Sunday Shape Up: Star

June 29, 2014  Prompt #58


This week’s Sunday Shape-Up lets you shine like the star you are.


  1. For 10 minutes, jot down phrases, dialogue and images that come to mind when you hear the word star.
  2. Re-read what you’ve written and circle a phrase or sentence that stands out.
  3. Next, underline a phrase that feels awkwardly written, difficult, or otherwise problematic.
  4. Write both phrases on the top of a new sheet of paper.  Write in response to them for 15 minutes.

Tomorrow: Further Writing and Variations for Writing Groups


Double Double (Toil and Trouble?)

June 25, 2014  Prompt #54

DSCN5693_2 DSCN5693

Sometimes, a successful story is the result of careful planning, clear outlines, and a well-conceived structure. Other times, random play generates surprising results. For today’s prompt, we are going to play.


  1. Choose a section of a story or essay you’ve written that is about a page long. Or choose a single piece of flash fiction or a short to medium-length poem.
  2. Reprint it or rewrite it by starting every sentence on a new line AND leaving two blank lines between sentences. See example below.
  3. In the white spaces between the lines, write new sentences. They can be a logical extension of the existing work or something less directly connected.
  4. Don’t over think this one. But do have fun.


Original Paragraph:

“When does a Jew become an adult?” Mrs. Glickenstein asked. “Twenty-one? Eighteen?” Clarissa Wallach and Yackov Winpool raised their hands, but I hesitated.  It didn’t matter: Mrs. Glickenstein answered her own question. “Thirteen. Thirteen is when a boy becomes a man.” Every Jewish kid knows this. Thirteen is the age of Bar and Bat Mitzvah, after which boys are counted in the minyan and can read from the Torah in front of the congregation. For girls, nothing changes, but, let’s face it, Bar Miztvahed boys aren’t adults either. It’s not like anyone of us can drive a car, vote for president , or buy beer the day we turn thirteen.


Prepared Paragraphs for the Writing Prompt

“When does a Jew become an adult?” Mrs. Glickenstein asked. “Twenty-one? Eighteen?”


Clarissa Wallach and Yackov Winpool raised their hands, but I hesitated.


It didn’t matter: Mrs. Glickenstein answered her own question.


“Thirteen. Thirteen is when a boy becomes a man.”


Every Jewish kid knows this.


Thirteen is the age of Bar and Bat Mitzvah, after which boys are counted in the minyan and can read from the Torah in front of the congregation.


For girls, nothing changes, but, let’s face it, Bar Miztvahed boys aren’t adults either.


It’s not like anyone of us can drive a car, vote for president , or buy beer the day we turn thirteen.


Further Writing

  • In the blank spaces, write from the point-of-view of a different time period. For instance, if the existing story takes place in the past, write a parallel story in the present. Or write a parallel story from 50 or 100 years earlier.
  • In the blank spaces, write an interior voice.
  • In the blank spaces, write in a distinctly different style.

Variations for Writing Groups

  1. On index cards, write down feelings or emotional states. (For example: doubt, joy, sneakiness, outrage, enthusiasm, uncertainty, distrust, drunkenness, or despair.)
  2. Choose an emotion from the pile and rewrite your sentences in that style. In other words, shift the tone or mood of your original piece.



Read over what you’ve written, then make note of anything you’ve learned from the prompt.  For instance, you might discover ways to add depth to your original work. You might realize your original piece needs more sensory details (or fewer) or more summarizing (or less summarizing) and so on.  Overall, prompts like this shake up your work and, in the best of circumstances, give you fresh eyes for revision.




Summer Solstice Ritual

June 21, 2014.  Prompt #51

Summer-Solstice-Stonehenge-1024x380After dinner with friends tonight , I marked this longest day of the year with a walk to Wonderland Lake. There, redwings chattered, the foothills reflected themselves in the water, and two mallard chicks paddled behind with their mother. On the path home, I nearly bumped into a mule deer. I like to celebrate the cycles of the year: solstice and equinoxes; full, new and blue moons; lunar and solar eclipses. I revel in a colorful sunrise and sunset.


  1. Write about an annual, monthly or even daily ritual that you (or a character) observe.
  2. Your ritual can revolve around a holiday, a seasonal occurrence or something societal, such as the last day of school, the opening of hunting season, or the homecoming football game.
  3. Write for 15 minutes.

Further Writing

  • Write about a very personal ritual, not connected to society as a whole.
  • Invent a ritual for yourself or a character.

Variations for Writing Groups

  1. On separate pieces of paper, each member writes a one-sentence description of a ritual they partake in and a second ritual that is entirely made up.
  2. Place the papers in the middle of the table and read the descriptions out loud.
  3. Guess which rituals are real (that it, one that someone in the group or someone they know actually observes) and which are entirely imaginary.
  4. Choose one description — real or fictional — and expand on it. Add back-story, details, and conflict as needed. Write for 20 minutes.

Looking ahead

Two of next week’s prompts will focus on editing and revision.  To prepare, find a story, poem, or essay to revisit.  You can use a rough draft or a polished piece with which you are willing to experiment.


Developing Character

facesJune 20, 2014.  Prompt #50

To write effectively about characters, it’s crucial to thoroughly develop their fictional lives. Once you have a clear sense of who they are, you’ll be able to better write dialogue for them and describe their gestures, expressions, and habits. How does your character entertain herself, how does he dress, what does she like to eat? Even though you won’t directly incorporate every fact you develop for your character, establishing a strong background deepens all facets of your story.


  1. Choose a character from a story you are writing. This exercise can also work for a non-fiction essay.
  2. In a few words or single sentence, answer the 20 questions below about your character. Feel free to change pronouns or details accordingly. Write for 20 minutes.
  3. Here are the questions:
  • Your character’s most prized personal possession is
  • Your character’s favorite color
  • Your character’s favorite holiday
  • Person he loves the most
  • Friends she most respects
  • What people like about her
  • His greatest fear
  • Cruelest thing she has ever done
  • What he most regrets
  • Is she a planner or spontaneous?
  • Her fantasy is to…
  • The most damaging this that ever happened to him was
  • How much money does she have in her savings account
  • He brags about…
  • She is afraid that people will find out…
  • He lives in an apartment, condo, tract house, farm house, restored bungalow, on the streets, or ….?
  • What he most dislikes about his appearance
  • Her most treasured memory
  • He drinks what kind of beer, wine, or juice?
  • The only thing she ever stole was…

Further Writing

  • Expand one of your answers above. Write a 10-minute short prose piece.
  • In your short prose piece, circle 20 words that stand out for you.  Shape these words into a poem, adding additional words as needed.

Variations for Writing Groups

  1. Each writing group member writes down two questions about a character at the top of a blank sheet of paper. For instance, What is the one thing your character does secretly? Describe their pet. or She will lie when…
  2. Mix up the papers and then choose one at random.
  3. Write a one paragraph response to each question. Write for 20 minutes.

Looking ahead

Two of next week’s prompts will focus on editing and revision.  To prepare, find a story, poem, or essay to revisit.  You can use a rough draft or a polished piece with which you are willing to experiment.


I Don’t Remember

May 20, 2014  Prompt #20

IMG_0620 Today’s prompt turns yesterday’s “I Remember” exercise on its head.  “I Don’t Remember” motivates you to write about loss,  failure of memory, and what we repress. Use it to remember, connect, and observe.  When I’ve taught this exercise in my workshops, there’s often a lightheartedness about what our mind chooses to remember and what it forgets. Go deep, go playful, go write.



  1. On a sheet of paper, write the phrase I don’t remember on the left side of the first line.  Skip three lines and write it again.  Repeat this until you’ve written I don’t remember twelve times. (Start a new sheet or write on the back if you need more room.)
  2. Next, fill in the blank spaces after I don’t remember with a sentence, phrase, or even a single word. For example, I don’t remember when I stopped climbing trees.  I don’t remember the last time I spoke to my brother.  I don’t remember what bus driver looked like.
  3. Work your way down the list, writing for 15 to 20 minutes.

Notes (same as yesterday’s notes.)

  • Pay attention to the sound of your words, their collective rhythm and pacing. Try varying short and long responses.
  • This exercise can create a stand-alone list poem or several spring boards for short stories, flash fiction, and narrative poems.
  • Try reading the finished piece aloud. What do you notice?

Further Writing

  • Try interspersing this sequence once or twice, I don’t remember _________, but I do remember  ______________.
  • Include specific details. Here’s one from Brainard’s book: ” I remember the only time I ever saw my mother cry. I was eating apricot pie.”

Variations for Writing Groups

  1. Choose one of your completed I don’t remember lines and expand upon it.
  2. Work in a simile. “I don’t remember why I gave away the rag wool sweater, red as the geraniums that lined our front bed, thick as the weeds that tried to choke them.

Thoughts on this writing prompt?


Imagined History of a Lost Object

Imagined History of a Lost Object

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.

steel pennysteel pennysteel penny

Today’s Prompt

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
underwear drawer
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

  1. It gives your imagination a chance to run wild.
  2. It offers a subject (your chosen object) you might not have considered before.
  3. 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?


Opening Lines

May 4, 2014  Prompt #3

Getting Started

For many writers, staring at a blank page or empty screen is daunting. Some wonder, “What should I write about? What will people think of my story?”  Others ask, “How do I begin? How do I shape that all-important first line?”

My advice? 1. Turn off your inner critic and full-time editor. 2. Breathe.

If you are not writing because you are stuck on what to write about or how to craft your story,  simply start writing words. You don’t need full sentences. You can stop in the middle of one thought and start another. As many have said before me, the point is to keep your pen moving on the page.  In my experience, the act of writing, of connecting brain, hand and pen (or brain, fingers and keyboard) releases both ideas on what to write about and reveals the style in which to craft your prose.  Editing, reshaping, and revising can all come later.

framing fun3

The Prompt

Below are nine opening lines. Choose one, write it on the top of a fresh sheet of paper, then write in response to it. Write for 10 minutes.

How This Prompt Can Strengthen Your Writing

  1. It may help you break through writing resistance and start writing. (I suppose all the prompts do that!)
  2. It offers a subject or story line you might not have considered before.
  3. It offers a point-of-view you might not have considered before.


  • Feel free to substitute words for better inspiration. For instance, if  “Your sister is the pretty one” speaks to you more than “Your sister is the smart one,” use that opening line instead.
  • If you can’t decide which opening line to use, choose the one that’s the first number of your area code.
  • Don’t be concerned if your writing strays from the original line or ends up being about something entirely different than what you intended. That happens frequently and is a sign of creativity at play.

Opening Lines

  1. Your sister’s the smart one.
  2. That summer I . . .
  3. “What did you expect?” she said.
  4. If I had another chance, I …
  5. I was only 9 years old, but…
  6. “Before I met your mother, I . . .”
  7. “Better to laugh than cry.”
  8. “Big boys don’t cry”
  9. “No son of mine is going to . . .”

Next Steps for More Writing

  • Still raring to go after ten minutes? Write for 10 or 20 minutes more.
  • As your re-read what you have written, circle a word, phrase, or sentence that jumps out for you. Write it at the top of a new sheet of paper. Now write for ten more minutes in response to that.
  • Choose a different opening line and write in response to it.

Tips and Variations for Writing Groups

  • Write out these prompts on index cards or slips of paper. Each  group member then chooses one (either deliberately or randomly) and writes from there.
  • Give each group member a blank index card and ask them to write an opening line. The mix up the cards and have everyone choose a card for their prompt.

Looking Ahead

For an upcoming prompt, track down sample paint chips in a hardware or home design store. These are usually by the paints, have 3 to 6 colors per sample, and are free. If possible, find paint chips with interesting names for their colors (such as Lost Lake Blue or Summer Time Yellow). Choose 3 or 4 samples and take them home.  If you can’t find paint chips, cut up from a magazine six squares of different colors. Paperclip them together and hold on to them until next week.


What If?

blue maps

May 2, 2014  •  Exercise #1

This first exercise gives you a series or words and phrases to work with. I suggest printing the text below on a sheet of lined paper or typing it onto a fresh electronic page. Once you’ve finished that, start your 10-minute times and fill in the blanks with a short sentence, phrase, or single word.

If you are working on fiction, you can write from the point of view of one of your characters. If you are working on memoir, you can write in your own voice at any age. If you are writing poetry, this structure make lend itself well to list poem.

A few tips: Write quickly.  Don’t over-think. If you are stuck, move on. (Remember, this won’t be graded!) Experiment. Break the mold or build on it. (More on that later.)  Write for ten minutes.


How This Prompt Can Strengthen Your Writing

  1. The word “if” invites you to consider possibilities and gives you permission to dream.
  2. The fill-in-the-blank format encourages brevity and the strengths that come with it.
  3. It can help you build rhythm into your writing.


If I were ____________________________________________________________________
I would _____________________________________________________________________

If I were _____________________________________________________________________
I would not  ___________________________________________________________________

What if I _____________________________________________________________________
What if you____________________________________________________________________

What if I _____________________________________________________________________
What if  you___________________________________________________________________
What if we ____________________________________________________________________

If  instead ______________________________________________________________________

If instead ______________________________________________________________________

What if ________________________________________________________________________

If you hadn’t ____________________________________________________________________
I would ________________________________________________________________________

If I hadn’t ______________________________________________________________________
you would [not] ___________________________________________________________________

If only _________________________________________________________________________
If only_________________________________________________________________________

If  ____________________________________________________________________________


Next Steps

Was ten minutes enough time?  Did you keep going? If you felt engaged with this exercise, here are two follow-ups:

  • Choose one sentence or phrase from the set and expand it on it. Turn it into a full paragraph, a narrative poem, or a flash fiction piece.
  • Read what you have written out loud. Can you hear a rhythm or pattern in your words? Does a word or phrase feel out of place or less lyrical?  If so, try writing it another way.

Tips for Writing Groups

  • Read your work out loud to see how others worked with the prompt. Do any of their approaches inspire you?
  • As a next step, choose a phrase or sentence from one of your group members and write it on the top of new sheet of paper. Then write for 10 to 20 more minutes in response to it. After, if you feel so inclined, share your work again.