late April’s Massachusetts Poetry Festival in Salem, I’ve felt deeply inspired by poet Nikky Finney’s reading. Winner of the National Book Award for her collection titled Head Off & Split, Finney took the podium and spoke into a mic addressing the Peabody Essex Museum’s atrium filled with exhausted poets and poetry lovers. 

But once she began to speak, I no longer felt I was in a large hall with hundreds. She read her poems as if sitting at home on her couch, cross-legged, reading a new poem to her lover late at night.

She read as if by candlelight, as if telling something she’d never told anyone about herself.

She read as if for the first time, or the last.

After the last words of her first poem, my wife and I locked eyes for an instant, acknowledging without a single word between us that her words were what we’d come for—though we’d not known until we heard Finney’s wise, velvet voice.   

Finney’s reading was indeed the surprise manna that made our journey from almost three hours and a state away worth it. I’d been happy to spend the day sitting at readings and panels—even reading my own work with the Naugatuck River Review. Yet, Finney’s words instantly grounded and reminded me why I write. Why I read. Her poems, intelligence, voice, humanity, intensity, humor, and profoundly gentle yet powerful presence reminded me what poetry can be: essential.  

I’d like to share a link to Nikky Finney’s website where there’s a page of her videos and photos: http://nikkyfinney.net/photos.html. I recommend listening to her reading of “Left” at the National Book Awards last year. While this particular video does not reflect the astonishing intimacy of the reading my wife and I witnessed, it offers viewers an excellent reading that resonates—even on a computer screen.

Instead of providing you with a writing prompt, as I usually do here, I’d like to suggest that you invest five minutes of your time in listening to Finney read “Left.” Then, choose a few pages of your own work and ask someone close to you if you can read for her or him. Set a time. Choose the place. Light candles or dim the lights. Sit close and read your words as if you’re ten again and in a tent at midnight with your best friend, or under the covers with a flashlight, reading the last pages of a book that changed your life.

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Writing While Walking

Yesterday, I needed to write. And I needed to walk.

Thinking I could write in the late afternoon, after the sun slid behind the mountain, I put on my boots and filled a small pack with water, dried mango, an extra layer and my phone. Heading up the mountain, I couldn’t shake my longing to write. Words were coming to me: one by one or in phrases and lines. Often, I carry a small notebook just in case. Today, I’d forgotten it.

Desperate to record even a few lines and phrases, I pulled out my phone, tapped the icon of a microphone and stared at the small red dot that would start recording.

An editor friend of mine writes this way all the time—essentially dictating—but she’s a remarkable public speaker who loves to improvise a presentation and seems totally relaxed when interviewed. I’m more of a sculptor-writer who’s usually working a lump of thoughts into something recognizable as an essay or poem.

No one will hear it but you, I told myself. I tapped the red dot and started “spilling” the lines and phrases floating precariously in my head, just as I encourage women to do in my workshops.

Terrified, I let myself speak slowly. Let myself speak in single words or strings of words making verbal lists much as I’m used to jotting down in a notebook. I let myself walk in silence. There’s plenty of bird call in the recording.

I was—and still am—working on a blog post about litter from the perspective of a walker/hiker/kayaker. While I didn’t start this walking/writing/recording with any particular goal, the piece I’m working on naturally wanted to get written and so it arrived! Just as in the photo above, I couldn’t anymore avoid the topic I needed to write than I could avoid seeing a single bright blue plastic cup under a tree relatively far away. Because I’m no longer trying to avoid seeing it, I notice the litter that’s embedded everywhere I go.

At this point, I’m collecting several short “chunks” of writing from two notebooks and one Word doc into a single place. Now, to add to the list, I’m transcribing the two recordings from my hike. One is five minutes long, the other twelve. So far, I’m noticing that because I spoke rather slowly and allowed myself to breathe (quite heavily—it’s delightfully steep, that hill we call a mountain!) and pause between thoughts, typing up the recording is going rather smoothly and doesn’t require too much review of the same sections.

Try it: set a timer for five minutes and record your words instead of writing them. Allow yourself to edit as you go, if you like, perhaps repeating a phrase with different word choice or syntax (word order) if it comes to you as you’re speaking. Let your recording be a messy spill, giving yourself the same freedom you’d give yourself if scratching quick notes into your journal or on the back of a grocery list.

This can be especially helpful if you’re hungry to write, but even if you’re not, allow yourself to notice how it actually feels to try this, rather than trying to predict. And try it at different times and varying situations. Moms preparing dinner or strolling with small children to the local park might enjoy this alternative to pen and paper. I have at least one workshop participant who chronically jots down notes as she drives (at red lights, she claims), and I imagine she and other commuters might find this helpful. Perhaps you’ll end up recording a book?

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The Secret Life of Images

I’m reading Traveling with Pomegranates, Sue Monk Kidd’s travel memoir that she co-wrote with her daughter, Ann Kidd Taylor. Although she’d never written a novel, part of the narrative is about Kidd’s experience of being “pregnant” with The Secret Life of Bees.

From the beginning of the book, she wears a small bee charm on a necklace without really knowing why. In Turkey, a honeybee lands on her shoulder and sits for five or more minutes, continues to stay put as she descends a hill toward a tour bus and only flies away when she bends forward to drink holy water. At another point, she discovers a black Madonna–an image that both excites and haunts her. In this way, she begins to “collect” images.

She writes that after returning from Greece, she starts “searching through magazines, catalogues, postcards, photos, and prints, cutting out whatever inspires me. I was supposed to be writing an outline for the novel, and I was cutting out pictures. It didn’t seem to matter whether I understood what the pictures meant or how they fit into the novel; it was enough to be drawn to them in some deep, evocative way. It was pretty much an unconscious process. I told myself I was being creative, turning my play instinct loose to roam around and find what fascinated it. Inside I was thinking: This is nuts.”

Still, she allowed her work this process–or play–and it resulted in a New York Times bestseller. Instead of silencing her deep, subconscious instincts, she continually gives them a voice and allows them to speak to her by simply paying attention.


1) Begin a textual collage by listing 5 images which haunt you.

2) Set a timer for 15 minutes and briefly describe each image, giving yourself about 3 minutes per image.

3) Choose one image and write for another 15 minutes about it alone.

4) Start a file of images that move, intrigue, disturb, confuse, fascinate and/or inspire you.



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Remembering Summer’s Opium

Image: Orin Zebest via Flickr



To continue the theme of writing about photos from childhood, read David Trinidad’s poem titled “9773 Comanche Ave.” Here’s a direct link to where the poem lives within a virtual world of verse known as Poets.org: 9773 Comanche Ave.

Set a timer and spill for 15 minutes.

Read your spill out loud.  


I think of Poets.org as an online anthology where readers can organize and explore its contents by subject and poet. Clicking “Poems about Childhood” led me to “Blur” by Andrew Hudgins (originally from Texas, like myself). In preparing to read this poem for my workshop, I repeatedly read it out loud to the kitchen, and then listened to the poet’s own recording. Enjoy: Blur    

Set a timer and spill for 25 minutes.

Read your spill out loud.

Consider calling a close friend to ask if you can share your spill. Even better, call a writer-friend and offer to “exchange” brief readings. Often, just reading your work to another human being can be helpful. If you’re both squeezing this exchange in between making deadlines, driving kids and preparing dinner, consider agreeing to each offer just two positive comments in the form of two favorite images and/or lines.  

(This post’s title quotes “Blur”)


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Voice & the Old Photo

Opal in Texas, 1929









I’ve been reading Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir by Sue William Silverman. Yes, I’m referring you to Sue’s work once again; no, she’s not paying me. I studied with Sue in graduate school and the thing I like about this book is that it’s like receiving one of her feedback letters or listening to her lecture–she demystifies the writing process and gets you writing rather than just studying your notes. The following prompt is based on an exercise in the chapter titled “Between Innocence and Experience” (58).

Find a childhood photo of yourself or a member of your family. If you don’t have access to a particular photo (or would rather write than dig through a box), write from what you can recall about the image. I recommend starting with a photo from when you (or your family member) was at least nine or ten years old.

1) Set a timer for 10 minutes and write about the photo “using the voice and sensibility of who you were when the photo was taken.” If writing about a family member, write about the photo imagining her/his voice when the photo was taken.

2) Reset the timer for 10 minutes and write about the photo “through the voice and sensibility of who you are now.” Likewise, if the photo is of someone else, write about the photo through her/his voice now. If your loved one is deceased, use her/his voice as you last remember it, or from some point later in life.

Read your spills to yourself (meaning: DON’T read out loud, and this is rare for me to suggest but just try it). Take note of the differences between the two voices—even when there’s zero pressure to perform one or both.

Another option: write about your photo from the perspective of a loved one. Or, write about a photo of your loved one from your perspective now, or your perspective as a child who’s just found the photo.

I’ve seen the above photo of my grandmother, Opal, numerous times throughout my life. Perhaps I’ll write about it from my perspective at three very different ages!

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A Rare Opportunity

It's a Wonderful Life








During the recent holidays, I watched It’s a Wonderful Life yet again with my wife and daughter. I love the proposition at its core: imagine you’ve been given a rare opportunity to see things differently. Inspired by that idea, I’d like to offer several writing prompts to try.

You’ve been granted a rare opportunity:
1) to go back in time to one particular moment of your life and do something differently, make another choice
2) to see or even meet your family of origin in a public place, although you’re a stranger to them (literally, not just metaphorically)
3) to stand face to face with someone you feel has somehow wronged you—perhaps taken something from you—and speak your truth without negative consequences (a neighbor, politician, teacher, ex, sibling, employer, etc.)

During the process of creating and curating writing prompts, I’m always amazed by the numerous, even endless, places to “leap” from any prompt into writing.

In thinking about this classic film, some scenes strike me as more hilarious each year, such as George Bailey’s terror in finding Mary an “old maid” tragically descending the steps of the library where she so sadly works, while others disturb me more deeply each year, such as George’s younger brother “reaching out for” Annie, the family’s longtime Black “maid.” The script speaks for itself:

ANNIE: If you lay a hand on me, I’ll hit you with this broom.

HARRY: Annie, I’m in love with you. There’s a moon out tonight.

As he pushes her through the kitchen door, he slaps her fanny. She screams. The noise is cut off by the swinging door. George and his mother sit down at the table.

I’m always surprised by the speed with which this bit of scene glides by in a few blinks of the eye and am freshly stunned each time I see it. Today, a young white male slapping the bottom of a black matriarch would be considered outrageously inappropriate in a family film and considered assault if it happened in life. Yet there it is!

Multiple perspectives provide rich material, so here’s another prompt: Write about the film “It’s a Wonderful Life” (or another beloved classis) by trying on different “lenses” and reconsidering the film as a cultural artifact.

4) How does the film portray the only woman of color in its cast? How does it portray other minorities and immigrants? How does it portray white women and girls of different classes? How do the characters of Annie, Mary and Violet represent common racist and sexist stereotypes still prevalent in our culture? 

5) Read and write about the 1947 FBI document “concerning Communist infiltration of the motion picture industry.” Apparently, the FBI claimed that making the big banker character of Mr. Potter the film’s arch villain was one of many “obvious attempts to discredit bankers” and “a common trick used by the communists.”  How is this relevant today? In what ways does the film relate to contemporary issues such as the Main Street versus Wall Street tensions so prevalent in the news?

1947 FBI Document, page 1











1947 FBI Document, page 2

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The Secret Life of a Black Shoebox

The Secret Life of a Black Shoebox








I have a black shoebox in which I keep a random assortment of items: my father’s baby shoes; a silver cigarette case and lighter he brought back from Vietnam to give to my grandmother, Opal;  a Magic 8 ball like the one I had as a child; a keychain-sized plastic replica of the classic black metal desk phone that my grandparents owned; an Elvis 8-track tape from 1971 that was Opal’s; an hourglass-shaped 3-minute egg timer, and more…

Last week, I brought the box into workshop, set up a random still life on the coffee table and invited participants to pick up and examine anything they liked. If you’re at home, artifacts from your past and present abound! If you’re on the go, open your purse or bag!

1st Prompt

Choose an object:

  • Imagine a “formative” scene from its life
  • Or, tell of its entire lifespan in only a few paragraphs (perhaps as an encyclopedia entry, contributor’s bio or obituary)
  • Or, write a journal entry from the object’s perspective (in first person)

Spill for 15 minutes

Read what you just wrote out loud—to yourself or someone else.

2nd Prompt

Choose another object (or continue with the same one). Imagine/write about a conflict—between at least two people/characters—over this object and place the conflict in a specific setting:

  • a wake
  • a yard sale
  • a bedroom

Consider whether you want to structure this scene as a conflict/crisis/resolution or as several (or a series of) connections and disconnections.

Spill for 25 minutes

Read what you just wrote out loud—to yourself or someone else.

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They Don’t Make Submission Guidelines Like They Used To

Defunct Cover








The following prompt was adapted directly from the submission guidelines of the intriguing online journal Defunct: A Literary Repository for the Ages.  

Write about something that has had its day: defunct magazines, defunct technologies, defunct theories, defunct fads, defunct foods, defunct religions, defunct civilizations, defunct super heroes and villains, defunct political parties, defunct languages, defunct etiquette and customs, defunct bands, defunct media, defunct assumptions, defunct slang and idiom, defunct holidays, defunct animals, defunct products, defunct toys, defunct celebrities, defunct predictions, defunct facts, or something you wish would become defunct. Imagine a review of the Aztecs. Or a review of the Dodo. Or a review of the Eight Track Player. (Source: http://www.defunctmag.com/submit.html)

Read: Sue Silverman’s “We Regret to Inform You” (at the beautifully designed Defunct site) and then “spill” for 15 minutes. Here’s the link: http://www.defunctmag.com/Essays/Culture/Silverman_We-Regret-to-Inform-You.html

Read your work out loud—to the walls or an innocent passerby!

Next, write about a different item from the defunct list. Or, counter what you just wrote. You may want to create a character or choose a specific person (your mother, the young man next door, a deceased relative, a coworker etc)  & write the “devil’s advocate” position from their perspective.

Or, if you haven’t already, write about something you wish would become defunct or imagine it is!

Thanks to Maya Liebermann for the title of this post!

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