writing prompts

Writing Prompts and Writing Retreats

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What’s the deal?

Why is it that we say we love to write, we want to write, we NEED to write and then, we don’t even sit down to do this thing that we love and want and NEED.

Or we sit down to do it, the writing that we love and want and NEED, and we don’t know where to start?

I have many ideas of what I want to write about, stories that have nagged at me for as long as I remember. Stories about shoes by the side of the road. Stories about the woman who lived in a tree.  Stories of the places that dead people go. And I’ve started many of them…

And then I don’t finish them.

We are just about the funniest things I know, us writers. Us people.

I’m not saying that all writers are like that. In fact, there are some writers that just hole up and forget to eat or smoke or straighten up their pen pots. I’m not one of them and I don’t hang out with them but I know they exist. I’ve read about them while I’m eating and smoking and fiddling around with my pen pot, trying to find the stream of inspiration to jump in.

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So I think the biggest reason that I created writing retreats is because I need help with writing. And it turns out that I am not alone – I’ve never gone to a writing retreat (either one that I created or one that someone else did) and been the only one there. And I’ve not been the only one who needed help holding still, help getting started, and help finishing.

Sometimes I like to be different. But when I am feeling insecure about something I want to do, feeling as though I am one of a glorious bunch of creative is like a divine boost.

Thank you to those who joined me in Tuscany.

I am so grateful for your help.

Water/ by Laurin Bellg

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This prose poem is from the prompt Water we received on the second day of the retreat on Pantelleria. I brought a struggle with me to the gathering, a pivotal decision to be made about my future. And there on that sparse, volcanic island – closer to Tunisia than Italy – I was able to see more clearly through Water than I was ever able to do with the charts and statistics I’d laid out neatly and collated logically to help me decide. The logical charts hadn’t helped me at all and kept bringing me back to the same thought that to follow my heart makes no sense at all. I had to go halfway around the world to understand my dilemma and sort it out. The WOW retreats do that – take you to places where you have no choice but to unplug, and thus unfettered, allows you to look at things differently and see what’s really there. I am not a poet at all. Far from! But, even having words come out of me in a different way in a different place with different people was useful to render clarity.

Laurin Bellg

Appleton, Wisconsin

 

Water

I’m in control until I’m not. And when I’m not I struggle,

fighting the water; gasping when it rushes right into me.

I’m reminded I forgot to breath before it hit. Damn.

I drown. I go down. Now thoroughly and completely down,

I find out – what’s down there. What’s down here,

where I am now. Down in the layers of muck and sediment,

among fossils of the non-living, who once lived but now

they just don’t because they can’t.

 

Their choice of fuel was always going to be self-depleting,

and once it’s gone, well – it’s gone. That’s it then.

There’s nothing left to do in that fuel-less place but die

and become shells of ourselves. And I do that.

I die, but I will not be committed to fossil and shell.

I decide. There is nothing left to do but sever bindings.

So, I grab them. Rip them. Leave them there and float up.

And it’s easy. I’m surprised that it’s actually – easy.

 

I’m amused that it took that long to realize, to know I had that –

that shell. A shell, it turns out I don’t even need. I thought I did,

but now I know. I don’t. Funny, I did not even see it –

did not realize, until I lost it, that I ever had it in the first place.

That’s how the sheer weight of the thing – that confining,

limiting shell – can go unnoticed, or if I do notice, how I

convince myself of its usefulness to me. How maddening.

What a stupid construct, really, that somehow

I thought I needed it, but now that it’s gone I am so light –

Light and light – a self-illuminating, auto-renewing

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luminescence in water floating up

 

from deep and pressing water to something I can actually tread.

Once I know that, I can move in any direction I choose. And I do.

I choose – to move. Away. Away from the safe shore I’ve sold myself

as logical to that one – the one I feel is out there, just beyond sight.

I am certain it’s there because, having dwelt in water for so long,

I’m an expert. I know water – how it moves, how I fight it, how it

flows around me when I let it. So, I find the path, that synchronous current

that I don’t have to fight to navigate. It moves me forward with ease,

with a hum and a flow. A flow that I know

would move away from me if I tried to control it.

 

So, now that I have died, escaped the shell, left it there and floated up,

It’s clear that I’m not really moving away from but going toward.

 

Laurin is a critical care physician living and working in Appleton, Wisconsin since 2002. Medicine is her heart, but writing is her soul. She is married to a poet (not his day job), who is looking forward to attending his own WOW retreat in the near future, since Laurin – the test case – made it back alive. He noticed she was changed after WOW, but decided it was for the better. They have two daughters, a rescue dog, a feral cat, a hamster too pedigreed for its own good and a few fish. Laurin is an award-winning author of the medical memoir Near Death in the ICU and continues to throw short stories and essays at contests, because, well, you know – deadlines. That’s the trick she plays on herself to hoodwink a regular writing schedule. Occasionally, they win – the contest entries and the hoodwinking. Next goal is to try her hand at journal submissions. She went to Pantelleria fighting the urge to peruse an MFA in creative writing for the pure pleasure of it (as the answer to a long-time dream and a gift to herself so her writing soul won’t rot), but it’s never made sense on paper. She came back from Pantelleria thinking – we live, we work, we die, so get an MFA and see what happens. Could it be that simple? The WOW writing retreat was pure magic for her and felt like home. She can’t wait until the next retreat, thinking she may have found her writing tribe among these fine, creative folks – many of whom seemed to be the same kind of creative crazy that she is.

Laurin is a critical care physician living and working in Appleton, Wisconsin since 2002. Medicine is her heart, but writing is her soul. She is married to a poet (not his day job), who is looking forward to attending his own WOW retreat in the near future, since Laurin – the test case – made it back alive. He noticed she was changed after WOW, but decided it was for the better. They have two daughters, a rescue dog, a feral cat, a hamster too pedigreed for its own good and a few fish. Laurin is an award-winning author of the medical memoir Near Death in the ICU and continues to throw short stories and essays at contests, because, well, you know – deadlines. That’s the trick she plays on herself to hoodwink a regular writing schedule. Occasionally, they win – the contest entries and the hoodwinking. Next goal is to try her hand at journal submissions. She went to Pantelleria fighting the urge to peruse an MFA in creative writing for the pure pleasure of it (as the answer to a long-time dream and a gift to herself so her writing soul won’t rot), but it’s never made sense on paper. She came back from Pantelleria thinking – we live, we work, we die, so get an MFA and see what happens. Could it be that simple? The WOW writing retreat was pure magic for her and felt like home. She can’t wait until the next retreat, thinking she may have found her writing tribe among these fine, creative folks – many of whom seemed to be the same kind of creative crazy that she is.

Turning Angst into Art: The Story Behind the Writing of Clear Out the Static In Your Attic/ by Isla McKetta

When I’m not writing I’m angsty. When I’m angsty I’m not writing. It’s not a good circle and it can be a hard one to escape. But sometimes, just sometimes, I’m able to harness all that angst and turn it into a full manuscript. I’ve actually done this three times now, this is the story of the book that’s been published, Clear Out the Static in Your Attic: A Writer's Guide for Transforming Artifacts into Art.

Working in marketing can be an interesting way of getting inside the mind of an audience and honing your writing to make the most of all the triggers available to you as a writer—from the heightened sensitivity of stretching time during a momentous scene to knowing which words you can ____ out without affecting a reader’s understanding of your text. Writing for marketing can also be a soul-deadening experience of feeling like you’re pulling puppet strings rather than connecting with human beings. It gets worse when your department of four is suddenly shrunk to two but the workload is not.

When this happened to me, I had the good fortune to be working with a fellow writer. Rebecca Bridge went to Iowa for poetry which means not only did she have the writing chops, but I was also deeply intimidated by her.

So when Rebecca saw the Write Bloody book contest was looking for how-to books on writing and that she thought we could write one together, I flattered, inspired, and scared.

I was feeling down and pretty certain I had neither the luck to get accepted nor the energy to see another book through to publication.

But things at work were going from bad to worse and I needed an outlet or I was going to spend every night for the rest of my life weeping. I took Rebecca’s lifeline and we started conceptualizing the book. Most writing prompt books are simply ways to get writers’ brains started, and the format is relatively straightforward. We wanted to do something more to make the book more memorable/marketable, to give beginning writers something to hold on to, and to make the book fun for us to write. I never could get the line “static in my attic” from “Channel Z” by the B-52’s out of my head and we worked around that, thinking about all the things that might be in an attic and how those could translate to interesting exercises for writers.

We were lucky that the publisher was looking for a proposal to start because we had one month to get that in. We wrote an introduction for the book and six exercises. We also took a clue from Write Bloody’s personality and created a list of selling points in the quirkiest but savviest ways we could, from “We use our MFAs from Iowa and Goddard to write really good words that people like reading“ and “There are two of us which means we can cover more speaking engagements“ to “We stole the title of this book from the B-52s.“

It worked! The contest ended on March 31. By April 9, we had an email saying that we were among 20 finalists and they wanted the final manuscript (including at least 50 prompts) by May 15. Fifty prompts is a lot of prompts to write, especially on such a short timeline, and I’ll admit that Rebecca and I stole more than a few minutes of work time for brainstorming and writing. Rebecca is more creative than I am and I’m better at deadlines so we played off our strengths throughout this process.

We still struggled to come up with the full list and sometimes wrote things that were terribly duplicative. But we kept working on the book and found a form that worked. The prompts started to separate out into three categories that mirror the writing process: Inspiration, Carpentry, and Finishing Touches. Each prompt included a little essay about where it came from or how it related to our work, the prompt itself, an example using our own work, and a list of books that exemplify the technique at hand. The reading list was my idea. Not only did I find the annotation process extremely helpful in grad school but recommending books to people is my favorite thing.

We finished! On May 15 we looked a little like this:

 

And on June 12 we watched this video anxiously to see if we’d been accepted:

Round about 2:25 there was a big exhale! We’d done it!

There was a lot of back and forth with the publisher and polishing the book over the next year, but by April 2014 Rebecca and I had our book in our hands. That’s not to say it’s been a great commercial success, most books aren’t. But when I open the pages of Clear Out the Static in Your Attic: A Writer's Guide for Transforming Artifacts into Art, I still get the “I can’t believe I made this” thrill.

And success attracts success. Somewhere during the year we were editing Clear Out the Static, my thesis was accepted for publication by Éditions Checkpointed in Paris as Polska, 1994.

Lessons I’ve Learned

  • When you’re feeling awful, grab at the things that feel like opportunities, even if you don’t think you’re completely up to them.
  • Break your project into manageable chunks so you can see the next endpoint clearly. That gives you roadmap and a chance to reward yourself along the way.
  • Put yourself on a tight, but achievable, schedule. A little pressure can help you work through the hard parts.
  • Help others when you can. Whether you choose to collaborate on a project or just use each other as touchpoints on a lonely journey, a buddy is invaluable. Some of my best writing buds are the ones who manage this retreat and this blog. Although I usually do my best writing on my own, we all help each other out when we can and I’d be lost without them.
  • Project the best of yourself into the world, even when you’re feeling badly. You want a publisher or agent who wants the you you want to be, not the one who thrives on nursing you through misery.

Submit!

If you’ve turned your angst into art and that art looks like performance poetry (no writing prompt books this go-round), try submitting to this year's Write Bloody submission contest. The deadline is July 21. You can do it!

No matter what form your writing takes, write. And when life is too hard to write, do it anyway.

Isla McKetta Isla McKetta is the author of   Polska, 1994   and co-author ofClear Out the Static in Your Attic: A Writer’s Guide for Turning Artifacts into Art. She earned a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Goddard College and reviews books at  A Geography of Reading . Isla makes her home in Seattle.

Isla McKetta Isla McKetta is the author of Polska, 1994 and co-author ofClear Out the Static in Your Attic: A Writer’s Guide for Turning Artifacts into Art. She earned a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Goddard College and reviews books at A Geography of Reading. Isla makes her home in Seattle.

Finding inspiration

“You have treasures hidden within you … and bringing those treasures to light takes work and faith and focus and courage and hours of devotion, and the clock is ticking, and the world is spinning, and we simply do not have time anymore to think small.” – Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic

One of the first questions people often ask writers is “Where do you get your ideas?” They’re rarely satisfied with the answer, because truthfully, I don’t know.

Psychoanalyst Carl Jung believed in a collective unconscious, a source of archetypal characters that we as humanity carry with us. Writer Elizabeth Gilbert, in her book on creativity and inspiration, Big Magic, believes creativity exists on a level of enchantment, something mystical and magical. She says ideas exist independently and may visit you, and if you’re not ready or open to a particular idea, it will visit someone else.

Gilbert tells the story of a very specific plot line she developed for a manuscript but did not carry through. Soon after, she met author Ann Patchett, who later told Gilbert about a book she was writing that essentially had the same, very specific plot line as Gilbert’s original idea. Nobody had shared (or stolen) an idea. Coincidence? Gilbert believes the idea wanted to come into existence and had moved on to another author to make it happen.

Sound a little “woo-woo”? Well, creativity is mysterious. You can chalk it up to coincidence or shared experience. But I’ve seen happen frequently firsthand, either in ideas or elements. For example, a writer friend and I swapped manuscripts and discovered we had both created a character with exactly the same name. A lot of it naturally has to do with being a part of a culture that’s exposed to similar kinds of stories, news and events. But a lot of it’s downright spooky.

The mind wants to be ready and available to capture ideas. But most writers and artists go through dry spells. This winter I’ve felt stuck – lacking inspiration, meh. I opened my works in progress and don’t feel much like working. I think creativity can go through cycles, too, just like the seasons. I feel like winter has descended on my ability to create, too, slowing things down just a bit.

When that happens, how do you “unthaw”? How do you draw creativity out of the ether and onto the page?

1.     Acknowledge that you’re feeling creatively blocked. It sets in motion the intention to be unblocked, and it tells the universe that you’re ready to work and you would like an idea, please.

2.     Hang out with other creative types. Their mojo can rub off, and more likely than not, they know what it’s like to get stuck. Solidarity helps you feel less solitary.

3.     Cross-pollinate. Find another creative outlet. See a concert, go to a wine-and-painting night, take a dance class, make a construction-paper alligator with your child. It all comes from the same place.

4.     Recognize a response from the universe when you see it. Example: Without my bringing up the idea of feeling blocked, a new acquaintance mentioned that sometimes creativity suffers when the mind is in a state of confusion. Determining the source or learning to accept the state of confusion can help shake things loose. The idea that a distraction was blocking me was worth exploring, and helped move my mind around the obstruction.

5.     Recognize potential sources of inspiration or seek them out. I’ve had a lot of success with writing prompts, which can come from a number of sources, including single words that evoke memory or feeling. Try flipping through a book of poetry and reading a single line – write about how it makes you or your character feel. Choose a word from a newspaper article. Ask a friend what’s been on his or her mind and see if you can relate it to what a character is feeling and thinking. At a recent dinner gathering of other creative types, I asked each of the guests for “an interesting word” with the intention of using some or all of them in a writing exercise. (It’s also a fun way to start discussions and learn what might be top of mind for your friends.) They offered up the words “riveting,” “empowerment,” “lyrical,” “Mississippi,” and the invented “bulbalicous,” referring to a proliferation of tulips in the spring. (Yes, you can make up words.) How do you use the words? Any number of ways. Can you use all five words in one paragraph? Can you write a poem that is both lyrical and bulbalicious? What does empowerment mean to you? Do you remember learning to spell the word Mississippi in school? What would your character feel riveted by? Which word evokes the strongest emotion in your character?

6.     Get out of your element. Take a writing retreat. Put yourself in a change of scenery: It can do wonders for your creative mindset. We have two retreats coming up this year, Writing in the Wild at Borestone Mountain in Maine, and a Tuscany writing retreat, Tuscany: A Retreat for the Senses. Getting out of your element on your creative mindset: You don’t have to believe in magic to make it work (though it helps).

Remember, the mind wants to be creative. Why not see what it can do?

An earlier version of this blog post appeared first at http://millwriters.org/finding-inspiration-in-winter-by-nikki-kallio/