May 6, 2014 Prompt #5
Before Getting Started: Pen or Keyboard?
Before I launch today’s prompt, I want to talk about writing vs. typing. Through out this blog, you’ll see instructions such as “Write the phrase on a fresh piece of paper” Which raises a question my students frequently ask: “Is it better to write on a computer or on paper?”
I answer their question with another question: “What works better for you?”
For me, writing prompts and first drafts of creative work begin best with paper and pen. If I’m diving into something new or feel stuck on a particular part of a story, writing on paper lets me to follow tangents, explore voice, mess up, try again, and imagine furiously. And why not? I’ll be revising it anyway when I type it into Word or Pages on my laptop or iPad. I’ll often set a timer for 15 minutes then take off writing. Setting a time limit says: Even if the writing is frustrating and painful, it is only frustrating and painful for fifteen minutes. I can survive that.
When I’m writing non-fiction such as this blog, however, I type it in directly. Must be a different part of my brain.
Pen and paper for first drafts and prompts don’t’t work for everyone. Some writers say they write more quickly and effectively on their computer. One student said she couldn’t read her own handwriting when it was time to revise her work! Other writers like the organization that a computer offers.
If you do use a computer, watch out for these traps:
- Don’t edit or proofread as you write. Keep typing!
- Don’t get distracted. There are a thousand ways to procrastinate on a computer; for this reason, I use a software program called Freedom that prevents me from getting on-line while writing. I set it for 30 minutes or an hour to help me stay focused. When I use it, I don’t get tempted by Facebook or YouTube and I can’t get lost researching, for instance, what songs were on the Top Ten in January 1972 or from what material the parchment of a Torah scroll is made. (Both legitimate questions for the book I’m writing, but it’s better for me to separate writing and research, especially in early drafts.) Even with Freedom, I can still distract myself by organizing my photos or clearing out my email in-box. Self-discipline is a skill for sure.
Today’s prompt is inspired by the poem “1943 Steel Penny” by Tom Chandler (below). In it, he writes a compelling history of a steel penny, using specific details of time, place, and even brand names.
1943 Steel Penny
Spent more than a month
in a torn khaki pocket
slumped in a ditch in Anzio,
four years in a jar
in a workingman’s bar
near a highway
somewhere in Michigan,
more than two decades
in a Phillies Cigar Box
lost in your great uncle’s
after he’d found it
in a local garage
on the floor near the wall
where a calendar hung
with some dates crossed off
and other dates circled
where he’d gone for repair
on a meaningless Thursday
wearing a tie in the fresh morning light,
smelling of brylcream & smoker’s breath
and worried about his Desoto.
“1943 Steel Penny” by Tom Chandler, from Wingbones. © Signal Books Signature Poets series.
For this prompt, you’ll need to choose your own old object to write about it. It could be a coin, as in the poem, or it could be, for instance, a chess piece, hat, book, hammer, button, ring, spool of thread, or box of fishing tackle. Choose what inspires you, but try to find something at least 20 years old. Older is better! However, if you can’t find an old object or are writing somewhere away from your things, use what is in your pocket, in your bag, in the gutter of the street.
Create a written history—real or imagined—for your object. Before you write, spend a minute getting to know your object.
- If you can, pick it up. Feel the weight of it in your hand. Look at it from all sides.
- If you shake it gently, does it make a noise?
- Sniff it. Does it have an odor?
- Press it again your cheek. How does it feel?
You can write in the style of Tom Chandler’s poem, write prose or something in-between. Here are two approaches to try:
- Write a long, long single sentence about the object.
- Write longer sentences interspersed with very short ones or single words.
Like Chandler’s poem, include concrete details for a more robust piece. Try including a geographic name (such as Michigan), a brand-name (such as Desoto) or a reference to time (such as Thursday.) I think “1943 Steel Penny” is especially moving because of the contrast between Anzio (a battlefield) and the local garage. What contrasts can you include your writing?
How This Prompt Can Strengthen Your Writing
- It gives your imagination a chance to run wild.
- It offers a subject (your chosen object) you might not have considered before.
- It demonstrates how a simple object can be the anchor for a larger story, vision, or theme.
Next Steps for More Writing
- Re-write the last line or word of your writing on the top of a fresh sheet of paper. Write for 10 or 20 minutes more.
- Choose a new object and write in response to it.
- Choose the same object and write an entirely different history of it.
Tips and Variations for Writing Groups
- Have everyone in the group bring 2 old objects to the meeting. Put them in the center of the table and have each member choose one to write about. Don’t share the true histories of the objects before writing about them.
- Have each writer in the group write about the same object. Share your writing to discover the different histories each writer imagined. What were the differences in subject and style? What details or sensory observations overlapped?