Posts Tagged ‘poetry’

A Not-Too-Sweet Love-Letter Writing Prompt

BACK IN THE DAY, Shakespeare, sick of the sticky-sweet love sonnets of his time—the kind that compared women’s eyes to placid lakes and their tresses to molten gold—penned a send up, “Sonnet 130.” In it, the Bard refutes any likeness his lover might have to the beauties of nature. Instead, mocking his sonnet-making contemporaries, Shakespeare harshly negates his love’s charms. And yet … and yet …

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun (Sonnet 130) 

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun; 
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun; 
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks; 
And in some perfumes is there more delight 
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know 
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.     
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare      
As any she belied with false compare.

—William Shakespeare

Writing prompts

1) Now, that you’ve read (and enjoyed?) “Sonnet 130,” try modeling it! Is there someone (or something) you love in an unconventional way? Or whom you see as unconventional? How does your love stray from the ordinary way of things?

Even trickier, can you do the opposite of damning with faint praise by, as Shakespeare does, praising with a two-edged sword of truth?

2) Alternatively, write a love letter (or a poem or a personal essay or a scene for a novel or a short story) in which you or a character declares love for someone—at length and in detail—without using the word “love” or any of its synonyms!

(Bonus points for creating a sonnet! You’ll find descriptions of various sonnet forms and some instructions to help you get a sense of how they’re constructed on the LITERARY DEVICES website.)

Writing inspiration

Want some musical inspiration? Here’s a link to Sting’s song “Sister Moon,” which appears on his album NOTHING LIKE THE SUN.

Need help with your book? I’m available for book coaching and manuscript review!

Cut and Paste: A Crafty Writing Prompt

WHEN I WAS A LITTLE KID, I was mesmerized by the sound of Captain Kangaroo’s scissors chomping through construction paper. I still love paper crafts—so it was a given that I’d love this LITERAL cut-and-paste writing exercise.

This prompt, which appears in poet Pat Schneider’s wonderful book WRITING ALONE AND WITH OTHERS, is a bit complicated—but, to me, the scissors and glue (not to mention the sometimes eerie results) make it worth it. (And, of course, it’s almost as cool if you do an electronic cut and paste!)

Writing prompt

Create (or dig out from your writing journals), two short poems, five to ten lines each. One poem should have a gentle, happy, or peaceful tone. The other poem should have an agitated, angry, or distraught tone.

Alternatively, you might use a paragraph (of equal-ish length) of two prose pieces. Again, one piece should have a gentle, happy, or peaceful tone, and the other, an agitated, angry, or upset tone.

Cut your poems—or paragraphs—apart, line by line as they appear on the page (NOT sentence by sentence). Here’s an example from the beginning of a paragraph I found in my journal to demonstrate how/where to cut:

I wandered in my neighborhood today and saw that the Halloween 

cut here >  – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

decorations were up everywhere, giving a sort of orange-and-black cadence 

cut here >  – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

to the crisp October afternoon. This lifted my spirits, almost as if . . . 

cut here >  – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Alternating lines from your first and second pieces, paste them together to make a single new piece. Don’t worry! It’s not supposed to make literal sense. But the poetic sense the juxtaposed lines create can seem quite uncanny.

I’ve created an example for you using two short poems—really just two ideas, only a couple of sentences each. The green lines are the first piece I wrote—the quiet one. The black lines are the second—the uneasy tone. I didn’t edit, just broke the lines apart and shuffled them back together. I did tweak the punctuation—and I’m not sure it improved matters. Maybe it would be better without punctuation?

Quiet now, neighbors gone to sleep, to rest.
The tension builds like paint; it flakes in scabs.
No more radio, backyard conversations
that reveal the raw red rash of remarks beneath
the buzzing tools that tame the yards,
the civility that is thinner than the peeling paint.
No more laughter
that chips when hands are extended to be shaken.
Only swaying branches, a quiet cloud,
or the window rolled down to wave, like in self-defense,
the bats dipping and silent on the invisible breeze,
the white flag of proximity.

If you’re struggling to loosen up your writing, this is a great way to lose control of intending a meaning and, instead, discovering the meaning that happenstance may provide.

Writing inspiration

The Dadaists, and then William Burroughs, created similar techniques. Check out the Cut-Up Machine on the Language Is a Virus site to play further with this and other writing games for grownups!

Need help with your book? I’m available for book coaching and manuscript review!

Quick-Start/Fast-Finish Writing Prompt! For Writers with Little Time

THIS IS A QUICK WRITING PROMPT, great for when you want to stretch your creativity but don’t have much time to play!

Writing prompt

First, pick a short form to write in today. Poem? Flash fiction? Short story? Snapshot memoir? Profile? Exposé?

Next, pick the first line of a published novel, poem, essay, or even a particularly enticing recipe!

For instance:

Then, pick the last line of a different published novel, poem, essay, recipe or _____ (fill in the blank), that’s not necessarily in the same genre as the first line.

For instance:

Finally, using the published (or found) first line as your first line, and the published (or found) last line as your last line, write your way from first line to last line, taking as many lines as you need to incorporate the ending in a way that makes (some) meaning of the journey from first to last.

Writing inspiration

Need more examples? Writer’s Digest has a list of Best Opening Poetry Lines just for you!

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That photo of someone stretching a rubber band like you stretching your creativity is from Science Generation.

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Writing Prompt: A Rose by Any Other Name

WHEN I WAS A KID—six years old—I had a classmate named “Frederika.” A fine name, my six-year-old self thought, and, promptly, I renamed myself for her (although my parents never quite caught up). Then, at twelve, I first heard the name “Zoë.” That was it! A perfect name for me. But, again, my parents wouldn’t sign on, and the Zoë I could have been died an unremarked death.

When I was sixteen, I named myself “Star,” and faithfully penned a red-Bic star onto my forehead every day for a year. This was a slightly more successful renaming. (In fact, having now returned to the town where I endured teen-hood, occasionally, I run into someone who greets me with a “Hi, Star! It’s been a while!”)

At nineteen, after watching SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER for the thirteenth time, I adopted a new last name: “Mangano,” in honor of John Travolta’s social-climbing love interest, Stephanie Mangano. (And, okay, although I’m a little embarrassed to admit to it, I was known as MJM by my closest friends for a few years after, for “Marvelous Jamie Mangano.” What can I say? I was young and the actual requirements of being truly marvelous in this world were still a mystery to me.)

In an earlier blog post, I talked about POEMCRAZY, in which author Susan Wooldridge discusses the act of renaming as a way to resuscitate some aspect of ourselves that may be starved for oxygen. “New names seem to change people,” she says.

In the POEMCRAZY chapter “Our Real Names,” Ronnie, a young man in juvenile hall renames himself, thusly:

Let’s talk about death.
Yesterday my name was James.
Today, it’s tossing helium dream.
Tomorrow, my name will be
Gerald Flying off the Cliff,
Dave Mustang.
Inside my name is
dying heart,
and a lotta hope.

My parents named me for a racehorse, Jamie K., who gave Native Dancer a run forjamiek his money in the Preakness and the Belmont a few years before I was born. This naming, perhaps, explains my early interest in horses—in a family in which no one else has ever ridden or owned a horse. And while that’s a fun story, and “Jamie” is a perfectly acceptable name, I have always wondered…. If I had lived my life as a Frederika or a Zoë—or even as a Grace or a Claire—would I have experienced the world differently?

I guess I’ll never know. Because, ultimately—unlike actress Sigourney Weaver, who, born “Susan Alexandra Weaver,” renamed herself, at the age of fourteen, after a minor character (Sigourney Howard) in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel THE GREAT GATSBYI let the name I was given harden around me. Until, now, it’s hard to tell where my name ends and I begin.

Writing prompt

How about you? What secret names do you have hidden in the roll-call of your deepest self? Make a list of them! Next, write out a pivotal scene from your life as you remember living it. Finally, take one of your secret names and begin a third-person account of the same situation, starring someone who bears a strong resemblance to you, but who answers to the name you chose. Allow the scene to deviate from the one you remember—and allow your other-named self to experience a different outcome.

Sometimes Art . . .

12191752_796580270470921_1313248362431253998_nDSCN0534IF REVISION* WERE A DOG, it would wear a hat and be foolish in public, because revision would want to get the most DOG out of each moment that it could. If revision were a fish, it would be out of water and dragging its school behind. If revision were an interior decorating scheme, it would cry out for spangle-y pinks and purples—unless it wanted the heat of reds and oranges—unless it wanted the cool underwater of blues and greens.

Sometimes art is the answer—but sometimes it’s revision. Sometimes it’s about seeing your work-in-progress as so many puzzle pieces, which you have to turn and match and try to fit. But sometimes it’s about diving deeper.

Sometimes revision wants to be smacked around, which can be a little scary—unless you have a safe word, and sometimes revision does have a safe word, in which case, it’s okay to play rough, which, sometimes, revision likes.

Revision’s about re-visioning, it’s about looking at what you’ve already done and asking what else you can do. But revision’s not “editing.” If writing were an injury, revision would be surgery, not massage.

Revision is a bit of a shepherd’s crook, tugging you off the stage when you think you’re ready to be out there. Revision knows when you haven’t fully paid your dues. Revision wants you to work harder—it’s stubborn like that. But revision will reward your work with a bag of gold so full you’ll be able to scatter coins far and wide, feeding the entire populace of your life—once you’ve done what revision wants you to do.

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* The art illustrating this post is a before-and-after of a piece I created in one of my art journals. It’s easy, often, to get stalled at an early stage of a piece of art or a piece of writing. Difficult, sometimes, to push through to the next level. Risky, always, to do so.

I’m grateful to Tammy Garcia—creator of Daisy Yellow Art and the extraordinary Daisy Yellow Facebook group—for her continuing inspiration. The lessons I’ve learned from Tammy and crew have helped me be more courageous on the page.


Writing Prompt: Singing the Blues

IN HONOR OF THAT OTHER AMERICAN tradition, join me and make a list of your current woes. Together, we can sing the blues! (I know. This runs counter to the most fundamental of Thanksgiving philosophies—but once we’ve purged our troubles, I’m betting we’ll be better-primed to list our blessings come November 26th!)

Writing prompt

So, we’ll start by creating our lists. Go ahead and jot down your current afflictions—as many or as few as you choose. Here’s my short list:

  • My BFF from wild-childhood just turned 60. Which means—guess what—I’m not far behind.
  • According to my periodontist (my relationship with whom is, in itself, worthy material for a blues song), I’m gearing up for a third gum graft.
  • If you look closely enough (and please don’t) you can see that my hair is thinning at the part.

Okay, now let’s turn our blues into blues LYRICS!51Z8W1N5JRL

12-bar blues lyrics are pretty simple: The basic verse pattern is AAB, AAB, AAB . . . for as long as you’ve got something to sing about. All three lines of each verse rhyme—and the first two lines of each verse are (almost) identical. Oh! And don’t forget to give your song an awesomely pitiful title. Here’s mine:

The Not Getting Any Younger Blues

A. My ol’ best friend’s gone way past the halfway point
A. Yeah, my ol’ best friend’s gone way past life’s halfway point
B. Now, I’m shuffling along just a step behind her,
hard of hearing and creaky of joint

A. My ol’ periodontist, he’s tellin’ me my gums are too thin
A. Yeah, my ol’ periodontist’s sayin’ my pink ol’ gums are thin
B. I gotta lay back in his chair again an’ let him patch some roof-of-my-mouth skin back in

A. My good ol’ hair’s thinner now than when I was young and fine
A. Oh, my good ol’ hair’s thinner than when I was young and fine
B. So I’m doin’ a swoop-di-doop comb-over just to cover up the ever-widening line

A. My ol’ best friend’s gone way past the halfway point
A. Yeah, my ol’ best friend’s gone way past life’s halfway point
B. I’m just shuffling along, hard of hearing, creaky of joint, and only one step behind

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If you’ve shuffled along this far with me, and want to learn more about the blues, check out PBS’s Blues Classroom and Danny Chicago’s “How to Write the Blues”!

Tarot Writing Prompt: Charming the Muse

MUSE DISAPPEARED? NEVER FEAR! Tarot poet Tabitha Dial and oracle creator Carrie Paris present … a muse you can fold into your pocket: The Muse Board!

the muse boardThe Muse Board’s playful directions jump-start creative-writing adventures. Click the image for your free, downloadable Board and print it. Then, like Arriety in THE BORROWERS, collect tiny household objects for game pieces. A needle threader, an acorn from last fall, a bead, a bullet (eek!), or an incense cone, will do nicely. Or ransack your game closet for Monopoly tokens or Scrabble letters.

Tarot Writing Prompt

After gathering your charms, toss a few onto The Muse Board. Now, free-write about the interface between your charms and the directions on the spaces where they fall! Have dice? Tabitha says, Toss a die or two before casting your charms. Let your roll indicate the number of sentences you’ll write, the words per line for a poem, or characters per story.

A random creativity-generator, The Muse Board is a great way to launch a family story, a poem-with-kids, or a lazy-Sunday-morning musing. (Sorry.) (Nah, not really!)

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Writing coach

Need help with your book? I’m available for book coaching and manuscript review!
Click to read Should I Hire a Writing Coach in THE WRITER magazine.

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Rattled Literary Magazine

headRRATTLE PUBLISHES POETS. To be specific, they’ve published a total of 2,005 poets, including 380 first-time published poets, thirteen Pulitzer-Prize winning poets, ten National-Book-Award winning poets, and eight U.S. Poets Laureate.

Published quarterly, in print, RATTLE is a journal with a mission that’s hard to argue with:

. . . to promote the practice of poetry. We feel that poetry lost its way in the 20th century, becoming so obscure and esoteric that mainstream readers have forgotten how moving language alone can be. . . .

Submissions are open year ’round (hint, hint).

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Writing coach

Need help with your book? I’m available for book coaching and manuscript review!
Click to read Should I Hire a Writing Coach in THE WRITER magazine.

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Patti Smith: Rock Poet God Queen

I FIRST HEARD PATTI SMITH’S ALBUM HORSES at my friend Barbara’s flat in Watertown, Massachusetts, where she lived with her guitarist roommate, John. We were all musicians, then. Or artists. Poets. Dancers. And we each had our own god. Mine was Talking Heads. Not least because they had a girl bass player and I was a girl bass player. Bebe’s god was Patti Smith. Not least because Beebs looked a bit like Patti.

Back then, the early 80s, we were not so far from living the life Patti Smith writes about in JUST KIDS, her National Book Award-winning memoir of her NYC years with Robert Mapplethorpe. Well, except for the fame and critical acclaim. Except for that.

But then . . . my band broke up, and I became an office manager, and Barbara moved out of Watertown and went to work for Houghton Mifflin, and Barbara’s roommate became a high school English teacher, and our poet friend became a programmer.

And Patti? For a while, she, too, ducked her rock-poet-goddess status, slipping off to suburban Detroit with her husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith. But even then, unlike me—or Barbara, or the other dancers/musicians/writers among us—Patti Smith kept on. She wrote. She recorded. And when Fred Smith died in 1994, Patti Smith came roaring out of the suburbs, touring and releasing ten albums in twenty years.

Patti_Smith_performing_at_TIM_Festival,_Marina_da_Gloria,_Rio_De_Janeiro_(4)What’s the difference between Patti Smith and those of us of whose art/music/poetry washed out with the tide of the 1980s? I’m not sure. Not sure the difference between those who do and those who just used to. Maybe there’s a clue in JUST KIDS. I don’t know. But I do know this: Patti Smith, still writing, still rocking, is—still—a fierce god to follow.




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Writing coach

Need help with your book? I’m available for book coaching and manuscript review!
Click to read Should I Hire a Writing Coach in THE WRITER magazine.

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Writing Prompt: Tarot Poetry

WITH ITS 78 (DRAMATIC!) ILLUSTRATIONS of human experience, it’s no wonder poets find inspiration in the tarot! For instance, when poet and tarot reader Tabitha Dial needed a fresh take for her poetry thesis, she dug out her Universal Rider Waite tarot deck to prompt her—and created from those prompts the book-length collection of poems she needed to complete her degree!

Now a tarot reader with an MFA in poetry, Tabitha teaches others how to use the cards for inspiration. She suggests we pick a card, start by listing its visual elements, and see where that takes us. Lists, she says, can be powerful and stand as their own poems—take for example [Tabitha’s poem] “The Banner (The Sun),” [which] stems from descriptions of the image and lays claim to a more general idea of what it may symbolize at the end.


The Banner (The Sun) 

Red, blood’s rich mania,
fabric’s flow,
in the small grasp
of the child
in a brightness
that is too much.

(Learn more about Tabitha at Tarot and Tea-leaf Readings.)

Using a slightly more interpretive approach to description, artist/teacher/tarot reader Andrew Kyle McGregor, proprietor of Toronto’s The Hermit’s Lamp, wrote this poetic riff on the Tarot de Marseille’s Trump XIII:


Trump XIII

Your footing now so blue and untrustworthy,
as to make your heart pound in your throat.
The shadow of your face always
casting backwards,
as your leg bone refuses to sing
like it used to.

(Andrew’s new book, SIMPLY LEARN TAROT, is available now!)

Tarot Writing Prompt

Your turn! If you’ve got a tarot deck at hand, pick a card (any card) and start naming what you see—then tweak your list poem-wards. Don’t have a deck? Choose a card image from the hundreds (thousands?) on Aeclectic Tarot. (And while you’re there, take a look at Aeclectic’s dedicated Tarot Haiku thread. Jump right into the limited-syllable sandbox for a tarot-2-poetry play-date!)

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Writing coach

Need help with your book? I’m available for book coaching and manuscript review!
Click to read Should I Hire a Writing Coach in THE WRITER magazine.

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