Today’s prompt is to write something using this photo as inspiration. I don’t know the original image source unfortunately, but I saw it on Facebook earlier today with the caption: “Farm workers in California continue working while the fires blaze.” It reminds me of one of the YA novels I started last year in which a human-caused ecodisaster blocks the sun, causing an unstoppable super winter set to wipe out all human life on earth.
There are a lot of things I see when I look at this photo beyond fantasy though. It’s pretty terrifying to witness something so post-apocalyptic happening right now. It also snowed in the northern part of my home state of Louisiana, today. Currently, I’m huddled next to a space heater in snow boots and a down parka typing with numb fingers somewhere in the middle of New Orleans. Yesterday, my phone wouldn’t quit buzzing at work from a tornado warning. And last week it flooded within a matter of minutes at the beginning of a thunderstorm. None of this is normal.
For these reasons, I feel torn between a political essay about migrant workers in CA and a short story in the same vein as the YA mentioned earlier.
Either way, this prompt doesn’t have many restrictions, aside from using the photo as inspiration for your opening scene. Any genre is fine. Try to write at least 500 words.Use at least one color. Mention the word “burning” somewhere, whether in or out of context of the CA wildfires.
Feel free to post what you come up with in the comments section. I’d love to read it!
It’s that time of year again, folks — National Novel Writing Month! Of course, I didn’t remember this fact until today with a third of November already underway. Pretty standard for me though if I’m being honest.
For those who are unfamiliar with National Novel Writing Month, more commonly referred to as NaNoWriMo, this is an annual event held during the month of November that encourages creative writers to complete a 50,000-word manuscript in exactly 30 days, the equivalent of 1,667 words per day.
Now is when I confess to you that I have never participated in NaNoWriMo in any official capacity. The organization website has determined rules, deadlines, achievement badges, and so on. I merely adopted the concept some years ago and have since adapted it for my own creative purposes. However, if you struggle to write everyday and need that extra level of accountability, it may be useful to register with the site.
I tend to personalize my restrictions for the month of November around my desired goals with realistic expectations. As a full-time editor and part-time poet, it is not always feasible for me to write an extra 1,667 words per day. Sometimes I come home late too mentally exhausted to do anything other than stare into the abyss that is Netflix. Sometimes my partner wants to spend quality time with me and talk about the day. Sometimes I have to make dinner or go to roller derby practice or run out to the store or walk my dogs, etc. I think most of us lead incredibly busy lives, which is why many of us don’t write regularly or as often as we would like to in the first place.
To make matters worse, I am the type of person who will stop trying altogether if my goals are ridiculously unobtainable. It’s just who I am as a woman living with diagnosed ADHD and almost no free time. Sometimes I expect too much of myself. I am also in the habit of pushing the limits of my physical and mental capabilities. At my core though, I am my writing therefore this is one area of my life I refuse to ruin through exhaustion.
Being a poet is a factor in my self-imposed month of writing as well. For instance, 1,667 words per day is doable for most fiction writers, novelists, essayists, and those who write long-form pieces, but for poets — who tend to focus almost exclusively on the quality of words versus quantity and who spend hours agonizing over every single word choice/pairing — this can be excruciatingly difficult or even impossible to achieve.
Still, cultivating the impetus to write every day for an entire month, come hell or high water, is useful in creating new habits and making the follow through on deadlines less intimidating. “One day, I’ll finish that novel,” transforms into, “Today, I will finish that novel,” and this monumental shift in thinking is crucial to manifesting your dreams no matter who you are or what you write.
For poets, this may become an exercise in letting go. It is easier to edit/whittle down pages and pages of lines than it is to pull the perfect sequential line out of thin air while writing a poem.
A few years ago, after a particularly bad case of writer’s block, I decided to try writing from stream of consciousness during the month of November. The goal was to write as quickly as possible without pausing — the opposite of my writing practice at the time. The biggest problem I had then was my inability to forget the reader/audience while writing, which led to the belief that everything I put down on paper was garbage; if it wasn’t ready to be published the moment I wrote it down, I tossed it. This is why I decided to try something new, something that would help me bypass the part of my brain intent on shouting, “This sucks!”
I got the idea from Gertrude Stein who, early in her career, performed experiments on “normal motor automatism” — the practice of simultaneously dividing one’s attention between two intelligent activities, such as writing and speaking — which was theorized to reveal one’s subconscious in a literal “stream of consciousness.”
In the end, Stein didn’t believe “automatic writing” was possible, but her work often reflects a sort of primitivism in the repetition of phrases, unique linguistic patterns and experimental forms she chose that feels reminiscent of a stream of consciousness.
I thought about how Stein might have come up with “Tender Buttons” (one of my favorite works) and concluded that I couldn’t allow myself to stop and analyze what I wrote down under any circumstances. The result was a 70-page collection of poems that became key to my final thesis. In this way, NaNoWriMo can be utilized as more than just a way to create consistent writing habits or to finish that long-put-off novel; it can also be used as a period of exploration and evolution. I encourage anyone who missed the beginning of November to participate anyway. It’s never too late to begin a new writing practice.
Did I ever tell you about the time I did a writing workshop in Oaxaca? It was the week of Halloween, roughly two weeks after the students missing and the atmosphere was wild.
Oaxaca is a big destination for Dia de los Muertos to begin with. On top of that, the political unrest grew each day I was there. Near the end of the trip, I received an email from the US embassy saying Americans were being evacuated 7-8 hours away in Acapulco. When I woke up the next day, the building across the street was covered ingraffiti about the students. As the Day of the Dead drew closer, there seemed to be more and more police presence, and, consequently, more and more human-sized guns.
But before that, Oaxaca took my breath away. There were old churches, colorful buildings, and mountains everywhere. The food tasted like nothing I’ve ever had. Not once did I come across anything with preservatives. Juice was nourishing and fresh squeezed. Raw tomato was practically orgasmic. Yes, I did get a touch of Montezuma’s revenge, but it wasn’t anything a few shots of Mezcal couldn’t fix. Best of all, it wasn’t overpopulated with Westerners, and I ended up gaining some Spanish by the end of it.
The workshop (U.S. Poets in Mexico) itself was extremely valuable. I enjoyed working with Anselm Berrigan and Catherine Wagner the most. Wagner, in particular, had completely unconventional writing practices that shook the foundation of how I conceptualized craft at the time. This experience begged many questions I still ask myself today.
1) How many of us actually use our environment to write?
I’d say that most people write inside with their heads down. We cram our bodies into uncomfortable positions and rigidly pull on the depths of our imagination. Even if you sit outside to write or go to a different location, this stiffness is often still with us.
2) Now out of those of us that deviate from standard writing practices, how many of us use, really use, our bodies or movement to write?
It might sound counterintuitive, but that was the entire focus of Wagner’s workshop. Although it made me uncomfortable initially, this redirection opened up something in my writing I had never experienced before.
This came at a point in grad school when I felt myself repeating the same things over and over again in my work. I was at a standstill, and I wasn’t sure how I was going to write for another year.
A lot of grad-level worshiping involves crafting in private until you’re ready to show it to your peers who then evicerate it, which is valuable in many ways. But after a while, can make it impossible to forget about the audience during the writing process and make you lose touch with your love for it altogether. That changed for me after the workshop.
The first thing we did was engage each other by siting in a circle and playing word games. Someone would say a word and the next person would have to pick out the middle sound to begin anew. This is where I got my thesis title, “Louisiana Alchemy.” Later, we walked around the courtyard describing what we saw in our perspective notebooks.
My favorite exercise though went a little further when Wagner asked each of us to write a sonnet (14 lines). However, we had to incorporate a number, a color, a piece of architecture, and we could only write one line for every block we walked, and we were all sent in different directions.
Something about the timing of the block and being in this foreign landscape brought forth a well of inspiration. I stopped caring about the reader and felt that spark I used to get when I first started writing poetry in college. Some of my favorite poems (see 2 at the end of this post) came out of this experience.
Being a big fan of Wagner, it was also interesting to glean up-close insight into her writing practices. I had always wondered how she came up with such unique, phonetic verse. Everything for her was about movement.
This is also why I recommend finding a workshop where one of your favorite writers will be teaching or one that is put on by a press you love. Not only is it a great way to network, but it’s also a great way to learn exactly what you want to learn from the people you admire most.
Make it a goal to go somewhere you’ve never been before for this as well. As a writer, life experience is necessary for you to do what you do.
Although I went on this trip with a classmate and met up with an old friend who lived nearby, plenty of people go it alone and are ready to meet new writers. A friend may not have the same interests and may want to go to different workshops during this as well. You will also have the advantage of dedicating your time to the writers you came to see.
Where are your favorite writing workshops and what techniques do you still practice from them?
Writer’s block, listless lingua, poetic impotence—whatever you want to call it—I’ve been forcing myself to write through it for years now. After all, one of Hemingway’s most famous works, The Old Man and the Sea, came directly out of writer’s block.
But after years of writing through it, the results—a ton of first chapters, hundreds of unfinished poems, and a slew of half-hearted essays—are less than desirable.
Never in my life have I experienced writer’s block. I was always that ambitious student in the front row who could spin a tale from any assigned prompt, always volunteering to read it out loud at the end of class. So how did I get to this place?
Exhaustion from professional reading, editing, and writing
Writing endlessly through past trauma for creative purposes
Pushing emotions down instead of using them as creative fuel
Only looking at work through the lens of the reader
Writing extensively sans passion/inspiration to beat the block
Hemingway may have been able to write through his soul-numbing creative drought, but I simply couldn’t do it anymore. Somewhere in the middle of grad school, the blank page became my enemy, reading felt like a burden, and I hated everything I managed to put into words.
What I’m talking about here is not your run-of-the-mill writer’s block. If it were, writing prompts, coffee shops, family squabbles, people watching, and a number of other random things would pull you out of it quickly.
I’m talking about something much more sinister. It is recurring exhaustion, disillusionment, existing in a mechanical or automatic state. It is going full-speed into Self-Deprecationlandia without any hope of resurfacing. It is the inability to find inspiration over prolonged periods of time, despite your dedication to “write through it.” It is losing touch with why you became a writer in the first place. No, what I’m talking about is longer and darker than standard writer’s block.
So how do you write through numb periods like this when the act feels on par with vacuuming a staircase or cleaning the toilet?
The simple answer is—you don’t!
When one of my undergraduate professors gave me this advice seven years ago, she changed my whole perception of writing and how it should be done. She said she went through periods of consumption and regurgitation. In other words, she took time to ingest lots and lots of media and mull over her thoughts before entering a long writing phase or working on a book project. This method is both obvious and sacrilegious at the same time.
So often as writers we are told to carve out a practice and stick to that schedule every single day, to write through writer’s block, and to, above all, never stop. In reality, I think this can be damaging to some of us.
At the upper echelons of academia, passion is inadvertently stamped out, while the pressure to publish, contextualize, and evolve reign. Production is never-ending. Some find this challenging and fun; others feel drained. Either way, you keep moving.
This professor’s advice permitted me to take a break from writing. And this professor is the only person ever to do so.
Rethinking Writing Practices
After so many years in this discipline, I no longer see the practice of writing in terms of black and white. Instead, I see it as a natural cycle or fluctuation. There are times when forcing yourself to write is helpful, even healing, and should be done. But that force can also reach a point of killing your passion for the craft altogether.
There is a timing and balance to writing that cannot be forced, which is why we find ourselves writing about childhood trauma decades later. You need enough emotion to power you through the act itself and enough distance to craft that feeling into something worth sharing with the world. You need time to analyze your emotions and the events in your life to fashion art from that.
Some write solely from raw emotion and experience, which many describe as reopening an old wound and letting it bleed. This type of writer also needs time to heal or practice self-care from time to time.
Even creative writing/lit professors take sabbaticals every few years to nourish their minds and spirits. While this suggestion goes against everything we’re taught as writers, I think it is necessary to say aloud. It’s okay if you have nothing to say right now. It will come to you later, and when it does, it will flow out in bursts. It will feel natural. It will not feel like a chore.
Most creatives have multiple interests, skills, and hobbies. Every time I put a pin in writing, I find it helpful to play piano, paint, crochet, draw, record songs using old poems as song lyrics, make gifts for upcoming holidays, take my pooches to the dog park, go hiking or to somewhere I’ve never been, research something I’ve always wanted to know more about, or take up a new hobby altogether. This provides a respite from the blank page while channelling other parts of your creativity, building your confidence back up, and giving you ample inspiration for your current or future projects.
It took three weeks of vacation for me to finally shake the last three years of writer’s block.
Spending time with my family, sleeping in my teenage bedroom, not pounding out copy/edits eight plus hours a day, watching my favorite sci-fi/fantasy films, and reading captivating books for the first time in ages all reminded me of why I do what I do and inspired a novel I truly care about finishing.
Forcing myself to write isn’t so bad—when I have something to say. Ultimately, inspiration and restfulness are paramount to my creativity and maybe to other’s creativity as well. Like medical treatments, writing practices aren’t one-size-fits-all. The most important thing is to listen to yourself and protect that well of creativity with everything you have. Don’t be afraid to experiment and find what’s best for you.