A man asked me at a conference how I find things to write about because he was trying to write, but just so weary of waiting for ideas. I couldn't grasp waiting for ideas because to me, there is so much to write about right now, right here.
More each day, I view the world as a sea of prompts. How I wish I could say I coined the phrase "sea of prompts" but sadly, I didn't. It comes from Pamela Painter's article "You and the Piano Bench," where she says, "Exercises teach you how to hear the outside world as a sea of prompts, a sea of exercises for potential stories."
Although exercises and prompts often promote unexpected and often superb starts, as the author Bruce Holland Rogers says, "Life for a writer is all about material." The '89 earthquake on the way to Ma's graduation, the unruly family member's outburst at a tense holiday dinner, the lost German lady with her cart loaded full of snap peas: everything can provoke some substance.
If I listen to the world, it pours prompts, it gushes prompts. It takes discipline to pay attention and watch. Restraint may be required to know when not to tell the tale, not to outtalk others. It takes self-control to be quiet and write about it later.
Someone once told me that my age-13 experience of the sudden death of my father would help me build character. Perhaps in the long run they were right. Although I may have a wee bit of character myself, I haven't yet in my writing explored the character of a lonely and angry 13-year-old grieving girl. I'm certain, though, that when the time comes I'll be able to dig in my own backyard for the particulars.
When the backyard doesn't seem like the place to plunder, or life's prompts aren't quite the right essence for the moment, occasionally a little nudge is needed to trigger some writing. Thus, the writing exercise.
Here is one of my favorite prompts: pretend you have been gifted the day off from life tomorrow. Someone else is going to step in and be you. Your substitute has already been briefed on the basics: your routine, where you work, your schedule, your general lifestyle and responsibilities. He or she will take care of it all. However, your stand-in doesn't know your idiosyncrasies, your quirks, your foibles, your eccentricities. You need to fill the substitute in on the peculiar details: Since you're going to be me tomorrow, you'll need to know the following
The same prompt can be used for a character. You'll need to know the following about that 13-year-old girl who waits on the far edge of the back step
This exercise invokes the stuff of character, the sand that makes up the folks I want to read about—their yearning for Indian food from a certain restaurant in their college days, their fear of accountants, their phobia of brooms, their excitement about new red swing sets. And the reasons: why they hike to the top of Mt. Alice with a too-heavy pack, why they buy a single coconut every afternoon, why they take the long way home, or, the short way, with all the windows open, flying twenty-five miles over the speed limit.
Maybe you have a pen nearby and a slip of paper or a napkin with a coffee stain. Maybe you have been prolific and playful all week. Or, maybe you've been waiting for words to drift in. Either way, here is the challenge: write a note to your stand-in. Try it right now before your noggin or your day gets in the way: Since you're going to be me tomorrow, you'll need to know the following