Among the quotes displayed on posters on my classroom walls, one of the most relevant to my students, particularly when they begin (or try to begin) writing their research papers or college essays is this:
“Not knowing where to begin is a common form of paralysis. Begin anywhere.”
It sounds so simple. Sit down. Pick up a pen or set your fingers to the keyboard, and go. Begin. Let the words flow. And truly, it can be that simple–but we writers all know the feeling of sitting down in front of a blank sheet of paper or a glowing, white computer screen, the urge to write almost unbearable, only to fall victim to this sort of constipation of our creativity. No matter how hard we try, the right words–or any words at all–simply will. Not. Come. We are paralyzed in the face of our immense ideas, or by the sense that despite our need to write, we have no ideas.
Below are five writing prompts to help alleviate the uncomfortable sensation of writer’s block.
1. Unlived Lives
Throughout our lives, we are presented with choices, from the seemingly mundane, such as what to eat for breakfast or what to wear on a given day, to the more obviously life-altering, such as what college to attend or whom to marry. For this prompt, imagine your life had you made “the other” decision. What might have happened if you had taken that months-long road trip with your best friend instead of attending your first semester of college–what would your life be like now? Imagine the life you would be living had you married the first boy you ever loved (never mind that he never asked, like you thought he would). Imagine the life you would be living if you had not aborted the child who would’ve been your first born. What other lives, good or bad, have you had–but forgone in favor of another–the chance to live?
2. Dear Future Self
For this prompt, write a letter to your future self, as far or as near in the future as you like. What kinds of things will you hope for your future self? What kinds of questions will you ask? What will you hope you remember? What will you hope to have forgiven, accomplished, forgotten, experienced?
3. To-Do List
Take an objective look at your to-do list today. Write about what someone would think of you based solely upon that list. If all someone had to imagine the kind of person you are was today’s to-do list, what would he think? Consider the hobbies, obligations, jobs, activities, interests he might imagine you have or are involved with.
4. Another’s View of You
Imagine yourself from the perspective of someone else. Perhaps take on the view of the checkout girl who rang you up at the local grocery store, the man in the car beside you at the traffic light, the neighbor who passes you on his bike as you walk your dog. What do these people notice about you, think about you, infer about you, wonder about you? Take on the perspective of someone else, and write about yourself in third-person from this new perspective.
Start the prompt with “My name should have been…” and let your ideas flow. What should your name have been? Why?
The next time you experience the painful paralysis of writer’s block, I invite you to employ one (or all!) of these prompts. If you’re feeling really inspired, I invite you to post your written response to one (or more!) of these prompts in a comment on this post.
Each night when I go to bed, I list the things for which I am grateful as I fall asleep. Tonight, I know one of the first items on my list will be the fact that my blogging friend poison21, over at Four Square Miles of Noise, nominated my blog for a Liebster Award. I want to thank him for thinking of me, as well as congratulate him on his own nomination. Trust me when I tell you, it is well deserved.
(Fun fact: In case you don’t speak German, “Liebster” means “favorite.”)
The Official Rules of the Liebster Award
Thank the person who nominated you, and post a link to their blog on your blog.
Display the award on your blog — by including it in your post and/or displaying it using a “widget” or a “gadget.”
Provide 10 random facts about yourself.
Nominate five or more blogs that you feel deserve the award.
List these rules in your post, modifying them (only slightly!) as necessary to meet your needs. Once you have written and published your post, you then have to:
Inform the people/blogs that you nominated that they have been nominated for the Liebster Award, and provide them with a link to your post. Don’t forget to create 10 questions, give or take, for them to answer. Notify your nominees and provide a link to your post so that they’ll know what to do.
Some random facts about me:
I am over six feet tall.
I have lived in Michigan, Wyoming, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.
During college, I was a DJ for Michigan State University’s student-run alternative/indie rock radio station, 88.9 FM the Impact, which won the Michigan Association of Broadcasters College Station of the Year Award while I worked there.
I have run five half-marathons, and was once featured in an advertisement for the Runner’s World Half-Marathon Festival.
When I lived in Wyoming, my family owned a total of six horses.
I drive a six-speed stick shift.
I love to eat, but not to cook.
I never kill anything, ever. Not on purpose, anyway.
I grow pineapple plants, and have a garden and small greenhouse.
Answers to the Questions:
While I prepared questions with the nominees in mind, I encourage, and would greatly appreciate, guidance and feedback from the more well established bloggers.
What generation were you born into? Which one do you most identify with? I think I am a Gen Y-er, but I am not 100% sure, to be honest. I haven’t given a whole lot of thought to what generation I most identify with. I don’t know much about the values, life experiences, perspectives, or attitudes about specific generations, so it’s hard to know.
Which writers have influenced you? What genre are you most comfortable with? (Poetry, short stories, non-fiction?) This is another had one. I would say in my early years as a writer, maybe Laura Ingalls Wilder and Lucy Maud Montgomery. I remember having read something about an “alabaster brow” in one of the Anne of Avonlea books and immediately incorporating that into my writing. I also really identified with the family in all of Wilder’s Little House books, as well as with Montgomery’s Anne. More recently, perhaps Steinbeck and Hemingway, at least in terms of dialog. I love writing dialog, and Steinbeck and Hemingway have mastered it. Honestly, though, I’d say I probably lack a self-awareness of the influences on my writing.
Who would write and perform your theme song? Why? Can I have a different theme song for each one of my moods? Or each phase of my life, at least? I’d have to figure out my theme before I could figure out my theme song, or anything about it, so I need more time for this one…
Have you ever sold any of your work? I’ve been paid for a handful of poems and essays/articles, yes. I’d like to continue that, and increase its frequency and intensity.
Name the accomplishment or act of kindness you are most proud of. What do you feel guilty about? I have a couple top-of-the-list accomplishments: running my five half-marathons, studying in Germany (in particular, passing the class the professor good-naturedly told me she originally had doubted I could pass), and every time my work is published. As for acts of kindness, I am particularly proud of my animal rescue habit. Whenever I see an injured or lost animal, I stop to help if I can. This summer alone, I was able to save two wild birds and a few turtles, and find a home for a puppy. I also volunteered for a local no-kill animal shelter for about four and a half consecutive years. Unfortunately, I feel guilty about lots of things. Not going to church even when I can. Forgetting what my true priorities are. Being stubborn, prideful, and self-righteous. Not doing my best.
What’s your favorite sport? What sport are you best at? I don’t really like watching sports, but if I have to, I’d prefer figure skating or something similarly artistic. I enjoy horseback riding, though I haven’t gone in years. I like to ice skate and swim. I’m a decent runner, with a few medals and trophies to my name. Though it’s been about 10 months since I’ve run a race, I still run on my own three to five days a week.
Do you think all politicians are corrupt? What’s your take on Hillary and Trump being the finest the U.S. has to offer for President?Will you, or would you vote 3rd party? Do you think most Americans are out of touch with the rest of the world? Can I plead the 5th…? Let’s try to simplify this. No, I do not think all politicians are corrupt. I do not think Hillary or Trump are the finest, or if they are, we’re in trouble. Honestly, I cannot believe it has come to this. I am dumbfounded. I do not yet know where my vote will go. I do think that, in general, Americans are out of touch with the rest of the world, yes. I do not exclude myself from this judgement.
Do you have a strategy for promoting and growing your blog followers? Do you link every post to social media? What type of blog most interests you? I wouldn’t say I really have a strategy. I follow other blogs when I discover those I enjoy. I post updates on Instagram and Facebook. As for blogs that interest me, my tastes are eclectic. I like blogs authored by people I actually know. I like blogs about animals, writing, travel, lifestyles…
Do you usually comment on posts that you like? How important to you is direct interaction with fellow artists and bloggers? I do usually comment–or at a minimum “like”–posts that strike me if I get a chance. Direct interaction is very important to me. I find it encouraging on several levels. It encourages me to persist. It supports my faith in humanity. And it’s just fun! I feel good when someone comments on my work–so shouldn’t I pay it forward by trying to comment when I find something I find worthwhile?
Do you sometimes post something you know is not up to your standards because you feel the need to keep your blog active, and to maximize your SEO? Does linking back to an earlier post accomplish the same thing? I have no idea what SEO stands for… Should I? I do sometimes post something that is not quite up to my standards, yes. I have never re-posted a post on the same blog, but I have linked back to earlier posts within a new post, if doing so is relevant.
Are you a better baker or cook? I have no idea. I’m not a shining start at either. I’d prefer to just eat.
Here are my nominees:
While I prepared questions with the nominees in mind, I encourage, and would greatly appreciate, guidance and feedback from the more well established bloggers.
USA Through Our Eyes–I just discovered this blog and I love it. Maintained by a couple and their dog, and reminiscent of a more contemporary Travels with Charley, it features sounds, videos, photographs, and stories from around the country.
Quintessential Editor–This blog provides so many excellent insights into the writing life, and the author is fun and witty.
Recently I’ve realized that I would get more sleep if I had less ambition and, ironically enough, fewer dreams–at least of the variety that I want to turn into reality. In an attempt to maintain my motivation, and remind myself why I keep trading sleep for writing, here are my writing dreams, no holds barred!
After a long morning walk with my dogs followed by a three-ish mile jog and a hot shower, I settle in under a plush blanket with some loose leaf hot tea. My beagle is snuggled into her lush dog bed on the floor. My whippet’s warm little body leans into my thigh. My laptop whirs quietly on my lap. I open it and log onto my blog, where I spend thirty minutes to an hour responding to the dozens (maybe hundreds!) of comments a handful of my several thousand followers have left on my last few posts. My tea cooling and my legs growing stiff, I ask my dogs if they “wanna go for a walk.” Tails wagging, they are all too eager. We take a brisk stroll through the neighborhood, and return to the couch, where I read and comment on a few of my favorite blogs before checking my social media for a few minutes. Before I have time to see how much revenue my blog has generated this month, my cell phone rings. It’s my agent.
“I’ve got the best news for you since finding a publisher for Goodbye ForNow last year.”
Sitting up a little straighter, I anxiously scratch behind my whippet’s ear. That was pretty good news, and I am not really sure she can top it.
“I’m listening,” I tell her.
“It’s gonna be a movie!” She is practically screaming. I can almost see her now, both hands flailing, smile broad and toothy, eyes squeezed shut, muscles tense with excitement–and I wonder where she is, who can actually see her, and how, with all the hand flailing, she has managed not to drop her cell phone yet.
“What? What is?” Surely she isn’t telling me my debut novel, Goodbye For Now, published roughly one year ago, is going to appear on the big screen.
But she is. That is exactly what she’s telling me.
“And there’s more,” she breathes.
What could be more? My blog has gone viral. My recreational writing classes are always well-attended. My novel is published. My novel is going to become a movie. And there’s more?
It takes an inhuman effort for me to control myself, and I can’t wait to get off the phone so I can stop trying, and start dancing around the family room and kitchen, both dogs hovering around my feet, the sound of their little talons on the hardwood and tile floors musical and festive.
(Note: I have no idea how long making a movie actually takes…)
Yesterday was my 36th birthday. Today, I will walk down the red carpet, my husband and dogs (I insisted they be allowed to come–family, after all) by my side, to see the movie premier of the book I wrote. I don’t know how to confirm this is my reality–this is my life. For so long it was a sometimes elusive-seeming dream. But it was a dream I never stopped believing in, never stopped working for, never stopped loving to dream. And maybe all that is what has made today–has made this life of mine–possible.
And the best part? It’s not over. I have a new novel in the works; an anthology of poetry due out in the spring, when I will spend several weeks in Florida with my sister’s family; a collection of personal narratives about to come out; a few articles set to run in The New York Times and The Atlantic, along with some other, smaller publications; and book signings, writing conferences, and lectures at schools and libraries pepper my calendar. And of course there will be those quiet days of peaceful writing, the dogs cuddling beside me, the candles burning, and maybe, on a really special day, a few flakes of snow drifting down in a sort of choreographed chaos outside my window.
Come summer, I will take a break from formal appearances and teaching classes I designed to take my writing on the road, spending a few weeks writing on the shores of Lake Huron in Lexington, Michigan, taking sunrise and sunset strolls on the breakwater with my dogs. Then, we’ll head to the sound side of the Outer Banks, where I will read and write from the screened porch overlooking the sound, the sun dipping into its waters just before disappearing, the frogs and bugs ushering in the moonlight. And of course I will spend countless days indulging my literary habits on my back deck at home in the sunshine, and in the rural Northern Neck of Virginia, home to farmers and fishermen alike.
My niece sits on a train somewhere in Europe, a few weeks into her study abroad adventure. Across the train car from her, a woman is reading a novel, Auf Wiedersehen fuer jetzt. My niece smiles, the homesickness she had been feeling just a few minutes before assuaged, at least for now. The woman glances up and their eyes meet. My niece smiles warmly, and the woman smiles back, over the top of her book.
“My aunt wrote that book,” my niece tells her over the clamor of the train, the landscape outside the window behind the woman a blur of green fields and gray skies, just brush strokes of color speeding by.
The woman sets the book down on her lap, keeping her place with a finger.
“Wirklich? Deine Tante?” Her eyes glimmer with star-struck disbelief.
“Ja. Meine Tante.” My niece nods, the warmth of pride and a sense of never being alone swelling up in her chest.
A great grandnephew I have never met browses a used bookstore in downtown Richmond. He and his girlfriend pull books off the shelf, smelling the pages and flipping curiously through them. His girlfriend pulls a book off the shelf, its pages yellowed, its cover well worn. She flips the pages with her thumb, holds the book in front of her face, and takes a deep breath. The cover catches my great grandnephew’s eyes.
“Hey,” he says, gently taking the book from her hands. He turns the front cover towards her. “Look at this.” He points to the name of the author at the bottom.
“Amanda Sue Creasey,” his girlfriend slowly reads. “Creasey like you. Do you know her?”
“No. She died right before I was born, but she’s my great aunt.”
“Wow…” His girlfriend takes the book back. “That’s really cool.”
“It was made into a movie and everything.”
“Really? We need to buy this book–and we should watch that movie tonight.”
My great grandnephew smiles.
“Okay,” he says.
As they wait in the checkout line, the book held tightly against my great grandnephew’s chest, his girlfriend turns to him.
There is, I think, a general consensus in the writing world that writing necessitates reading. To be a good writer, you must also be a reader. Many well-known adages advocate for this. “And when you cannot write, read” and “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write,” the latter by Stephen King, to name just two. Writing courses also perpetuate the idea, especially beginner courses or courses for elementary-aged students, which often recommend as a starting point the imitation of a certain writer, style, or genre. Truth be told, even in my Master’s program, I was once assigned a certain poet to study and imitate. We are all familiar with the famous works of Anne Lamott (I have my College Composition students read her essay, “Shitty First Drafts,” each semester), Stephen King, and other experts in the field when it comes to our craft. Here, I share in no particular order some perhaps lesser known but nonetheless worthwhile reads for writers. Some I received as gifts. Others I stumbled upon. Still others were assigned reading in various undergraduate and graduate courses I have completed.
2. Room to Write: Daily Invitations to a Writer’s Life, Bonni Goldberg
I recommend this book for anyone who finds herself in front of the blank page or glaringly white computer screen asking, “What do I write about?” only to remain seated, staring, paralyzed, at the same blank page or screen. Every page of the book presents a new writing prompt, for a total of just shy of 200 prompts. Each page is broken into three parts: a brief explanation or introduction, the prompt itself, and a relevant and often enlightening, inspiring, or encouraging quote from well-known writers like Zora Neale Hurston, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and Emily Dickinson.
3. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, William Zinsser
My favorite thing about this book when I read it as a graduate student a few years ago was its easy-to-read and conversational tone. To this day, I often use Chapter 14, “Writing About Yourself: The Memoir,” to help teach my high school students vital lessons about writing about themselves in the context of the college essay. The writing is accessible and easy to relate to. It is broken into four parts: Principles, Methods, Forms, and Attitudes, with each part further broken down into individual chapters. I recommend this work for writers of fiction or nonfiction. Though it is clearly geared towards nonfiction writers, the lessons presented could benefit any writer.
4. 642 Things to Write About
As with Room to Write, I recommend this book for anyone who thinks he is at a loss for material. It is the perfect weapon against writer’s block. This book is full of blank pages, which might sound intimidating, but on each page is a prompt–or in some cases, multiple prompts. Sometimes, when I feel the urge to write but don’t think I have anything to say, I page through this book until I find a prompt that inspires me, and begin. If your main interest is simply to write, without necessarily studying the craft in depth, this book will help you see exactly how much subject matter you really do have at your fingertips. Your job is to just get it onto the page.
5. The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative, Vivian Gornick
This book provides commentary and instruction on craft, as well as examples of various writing to help illustrate when and how a certain effect or goal is achieved well. It also discusses how to craft yourself into a character/narrator, among other topics pertinent to those trying their hand at personal narrative. It begins with an introduction, and from there breaks off into parts: the essay, the memoir, and the conclusion.
6. Writing Creative Nonfiction, Carolyn Forche and Philip Gerard (editors)
This fascinating book (partly because the genre around which it is centered is so intriguing to me) includes explanations, examples, and exercises in each chapter. The explanations are enlightening; the examples are entertaining, informative, and illustrative (I particularly enjoyed “A Braided Heart: Shaping the Lyric Essay,” by Brenda Miller, a piece that, years after my first reading of it, influences my writing); and the exercises are thoughtful , demanding the participant to do more than just write. For example, one of the first exercises, on page 13, consists of three steps:
Write a short poem about a real-life event, personal or public, that interests you deeply.
In the above poem, identify the Subject that was triggered by the writing.
From the poem, write a piece of creative nonfiction about the same Subject
The completion of this exercise requires much, not the least of which is experimenting with genre–writing about the same topic using two very different genres, poetry and creative nonfiction. You will be amazed at the different lives a piece can take on when written in various formats.
7. Your Life as Story: Discovering the “New Autobiography” and Writing Memoir as Literature, Tristine Rainer
This book, broken into 22 chapters, does exactly what its title claims: Provides an understanding of how to turn your own life into a readable, publishable story.We are all the star of our own plot. This book aims to help you structure it and express it in an artistic, deliberate manner. In addition, it touches on difficult subjects, such as how to write about others, in Chapter 10, “Portraying Others: Casting Your Story From Life.” And, of course, very few writing books would be complete without writing exercises, which this book also includes.
8. Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film, Seymour Chatman
This was one of the most eye-opening books I read during my time as an undergraduate at Michigan State University. I still remember the first epiphanic moment in great detail: I was curled up on a love seat-sized piece of furniture in a sort of common area in one of the science buildings on campus, in between classes. There was not enough time to go home; too much time to go to my next class just yet. My books and backpack and brown-bag lunch were sprawled out on the floor around the over-sized chair where I sat, still wearing my winter coat. In true sophomoric style, I was reading the assigned chapter only so I could check it off my academic to-do list, and not in expectation of gaining any true insight. But the reading I accomplished that day was extremely engaging and educational. It was the first time I truly understood the difference between the author and the narrator. I believe it was Chapter 4, “Discourse: Nonnarrated Stories,” that had this eye-opening effect on me. What impressed me was how Chatman managed to break down and explain invisible elements–things I had taken for granted–of the experience of reading, elements that as writers writing for readers and as readers reading critically, we need to be aware of.
9. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, Janet Burroway
This book, which contains quotes, explanations, advice, examples, and exercises for fiction writers, consists of nine chapters, beginning appropriately with “Whatever Works: The Writing Process” and ending equally appropriately with “Play it Again, Sam: Revision.” Sandwiched in between are discussions about world building, character building, story form, point of view, time, etc.
Maybe you’ve heard you can do anything you put your mind to. Maybe you’ve heard you can be anything you want to be. Maybe you’ve heard you can grow a pineapple by planting the crown of a store-bought fruit in soil. Maybe you’ve believed these things. Maybe you haven’t.
They’re all true.
Each step you take in support of your goal propels you forward.
Let’s start with the pineapple. When my dad handed me the crown of a fruit he’d just chopped into chunks and told me to plant it–it’d grown, I didn’t believe him. But, to humor him, I went ahead and plunked the “plant” in a pot of dirt. Imagine my surprise when days, weeks, months later, it wasn’t dead. Imagine my further surprise when years later, I had re-potted it several times, until it grew almost too heavy to move, and spread itself out almost four feet in diameter. But I got my biggest surprise from Mr. Pineapple, as
my husband and I had taken to calling the plant (that’s right–the plant had seen me graduate from college, get married, buy a house, and start my career), when, upon watering him one day, I noticed what looked like a miniature pineapple sprouting from the center of his crown. Mr. Pineapple was pregnant! Years ago, when I had first potted that pathetic, little crown, brown on the edges, I had never expected it to live. Not only had it lived and grown and thrived, it was now producing its own fruit.
Since then, I’ve grown nearly a dozen pineapple plants, and enjoyed the homegrown sweetness of their plant-ripened fruit. But the reward is not without its pains. Through growing pineapples, I have learned a lot of things–about pineapples, and about life.
Years ago, when I had first potted that pathetic, little crown, brown on the edges, I had never expected it to live. Not only had it lived and grown and thrived, it was now producing its own fruit.
First, a newly-planted crown will often look sickly for weeks after it has been planted. But don’t give up on it. If even the slightest hint of green remains, it is alive, and silently biding its time, building its resources. Just when you start to believe it is really dead, a miracle occurs and the plant comes alive, growing so quickly it will require multiple pots before it reaches maturity.
Second, a plant will not produce fruit until it is at least two years old. Often, it takes longer. Even when the flower appears, the time from first flower to edible fruit is about six to seven months. But at the end, you will savor the absolute sweetest, juiciest fruit you have ever tasted. It’s better than candy.
Third, the creative cycle never ends. After you harvest its fruit, the plant lives on, and while it will not flower or fruit again, it will produce an offshoot capable of producing fruit. In addition, the crown from the harvested fruit contains its own potential to produce fruit. It needs only to be planted, water, and tended to a bit.
Much like a pineapple requires several new pots before it reaches maturity, my novel apparently requires several new drafts before it reaches maturity. And that’s okay. The evolution of both plant and plot are fascinating.
Perhaps you have already guessed where I am going with this: Goals and dreams are like pineapples.
First, you must never give up on them, even when the outlook seems bleak. Remember, the darkest hour precedes the dawn–and the pineapple bursts into life just when it looks like it might die instead. Along those lines: Today, I received a rejection letter from a literary magazine to which I had submitted a short story. That was, to say the least, disappointing. But–today, an article I wrote appeared in the September issue of writeHackr, and an article by a friend of mine appeared in the local paper. Though I will for the course of my literary career assuredly receive more rejections than acceptances, I hold to my acceptances. Those are my “slightest hint of green,” and they mean my writing career is still alive. In addition, no agents have shown even the slightest bit of interest in my novel (yet), but I have not given up. I don’t even feel all that discouraged, actually. Instead, I have decide to revamp my query letter and restructure my novel–a complete overhaul. Much like a pineapple requires several new pots before it reaches maturity, my novel apparently requires several new drafts before it reaches maturity. And that’s okay. The evolution of both plant and plot are fascinating.
Second, be patient with the process. Progress might be slow. It might be invisible. Never wearying, you must patiently persevere, nurturing, cherishing, and waiting on success, quietly working in the background. Remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Each step you take in support of your goal propels you forward.
What seem like the mere scraps of your spoils are really their own seeds of future successes. Plant them.
Third, reach your goal, reap the benefits, savor the fruit of your labor. And then don’t stop. What seem like the mere scraps of your spoils are really their own seeds of future successes. Plant them. Much like the crown of a pineapple, so easily discarded and forgotten, can be the start of another succulent fruit, a chapter you had to cut from your novel might prove the jumping-off point for your next big idea.
Just as I didn’t recognize the potential of that first pineapple crown years ago–had no idea what it was capable of–you might not know what stories, poems, novels, or screenplays you have stored up inside of you. Not, at least, until you cultivate them, nourish them, take the necessary steps to bring them to life. No matter what.
Tim Ferriss's 4-Hour Workweek and Lifestyle Design Blog. Tim is an author of 5 #1 NYT/WSJ bestsellers, investor (FB, Uber, Twitter, 50+ more), and host of The Tim Ferriss Show podcast (400M+ downloads)
Running doesn't exist in a vacuum. It exists in the whole fabric of life as one square of the quilt, sewn in among other squares--family and career and travel and friends and and and... It gets rearranged on our list of priorities according to time of life. This is about how running fits into my life, right now.