English 251: Introduction to Creative Writing: Exploring the Genres
Instructor: Bryan Fry
Office: Avery 371
Office Hours: MWF 10:00-11:00 am

Return to Journal Assignment

Journal Prompts

Make a list of the most memorable events in your life. Some of them will be large—a death, a breakup, some goal you finally accomplished. But list small things, too, things you’ve always remembered as particularly important in some way.

Describe an object that you associate with a particular family member. It might be a baby blanket, a pipe, a bathrobe, a hearing aid, a pair of glasses, a black dress etc. Use your description to create a portrait of the associated family member.

Write about the first experience with death that you can remember, whether it involved a person or an animal. Then write about a more recent experience with death. Try to combine the two.

Brainstorm a list of mundane activities not usually thought of as erotic—washing dishes, or the car, mowing the lawn, going to the dentist. One you are finished, create a list of nouns associated with that activity. Then make a list of verbs and adjectives that you associate with sex. Stir everything together, and make the mundane activity sound orgasmic.

Write something that you would never show to anyone, that you are afraid even to put down on the page. Get it out, as much of it as possible, in as much shameful or horrifying detail as you can manage. Afterwards, feel free to tear it out of your journal or burn it (not the journal, but the page).

Some writers are obsessed with certain “triggering” subjects. Richard Hugo often writes about towns, Sylvia Plath obsesses over the image of her father, and Li-Young Lee touches down again and again on the image of hair. Think of your own triggering subject (sawmills, children, cats, graveyards, etc.) and create a list of unusual, common, silly, sensible assumptions. You could imagine for instance, that the boy playing war in the park sandbox with other children believes he is least heroic. Of you could imagine that a former drunk is three years sober and the only person the town can count on. Make sure to focus on one subject and once you have created a list of assumptions about that subject, write a poem or story incorporating lines from your list.

What images obsess you? What do you think about when you are daydreaming? What kinds of images do you find yourself returning to or seeking out for comfort? What object, person, place, picture could you think about for hours and not get bored? Look at one of your obsessive images and describe it intimately. Make sure to jot down sights, sounds, tastes, smells and sensations associated with the image.

Describe an activity—cleaning the house, fishing, painting a picture, bathing a child, dancing, cooking a meal—which could serve as a metaphor for your life, how you are in the word.

Write a number of sentences that seem to follow the conventions of a story, but don’t tell a story. Use words like “once,” suddenly,” “then,” “finally,” and whatever else you notice about how stories unfold; but make the plot nonsensical.

Try keeping a notebook or tape recorder by your bed for a week, and jotting down dreams, or saying them, as soon as you wake, when they’re still vivid. Don’t try to do anything more than record them, in as much detail as you remember.

Pick a poem, essay, or story that speaks to you, something you wish you would have written. Once you make your selection, try to imitate it closely. Replace nouns with your own nouns, verbs with your own verbs, and so on. Don’t worry about losing your voice. Chances are, even if you attempt to imitate an entire work word for word, it will come out differently. It’s in that subtle difference that the work becomes your own.

Use the following three-step prompt to help jar your memory: 

1. Create an alphabetical list, giving one line for each letter in your journal. 

Example:          A

2. For each letter, write down the first word that connects to an early childhood experience. For example, when I look at the letter A, I think of axe because I grew up with a wood stove and would often watch my father split wood in our backyard. If the exercise reminds you of something you haven’t thought about since childhood, all the better.

 3. Pick a word and use it to describe the way you feel about a particular memory. Don’t tell us how you feel—trust your descriptions will tell us everything we need to know.

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