Timed Writing Exercises To Help Limber Up Your Mind
Most writers have endured dull hours or even entire days when nothing they create is remotely inspired or innovative. These moments are perhaps inevitable, yet they can occur less frequently if a writer is willing to step away from his or her usual routine in order to work with writing prompts.
A writing prompt is any subject or approach to writing which, usually under timed conditions, can help return the writer to a more free-thinking state of mind. In other words, these prompts can help a writer saunter past the ordinary and overly logical thoughts they are mired in and help them wander into neon-colored and jazz-music infused new territory.
This list isn’t conclusive, nor do I believe a conclusive list is necessary to help any writer whose word-forming habits need shaking up.
My first suggestion is to locate a clothing catalog—such as J. Crew, JC Penny, and beyond—and find a page which features a solo model. For ten minutes free write about what this model’s life is like when he or she isn’t modeling. There is great freedom here, as you may want to talk about their sick cat at home, or even about the comments she—presuming you are talking about a female model—receives from her parents about getting a “real” job one day. It’s also possible to talk about the frumpy, unstylish clothing this model likes to wear while at home.
Another idea is taking a picture of a nature scene—whether from a book, magazine, the internet, or from a picture you took and printed—and write about the season which is pictured. Try to go beyond the usual clichés about the golden hues of autumn or the promise of new life in spring and talk about the particulars: the bears which are about to start hibernating, or the locals who are tired of shoveling snow out of their driveways, and so forth. All of these exercises can be done with another writer, and you may find that doing any of these exercises with another person will open up your mind to the possible approaches to these writing prompts. It’s also a way to share what you have written and receive feedback and hopefully some encouragement as well. Since writing is a notoriously solitary act, often even a small slice of human interaction can help any writer who is feeling discouraged or stymied.
My next writing prompt idea involves walking around your home and finding a familiar and cherished item. This could mean anything from the teddy bear your Grandma Louisa gave you when you were a newborn, or the trophy you won in junior high at a national tennis competition. Your task, perhaps unfortunately, is to write about this item as if you found it repulsive. Dig deep and try to find reasons why this item might inspire loathing, and try to write as unabashedly as possible.
Your favorite things
Do you cherish any of the following items?
Next think about one of your favorite desserts. Again, this selection will vary widely by person, and there is no “wrong” desert to write about. Once you’ve decided what this desert is, spend five minutes writing about this item knowing that the person who will read this description has no sense of smell. Afterwards, spend five minutes describing this item while understanding that the person hearing this description is blind, yet he can smell and touch the desert.
Author Natalie Goldberg speaks about the act of writing
While on the subject of food, another possible writing prompt is to take a familiar food—such as a baked potato, macaroni and cheese, or lasagna—and list ten alternative names for this item. It’s necessary to think outside-the-box during this exercise, and you may find your brain feeling more limber as you come up with names such as “hot white fluff” for a baked potato, or “oozing and gooey goodness” for lasagna.
Another possible timed writing is picking out five unrelated words—such as octopus, peanuts, yellow, serendipity, and Texas—and writing a poem using these words. Don’t allow yourself too much time to do this; in fact, the less time you allow yourself, the more creative you must be. If writing a poem doesn’t appeal to you, select ten unrelated words and write a prose piece with another time limit—less than fifteen minutes should work—in place.
If you are willing to wander into the wackier side of words, imagine absurd scenarios and write about these for ten or fifteen minutes. One possible scenario would be if worms were the size of humans; another would be if dog were able to compete in poker tournaments in Las Vegas. What you find mind-bending may be situations even stranger than these, and, if this is where you mind goes, trust that instinct and start writing.
You can also cut up articles from several varied sources—such as a magazine, a church flyer, a newspaper, and beyond—until you have a pile of solo words and phrases. Take these words and lay them on a white sheet of paper until you come up with something which resonates or even shocks you. Once satisfied with the end result, glue these words onto the page. This is an excellent exercise if you want to limber up your mind and think about words as the malleable, movable entities they can be. If you are more interested in writing poetry, try cutting up lines from poems and then making a poem of your own.
Another possible exercise involves taking a single line from another work—such as the line “For a long time I used to love the word now” from Jorgie Graham’s poetry collection Overlord—and write without stopping for ten minutes. This exercise can be attempted repeatedly using the same sentence as a prompt, as this will force a writer to consider this sentence and the possible related topics from multiple angles. For example, you could write about the word later and how eventually you liked this word much better than now. Or you could write about how the word now always makes you think of your friend Patrick Duncannon because, whenever you would ask him when he wanted to do something, he would reply “Now!” with his voice so loud it felt as if he were shouting.
Possible opening sentences to use for this activity
Which of these opening sentences would you want to use as a writing prompt?
In the November/December 2008 issue of Poets & Writers magazine the author Bret Anthony Johnston offered ten writing prompt suggestions in his article “Narrative Calisthenics.” He suggests:
“Spend twenty minutes writing a stock scene—a wedding or a funeral, say—in which something unexpected happens. For the wedding, make the unexpected happening somber or serious. For the funeral, make it funny or romantic.”
Composing a scene with this focus appeals to me because it forces a writer to look beyond the usual cliché expressions about how happy a bride appeared, or how the widow at the funeral was so pale from grief that she looked close to the grave herself.
More about writing prompts
Natalie Goldberg’s Wild Mind contains multiple suggestions for timed writing activities. She suggests, “Go ahead, kiss a tree. Walk right out your front door, put your arms around one that you pass every day at the curb, pucker up your lips, and give it a big smacker. … Now write. Write anything you want. Kissing a tree in silly? What isn’t silly? Writing’s the silliest of all. If you can write out of that silliness, you’ll be a long way on the path.”
This particular suggestion appeals to me because I believe that being able to act and think whimsically can add vitality and new life to your writing. This doesn’t mean you have to go and kiss a tree in order to get into this frame of mind; it does, however, mean that a writer who wants to add zest to his or her writing must be willing to look like a fool on occasion in order to eventually offer the unconventional words and phrases which will stay with readers long after they have finished reading.