Prompts WRITE

Working Hard or Hardly Working

August 20, 2013


Sometimes, I’ll be full of motivation and inspiration (a rare combo) so I grab my notebook, a pen, maybe my laptop, and make a dash for the nearest coffee shop. But by the time I get there, order a drink and set myself up, the feeling fades. So I’ll just sit there, absently staring at the barista or the front door and listen. When I find myself with the inclination to write or be creative but I can’t quite get myself to pen down a story, I observe.

You might ask, shouldn’t you always be observing? And you’re right. I personally spend a lot of time making notes of little idiosyncrasies or details so specific they would bring any work of fiction alive. But the problem with little details is that you forget them. The other, bigger, problem is that: OK, say someone gives you a picture of a freckled shoulder to sketch. It’s in black and white, and subject’s bones are just barely visible. You can copy that shoulder perfectly, and it could be a work of art. But what happens when you decide to draw the rest of that person? Your imagination can take you far, but not always far enough.

When I’m ready to write but my mind goes blank, I describe my surroundings. I tend to work in cafes, which lends itself to this exercise. First, I look around, just for details worth jotting down. Like a really rough sketch of my space. The way the sunlight dapples across all the tables on the back wall, how the barista keeps gazing longingly at the door, how deeply the man in the corner is furrowing his brow. Then, if I overhear a conversation, or an action or phrase of someone jumps out at me, I focus on that. I describe it to the best of my ability, sometimes in a list and sometimes in prose, but always to give myself a full (metaphorical) portrait of the environment.

I sometimes debate the usefulness of this method, but I’ve come to accept it as one of the best ways to keep detail–the key to any great piece of writing–abundant and alive. Give it a whirl!

An exercise for you: Go somewhere with the sole purpose of observing. Wait for that *zing* moment where you just know a whole story could be built around a quote or action. What that little boy screamed out across the way, what that group of moms are discussing, what that interview could possibly be for. Every single person has a life as full-bodied as yours––If you pay attention, there’s more material than you’ll know what to do with. So listen for that thing, and write a story around it.

Good luck!

Much love,


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