“Writing with handcuffs” is how essayist and writing professor Steven Church of Fresno, California, describes the writing restrictions he imposes upon himself when he sits down to work.
He might assign himself a short piece on the sound a racquetball makes when it smacks against a cement court or challenge himself to write about a particular hair metal band from the 1980s. He might investigate the etymology of the word “shoulder” while writing about the shoulder injuries he’s suffered over his lifetime, and then suddenly find himself writing about his brother, who was killed in a car accident on the shoulder of a road.
“I stumbled across the idea of creating these constraints because I was stuck in my own work and had a piece that wasn’t doing what I wanted it to do,” Church explains. “They give me a kind of assignment and a challenge to meet without the pressure to create great and important writing.”
Handcuffs, prompts, freewriting assignments – whatever the terminology, professional writers who allow themselves the time and energy for this type of literary experimentation find themselves consistently inspired…and having fun.
Two of the essays in Church’s newest book, I’m Just Getting to the Disturbing Part: On Work, Fear, and Fatherhood, come from tinkering with pop culture that ranges from the animated film The Incredibles to the reality TV show Man vs. Wild. “The last piece, ‘Overpass Into Fog,’ was an effort to play around with time by taking a small, seemingly insignificant present moment and layering in both past, present, and future events so that they exist in the same time-space continuum on the page,” he says.
Write with the shore in sight
Seattle author and poet Priscilla Long believes that working with prompts and timed writing exercises helps people to move away from angst-ridden longing for a literary career and into the space of actively putting words on paper in a creative manner. “When you’re doing writing practice, you’re not wishing you could write a novel,” she explains. “You’re being a writer, and so it becomes more and more fun.”
Long wrote The Writer’s Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life, with prompts and exercises designed to help writers working in any genre. “For example, if you’re struggling with a novel, don’t thrash around in your draft,” she suggests. “Go to your notebook and choose a prompt, and write to it for 15 minutes or half an hour without stopping, without caring what comes out.”
She explains that this type of practice can deepen characterization and motivation, especially when people write in the voice of their protagonist or antagonist, with prompts that range from “What are my traumatic experiences of the past?” to “What do I look like?”
A timer is essential. “If you don’t have a timer, you write until your ideas run out, five or ten minutes,” she says. “If you’re timed, you write continuously and run out of ideas, but instead of stopping, you begin to write about what else is true for your character or the story.”
Long often uses these writing practices in her own work. For a longform piece of creative nonfiction about a Seattle wastewater treatment plant that failed catastrophically in 2017, she did freewriting on the sections she wanted to include in her essay – from the worldwide water crisis to the Bill Gates-funded Reinvent the Toilet Challenge that hopes to provide 2.5 billion people around the world with safe and affordable sanitation. “I might do [this] writing practice once or twice to determine what stories I want in the essay,” she explains, “so I’m not just rowing into the ocean with no shore in sight.”
Turn life into metaphor
Nebula Award-winning author and teacher Bruce Holland Rogers can’t help grinning when he tells students how he uses metaphor in flash fiction. His short story “Estranged,” which appeared in Strange Horizons, emerged from the idea of estrangement from an ex-partner. “We had gone from being one another’s nearest intimates to being strangers,” he says. “A metaphoric way to say this might be that we had gone from being dear to one another to being things to one another.”
With that in mind, he turned the character of his ex into a machine. The piece begins, “After the divorce, my wife said she didn’t know who or what she wanted to be. When I heard that she had become a toaster, I felt vindicated. A toaster! Was that all she could be without me? And she wasn’t even good at it!”
Making her into a machine, explains Holland Rogers, allowed him to examine other aspects of the divorce. “I had her trying out being different kinds of machines: A blender, a washing machine, a laundry hamper,” he says.
Ultimately, the character of his ex-wife becomes a beautiful collectible car. Instead of noting how, post-divorce, their fortunes diverged, he wrote that she had a new life as a restored Corvette while he himself became a broom.
Playful? Absolutely. Poignant, too.
Holland Rogers suggests that writers wanting to experiment with this type of expressionist writing take a strong emotion and find a metaphor that expresses it as physical reality. “Is there a situation in your life where you feel muzzled? Are you burdened by someone’s expectations of you?” he asks writers. “Try writing the story of wearing an actual muzzle or of someone actually burdening you with physical objects that represent their expectations.”
Think outside the genre
Ryan Andrew Kinder published 1,000 Awesome Writing Prompts in 2014 with a firm belief that such exercises help writers loosen up their creativity and think outside their chosen genres. When writers consider different prompts, he says, they come up with story ideas that would otherwise never occur to them, and they gain an expanded sense of their abilities.
“Maybe you write romance, and you write from a science fiction prompt that mentions accidental alien abduction. You might find yourself saying, ‘I could actually write in this genre,’” he says. “If you’ve been feeling stuck in one genre, you aren’t feeling the fun of it all. Writing prompts can energize you and get you to have fun again.”
Like Long, Kinder likes to find out more about those who populate his fictional stories through prompts. He might ask himself, for instance, how a character got a particular scar. “It’s really fun to see how characters react to a prompt,” he says. “You might learn something about them that you didn’t know before or come up with additional subplots.”
Kinder notes the wealth of prompts available online for free – many of them on Reddit’s “Writing Prompts” page, which he founded. “Look around,” he says. “I guarantee that you’ll find something to help you in whatever you’re currently writing. And if you’re not currently writing, prompts will help to spark an idea.”
Trust your secret engine
Like Holland Rogers, Church likes to explore words that have both literal and metaphorical meaning, doing research into their etymology and writing to see where their history will take him. The phrase “split second” led to his flash nonfiction piece in Brevity, “Lag Time,” a powerful meditation on thunderstorms storms, his father, and the death of his brother.
Church cites a friend’s description of the “secret engine” writers possess – “It fuels whatever it is we’re writing, and we don’t always have to lift the hood and look at the engine to know it’s running. You know it’s going to show up,” Church explains. “So I can write about an ’80s hair metal song, and it’s entirely possible that some of my deep-seated personal stuff is going to come in at some point.” (Incidentally, you can find his hair metal essay on marchshredness.com – a website that, each year in March, pits essayists playfully against each other in a parody of basketball’s March Madness to compete for the best piece about a popular song or soundtrack.)
“People think of essay and memoir as being so heavy, that it always has to be about really painful stuff,” Church concludes. “But it’s helpful for me to remember that it can also just be fun. You can write about silly stuff. Who knows where it will lead?”
Tried-and-true writing prompts
“Think about whatever it is you’re trying to write and how you can find a different way into it by identifying heavy words with literal and metaphorical meaning and resonance. Do research into their etymology and see where the histories of these words will take you.” –Steven Church
“For a story to take a turn, you need a helper or an intruder. Write about two people in conflict, and how a third party – either a helper or an antagonist – arrives and changes everything.” –Priscilla Long
“Write a mock interview with a character. Ask them a ton of questions to gain a strong understanding of the character.” –Ryan Andrew Kinder
“Consider how all English sonnets are written to a fixed form: 14 lines, abab cdcd efef gg rhyme scheme, with the couplet making some sort of summation or reversal at the end. Now, consider any story that you like, and ask yourself what its rules would be if it were a fixed form. How many paragraphs, for example? What does each paragraph do? Or else you might ask how many distinct sections or scenes there are to the story. How does each relate to the others? Once you have the rules of the form, you then try to write a story about entirely different subject matter while adhering to the form. Ultimately, you may get rid of the form if it no longer suits your evolving story. It’s not the form that matters so much as having a structure to start to work with, and having some of the decisions about where to start arbitrarily made by your choice of a model.” –Bruce Holland Rogers
Contributing editor and author Melissa Hart is the author of Better with Books: Diverse Fiction to Open Minds and Ignite Empathy and Compassion in Children (Sasquatch, 2019). Web: melissahart.com.