A Writing Buffet-Help Yourself!

It’s time for some post-New Year’s inspiration so I am reposting a slightly updated article that is full of quotes to inspire and approaches to creating new material from that inspiration.

Thirteen years ago, my grandson Toby turned three.  All of his grandparents attended his party in Seattle.  The day after, a work team was in my house unscrewing bookshelves from the wall to be transported to my new study, which had been under construction for a couple of months.  It was a joyous, jumbled week for me.  And part of the joy was that all of my books, papers, and magazines were piled up and squirreled away in corners everywhere in my house. I dipped into the piles like my grandson had dipped into the many presents his doting forebears brought him.

Here are many of the snippets I enjoyed as I read from the material. I’ve paired them with writing ideas, and I hope that many will resonant with you and inspire your writing.

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“When I was seven, I said to my mother, may I close my door?  And she said, yes, but why do you want to close your door? And I said because I want to think.  And when I was eleven, I said to my mother, may I lock my door? And she said, yes, but why do you want to lock your door? And I said because I want to write.”  –Dorothy West

Writing Idea
What is a significant question you asked a parent in your childhood? What was the question as you asked it? What was the answer?  What was an ensuing question? What was the answer?  What do you remember of the topic after the asking? Where do you (or you and the parent) stand on it today?

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“The poet’s job is to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, in such a beautiful way that people cannot live without it; to put into words those feelings we all have that are so deep, so important, and yet so difficult to name. The poet’s job is to find a name for everything; to be a fearless finder of the names of things; to be an advocate for the beauty of language, the subtleties of language.” –Jane Kenyon, A Hundred White Daffodils

Writing Idea
Name something you have feelings about but have had no words to describe.  You might want to name the joy you experience when you visit with grandchildren or see buds on a small tree you have planted. You might want to name the disappointment you feel when someone you love is too tired to engage with you or the sadness you feel when you can not help someone you love.  What are these kinds of joy and sorrow called — perhaps they have the name of a flower or a star or species of sea life. After you give them a name, describe them in terms of the flower or star or a species of sea life or what name has occurred to you now.

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“C.G. Jung says that we know everything we know by way of images, that an image is the functional equivalent of an idea. And a Jungian would say that these images breaking through the barrier are constellating themselves, presenting themselves for our consideration. — Pat Holt II, “Requiem for the Outline,” Writing on the Edge Vol. 12, No. 2 (Spring / Summer 2001)

Writing Idea
List images from the memory of something you loved and lost.  Write a conversation between these images and see where your writing goes. For instance, if you lost a favorite ring, list images of the ring and of the place you lost it, of the day or period in your life.  Let the sink drain talk to the diamond or the platinum band or allow the cart you delivered newspapers in talk to the porch of the old lady’s house where you tossed the paper close to the door so she could pick it up easily. You get the idea.

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“Nothing lasts, and yet nothing passes, either.  And nothing passes just because nothing lasts.” –Philip Roth, The Human Stain

Writing Idea
Do you agree with Philip Roth having seen a thread in your own life linger after an occasion’s ending? Do you agree with him because what has been lost wasn’t lost just because nothing lasts?  Write to recapture what has ended and yet continued to explore the truth of Roth’s notions.

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“Often the voice of conscience whispers / Often we silence it / Always we have to pay.” — Cletus Nelson Nwadike, Left Curve #28

Writing Idea
Write about a time that your conscience kept you from doing something and what the result was. Write about a time your conscience made you do something and what the result was.  Write about a time that you silenced your conscience and describe what happened. This might turn out to be an essay in three parts. You might call it “Conscience” and see that by writing about three specific incidents you have recalled your experience in a way that proves Nwadike’s statement.

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“As one Jordanian-American man said to me after someone poured gasoline on his car while he was praying at his Seattle mosque, ‘The sadness is indescribable when you are home but still feel homesick, and there is nowhere to go.'” –Pramila Jayapal, “Be Here Now,” Orion, January/February 2005

Writing Idea
Write about homesickness by writing about being in a place that is very familiar to you.  Think about all that is missing from your life as you describe this place — the wild roses may have nowhere to climb; the spring candles on the pines may appear unlit and be draped with the webs of caterpillars that will devour the fresh needles.  Keep going with your description until you have at least a short vignette about sadness. Alternatively, write the story of being home but feeling like a stranger — this might have been upon a return from being or living away or it might have been when people in your family or at work disagreed with you or while they were taking some course of action with which you disagreed.

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“He and I talked for more than an hour that day over sweet, hot tea.  He remembered life before war, the smell of the dusty air in Burundi, the sound of his children playing in the road outside his hut. As we drank our fourth cup of tea, he reached out and touched me lightly on the arm.  ‘Now, we are connected — by this,’ he said, gesturing to the tea, ‘and by this,’ gesturing to our hearts. –Pramila Jayapal, “Be Here Now,” Orion, January/February 2005

Writing Idea
Describe an encounter where you and a person you hardly knew connected at some deep level and created intimacy.  Write what you said, what the person said, and describe the location you inhabited. Show how you recognized the intimacy.

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“I wondered, can we find a time when the sight of a butterfly need not harshly clash with our national symbols? When a young man with a butterfly net can hunt hope in a mountain meadow…”  –Robert Michael Pyle, “The Tangled Bank,” Orion, November/December, 2004

Writing Idea
Write about a hunt for something important– a monarch, a rare mushroom, a lost button, a photo stored away years ago, papers after a loved one’s death. Reread the account of the hunt and you may find a theme about humans need for hope, love, understanding, freedom, bravery, and connection or truth.

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“A little less than ten years ago, the ONE RIGHT DOG came into my life. This was the dog who had been sent to me from whatever version of Heaven dogs come from, to teach me everything that mattered most in life: how to be a trustworthy friend, how to be married, how to be vulnerable, how to give and (harder) receive unconditional love, how to love fully in the face of inevitable loss.” –Pam Houston, “Sight Hound,” Bark, Winter 2004

Writing Idea
Offer stories about a pet that helped you and, therefore, the reader learn important life lessons, and, of course, share those lessons.

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“I have a story that will make you believe in God.” –Yann Martel, Life of Pi

Writing Idea
Write a story, poem or essay that is intended to make the reader believe in God.  This can be the story of a miracle, a connection, or something that was filled with synchronicity.

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“‘Turn off the air conditioner,’ the great desert writer Ed Abbey would tell tourists when he was a ranger at Arches National Monument in southwest Utah. ‘Take off your sunglasses. Get out of the car.’  Feel the heat, feel the cold, feel something.  All those senses–all those emotions–work outside the narrow range in which we normally set our personal thermostats.” –Bill McKibben, “A Shirt Full of Bees:  How getting stung woke one man up to the sensuous world,” Yoga International, August/September 2004

Writing Idea
Drive to a particular destination ready to experience it through your senses.  Follow Abbey’s advice.  Write about the place using all of your five senses, with no barriers.

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“We live between the act of awakening and act of surrender.  Each morning we awaken to the light and the invitation to a new day in the world of time; each night we surrender to the dark to be taken to play in the world of dreams where time is now more.” –John O’Donohue, Kosmos, Fall/Winter 2004

Writing Idea
Write a two-part story or essay or poem by having the first part be about waking in the morning and the second part about going to bed at night.  The parts might be called “In the Morning” and  “At Night.” Whether you are writing your experience or you are creating a character, let the speaker in the writing describe her morning from where she awakens and her going to bed from where she falls asleep.

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“Confusion is a rich source, I said. You can write from that, if you pay close attention, coax a speaking voice out from the snarl of it.”  –Kim Stafford, The Muses Among Us

Writing Idea
Think about something that confuses you–what someone meant by something they said, contradictions between religious training and what people actually do, the difference between what you say and what you do, how to approach the stage of life you are in.  See if you can hear the voice that is emerging and the wisdom it might bring along with it.

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“It was done; it was finished.  Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.” –Virginia Woolf, quoted by Christopher Isherwood.

Writing Idea
Paraphrase Woolf to create an essay or a story.  “Yes, I (or she or he or they) thought, finishing the patio, I have executed my vision.”  See what arrives to write about when you play with imitating her sentence.

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“But as the season turns, darkening into a late but raw winter, so do we.  Our golden autumn’s gone gray and severe. Our neighborhood, out at the end of town, is empty save for us, the windows of summer houses shuttered tight. The dry canes of the climbing roses rattle, and wind whistles in the wires in the masts of the moored catamarans, a chilly singing.” –Mark Doty, “Accident,” Dog is My Co-Pilot

Writing Idea
Write an essay in which you describe your neighborhood at the change of seasons or a story that starts off with the character’s description of the neighborhood at the change of seasons.

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I had hardly tapped into the many stacks and piles of books and magazines from the shelves that had been in the little room I used as my study before the carpenters were ready to hang the shelves in my new study. I would soon shelve the books and magazines into neat rows. I had learned, though, that when things are out of order, inspiration can arrive if you go with the flow of the disorder.

May these quotes offer you a foundation for more writing, solid ground beneath your feet as you search for meaning in your experience and offer what you find to others.

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Comments

A Writing Buffet-Help Yourself! — 1 Comment

  1. Like you, I was rummaging through my computer file and I came across your January notes when you were cleaning out your old office putting books and things in your new office. (I’m using Dragon, but I do forget to tell it when to put in a. R, as you can see. I’m getting better. Your last sentence, quote I had learned, though, that when things are out of order, inspiration can arrive if you go with the flow of the disorder.” That’s why my blog is called Maytag Moments. There is no order in the way I remove clothing from our Maytag and toss into the laundry basket. There’s no order when I take each item to hang up. That’s pretty much the way my thinking goes when I’m writing as you well know. It was fun to read your piece. I think I will use one of your suggestions for Monday’s class. I think I’ll start with the significant question.

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