Photo of a pencil on a notebook with pencil shavings next to it to illustrate the power of writing prompts.

Can’t Write? Explore 4 Powerful Writing Prompts

Over the weekend, I entertained dark thoughts while weeding my garden. I’m facing a frustrating family situation. The particulars aren’t important, but what happens when I face them is.

For me, frustration begets anger begets guilt for being angry begets memories of all the past harms I’ve endured, which begets more guilt, which makes me wonder if I’m overreacting. (I’m not.)

I know this pattern is trying to help me by shielding me from a deeper pain. But this defense has led me to ruminate over The Frustrating Thing, but kept me from writing about it.

Ever had this happen?

Writing about the tough stuff is always a challenge, but it’s even harder when the underlying emotions are ones we don’t want to face. Sometimes we’re aware of what’s happening, but at others, we’re confused by our writer’s block or the ways we’re avoiding the page.

Luckily, I recently listened to Estelle Erasmus’s interview with Abigail Thomas. If you’re not familiar with Abigail Thomas (or Abby as she likes to be called), she’s a writing instructor and author of the memoirs SafekeepingThree Dog Life, and What Comes Next and How to Like It. Her latest memoir is Still Life at Eighty.

I’m a huge fan of her work, and I’ve met many memoirists who want to emulate her free-flowing style, which breaks all the rules yet somehow adheres to them.

But we can’t be Abigail Thomas and thank goodness because she does it so well!

You can, however, put your unique spin on the stories you tell.

The key is finding the right entry point for your work.

Estelle’s episode with Abby contained so many great takeaways I couldn’t stop taking notes. But one thing Abby said struck me like lightning against bone.

Many writers try to tackle hard things head-on by rendering painful moments with cinematic clarity. Yet, while vivid scenes paint clear pictures, showing isn’t enough. In fact, it can be yet another way to armor up by preventing us from mining what’s underneath. 

Some of us can think or plot our way to a difficult moment’s meaning, but if you can’t write something, or the meaning evades you, Abby invites you to enter the material through a side door.

Here’s one of the side-door writing prompts she uses with her students: Write about a time when you were dressed inappropriately for the occasion.

On the podcast, she shared how one student, who’d been trying to write about her husband’s death for years, found an entry point by writing about what she was wearing on the day she had to end his life support.

But sometimes, we need a side door, not because our lives are tough, but because we’re being tough on ourselves. Perhaps you worry that your life isn’t interesting enough to write about, or you’ve run out of material. 

Abby has another prompt for you.

Write a braided narrative that oscillates between what you wish you were doing, and what your life is actually like. See where this takes you.

Here are two more writing prompts she shared:

  • This is a lie I’ve told before.
  • This isn’t funny.

Writing prompts like this disrupt our routine thoughts, which helps us to see things in new ways. It also gets you past the defenses that shield you from both the truth and your truest writing.

This morning, I found my entry point for The Frustrating Thing. As I wrote about it, I got in touch with what I was truly feeling. Now that I know the deeper issue, I can address it, which makes room for my creative projects. 

Until next week, may the side doors you encounter help you always write on.

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