How to write without prompts

You can create great work without the use of writing prompts.

Here’s why:

Life itself is a writing prompt.

You don’t need to stimulate your writing with a prompt. You only have to look around your life and just write down what you think of it.

Use anything from real life.

It all has a story.

And this is typically how that really goes for me:
This is a glimpse “behind the curtain,” so to speak. This is my movement through topics when writing 2,740 words every day:

I can write about our cheap coffee table, which literally fell apart one night when John put his foot on it. And that, after it happened, I stared at John and said nothing, both of us knowing what I was thinking, which was: “See?! Do you see what happens when you buy the cheapest one?”

Or I could write about the fact that I never thought we needed a coffee table to begin with; the fact that this is his coffee table – the one that he has now ruined, all on his own accord.

These are irises, not tulips. Incidentally, these are not my flowers. Because I borrowed this pint glass illustration from the internets.

I can write about the tulips sitting in a pint glass on top of the coffee table, the flowers to replace the daffodils I had last week, which replaced the calla lillies of the week before. I could write about the fact that I have been buying fresh flowers and putting them here ever since I started doing the majority of my work from the couch (and yes, using the now-broken coffee table), ever since I quit my job. I could talk about the fact that just today – three weeks into this new fresh flowers habit – John, staring at the tulips, suddenly asked, “where are these flowers coming from?” And the fact that I looked over at him and, completely serious, said, “I thought they were from you.”

Or I could write about the fact that I did not say this, because I did not think of it until about an hour later.

I could write about Jane Jacob’s “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” which is the book I am reading. I am on page 122 and am enjoying it. One thing? I am so glad she feels the same way about Bauer. I was seriously skeptical of the latter’s “expertness” in Projects, given that she a.) had never lived in one and b.) seemed to strongly dislike cities overall. How could you possibly sleep at night dedicating your life to being an “expert” in something you simultaneously told everyone you hated?! Especially when many others cherish this thing so deeply? (Or I might write about the fact that I want to write a blog post about this. In fact, I could just write the blog post.)

I could write about my failure headshots or the fact that, when I showed the massive 11 x 16″ print to my mom, jokingly telling her that it was her Mother’s Day gift, she responded, “it’s beautiful.” And the fact that it made me wonder if she was being sincere or if she was being a mom.

I could write about the fact that I am donating clothes; that I went through my closet today and put like 30 things into a pile; that this is one of my favorite parts of moving – the opportunity to go through your possessions and streamline and get rid of things. The really remarkable thing is that we can do this over and over; I did not even buy 30 articles of clothing in the last year since we last moved, but this is the fun. Such is the humor of our decision-making process. Once we give ourselves enough time and forget the previous “sacrifices,” it is almost always possible to part with more. I love this.

I could write about the time when I lived with two other girls and two of us were moving to new cities after the lease was up, we both went through this process, donating more than usual due to the state to state relocation. In the end, there was about three garbage bags worth of clothes, which I gave to my little sister, who I can only imagine was excited enough to inherit some of the things.

I could write about the fact that I accidentally included one or two shirts that my mom had just given me for the Christmas before but were not my style; that I remembered their inclusion in the donation bags only after the fact and hoped my mom would not go through the clothes herself; the fact that she did and then mentioned it when we next spoke.

Source: Lucky magazine

I could write about, then, the fact that, this time around, I found not one but two bright fuchsia sweaters buried beneath all the others; I might mention the fact that these bright pink sweaters are the only items that are this color in my closet (most everything else being neutrals), and the fact that both of them came from mom, on separate Christmases. I could talk about the fact that these two are not even the full extent of all the the pink sweaters she has given me in our history, that in fact there have been at least two others, over the years.

And that I have wondered, on more than one occasion, whether my mom is not trying to give me some sort of hint (e.g., “can you try to dress like more of a girl and less of a boy living out of his car?! You always look like such a lesbian – not that there’s anything wrong with being a lesbian; it would be absolutely okay if you were one. But you aren’t. So why do you dress like one?”) And the fact that, every time I imagine these sort of hints being communicated to me through these fuchsia sweaters, I often respond to her, in my head: “Mother. Do you even know the daughter you raised?” It was she, after all, who insisted I stand on my own two feet – be a woman who is independent and strong-willed; a woman, in other words, who does not happily suffer the wearing of pink.

I like to think that she did a little better with my little sister in this regard, as the little sister – the baby, through and through – wears pink, like a proper girl should, though she matches it with well-worn Converse sneakers because, after all, she is still our mother’s daughter.

I could write about the moving process overall, outside of the donations. I could write that I look forward to the new apartment. I could write about the fact that I still think longingly of San Francisco; that I never thought of it before three months ago, but now cannot un-think of myself in that city.

I could write about white wine in the summertime, which often reminds me of the summer when John’s mother died… the night we both drank white wine in the heat of his parents’ living room, when we stayed up for hours as I transcribed his words to paper to write his mother’s obituary… the way I watched the condensation gather on the outside of the wine glass and then run in tiny streams along its body as John spoke of her.

I would think of writing about this.
I probably would not.

Instead, I would write about my excitement for summer; my excitement to wear shorts again; the fact that I cannot believe it’s still this cold in mid-April; the fact that I understand that spring works this way and that fact that I do not blame it; that I love all weather all the same. Then I would pause and teeter between going back to writing about my anticipation and plans for this summer, or perhaps I might write about the fact that I could never live anywhere that did not have all four seasons. More than likely, I would write about both of these things; first one, and then the other.

I would write about the shorts. And then I would balk and stop and hold back on the shorts; that for me, shorts represent summertime and tans, but for many others, represent whatever it is they insist on seeing in a young woman wearing them. And then I would talk briefly about this disconnect, and then I would move on. Because it is one of those unfortunate things that you have either experienced or haven’t; either know or don’t know. And if you don’t know, there is no possibility of explanation.

the protea

I would glance at the tulips on the table again and think of my friend Kara Fern, who is one of the most talented writers I know IRL (Mom: that’s “in real life”) and has just recently (finally!) started her blog. Kara is a florist and Kara writes about flowers every Friday. This last Friday, she wrote about pincushion protea and she called it “masculine,” which I love(d). I might mention that it was not until I had finished and begun rereading the post that I realized: John has given me this flower once before. And yes, I did love the protea.

Probably because I do love masculine flowers. Probably because this all goes along with the lesbianism.

Still thinking of Kara, I might write about about the “rightness” of cities for each person; how we should strive to find a place that matches our values and personality. I would likely say largely what I have said before about this, and I would reference Kara, because Kara has lived in Denver and New York and Portland and some place like Albuquerque or Santa Fe or Arizona something.

And then I might write about talent, and talk about how incredible it is to think that someone might go their whole lives being talented and never knowing it; or suspecting it but never seeing it play out; never trying or putting themselves out there. I might talk about how mind blowing it is to consider that all the world’s great people were only one try-out; one interview; one commitment to write a book or try cooking; one moment away from realizing their potential. And of course we all imagine that, no, these people got there because they tried hard and worked hard. And of course that is true. But a million moments got them there, and any number of them could have kept them from it.

Howard Schultz nearly threw in the towel on Starbucks when his wife was pregnant, when he went to her, prompted by her father (who had apparently given him a hard talking-to about being a responsible man of the family) and asked her (I like to imagine that he knelt in front of her while she was vegging out on the couch, pregnant belly distended upward) if he should go on with “this whole ‘Starbucks Thing.'” And it was the wife who said, “oh yea. You absolutely will.” It was the same with Ford and the same with so many others. Dozens and hundreds and thousands of terrifically successful people who, had a single moment gone a different way – had a wife instead said, “oh, I am so relieved you asked; I do actually think that it is time to put away these foolish dreams” – might have spent their whole lives differently. Howard might have been a wholesale coffee salesman or something (not that there is anything wrong whatsoever with being a wholesale coffee salesman. I have actually met one, and he was a truly wonderful man.)

I might mention that he was Ethiopian – this wholesale coffee salesman. But ultimately, I probably would not. There is not much more to the story than these two details – the coffee and the fact that he was Ethiopian. I guess there is also the context: I met him on a corporate park shuttle, which took us to from the bus station to our respective campuses in the morning and back again at night.

He was also the first one to describe Ethiopian food to me. Before him, I had never tried it; never knew it was something to try. And each time I describe it to someone new, it is his voice I hear when I describe it with my whole heart.

He also recommended the honey wine – tej. And there is certainly a story there.

When we were in Ethiopia, John and I had honey wine. I had had it once before, when we had gone to have Ethiopian one night, but typically we both drank (conventional?) wine when we had dinner. When we got to Ethiopia, I convinced John to try some, so we both ordered a… bottle? The honey wine is almost always made in-house, so all of it is different. Incidentally, the serving containers may differ, though a very common one is this. John ordered a berele. I just got a glass.

Flash forward about 12 hours, John woke up with a hell of a headache. And swore off honey wine from then on.

It was not until about six months later that, recounting the story to an Ethiopian taxi driver in Chicago, we learned it was not the honey wine but John’s mix of drinks that did him in. “Tej is strong,” he said, “but for hangover, you cannot mix with other alcohol. The tej, it gets jealous.”

And I thought this explanation was so charming.


Right about here, I would do my last word count check and see that I had reached the day’s goal, so I would wrap it up. If I was very close to the next 100, I might continue on for another sentence or two – finish off with 3,000 rather than 2,882.

And these are all the things I might write about, on any given day. I would likely write a bit more about many of these subjects. Though I did not necessarily censor myself here, I may have said more about each. I probably would not have gotten to the honey wine story tonight. But here, I did.

So, there is that.

You can do this too, you know. Just let your mind stay alive and awake and active; let it lead and then simply follow as quickly as you can, jotting notes like a young apprentice jogging behind – and trying to keep up with – the real master. There is no limit to what your mind will create for you, and the places it may choose to go, if you only let it.

Note: this post (including Part I) is very long – too long. It is long because it is the entirety of one day’s word count. I shared this for the sake of transparency; this is one way writing can look when written without a prompt. (And then posted with minimal editing.) 


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