Breaking News

telegramJune 9, 2014.  Prompt #40

I just finished binge watching marathon viewing four seasons of Downtown Abbey. The very first episode opens with a close-up of a telegraph in motion, complete with taps and beeps as the operator sends a message. The telegraph not only grounds the story in history (in this case, 1912) but also conveys the urgency of the news being sent.


  1. Write a piece that begins with the delivery of news.
  2. Start with an object of communication, for instance, a television, computer, or newspaper. You could choose a newer form of communication, such as an email, text, or Skype call, or one from the past—a telegram, letter on the Pony Express, or a phone call on a party line.
  3. Next, choose a message to be delivered. What does the message say? Who sends it? Who receives it? Who announces it? Who hears it?
  4. What happens next?

Further Writing

  • If you wrote about bad news, write a second version with good news or ambiguous news. If you wrote about good news, try making it disturbing or unclear. What is the effect on the tension, tone, or pacing of your piece?
  • Slow down the action. Record in detail the moment that the news is received. Describe in detail in the surroundings, the sounds, the smells and the textures.

Variation for Writing Groups

  1. On an index card, write two messages in the style of a telegram: clear and concise.
  2. Place the cards in the middle of the table. Either deliberately or at random, choose one and write in response to it. Write for 20 minutes.


Inspiration Everywhere: Poetry and Prose Readings

Thomas Sayers Ellis  (photo by Lynda Koolish)

Thomas Sayers Ellis (photo by Lynda Koolish)

June 6, 2014.  Prompt #38

On Thursday night, I attended an outstanding reading at Naropa’s Summer Writing Program. It featured Lee Ann Brown, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Rebecca Brown, Norma Cole, and Eleni Sikelianos.  Over the next month, I’ll talk more about all these writers and how their work might inspire you.

If you’ve never been to a reading, check with local book stores, libraries, coffeehouses, or colleges to see if they sponsor or know about readings in your area. If there aren’t any near by, start your own.



For today’s prompt, we’ll look at Thomas Sayers Ellis poem “Or”  


Or Oreo, or
worse. Or ordinary.
Or your choice
of category


or any color
other than Colored
or Colored Only.
Or “Of Color”


or theory or discourse
or oral territory.
Oregon or Georgia
or Florida Zora


or born poor
or Corporate. Or Moor.
Or a Noir Orpheus
or Senghor


or a horrendous
and tore-up journey.
Or performance. Or allegory’s armor
of ignorant comfort.


or reform or a sore chorus.
Or Electoral Corruption
or important ports
of Yoruba or worry


or fear of…
of terror or border.
Or all organized

From Skin, Inc. Identity Repair Poems  Grey Wolf Press

This poem astonished me because, like the conjunction “or” from which it takes its title, it knits together sound, language, history, academia, and all kinds of assumptions. Yet even as the role of conjunctions is to join words, the conjunction “or” also separates. It requires you to choose one over another.  Ellis uses the word or as the core of the poem, then builds on it by incorporating dozens of words containing the letters or and other words with the or sound. The words, sounds, their meanings, and their associations all build upon and play off of one another. “Or” is filled with strong and specific nouns and proper noun yet still open to the reader’s own experiences.


  1. Choose a short word, perhaps a conjunction or preposition since they, by their nature, suggest connection and relationship. Some options (or choose your own): and, as, at, but, by, down, for, in, nor, of, off, on, or, out, so, to, up, with.
  2. Write down your word followed by words or phrases containing the letters of your word. Also write down words that share the sound of your word. Try using rhymes and near-rhymes too.  For instance, if you chose “so,” you might write sew, sow (as in the female pig or planting seeds) soap, south, social, sole, soul, son, some, sort, song, soft, stow, insulate, insolate, insolent, desolate, insomnia, resolute, also, miso, torso, verso, gesso, espresso, snow, manifesto, Winslow.
  3. Once you’ve produced a list of 30 or more words, read through them and circle one or two words or phrases that resonate for you.  Then choose twelve more words that have a connection, either in meaning, sound or “energy” to your core word.
  4. Next, pull it all together and write a poem, a story, a soliloquy, a declaration, or an intricate question.  Include your initial set of words, add more, toss some, and keep coming back to your core word. Don’t worry about making sense or being logical.  Your work may be serious, playful, dreamy, angry or a mix of these. Its larger meaning or story may emerge quickly or it make take a few drafts bring out connections.


  • For this prompt, think about sound and meaning. For instance, if you choose “so,”  you might feel connected to the word South because it contains so and because an abbreviation of south is So.  On the other hand, because so and south don’t sound alike, if you intend to read your work out loud (and you should), the pairing of so and south may not strengthen your piece.
  • Sometimes prompts such as this develop into a solid poem or story. In other cases, you may generate a single phrase or sentence that stands on its own and is the springboard for a new piece. Whatever you create, this prompt will help you think about sound, connections, and the nature of language.

Inspiration Online [Part II]

Agnes Long Fox [Sioux, 1914-1984]

Agnes Long Fox [Sioux, 1914-1984]



June 6, 2014.  Prompt #37

Today we build on yesterday’s visit to the Smithsonian’s image gallery If you haven’t read my June 5th post, do that now. Today’s prompts build on yesterday’s images.



Further Writing

  • Project yourself into the image you are viewing. Write for 10 minutes. Does this change your point of view or what you write about?
  • For ten minutes, write a visual account of the image, noting details and relationships between the parts of the painting, print, or photo. Did you notice anything new?

Variations for Writing Groups

  1. Print out your image or be sure you’ll be able to bring it up on a laptop or tablet.
  2. Looking at your image, use your imagination to answer these questions. What sounds do you hear or associate with the image? What smells?  Propel yourself into the image, then “touch” part of it.  What textures and temperatures do you feel? Is there anything in it you could taste? If so, describe it. If the image is abstract, this is an especially good opportunity to flex your creative muscle.
  3. Go together to a museum or gallery. Plant yourself in front of an artwork and write for 20 minutes. Note: Get permission from guards or gallery owners first. They might ask you to write in pencil or have other requirements.

Inspiration Online: Paintings, Prints, and Photos

Summer Sky

“Summer Sky” by Dan Namingha, [Hopi-Tewa, born 1950]. From the National Museum of the American Indian.


June 5, 2014.  Prompt #36

Today we turn to the Smithsonian’s image gallery to be inspired by one of the thousands of images there. Warning: This is a mesmerizing site. Don’t get so lost in exploring that you forget to write.






  1. Go to
  2. In the “Search All Catalogs” box on the right, type in a keyword. (If you can’t decide on a keyword, type in “summer.”)
  3. When you receive your search results, scan the images until you find one that inspires you. If you can’t decide which to use, choose the 3rd one.
  4. Enlarge it and free write for five minutes, noting any questions, emotions or observations that arise while you look at the image.
  5. Next, circle three words or phrases that stand out for you.  Write one of them at the top of new piece of paper.  Write for more fifteen minutes.

Tomorrow:  Further Writing Tips and Variations for Writing Groups

Inspiration Everywhere: Public Art II

June 4, 2014.  Prompt #35

photo 2

Today’s prompt follows up yesterday’s post on artist Gary Hirsh’s Bot Joy interactive mural. Learn more about the mural here and at #botstories.


  1. Writing for five minutes, list people, situations, activities, and emotions that you are afraid of.  For instance, mine would include gondola rides, small planes, glass elevators and global climate change.  (I also think clowns are creepy, but I’m not actually afraid of them.)
  2. Next, for fifteen minutes, choose one of the items above and write about it in details.  Include large and small descriptive details and well as emotional ones.

Further Writing

  • Write about something that is both scary and pleasant, perhaps at different times or at the same time. (Mine would be light houses.)
  • Write about a fear you’ve overcome or a new fear that didn’t used to bother you.

Variations for Writing Groups

  1. As suggested above, write about a time you experienced fear. Re-reading what you have written, circle twelve to fifteen of your strongest or most surprising words and phrases. Re-write them all on a new piece of paper to create a poem or prose poem.
  2. Using a story, essay, or poem you are currently writing or revising, work in a moment of fear. How does this enrich the work?
  3. Write a piece that combines fear and joy.


Inspiration Everywhere: Public Art

June 3, 2014.  Prompt #34

photo 3


Last month in Boulder, artist Gary Hirsh of Bot Joy painted an interactive mural at the northeast corner of Arapahoe and  13th Street, near the Farmer’s Market.  The mural poses several introspective questions of its viewers. You can find out more about the mural here and at #botstories.

For today and tomorrow’s prompt, we’ll work with two of the “bot prompts.”  Feel free to draw your own bot to complement your writing!



  1. For five minutes, free write about joy. Include whatever associations, people, places, activities—general or specific, arise.
  2. Next, for fifteen minutes, focus in on a time when you were filled with joy. Include the both large and small details of the setting, who you were with, what was happening around you and inside you. Include sensory details. Did the joy last for days, hours, or just a moment? Had you worked to create it or had it unexpectedly emerged?

Further Writing

  • Write about a time when you experienced unexpected or fleeting joy.
  • Write about daily small joys that you try to cultivate in your life.

Variations for Writing Groups

  1. As suggested above, write about a time you experienced unexpected or fleeting joy. Re-reading what you have written, circle twelve to fifteen of your strongest or most surprising words and phrases. Re-write them all on a new piece of paper to create a poem or prose poem.
  2. Using a story, essay, or poem you are currently writing or revising, work in a moment of profound joy. How does this enrich the work?


Inspiration Everywhere: Maya Angelou

June 2, 2014.  Prompt #33

mayaAs a writer, I am often asked, “Where do you find your inspiration?” That question always surprises me, as I find inspiration everywhere. In this week’s posts, I’ll offer a variety of people, places, and instances that may inspire you.  Using your writer’s notebook, track what engages you throughout the day.


Maya Angelou

Last week, writer, performer, professor, and activist Dr. Maya Angelou died.  My Facebook feed was filled with tributes and quotes. This was among my favorites: Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.


  1. For five minutes, free write about the word courage. Include whatever associations—people, places, situations—arise.
  2. Next, for ten minutes, write about a time when you acted courageously, in either word or action, either big or small.

Further Writing

  • Write about a time when you (or your character) were not as courageous as you wished you’d been.  Was there a time when you missed an opportunity to act courageously?
  • My father used a say, “Discretion is the better part of valor”  (originally “The better part of valoris discretion,” from Shakespeare’s Henry IV.)  Write about the difference between valor and courage and the complexity of courageous acts.

Variations for Writing Groups

  1. On an index card, write a short description of a real or imagined courageous act.
  2. Place the cards in the middle of the table and choose one to write about for 15 minutes.
  3. Discuss the power of big vs. understated courageous acts. What are the challenges of writing about each of them?


Uniform Writing

ice womenMay 31, 2014  Prompt #31

To wrap up Clothing Week, today’s prompt is short and sweet:  Write about work clothes.  Your work clothes might be an actual uniform or simply what you wear when it’s time to earn a living or get the job done. If you need more structure, refer to the prompts from earlier this week. The guidelines and suggestions are largely transferable.

Have fun and get to work!


The Task At Hand

basement artist

Here’s 6-year-old me in a BIG smock provided by longtime family friend Helene Hemmendinger. Eric H. is working the other side of the easel.

May 30, 2014  Prompt #30

Do you have a favorite item of clothing that you wear for a particular task? A gardening shirt, a well-loved apron, a pair of road trip blue jeans?  This item of clothing will be your touchstone for the following prompts. If you don’t have a particular garment that fits this description, choose something that is meaningful to you in another way.

Ann Brashares wrote an entire series of books that revolved around a pair of blue jeans — The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. Of course, the books are not really about the pants; they are about friendship, loyalty, and growing up.  What larger themes will emerge from your writing?



  1. For five minutes, write a physical description of your clothing choice. Describe its style, fabric, and color. Does it have tears or stains? Where and when did you acquire it?
  2. Put on the item of clothing. Do you feel connected to the task for which you generally wear it? (Time to bake raisin oatmeal cookies! Time to weed around the stoop or feed the horses!) Write about your connection to the piece of clothing, how it came to be your painting, hiking, or “clean the gutter” garment. Write for 15 minutes.

Further Writing

  • Write about someone else’s “go-to” clothes. For instance, my father had a pair of frayed blue shorts he gardened in for twenty years, until my mother decided they so worn-thin they were “obscene.”  She tossed them.

Variations for Writing Groups

  1. Each member brings in a piece of clothing they associate with a particular use.  For a few minutes each, talk about your clothing choice with the group.
  2. Next, for 15 minutes, write about how you feel when you wear it.
  3. Fictional turn: write about someone who panics when they cannot find a specific piece of clothing. Can they not go out on a date because they can’t find their green high-tops? Do they give up on working in their studio because their perfectly worn, perfectly paint-splattered Oxford shirt is missing?

What did you think of this writing prompt? Share your thoughts.

A Tip of the Hat

Me and my pal Magic goofing around with hats at the costume shop at the University of Colorado many years ago.

Me and my pal Magic goofing around at the costume shop at the University of Colorado many years ago.

May 28, 2014  Prompt #28

Bonnets, boaters, and bowlers. Berets and beanies. Sombreros. Stetson’s. Stovepipes. Fedoras. Fezzes. Fisherman’s caps. Coal miner helmets. Army helmets. Bike helmets.

Yes, today’s prompt is all about hats.  With their long and rich history, writing about hats can enrich characterization, provoke memories, and, again, ground your writing with specific, sensory details. Hat’s off and let’s go!


  1. Choose a hat–yours or someone else’s–for this exercise. While it is best to have a physical hat to hold and feel, you can, alternately, look at headgear on Wikipedia or check out The Hat Blog for inspiration.
  2. Have your hat? For five minutes, write a physical and factual description of  its style, color, and condition. Write briefly about where, when and how you acquired it. If you are looking of a photo of the hat, you can imagine its history .
  3. Next, write the psychological and emotional history of the hat. Do you put it on for practical or stylish reasons? How do you feel wearing it? Do you associate the hat with a person, place, or stage of your life?  Tell your story.

Further Writing

  • Write a poem about your hat. Capture a small slice of time or a specific emotion associated with the hat. Include two or more of these words: mirror, door, sun, eyes, breeze, sturdy, light, other, tilt.
  • Write about trying on the hat of someone who has died.
  • Write about someone who is incomplete without their hat. Tell us how it transforms them.

Variations for Writing Groups

  1. Each member brings one or two hats to writing group. Take turns trying them on and snapping photos of each other with a digital camera. Choose one of the photos as your springboard and write from there.
  2. You are walking on a beach, on a city sidewalk, or in an open meadow. A stiff wind blows a hat your way and it lands two feet in front of you.  What do you do (0r what does your character do?)? Include sensory details, such as texture, temperature, and sounds.

What did you think of this writing prompt? Share your thoughts.