The Face of Frustration

Thursday, September 18


Art Work by David Adamo

Hey Everyone — I’m back from my summer hiatus with more prompts, recommendations and explorations of the craft of writing. Today’s prompt:

Write about frustration.

Suggestions and inspirations:

1. Writing in prose, write a series of dialogue-free actions that depicts growing frustration. Write for 15 minutes

2. Writing poetry, create pacing, word choice and sentence length that convey the energy of frustration. Write for 15 minutes.

3. Write a list poem on the theme of frustration. Write for 10 minutes.

4. Depict frustration that grows, ebbs, explodes, then…?


More about David Adamo’s work here.

Sunday Shape-Up: Spiral

July 6, 2014  Prompt #63

Spiral Jetty by Robert Smithson

Spiral Jetty by Robert Smithson


For this, the final Sunday Shape-Up prompt, I turn to the spiral.  As this long holiday weekend included for me both an unexpected funeral and an unexpected wedding, the spiral, with its nod toward the cyclical nature of life seems appropriate.




  1. On a blank piece of paper, draw a spiral with generous white space between the lines.
  2. For 5 to 10 minutes, write along the spiral line. Turn the paper as needed. Write freely about whatever comes to mind without too much forethought.
  3. Re-read what you’ve written and circle a phrase or sentence that stands out.
  4. Write the phrase or word on the top of a new sheet of (lined) paper.  Write in response to it for 15 minutes.

Further Writing

Write in response to one of these spiraled phrases: Spiral-bound notebook. Spiral Staircase. Spiral galaxy. Spiraling in and out.

Variations for Writing Groups

Read about Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. Look at photos on the internet or, even better, check out a library book about this land form art. Write in response to it.   Even, even better, take a field trip to the jetty! Walk and write. Walk and write. Sit and write. Write some more, then walk back. Bring water.


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.


Picture {Postcard} Perfect

June 19, 2014.  Prompt #49

denver2Today’s prompt may take you to places unknown.

Have a marvelous journey.




  1. Do you have a collection of old travel postcards?  If so, choose one for this prompt.
  2. If not, in Google image, Flickr, or another image search, type “travel postcards.” Choose a postcard image from it.
  3. Write down thoughts and sensations inspired by the postcard. Write for 10 minutes.
  4. Rewrite your last line on the top of a new page. Write for 15 minutes.

Further Writing

  • Postcards are known for limited space.  Write a haiku elicited by the postcard.
  • Imagine you sent this postcard. What would you have written on the back? Who would you have sent it to? What would you have told them to console them, to lure them, or to make them jealous?

Variations for Writing Groups

  1. Postcards often offer a candy-coated version of what they depict. Write a short prose piece (200 words or less) either building on this lie or debunking it. Start the piece with three adjectives in a row.
  2. Bring a postcard to your group and have everyone write a poem or short prose piece based on it. Write for 10 minutes.
  3. Share your work. Do common themes emerge?
  4. Repeat the prompt with another postcard.

Next Week

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.


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.