writing prompts

Acting On Impulse

The word 'emotion' comes from the latin 'ex-movere' meaning to move out into. The purpose of emotion is not just to feel, it's to feel in order to move our bodies to make contact with the world. To take advantage of opportunities, and t0 escape threats. To survive and to thrive. When we write, we have to be able to connect our inner to our outer worlds in that way. 

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From acorn to great oak

I find that dusting down the alarm clock, and waking into the cold, dark January mornings, can be something of a shock after the Christmas hiatus.

And yet, ironically, this time of little motivation is often when we set up the highest expectations for ourselves. Diving in with gusto on the first Monday after the New Year, we determine that, in 2015, we will finish the book, attract the agent, or win the Pulitzer Prize. This will be the year where, on a personal and professional level, it ALL comes together. And yes, it will all come together, but only if we first forgive what we perceive as our past writing ‘failures’.

Creative writing is one of the many tools that we have for processing emotion, re-setting the nervous system, and rehearsing life scenarios.

If it wasn’t prioritised, it’s because something else needed urgent attention, or we were using another tool of expression.  Either way, our ‘wild writer’, that evolutionary animal at the core of our being, was doing exactly what it needed to do in any given moment. And if what came out on the page was in a different voice, on a different subject, or differed in genre from what we hoped, well, perhaps it’s time to question our expectations.

How can we learn to go with the flow, rather than against it?

Learning to write well is most helpfully viewed not as a set of failures on the page to be fixed, nor as a quest to find the source of our childhood ‘problems’ in order to clear them away and reveal the great writer. These approaches just pathologise and reduce us. Instead, I propound an expansionist view of writing.

Image Credit: http://www.sweetwilliamprints.com.au/

Image Credit: http://www.sweetwilliamprints.com.au/

Visualise for a moment a small acorn.

Yourself and your writing project are like that acorn, pre-programmed with everything you/they need to grow into a magnificent oak. If we support and allow the process.

In order to maximize your chances of it all coming together this year, I suggest the following:

Trust that you are a natural storyteller.

Within you, there is a ‘wild writer’ that knows. Our job is to get to know that wild part, to build a relationship to it. That takes time and tenderness.

The danger of putting grand writing plans into action is that in our enthusiasm and impatience, we can jump over the necessary process. So, this year, set yourself smaller writing goals than you would perhaps like. With each completion of a promise to yourself, you build your confidence.  The single most important thing as a writer is to stay out of the terrible vortex that results from persistently failing to do what you intended to do.

Wine & Words

At the end of ‘a week-in-the-wilds’, the residential writing weeks that I run in Southern France, and in order to celebrate the bravery of the writers who have dared to go into the wild, I offer an evening of wine tasting, accompanied by readings of the Wild Words that have been produced on the journey.

It’s always a spirited event! Wine expert based in Languedoc, Emma Kershaw, describes the tasting experience,

We close our eyes and inhale the heady aromas of blackcurrant, pepper, cedar, tobacco, liquorice, rosemary and earth. …Just one swirl of a glass transports us back to another time, another place, a memorable moment.

With every sip, we connect with the history, the soil, the weather, and the people of this area, as we also aim to do in our writing.

But more than that, drinking wine is helpful (you’ll be delighted to hear) for honing two important writer-in-the-wild skills: using sensory impressions, and employing metaphor.

As in the process of writing creatively, sight, smell, taste, sound and touch are all engaged at a wine tasting. The characteristics of a wine are often conveyed by likening them to other things. You might describe a wine as ‘flamboyant’ ‘oaked’ ‘bright’ ‘toasty’ ‘charcoal’ or ‘laser-like’. Dr Ernesto Suarez-Toste describes how…

wine folks use metaphor all the time…structure and mouthfeel almost always demand the use of figurative language…For one thing we personify wine most of the time. Not simply by saying it has a nose instead of a smell. It has character, it’s endowed with human virtues and vices. It can be generous, sexy, voluptuous, whimsical, shy, demure, bold or aggressive. We almost cannot conceive wine without personifying it. We reach for metaphors because …there is no single lexicon with the expressive potential to cover all the range of sensorial impressions.

Wendy Gedney, who leads wine tours of the Languedoc region, was working on her book 'The Wines of the Languedoc-Roussillon', aiming

to paint a vivid picture of this ancient and beautiful place and its sun-drenched wines.

She found that her energy was not forming on the page, and thought that Wild Words might help. She describes how,

The course helped me enormously. It reenergised me and lead me to rewrite, form and sculpt the words to not only bring my writing but also the wines of the Languedoc-Roussillon, alive.’

Wendy’s book ‘The Wines of Languedoc Roussillon’ is available on Amazon.

Christmas may present you with the ideal opportunity to undertake the following exercise…

Take a sip of wine (or of another alcoholic or non-alcoholic drink, if that’s more to your taste). Write a description of the experience, in prose or poetry, that includes the following elements:

  • Sight (colour and other visual elements)
  • Taste
  • Smell
  • Touch (Of the liquid on your tongue. Of your hand on the glass or bottle etc.)
  • Sound (Of the swilling liquid. Of the swallowing etc.)
  • Relax your mind as you enjoy the tasting. Where does the experience transport you to? How could you better convey it to the reader by using metaphor?


Evolving words

This summer I spoke a lot about storytelling as a fundamental tool for helping the human animal to survive and thrive.

In researching this idea further for the online course, I discovered all sorts of fascinating facts that made animals seem somehow more human, or rather, made humans seem rather more animal. Did you know that animals communicate symbolically? Bees pass on information to their comrades about the distance, difficulty and value of potential food sources, through gestures contained in a dance. Did you know that animals pretend? Young chimpanzees will take care of logs and other objects as if they were babies. And did you know that we are not the only species that dream? Neuroscience has found that zebra finches seem to practice singing specific songs in their sleep. The same neurons light up in their brains, as when they are awake and singing out loud.

Through Wild Words I present a view of written language as a fluid animal.

Teaching at Swanwick Writer’s Summer School last month, I therefore very much appreciated linguistics expert David Crystal’s approach to language. He emphasises,

…the human ability to be linguistically creative and to adapt language to suit the demands of diverse settings

It’s an optimistic view, which, as in Wild Words work, demonstrates how human beings expand into their potential, rather than reduces their behaviours to ‘problems’. This is especially evident when you read his defence of the language used in texting, as reported in The Guardian

People think that the written language seen on mobile phone screens is new and alien, but all the popular beliefs about texting are wrong….There is no disaster pending. We will not see a new generation of adults growing up unable to write proper English. The language as a whole will not decline. In texting what we are seeing, in a small way, is language in evolution.

We need to remain alert to that voices (internal as well as external) that heap negativity upon the way we function. In the same way that texting is not the death-knell of the English language, the problems on your writing page are not a catastrophe for your career as a writer.

They are evidence of your body-mind trying things out, in order to find the best way through. We need to support, rather than undermine that process. When we make those strategies into the enemy, we only strengthen their hold.

There’s a whole world of communication that goes on between non-human animals.

Write piece of prose or poetry in which you take the voice of an animal. Use first person point-of-view to tell the reader about the life of your chosen animal, its hopes and dreams.

Summer at Wild Words

The summer is a busy time in the world of the written word. Presenting my work at the Dartington ‘Ways With Words’ festival, I witnessed the releasing of 'wild words' by both speakers and participants as we immersed ourselves in the rich melting pot of the collective unconscious.

The festival was a celebration of the human ability to tell narratives. After all, storytelling is not just a nice addition to our lives, it is fundamental to our health and happiness. Maya Angelou had it right when she said that there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you. But equally, there is no greater joy than in the act of liberating a story from within.

I was delighted to see how the participants on my outdoor workshop were (as we all are) naturally craftspeople of the highest order when it comes to words. That's not to say that writing is not a craft to be honed. It is. The Dartington talks and workshops helped us along that road. And then there was the live question and answer session I took part in on Twitter. Ever tried to condense a complex psychological writing-related argument into 140 characters, with questions firing from all sides? It wasn’t easy, I can tell you. But it was exhilarating.

Here’s a summary of that crazy hour, by the chair of the discussion Benjamin Scott.

There were a lot of questions around #wildwriting and whether it was for everyone. Although it’s different for every writer, Wild Writing is always about discovering an instinctual, creative space. Bridget reassured us that the concept of the ‘wild’ writer has something for almost every writer, pre-published or professional. As she tweeted, “There's a misconception that writing 'wild words' is scary, big and extreme. Writing 'wild words' is about finding connection, being in tune, that's safe for everyone.”

As one of this year's short course leaders at the Swanwick Writer’s Summer School, we couldn’t resist asking Bridget about what to expect from her sessions. She told us she will be revealing how to “bring power, passion and aliveness into your writing, through exercises in nature to re-find the instinctual writer.” A questioner asked whether anyone can become a ‘wild writer’, even if they like the indoors? Bridget revealed that qualities of the wild are found indoors as well as outdoors. As she said, the qualities “are found in ourselves, in the grain of wood in the dining room table, as well as outdoors. Start small. Set yourself up to succeed, not fail.”

Apprehension is also part of the wild writer’s journey for “when we see what we dislike or fear, we see what we're afraid to put on the page.” Being a wild writer is about utilising the whole of our body and mind, not just our minds. Animals in the wild have much to teach us (even writers!) about functioning well and connecting with the experience that comes via a gut instinct. It’s about changing the balance between the thinking mind and our instinctual being.

We finished off by asking Bridget what is the most important thing writers need to do? She answered that her message is to encourage writers to “trust their innate ability to tell great stories, then take control of the process.”

You’ll find the question and answer session on Twitter #askswanwick. Information about the summer school is at http://www.swanwickwritersschool.org.uk/

Writing Prompt - Be more Twitter

Writing very short stories can help us to clarify the most important elements of our story. So, even if you’ve never been near Twitter, try this exercise.

If you’re a non-fiction writer:

  • How would you condense your philosophy of life, and/or your approach to creative writing, into 140 characters?

If you’re a fiction writer:

  • Try condensing a story or poem that you are writing into 140 characters. Try to retain the spirit and emotion of it, as well as the facts.

In both cases it’s useful to remember what the reader cares about most. They care about what the hero of the story is trying to achieve, what gets in the way, and whether they succeed or fail. And if you can’t get that into 140 characters, not to worry, just see how close you can get…

What are Wild Words – really?

 This week, spend ten minutes writing a piece of prose or poetry that is your personal answer to the question: ‘What are your Wild Words?’ Don’t think about it, just let your hand write for you. Now, put that piece of paper away and read on…

Often I begin workshops by asking participants ‘what are wild words?’ Immediately, metaphorical hands shoot up. Isn’t it obvious? Wild words are like the tiger, expressive, untamed, and fiery.

But are they? Not always. Because that initial answer is often not our own. Rather, it’s the one that is conditioned into us. It’s a societal view of how we believe our words should behave if we graciously deign to allow them free reign.

And the reason we should be suspicious about our first answer to this question? It’s because the answer is so easy to come up with. In fact, it’s too easy. If we are right, our wild words will rise up all-singing and all-dancing. They will be barefaced shameless, and proud.

However, would the words that are caged within us, really emerge so functional after so long a confinement? At the very least an animal that is caged for a long period of time would come blinking out into the light. And more likely it would cower in the corner of the cage, too terrified to come out at all. And when it did emerge, it would be unsteady on its feet, over-reactive to the bombardment of unfamiliar stimulus it encountered.

Trust me, those words that we really censor, we find it difficult even to think, let alone put down on the page.

Frequently in my psychotherapy practice I see clients who have gaps in their memory, places in which there should be thoughts and words, but in which there are no longer words at all. As writers we can tell when we get close to our wildest words, by the efforts we make to avoid going there. Our bodies and minds change tack urgently. We tune out, cut off, fly away…

So how can we find our own, more authentic answer to today’s question?

Here are some ideas that might help:

  • Be patient. Wait for them to emerge in their own time. Don’t rush them, or force them.
  • Sit alongside yourself in the process; support the fragile part of yourself.
  • Think about what you want to write, what you really, truly want to write, not just what you are used to believing that you want to write.
  • Think about what you have to lose by releasing those Wild Words. Bring that into consciousness. How can you ease that fear?
  • Ask yourself: What would it mean to allow my words to be just exactly as they are?

If you try this week’s prompt for a second time after reading this article, you might want to compare it to your first effort. How are they different?


Writing to explore the Self – The Flood

This week, you’re invited to write piece of prose or poetry on the subject of ‘The Flood’.

Floods have been a common theme through time, and are, of course, still potent in our own times. In ‘Flood’ Miyazawa Kenji (translated by Hiroaki Sato) describes its coming. It is ‘gleaming like a snail's trail…under the malicious glints of the clouds…on the warm frightening beach several dark figures stand, afloat’.

In her beautiful poem of the same title, Eliza Griswold also describes the rising waters. ‘To the east, the flood has begun. Men call to each other on the water for the comfort of voices.’ She then parallels it with an inner flood- that is grief.

To the east, the flood has begun. Men call to each other on the water for the comfort of voices.
— Eliza Griswold

You can, of course, interpret this week’s theme in any way that you wish. You can write from your own experience, or instead, wholly invent a world. But, if possible, go and find an expanse of moving water, and observe its rhythms, as a starting point for this exercise.

A note of warning: This is a subject that may need careful handling.  You might want to let the words rise up through your body and pour out on to the page with the force of flooding waters. Or, you might feel that that approach would drown you. In the latter case I suggest the following:  put a metaphorical dam in place and open the floodgates, as appropriate, to manage the flow of emotionally charged words. You’re in charge of the process. Notice when you need more flow, and when you need less. A measured channelling will harness the force of the words, and create the best results on the page.

Perhaps this process itself will become part of your written piece?

Washerwoman's Fingers

You’re invited to write piece of prose or poetry on the subject of ‘Wrinkled Fingers’.

Let me explain. On Friday, after a hard day, I took a shower, a long shower, to unwind. The spraying water and lavender gel didn’t succeed in completely draining away the day’s tension. But my interest in something else did.

I noticed the tips of my fingers whiten, and then crease and wrinkle under the jet of water. Nothing unusual in that of course. But on Friday, I was mesmerised, because I ‘d just read a fascinating article.


The essence of the article was that wrinkled fingers give a better grip in wet conditions, and that therefore, our ‘washerwoman’s’ fingers’ –and toes for that matter, may be an evolutionary trait designed to help us to survive. The wrinkles would have enabled our ancestors to get a better footing on slippery surfaces when it rained. We’d have been able to gather food from wet vegetation or streams.

Accurate or not, I love this. It re-connects me with my animal nature.

In the shower on Friday, I imagined I made my escape. I scaled the walls of that cubicle like Spiderman, and found a route up through the attic until I hit the sharp chill of the night air. I scuttled over tiled roofs, under the starred sky. I kept going until I found my way back to the space and freedom of the forest.

It was that rather unlikely imaginative leap that cleared the stresses of the day. Nothing else.

Writing in Garden Sheds

This week I enjoyed the article, ‘Where Great Books Were Born’ exploring where well-known writers have penned their most famous works. At Wild Words we encourage our participants to write in unusual places, particularly in natural outdoor settings. I was therefore delighted to read that George Bernard Shaw had his garden shed built on a revolving turntable so that when he wrote, he would always have the sun on his face. The daily rhythms of nature informed his creative process.

It’s not often that I find myself mesmerised by looking at a photograph of a humble garden shed. But then, there is something captivating about knowing that the creative words awarded both an Oscar, and the Nobel Prize in Literature came into being there.

The feeling is akin to how I felt (this is years ago now), when I came abruptly face-to-face with actor Ewan McGregor doing his weekly shop in my local London supermarket. Here was the heartthrob of millions, doing things little me could relate to. Specifically, he was trying to bribe his young child to stop her screaming, whilst fast losing the circulation in his hands from carrying plastic bags heavily weighted with pizza and frozen peas.

Just like Ewan McGregor, the garden shed looked so ordinary in the flesh, and yet was, at the same time, a rarefied place of worship. In an environment we usually associate with banging nails, mixing plant food and tying up tomatoes, worlds that have enduringly enraptured millions (those of Eliza Doolittle and Saint Joan to name just two), had been created in the head of one solitary, shed-dwelling author.

The Weekly Writing Prompt

One of the most magical aspects of being a writer is that fact that while we are washing up in our humble abode (or undertaking similar mundane tasks), we can simultaneously be living out a whole other life in our imagination.

Write a piece of poetry or prose that explores the similarities and differences, the agreements and contradictions, between our outer and inner worlds.