Writer’s block happens for many reasons. Often, I know what I want to write and I have my goal, but when I sit down to write, I start thinking about the laundry I need to do or a stressful situation from work or some other distraction, and I just can’t focus on the task at hand.
This is a great prompt for redirecting attention. Think of it as a guided meditation for writers that will take you step by step away from your everyday life stressors to a new place where you can focus on creating. I like to do this prompt on the first day of class as it’s a great way to show my students how to clear their minds at the beginning of a writing session.
Step 1: Write Out Your Stress
This is the most important step. Take five minutes and write about anything that might distract you from creativity. This might be stressful situations at work or with your family, it might be the pile of laundry on your floor or your overwhelming to-do list. When I do this prompt in class, I inevitably write about my worries for the semester and any perceived awkwardness I might have had interacting with my students.
When we put our worries in an orderly form, they’re less likely to bother us for the rest of our writing session.
It’s important that you don’t censor yourself. Think of this as a diary entry that’s just for you.
Coming Up Next
For my own writing sessions, I usually just do this part of the prompt. If you already know what you want to write about, often this is all you need to get right to work. If you need more writing inspiration, continue on.
For the next steps of this prompt, we’ll use a piece of visual art to inspire our writing. I’ve used various photographs and paintings in my classes. I’m using one of my favorites here, but you can do these steps with any piece of artwork that appeals to you.
I encourage you to use a timer, and don’t spend too much time on any one step.
Step 2: Focus on the Feelings
Spend a minute or two jotting down the emotional impression that the image makes on you. You can write either words or short phrases, but do not physically describe the image.
Step 3: Step Inside the Picture
Spend five minutes describing the image. Don’t limit yourself to what you can see, but use your imagination for all five senses. What does the air feel like? Hot and dry? Cold and windy? What about the smells and sounds of this place? How would the ground feel underfoot and what is the texture of the walls?
Try to imagine that you are really there, not just looking at a two-dimensional representation.
Step 4: Meet the Characters
Spend five minutes imagining two characters in this scene. They might be the ones that you can see in the image, or they could be someone else, outside the frame. I often do this exercise with images that don’t have people in them.
The important thing is to imagine what would motivate someone to be in this space. Why did they come here? Was it by choice? Were they born here? Do they want to leave or stay? What do they hope to get out of either going to staying? Think about what life goals your characters might have.
Make sure you answer these questions differently for your two distinct characters.
Step 5: Create a Scene
This is the final step. Now that you know a little bit about the setting and characters, spend ten minutes writing a scene that takes place in this picture.
The scene should feature a conflict between your two characters. There are many possibilities, depending on the backstories and life goals that you have chosen for them. A new-comer to the location might threaten the life ambitions of a long-term resident. A parent might want to prevent their child from leaving, or alternatively, encourage their child to leave for a better life.
You can re-use any of your favorite phrases or sentences from the previous steps in this stage.
Once you’ve finished, congratulate yourself on sticking it out and focusing on the new scene you’ve created. You might have ended up with a great flash fiction piece or the beginning of a longer story. But even if this piece of writing never sees the light of day again, you’ve learned several important lessons:
- When life is intruding on your writing, spending a few minutes getting your feelings out can help you focus.
- When you feel overwhelmed by a writing project, try breaking it into smaller and more manageable steps. You wouldn’t have been able to create the scene at the end without doing the pre-writing steps first.
- Writing is a product of sitting down and getting the work down, not some magical muse appearing to inspire us.