Here is a baby story: Years ago a man I loved gave me a pen with a gold nib. I did not use the pen. I wanted him so much everything he gave me was a disappointment. You can try a three-sentence story or use a three-sentence story to begin a longer story by opening all the windows and doors in this condensed nugget. See if you can reverse the course of the story with the last sentence or last word.

Write about a time when you (your character) got what they asked for and then regretted it.

A person or couple is in the home of another person–they are house sitters, cat sitters, cleaners, thieves? They get dressed in the clothes of the people who live there. At some point the owners come home to find them.
For any prompt your are working on, as a way to write OUT of chronological order, you may try writing the piece from the get with a paragraph each with the following prompts:
1 A moment of intense excitement and luxurious sense of aliveness with all senses alert.
2. The end of the story.
3. A moment of doubt.
4. The beginning of the story.
5. A moment of imagined fulfillment.
Try to create a scene in each paragraph. Remember humor. Remember horror and the joy of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Remember to love your crazy, human, vulnerable creatures.


The knowledge of desire turned out to be smaller in the scheme of things than I had foreseen.

Forearms shaped like bullets.

I miss my old life.
I took a walk when the sky was turning the color of milk. 
I saw there was a dark side to everything you wanted.   



Pick a color: red, gold, pink, burnt sienna, etc. Write three short pieces about one of the colors. They don’t have to seem related when you write them. They will be by the time you are done.


A writing prompt derived from the beginning of “Juan Rulfo,” from “Ornaments” by David Daniel:

“I’m roasting grasshoppers over a fire
With Rulfo on the dust of Sayula, Mexico,
Thinking of Jonathan Edwards: You are
An insect . . . and there is an arrow
Pointed at your heart. . . .
. . . The grasshoppers hiss,
Crackle and blacken–the only other noise:
The rusty gears of the world, . . .”

The prompt: write a piece in any genre that begins in a specific moment and place, quickly shifts to a memory involving an association in the form of a text, a conversation, or an image. Also juxtapose a specific geographical location with a reference to big time and big space. I will try this at tonight’s workshop! This book is melting and on fire.

I came across a marvelous spoof/variation on the William Carlos Williams poem, “This is Just to Say” by David Hollingshead. Give it a try! Below are the Wiliams, the Hollingshead, and one I tried.

This Is Just To Say (William Carlos Williams1883 – 1963)

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold
David Hollingshead (Twitter)
This is Just to Say
I have eaten
the sailors
that were in
the cave
and which
you were probably
from Troy
forgive me
they were delicious
so Greek
and so lost
Stone version
This is Just to Say
I have eaten
the neighbors
that were
living upstairs
and who
you were going
to beg
to shut up
forgive me
they were tasty
emitting their last
snap, crackle, and pop

New prompts March 15 2017

How can you want what belongs to you?

People ordered kits to test their blood.

It was a  form of armchair travel to the past.

Bibles that consist entirely of cat names.

Every so often you see the role you have been cast in.

The things I need an accomplice to do.

The sound of bones moving.

I said, “I always know when something will happen.” She said, “How?” I said, “Sex.” She said, “But how?”

When my sister regained her sense of taste, she lost her memory of cancer.

In language we are saying something else.

The present transforming your sense of the past, for example the way Kafka’s writing lends a Kafkaesque quality to writing that predates it or the way our political moment changes your memories of earlier times, maybe even the day before the election.

Create a situation in your mind, an outline of a plot and tell the story in four paragraphs only according to the following pattern: 3 days after, 1 month earlier, the day of, 1 year before.

Create the outline of a conversation and evoke it as a story in this pattern: half-way through, the first thing they said, the last thing I heard, what was repeated, when the voices were soft.

I prefer crime to sin or pathology.

Places here are named for _______. (ie. bodies of water, forms of death, etc.)

Strange phenomena in need of an explanation, and the explanation is more outlandish than the original mystery. i.e. The reappearance of a person who has disappeared explained by ghosts, aliens, or humans who turn out to be aliens.

Brownian motion vs James Brownian motion.

Slits of light through a door that has been hacked.

The hopeful smell of toast.

Becoming surprisingly dangerous.

It was always kindness that surprised me.

Consider these images as prompts:

Neon Motel Sign and Arrowgoldfish flashthin mantrapezestreet image

fire ant

Objects on display in the Museum at the End of the Universe.

Everyone is kind.

I show him the little cuts.

One day I gave my father’s wristwatch to a man I did not know well and soon lost track of, even though the watch was the only thing I owned that had touched my father and even though I had loved my father very much.

I always feel guilty.

A little love to accompany me.

I have found myself seeking the approval of a person just because they have taken a quick, intense dislike of me.

I have found myself feeling a quick, intense dislike for a person and wondering who I think they are.

I have found myself feeling a quick, intense attraction to a person I purposely did not learn more about.

I have found myself feeling a quick, intense attraction to a person and told them.

I found myself feeling a quick, intense aversion to a person and kept them in my life.

Looking for warm places in cold people.

Richard has been working with a concept he calls “future salvage archeology,” derived from the notion that Venice will be under water in the not-too-distant future. How will archivists and museologists of various stripes “preserve” what once was Venice before it disappears?

For us: design the future salvage archeological project that represents you. A set of objects (or nonmaterial things) are loaded into a suitcase (any size you want). For this exercise pick 5 (or more if you are ambitious). Write a paragraph (any length). Arrange the paragraphs in the order you like. You do not need to explain why you have chosen your items for display in your museum, but you can if you want to. It’s your game, your museum, your version of you via things you love, or were, or will become.

I am reading through my manuscript and came to this passage, which is part of a longer piece. We have sometimes spoken about ways to use dialogue to create character, drama, and a personal idiom. There is so much dialogue can do that replaces exposition, description, and summary of who characters are and what they mean to each other. In this case, setting and everything but dialogue recedes. If you like, you can try a short scene where dialogue dominates, perhaps using this model:

I say to Richard, “Stand by the tree. I want to take a picture of you and the tree.” He says, “Why?” I say, “It’s our tree. Do you remember when it was a dying stick in a black plastic pail?” He says, “Someone left it by the hedge.” I say, “You knew I would bring it home.” He says, “I told you that. I wanted you to think I was thinking about you all the time.” I say, “It was a ploy?” He says, “Ploy is too strong a word.” I say, “I believed you. I believe everyone.” He says, “I was thinking about you all the time.” I say, “I was thinking about you all the time, too.” I say, “Do you remember when Palmy’s first frond unfurled?” He says, “I didn’t study it as carefully as you.” I say, “It spiraled open in the shape of the universe.” He says, “To be honest, I don’t care much about vegetation, or animals for that matter. I am confused if a fish is an animal, although I have advanced degrees in fields attached to the sciences. I seldom eat fish, although I fancy a kipper for breakfast from time to time. It reminds me of my mother. I do not think I spent five minutes in childhood wondering if she was happy.” I say, “The tree is the same age as our relationship. We found it right after we met.” He says, “You created the conditions of a rain forest.” I say, “We called it Palmy.” He says, “I think of the tree as Palmy, but I do not think if the tree dies it means we will die.” I say, “Fine, but I want you to stand by the tree in a happy period of its life.”

By David Sedaris from “Holidays on Ice”

I went to a story on the Upper West Side. This store is like a Museum of Natural History where everything is for sale: every taxidermic or skeletal animal that roams the earth is represented in this shop and, because of that, is popular. I went with my brother last weekend. Near the cash register was a bowl of glass eyes and a sign reading “DO NOT HOLD THESE GLASS EYES UP AGAINST YOUR OWN EYES. THE ROUGH STEM CAN CAUSE INJURY.”

I talked to the fellow behind the counter and he said, It’s the same thing every time. First they hold up the eyes and then they go for the horns. I’m sick of it.”

It disturbed me that, until I saw the sign, my first impulse was to hold those eyes up to my own. I thought it might be a laugh riot.

All of us take pride and pleasure in the fact that we are unique, but I’m afraid that when all is said and done the police are right: it all comes down to the fingerprints.

Think about comedy, layering, finding yourself in a surprising moment that links you to some blob of humanity or ordinariness when you long to be the exception, the choice of the setting and what the narrator does with the tiny encounter, the use of dialogue and of reflection in juxtaposition with narrative description . . . this is a miniature that can be replicated again and again, like a fractal, to build a giant piece, even a book. This is exactly the way Seders work. So can we. Let’s be like David!

Today I am thinking of two forms of a collage piece you can try to build, and I will give you an example from a flash collage I wrote a while ago called “Rat Rashamon.” The idea here is to find three (or more) contrasting views of something: an event, an animal, a thing, and just set them next to each other and see how meanings or resonances jump across the edges of the pieces.

The other idea is what I am thinking of as the natural history of a trauma. This came from a situation in my life I have written about from widely divergent time periods. You do not need to start with the most proximate version of the trauma: i.e. when it happened. You can start with a later memory of it or tell a little story that doesn’t at first seem to be about the original trauma but that the narrator associates with the trauma anyway. It’s a Leve-like way to allow pain into your writing without asking the reader for sympathy or understanding (you will not get it if you ask directly by, kvetching in some way).

Rat Rashamon

In a magazine interview, the German writer WG Sebald described a rat experiment meant to illustrate hope. A rat was placed in a cylinder of water. It swam around for a minute, realized it couldn’t get out, and died of cardiac arrest. A second rat was placed in a similar cylinder, only this one had a ladder and climbed out. That rat was then placed in a cylinder without any means of escape, and it kept swimming until it died of exhaustion. Sebald said, “You’re given something—a holiday to Tenerife or you meet a nice person—and so you carry on, even though it’s quite hopeless.” He chuckled enigmatically.

I read Sebald’s remarks to Richard. We were in a café. His eyes darkened and he said, “Even if you discover something about hope from these experiments, you have to ask yourself, ‘What did the scientist get out of causing a ratty heart attack in the first animal and sending both rats to the choir eternal?’ No one interested in hope would place a defenseless creature in a hopeless situation. To be interested in hope is to care about when it succeeds. If you are organizing its failure, you are interested in suffering.”

I said, “Wow, that’s really interesting.” I tried to imagine an experiment in hope, and nothing came to mind. Richard was picturing the white lab rat, a soft, intelligent creature it was easy to empathize with. White lab rats are albino mutants of the vicious, larger brown rat, and I was reminded of the famous essay, written in 1944 by Joseph Mitchell, in which he portrayed an animal nearly as successful as humans at dominating the planet—and without human technology.

Mitchell’s rat is a force with more venom than purpose for it, an animal whose overkill approach exudes a Rabelaisian dimension. Brown rats can destroy the contents of a market on a stupor-inducing tear. They can gnaw through steel, bore a hole in almost any material and squirm through spaces half their size. Harbor rats can run up a pole wielded at them and attack a person’s hands and face. They like to bite babies because babies smell of food.

Despite such savagery, when I am away from New York, I miss my street-rat existence. I remember waiting in the subway after catering jobs. It’s two or three in the morning and the subway musicians have all quit, and there are just a few of us leaning over the platform to spot a distant headlight on a train too far away to hear. Down on the tracks rats are playing in muddy water. They are fattening on chicken bones and pizza crusts and having the time of their lives.

Scientists have established that rats won’t press a lever for food if the activity is paired with shocking a neighboring rat they can see. You cannot say you are powerless in love. If you are powerless, you are in a different kind of relationship.
Write a piece in which you start each (or most) sentences with these phrases: To tell you the truth, Frankly, To be honest. (Of course such statements are invariably lies . . . but we will see what happens.)

Possible prompts:

From the ceiling hung a neon sign that said Babycastles. It looked like someone had found it in a thrift shop on a lonely road and decided to shape a life around its flamingo pink letters.

At one end was a bank of windows that looked out to sad, sullen traffic on an unglamorous street.

I was there for the wrong reason.

I was tired of plots wired together like a set of braces.

The dream had a taste.

He saw a sudden ball of color roll toward him or out of him.

A character is wandering around Home Depot (or another giant box store), wondering what they came for. (Ahem, did this recently happen to R and me? Possibly.)

I don’t know how to get there.

A moment of loving what I (a character) saw without question.

The widows, the orphans, the last ones left standing.

It must have been one of those relationships that represents a shadow life.

He’s friendly, you can tell right away.

I don’t know why I want this machine.

At the doctor’s the other day, when he had been offered a parachute of sorts, he had clutched his heart.

You’ve just encountered one of your nine  other clones. Write the scene of your first conversation.

Interesting, the way Alice Munroe layers description so it evokes the inner life of the narrator as well as the world being illuminated . . . and uses original, dashing language and images: from “The Love of a Good Woman,” here boys discover a drowned man in a car submerged in water:

“They could picture Mr. Willens face as they knew it–a big square face, which often wore a theatrical sort of frown but was never seriously intimidating. His thin crinkly hair was reddish or brassy on top, and combed diagonally over his forehead. His eyebrows were darker than his hair, thick and fuzzy like caterpillars stuck above his eyes. This was a face already grotesque to them, in the way that many adult faces were, and they were not afraid to see it drowned. But all they got to see was that arm and his pale hand. They could see the hand quite plain once they got used to looking through the water. It rose there tremulously and irresolutely, like a feather, though it looked as solid as dough. And as ordinary, once you got used to its being there at all. The fingernails were all like neat little faces, with their intelligent everyday look of greeting, their sensible disowning of their circumstances.

“‘Son of a gun,’ these boys said. With gathering energy and a tone of deepening respect, even of gratitude. ‘Son of a gun.'”

Quick prompts:


Outside factory buildings everyone was waiting for a blind date.

You would realize the beginning was the end.

Thank god for television for my sense of reality.

The text below is from a story by Shelly Oria from her book New York 1 Tel Aviv 0. It contains a memory in one paragraph. The exercise: See if you can figure out the point of view and nature of each sentence . . . i.e., is it a stage direction, a tracking shot, a moment of understanding, an objective array of facts, etc? See if you can assign a tag to each kind of sentence that makes sense to you in terms of objective and subjective layering and craft and form elements. Using the order of these sentences, write your own one-paragraph, fictional or “true” memory. Use Oria’s form as a grid, a map, a template of sorts. Don’t veer away from the order (if you can manage it) and see what you produce that adds to your toolkit of practices.

“An Interval: 1982, a Memory

There is a moment I remember well. I was twelve years old, discovering for the first time that desire made the air thinner. I was running in a field. This was in Israel, a field on the outskirts of the town where I grew up. It was wartime, but the kind of war not too many people cared about. Also in the field: boys and girls I went to school with, a bonfire. My clothes were all stripes: gray and black, a matching skirt and top I had gotten the day before. This is what I heard: a boy I loved, who had broken my heart a few weeks earlier, was now jealous because I had a new boyfriend, a decoy boyfriend, a boy I never wanted. The two of them were trying to figure out who had the moral obligation to step back. Other boys were there to supervise, make sure things didn’t escalate to a fight. This is what I learned: boys think life is a call they get to make. This is why I was running: overturning the boy’s rejection made me feel too powerful, like life was a call I got to make. The smoke in the air got in my lungs, and I thought I would run forever.”

The excerpt below is from “White Girls” by Hilton Als. I am interested in how Als creates the narrator’s character and the period of the narrator’s coming-of-age through what is remembered, a list of glittering moments, perhaps. I am interested in the experimental launch of this voice onto the reader . . . do you think there is a kind of Leve action here? All thoughts welcome in workshop, where we will process. You might like to experiment in this style for your notebook practice.

“I’d look on as old men walked down city streets arm in arm with their wives. I would watch babies resting on their mothers’ bellies in patches of grass and sunlight in Central Park. I would watch cigarette-smoking teenagers glittering with meanness and youth, whispering and laughing as they shopped on lower Broadway. These exchanges of intimacy were all the same to me because they excluded me, that twin who somehow lost his better half. I was an I, an opera of feeling with a very small audience, a writer of articles about culture but with no real voice, living in a tiny one-bedroom apartment in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, a dream of love growing ever more expansive because it was impossible, especially in the gay bars I sometimes frequented in Manhattan, where AIDS loved everyone up the wrong way, or in a way some people weren’t surprised by, particularly those gay men who were too indifferent to be sad–in any case nights sweats were a part of the conversation people weren’t having in those bars, in any case, taking your closest friend in because he was shunned by his family was part of the conversation people weren’t having, still, there was this to contend with: that friend’s shirt collars were getting bigger; still, there was this to contend with: his coughing and wheezing in the little room off your bedroom in Brooklyn because TB was catching, your friends didn’t want you to catch it, loving a man was catching, your friends didn’t want you to get it; his skin was thin as onionskin, there was a lesion, he couldn’t control his shit, not to mention the grief in his eyes, you didn’t want to catch that, those blue eyes filled with why?”

In another section Als writes of his friendship with a person he called SL:

“By the time we met we were anxious to share our black American maleness with another person who knew how flat and not descriptive those words were since they did not include how it had more than its share of Daisy Buchanon and Jordan Baker in it, women who passed their ‘white girlhood’ together. We were also the first line of Joni Mitchell’s autobiography: ‘I was the only black man in the room.'”

I thought the whole world was in this one room.

Something I said but didn’t quite mean. (and the consequences)

She wanted him to love her so much he would raise himself.

There are stories that are mine to tell and stories that are not mine to tell.

In astrology we all hold skies within us. A time when you were changed by the weather of another person.

There I was on the little screen, a pulsing dot guided by an arrow.

The first time in public as this form of myself. (divorced, alone, an anarchist, a trans person, etc.)

A sharp memory of knowledge dawning. (The realization in a scene that someone is a liar, loves you, is crazy, etc.)

The rug smells of mildew, and it is beautiful.

You are scary when you are happy.

Sometimes, to solve a case, I retrieved a memory

Take off from this: We have found ourselves where we do not exist.

Use the images of “a rocky coast” and “unglamorous baskets” in a story.

Begin a story with: “They had come to New York to visit the world’s fair in 1938 and not not returned to Poland.”

Write a story that includes, “the smell of his languidness, the way he inhaled cigarettes like a drowning person surfacing.”

Write a story that begins, “Leni knew we had slept in her bed.”

Write s story that begins or includes, “The woman I used to know was in love with a boy in our class.”

fake face

Here is a flash fiction by Beth Lisick called “Manners”:

I always hug you when I see you. I say, “Hey! How are you doing? What’s up? How have you been?” I pretend I don’t know that you came to a party at my house one night and said to my friend that you’d never noticed before how much I resembled a newt.

Write a similar funny, strange and layered story about faking it or having a character preserve knowledge in a way that creates tension that can’t be resolved.


Walk to cafe, order drink, contemplate image, write for 20 minutes.

Writing about taking something that did not belong to the narrator.

An inconvenient attraction . . . character acts on it . . . consequences. Write this in 4 paragraphs. Paragraph 1: the end, paragraph 2: a moment of illumination, paragraph 3: the beginning, paragraph 4: a moment of confusion.

A time a character was stood up.

Start a story with: “The woman I used to know says, “__________.”

Dying for your pleasures.

A place that changed you.

A character wakes up and doesn’t know where he/she is.


vivian maier 1vivian maier 2vivian maier 3

Write a story from the point of view of one of the figures in the photographs or write a story about one of the figures from the point of view of another narrator.

A character visits a room once a week on the same day and at the same time. You decide what happens in this room and the hold it has on your character. In the story, the character misses an appointment with the room for the first time in 15 years.

Write a piece in which each sentence uses the structure “Before . . . and then after  . . .”

Write a piece in which you start every sentences with “Sometimes.”

Start with a color and go.

Use these phrases in a piece: “See, there are mice here all the time.” And, “It felt silly to keep a distance after all this time.”

Start a piece with: “My life was horrible until I started lying.”

Write about a character’s realization that her/his words have a strong influence on another person.

Start with, “I like waiting.”

An accidental burial.

8 thoughts on “Prompts

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