PROMPT 1A: RECOVERING MEMORIES
by Steve Kowit
from In the Palm of Your Hand: The Poet’s Portable Workshop
Sit down with your notebook and jot down a few words or phrases for each memory that comes to you as you answer the following questions so that you will have an abbreviated record of the incidents you recalled. Something as brief as “crazy man in a green hat” would do nicely. If some of these memories bring with them strong emotions, so much the better. The stronger the emotions the “hotter” the material! If a question fails to call forth an answer, that’s okay too: just skip it and move to the next question. The incidents that you come up with do not have to be memories from your childhood.
- Recall a pleasant time in the past.
- Recall a building in which you once lived.
- Recall a secret you once had.
- Recall a magical person from your childhood.
- Recall an incident that filled you with dread.
- Recall something dangerous you did when you were young.
- Recall something sinful or bad you did as a child.
- Recall something that happened during a vacation.
- Recall something that happened many years ago near a body of water.
- Recall your first romantic infatuation.
- Recall something funny that made you laugh hysterically.
Chose one of those incidents, one that calls up strong emotions and which might have had consequences for your emotional life, but also one that has a story that would be interesting to tell. Now close your eyes and go back to the beginning of that particular incident. Replay the “film” of it through to its end. Don’t analyze or interpret but just watch it pass through your mind. Curiously, this will often take no more than two or three minutes no matter how charged or complex the experience is.
Then jot down as many specific details as you can recall: not simply a decorated classroom wall, but a poster of Cain and Abel; not simply a train coming to a halt but “the terrible long screech of the train’s braking”; not just a man with a disease but “ankles clotted beneath wool socks.” Write down what things looked like, smelled like, felt like; what someone said, how someone gestured or moved or wept. Was there a doorknob gleaming in the sun, a dog barking on the corner in the snow, did someone’s dry cough punctuate the silence? If you wish, replay the incident again. You will probably find new details emerging, things that hadn’t emerged in your first run-through. Write those down too. If you find yourself writing a paragraph or a couple of pages describing the incident, that is perfectly okay.
When you have done that, ask yourself what impact the incident had on your life. Why do you remember this? This is a question that is not always easy to answer. It if possible that your poem will be about an initiation, a rite of passage, a moment when you grew up or changed or learned something important about yourself or the world. Perhaps it will be about something that wounded you deeply, or something that has partially shaped who you presently are. Although a poem’s theme, what one is to make of a particular incident, is often one of the discoveries that occurs in the process of writing rather than before the writing begins, it is a useful question to ask from the beginning, for the answer will help to focus the poem, determining the appropriate mood and how most effectively to organize and shape the material. In a sense it is a question of knowing—or deciding—what your own poem is about, what moral or truth it points at, what it says about your life or about life in general.
Upon reflecting on these questions, craft a poem or story from these notes and observations.
Alternative Prompt: Blame It on the Eclipse
from Poets & Writers: The Time Is Now
Total eclipses throughout history have been the cause and inspiration for countless tales of strange or mysterious occurrences, including odd behavior exhibited by confused animals: birds flying erratically, spiders destroying their webs, frogs and crickets chirping, whales breaching, and bats appearing. Write a short story that takes place over the duration of a total solar eclipse, in which an animal’s reaction to the sudden darkness is the catalyst for an unexpected turn of events.
PROMPT 1B: ON THE ROAD
by Deb Norton
from Part Wild: A Writer’s Guide to Harvesting the Creative Power of Resistance
- Make a list of all the vehicles you’ve ever been in. Cars, trucks, motorcycles, barges—anything with an engine and a driver goes on the list. Go for quantity. Don’t describe. Just list.
- Choose a car from the list in the previous prompt. Any car that draws your attention or makes you curious is great.
- Write everything you know about the chosen vehicle. Describe the car in as much detail as you can—color, make, model, features. Don’t discriminate against the obvious bits, such as, “It has bugs on the windshield and two headlights, one of which is cracked.” Then, climb into the car. What was your designated seat—driver’s, shotgun, backseat? Take up your position and write everything you can see, smell, feel, taste, or hear from this spot. Look out the window, under the seats, and in the glove box. Are there Cheerios on the floor and the smell of spoiled milk? Is the upholstery hot from the sun? Is anything hanging from the rearview mirror? Are the windows open or closed? What’s the air like outside? Write down all the details you can, in no particular order.
- Be a backseat driver. Figuratively let go of the wheel and go wherever the car wants to go. It might take you someplace you’ve been. It might take you somewhere new. Don’t think. Don’t try to steer it somewhere interesting or capture the meaning of the journey. Just be a passenger, keep the pen moving, and let the car do the work.
Alternative Prompt: Soundtrack of Your Life
from Poets & Writers: The Time Is Now
What musicians are part of the soundtrack of your life? Choose several musicians or bands integral to your soundtrack, and write poems that reflect on the lives of these musicians, combining research and imagination in a song of your own.