Writing Prompts, Absolutely Free!

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Creepy-looking dead hand trying to grab a rope in a dark, seaweed infested sea. Actually a lobsterman’s glove that floated away and got tangled on the rope.

Kate Flora: If you’ve been reading my blog posts, you will know how I like to harp (oh, is that too negative a word?) on the subject of imagination. I’ve even taken my interest in prodding writers to use their imaginations as far as teaching a class for Grub Street in Boston from time to time called “Imagine This.” Any student who has ever taken a class with me knows how often I urge those with a desire to write to pull out their ear buds, turn off their screens, and start looking at the world—and the people—around them to see the fabulous story ideas that are happening all around them all the time.

Once, years ago, I got an opportunity to write the Afterword for a magazine. I decided to write about imagination. Since I was going to be at one of those very cool parties that happen at conventions, with a room full of A-list writers, I decided to ask random people what came to mind when I used the word imagination. I was surprised to discover that many of the people I queried reacted like it was a trick question and wanted to know what I mean, instead of saying: what we use all the time when we are writing.

This summer in Maine, I have spent far too much time in my car dashing from one writerly event to another—events that were great fun, but which took me away from my writing desk, and the work that is calling to me. While I was driving, I was listening to NPR, and heard some interviews recalling E.L Doctorow, including this quote:

The thing about writing is that you use your imagination a good deal of the time and you can usually work out things by thinking about them and imagining them. That’s the whole game – to get into people’s skins, to pretend to be someone you’re not, to have experiences you’ve never had and to represent them truly to render them. E.L. Doctorow in an interview with Terry Gross on NPR

One of the things that happens when we look around, and let the things we see prod our imaginations, is we begin to ask the questions writers ponder on when then they’re shaping a story:

What is that about?

Who is that about?

What happened just before this?

What is going to happen next?

Why is this the character to tell this story?

For example, as I am sitting at breakfast with a retired police chief, I am wondering this: what is driving that chubby, heavily tattooed man in the diner in Falmouth to want to wear that ratty-looking semi-automatic weapon on his belt? Does he wear it all the time? Has he practiced getting it out of that holster quickly? How often does he go to the range and does he have the kind of muscle memory necessary to handle that firearm in a suddenly evolving and tense situation? Is he angry? Scared? Making a statement?

As I am driving to a book event in Portland, I am wondering: How did a folding chair, a sleeping bag, a beach towel, and assorted other gear come to be rolling around in the road just north of Portland and how will the owners feel when they realize it is gone?

What is the significance of that wreath of plastic flowers and a Mylar balloon tied to the corpse of a dead porcupine on a rural roadside? Is it just to make people like me wonder? An exercise of whimsical imagination? Is there a national movement afoot that I have missed? Is it a hack or a meme? And what the hell are hacks and memes anyway? (Ah, a blog post for another day)

It’s a fact. The world is full of marvelous, slightly offbeat things that prompt our questions. And I’m here today

Peach and blueberry pie. Because it's summer and I love pie
Peach and blueberry pie. Because it’s summer and I love pie

to remind you to look around, see what’s there, and let it prompt your imagination to think about the story it might tell. You don’t need a book of writing prompts, though of course they can be helpful. But you do need to look. And you need to wonder. And you need to listen to the snatches of conversation around you. A day without an idea prompted by our surroundings is a poor day indeed.

While you ponder on the wonders, mysteries, and peculiar inhabitants of the world around you, I am off to the town where I grew up to pick blueberries in the 18-acre field my husband gave me for my 55th birthday. To drive the back roads and visit wineries. Wineries? When I was growing up, we were chicken and dairy farmers. Now I can buy rhubarb shrub, Maine-made vanilla, and artisanal gin.

On my way home, I’ll look to see what the world has to offer. Yard sales? Wooden whirligigs? A line of six antique autos going where? And why? I’ll ponder on the act of decorating a decomposing bit of roadkill and wonder what the drivers around me are seeing, or whether they’re seeing anything at all.

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