Write a list titled "The Ten Things I Will Not Think About in My Last Seconds of Life." Give yourself ten minutes to freewrite the list, then turn the list into an essay. It can be funny, serious, or strange; the points may be connected or not. The important part is to allow yourself to linger on each item in your list and let it grow into its full potential, perhaps keeping it mind for an essay of its own. For this assignment, make sure to incorporate all ten things from the list into your essay.
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Write a story in which a character lives alone in a desolate environment—the woods, the desert, the mountains. Describe your character going about the day, and use that action as a backdrop for revealing the reason why he or she has chosen to retreat from the world. Then, have another character enter the scene, describing how he or she arrives. What happens next?
Channel a person you've lost in your life. Find a photograph or reflect on a mental image of a friend or relative who is no longer part of your everyday life (because of death, estrangement, physical distance) and reenter the moment of that image, examining the clothing, the facial expression, the nuances of the scene in which the subject is situated. Then go deeper, into the scents, the temperature of the air, the physical and emotional sensations related to this particular scene from a past life. Now write down any words evoked by this reflection, whether they form a narrative or are entirely associative, whether they come from the point of view of an observer or the person herself. Use this material you've created to write a poem (you might try writing it in the form of a letter to your loved one, or from her to you).
Read the newspaper today and note the articles that you're most interested in reading. From those, choose a theme or concept that characterizes one or some of them, such as corruption, crime, war, love, or politics. Freewrite about the theme you've chosen, focusing on the articles you've read, your personal experience, and other anecdotes. Then craft an essay titled "Five Things I Know About [Your Chosen Theme]," in which you further explore what you've discovered by reading, thinking, and freewriting.
Take a working draft of one of your stories and reorder the structure—write it from the end to the beginning, use flashbacks to rearrange the timeline, or tell the story using some other kind of organizational principle, such as using short sections with subtitles.
Write a poem that is in the form of a letter to a person from your past, a person from history, or a place. As you revise the poem, examine the poem's structure, looking for patterns. How many syllables are most of the lines? How many lines make up each unit (or stanza). Once you get a sense of the dominant structure, revise the poem asserting that structure consistently.
Research one of the decades during which you were a child. Make a list of the popular music at the time, the best-selling books, the favorite movies and celebrities. Then write notes about politics—who was president? what were the major political issues in the United States and globally? Then freewrite about the neighborhood where you lived—who were your neighbors? what was the living situation like? what was a typical day for you and the people around you. Finally, choose an event from your life or from history that happened during the time you've researched and write about it, using your research to inform and contextualize what you write.
Think about a time or incident from your past when you just barely averted disaster. Write a story about it, but change the circumstances so that the disaster actually happens.
Poet Stanley Kunitz often advised his students to end a poem on an image without explaining it. Write a new poem or revise an old one, ending it with an evocative image left unexplained.
Using Lorrie Moore's "How To Be An Other Woman" from Self-Help (Knopf, 1985) as inspiration, turn a personal experience into a twelve- (or more) step, how-to manual. The piece can be a simple enumerated list, or it can be more detailed, conveying a broader story; but use the second-person, and keep it instructional.
Find a blank notebook, and for one week fill it with whatever strikes you—images, photographs, cut-out excerpts from articles or books, notes on matchbooks, maps, drawings, and your own writing. At the end of the week, use this material as inspiration for a story.
Record the advertising slogans and advertising copy that you encounter throughout the day. Pick one slogan/catchphrase or a brief selection of advertising copy and incorporate it into a poem, without mentioning the object or service being marketed.
Read the headlines in today's newspaper. Choose one that you find compelling, and without reading the accompanying article, write a story based on the headline.
Write for twenty minutes, without stopping, a piece of pure description about something you see (a person, a scene, or an object in the room). No dialogue, no metaphor, no emotion; just pure description, as detailed as possible. Then write, nonstop, for another twenty minutes about the same subject, but this time use only speculation—imagine the subject's thoughts, perceptions, emotions, inner, or outward dialogue, etc.—and/or your own thoughts and observations about the subject. Combine the two pieces, and see what kind of story comes to life.
Pick up a dictionary and randomly choose ten words. Write a poem in five stanzas, with five lines in each stanza, using two of the ten words in each. Make the number of stressed syllables in each line consistent among the stanzas. (The first line of each stanza should have the same number of stressed syllables, etc.)
Deconstruct a short story that you find particularly powerful. First, identify the point-of-view and the characters. Then outline the plot. Finally, make a chart with two columns: In the first column, describe what happens in each paragraph of the story; in the second column, analyze why it happens, how it serves the larger story. Apply what you learn as you revise a story-in-the-works or begin a new one.
Write for twenty minutes about one of the following subjects. Combine two or three subjects to create something larger.
- An experience with an insect.
- An experience with a child.
- An experience with an animal.
- An experience with a stranger.
- An experience in an automobile.
- An experience in a school.
- An experience in a place of worship.
- An experience in a stranger’s house.
This week’s creative nonfiction prompt comes from Jo Ann Beard, who is on the nonfiction faculty at Sarah Lawrence College. Her most recent book is the novel, In Zanesville (Little, Brown, 2011).
Compose a poem in the form and style of a postcard note. Keep the length brief, and give the recipient a sense of the place you’re visiting or the space you’re occupying. The location from which you write can be imagined or real. Alternatively, buy a postcard, and try to write a poem based on the image or photograph on the front of the postcard.
Write a scene for a story, using third-person narration, that opens with your main character having just done something despicable. Despite what he or she has done, find a way in writing the rest of the scene to make your character sympathetic without letting him or her off the hook.
Choose an incident from your past—it could be an ordinary occurrence, such as a family dinner—or a significant event, such as an achievement or a mishap. Write about it from your perspective, then write about it from the perspective of someone else who experienced it with you—a friend, sibling, or parent.
Take a poem you feel is finished, and divide the poem in half. Write two new poems by filling in those two halves.
Choose a story that you've finished or a story by another author and use the last line of it to begin a new story, using the same characters and/or introducing new ones.
Take an episode from a piece you've already written—the more personal the better—and rewrite it as a third-person news story, faithfully following the inverted-pyramid and who-what-when-where-why structure of normative journalism.
This week's creative nonfiction prompt comes from Vijay Seshadri, director of the nonfiction program at Sarah Lawrence College and author, most recently, of The Disappearances (Harper Collins, 2007).