Class, Get Out Your Pencils: Writing Prompts #1
It's so philosophical in here! I know that people like me enjoy pondering Dostoevsky's thoughts about God and the world. I know these thoughts illuminate my own walk through the garden, and light up my own words. I need this, since I'm writing my great popular novel right now. However, I also know there are writers looking at these things--Basho? what the heck can Basho tell me???--who want some hard-core WRITING stuff. That's why so many of you go to writing workshops and retreats.

For years, I have offered my participants (not really students, since I usually learn more than they do just by being with them) a bunch of writing materials I call "Workshop In A Box." If you have hung out with me at Fishtrap, or at the Northwest Writing Institute, or some other holy place, you've probably received copies of the Workshop.

I've been thinking it would be fun to disseminate exercises (I hate that word--sounds like the treadmill). Let's use Kim Stafford's preferred term: writing prompts. Let's keep in the gardening mode (y'all ought to see my angel-face flowers and my blood flowers); we'll call them seeds. Right?

It seems to me that the secret to writing is to fool yourself out of the heavy burden of writing. I wrote to you, ages ago, about a friend who spent months trying to set up his writing room--he puttered so long that he never actually wrote, just moved furniture around and placed interesting objects on the shelves. That's cool, don't get me wrong--feng shui is art, too! But for a guy who wants to be the next Ginsberg, you have to sooner or later risk words on paper. (I'm old fashioned that way, I love notebooks, but I'll take pixels on a screen in a pinch.)

It's recess! Party! Could be church, if you're that type. Could be an orgy!

So, for those who need some tasks and projects, I'll put them up here for you. Between the prompts and Immigration Monday, this is turning into a full-service blog!

Why don't we do this on Sundays? Writing Church!

Here are a couple of simple, yet effective, things you can do to get the ball of Wen-Fu, Wabi-Sabi, zen, duende, writing-medicine, composition, inspiration rolling. (To me, it's all a form of prayer.)


writing church is in early session--

To overcome writer's block or the difficulty of beginning a project, write about the writer's block or the difficulty of beginning.
You'd be surprised what a healthy dose of venting can do for you. What's your beef? What's your fear? Don't try to explain the project, the idea, and don't for heaven's sake actually start writing it! (Ha ha--you won't be able to help yourself very soon.) Talk about the process of doing it. DO NOT WORRY ABOUT SPELLING, GRAMMAR, PUNCTUATION, EDITORS, YOUR BIOGRAPHERS, POSTERITY, HOMELAND SECURITY, THE POPE, AGENTS, HOLLYWOOD or FOX NEWS. This is for you, about you, and it's perfect no matter what you write.

To tell your story, address it to a friend or loved one--alive, dead, imaginary, wished for, remembered, or yet to come--and tell them. If you don't have anybody you want to whisper to, tell it to me.
You know, journals and diaries are really letters to yourself; letters are really journals and diaries written for someone else. One of the assignments I used to give writers in Arizona was to write me a letter and mail it to my p.o. box. Thus, they would be submitting their work. I answered all the letters. Instant writing community. I had to stop it--when you get smelly clothes and old cowboy boots in the mail, it tends to creep out your family. That was a highwire act for a single man.

So tell your heart's reader on the page--send them a soul-telegram. Tell the most sympathetic ear you can conjure.

PART TWO of this prompt: write a letter to writing itself. Yes, writing is alive, it's real, it is a responsive presence! (More on this in a later posting.) Just trust me; I'm in shamanic mode here. I'm in evangelical mode! Friends, put your hands on the computer screen and PRAY with me! Amen and Amen-ah! Write a letter to writing and tell writing what you want from it. Why have you approached? What is your request? Don't fear sounding silly. Dare to be stupid, I say! Look how silly we seem when we learn to walk, swim, dance, deliver a roundhouse kick in karate. What can writing do for you, and what can you do for writing?

Make lists.
Lists! The first writings we have from Sumeria are lists of who owned the goats, and what Enki paid for them. Lists are old and pure and fun. Have you ever seen the book 10,000 Things to be Happy About? There's a book called I Remember. There's a book called Instant karma. All simple lists. All really cool.

If you make a list, a DIRECTED list, mind you, you will not be able to help yourself. You'll make poetry. You'll go off on a tangent and write something. If you just set out to make any old list, you'll make babble. "Eggs, Johnny Depp, MTV, school, stretch marks, waffles." Nah. We can do better than this.

A list like "things that are blue" is good for grade school kids. "Smelly things." "Sweet things." But we're grown up now, and we need to open the flower clenched inside our heads. A list like "The 25 Most Meaningful Things Ever Said to Me," now that's a list! "100 Reasons to Live." Not cool stuff, not neat things. Reasons to live. Look, if you can't come up with 100 reasons to be here on this earth, you're screwed. But hey--you can write about that, too. AA folks sometimes make "gratitude lists" to remember why it's good to still be alive. Try it. Since I like to bitch, a lot, I have nothing against "50 Things I'm Really Really Angry About." (The Arab culture had a form of poetry we could call "Abhorrences"--it ain't all love songs.)

Here are two lists that might help you chart your course as a writer.

I Remember.

List 10, 25, 50, 100 things you remember. That simple. Don't be arty. "I remember...." Bang, bang, bang! Get 'em down! What do you remember, my friend? Because what you remember is what your architecture is based on. I promise that you will remember that old chair that Aunt Bettie fell asleep in. Once you get to Aunt Bettie's chair, how can you not digress and write about Aunt Bettie? You'll remember making love to ________ or making out with _______
or wanting to do either of the above with _________. (Did I tell you to make sure you can put your work somewhere private, so the kids and the spouse can't find it? This is between you and First Beauty, after all.) How can you not want to write about their eyes, the way they smelled, the way things went wrong or right, the sadness, the joy?

It's so easy to do, until it gets hard. If your list makes you cry or weep or sit and stare out the window in awe and reverence, baby--you're a writer. And you're really good at non-fiction.

What My Hands Remember.
This is a whole lot more intense and strange than the list of "I Remembers." I have had sophisticated grad student types tell me this is a bad exercise that leads to nothing interesting, then read the best poems they've written all semester to the workshop to their great surprise. It's not because I am a genius (I am); it's because they are geniuses (genii?).

This list is more intense because it's more focused.

Your hands remember. If you don't believe me, just ask them. Your feet and eyes and belly and butt and tongue all remember too. But they remember different things than your hands do--and they have different moods. You'll see. You think I'm nuts, but like I told you--dare to be stupid! I don't mind! I will be your Foole for the moment.

I will be Huila for a moment.

Your hands remember. And the writing can be very naughty, so be ready. It can be very sad. It can be funny. It can be unbearably touching (no pun intended). Be open. Your hands, once they realize your brain is asking them a question, will be thrilled to confess. As my California buds used to say: "They'll be majorly stoked, dudes and dudesses." Power rushes out of your hands. Once you have listened to them, how could you not love them?

If you don't have hands, listen to the scared part of you that first senses the world for you.

Now, if your list makes you laugh or weep, or stare out the window in awe--you're a writer, baby! And you're really, really good at imaginative work--you might be a novelist.


Write! Write! Don't DO writing, BE writing--if your ARE writing, then everything you do IS writing! Even if you don't believe in God, dig the Biblical story: God said his name was I AM. He didn't say his name was I WANNA BE, or I'M GONNA BE, or even I MIGHT BE BUT I'M NOT VERY GOOD AT IT. Frank Zappa said: You Are What You Is. So get into the isness of writing. In this way, you can nurse that baby, work that assembly line, teach that Math class, clean that house, ride that bus, drive that truck, and not feel guilty, not feel like you have betrayed what you most desire in your heart. Because it is all, all of it, even that divorce you're enduring, even that funeral, WRITING. The trick is to carve out space and time to move it from your veins to the world.

Yow! Jump back, kiss myself!
The Hardest Working Man in the Writing Business

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