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All-Time Favorite Writing Prompts

18 Dec

My sixteenth set of writing prompts for Ploughshares, and the last post in this series, compiles 29 all-time favorite prompts from writers and writing teachers across the internet. Here’s how it begins:

To round out this year of blogging about writing prompts, I polled writers and writing teachers for their favorite writing prompts–generally, simple prompts that have been useful to them as writers, students, and teachers. One such prompt that I found extremely useful in my early days of writing was, “Write about an obsession.” From this straightforward suggestion, I learned a lot about what can drive a compelling story.

Some of these prompts are accessible and instructive; others offer wonderfully evocative images and ideas. For ease of reference, I’ve grouped the prompts into several categories, but certainly some would fit into multiple boxes. It is my hope that these twenty-nine prompts–some specific, some quite open-ended–will help you jump-start any stalled works-in-progress and generate lots and lots of new material.

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The prompt I mentioned as one of my favorites encountered as a writing student, “write about an obsession,” resulted in my story “Go East,” published in Pindeldyboz back in 2006. It’s about one of the most addictive computer games ever. Guess which one!

Baby Kentagyi

2 Dec
A new kind of reading list.

A new kind of reading list.

Now here is a blog post that is most personal. My husband and I are adopting a baby. It’s an exciting time, to say the least. We celebrated our sixth wedding anniversary in May with brunch at a Basque restaurant and an information session at the Wallingford branch of the library, with an organization called Families Like Ours. There, we learned about types of adoption and agencies in the area that were especially recommended. We jotted down the names of three in particular: WACAP, Amara, and Open Adoption & Family Services (OA&FS). Then we spent the summer going to information sessions for each of those agencies.

After some follow up questions and spreadsheets and pros/cons lists, we decided OA&FS was our best bet because we want to adopt an infant and 88% of their adoptions are newborns. We also appreciated their emphasis on openness and communication and their thorough process. We feel like we’re in great hands.

The first step in OA&FS’s process is a 12-hour pre-adoption seminar. This class just scratches the surface of the many things we need to think about: the emotional, legal, and logistical aspects of open adoption. We talked about grieving infertility in all its guises (they define infertility broadly as the inability to have children for whatever biological reason–in my case, a primary immunodeficiency that could put me and potential offspring at risk, as pregnancy would require getting off my medication, and I’ve done so well on my medication); we talked about the grieving experienced by birth parents. Two birth mothers came in and told us their stories; later two adoptive parents did the same. We talked about the hurdles and ultimately the great benefit of adoptive children knowing their birth parents–always knowing the unique story of who they are and that both their adoptive and birth parents love them. We felt further confirmed that we’re in the right place.

In October, we submitted the first round of paper work, the application, and had our 2.5 hour intake meeting with our case manager. As I predicted to Mike beforehand, I cried. But who wouldn’t well up at such a conversation? Mike, wonderful Mike, and our case manager, who is everything we could hope for–smart, funny, kind–helped me through. We left feeling even more excited than before. The next week, our application was approved.

Now we are getting deep into the real deal paperwork, home study preparation: background and credit checks, reference letters, autobiographies, doctors’ reports, and some very difficult self-assessments that will require further reading on topics such as attachment, transracial adoption, infants exposed to substances in utero. Our case manager will come inspect our house and interview us; then we each get interviewed separately; then she returns to our house a second time and interviews us together again. Then she writes a 15-20 page report. All in all, this part of the process can take up to six months. And then we’re in the pool: we write an introductory letter to birth parents, make a book about who we are, and wait to get picked. There’s no waiting list; it’s up to the birth parents to pick us. It could happen right away or it could take three years. More happens once we’re picked of course: we meet the birth parent and make sure it’s a right fit, and, if it is, we plan the adoption. On average, the whole process takes 18-24 months.

We’ve launched a crowdfunding campaign, because adoption is expensive–nearly $30,000. We’ve been blown away by the generosity and love family and friends have shown us thus far. In a little over three weeks, we raised 17% of what we need. If we meet our goal by Indiegogo’s deadline, which is January 14, we only pay 4% to Indiegogo. If we don’t meet our goal, we still get to keep the funds raised, but pay 9%. If we exceed our goal, all funds will go to Baby Kentagyi’s college fund! (Baby Kentagyi is the portmanteau of Kent and Szilagyi….I’ve assured my parents that we will not be making the child’s legal name Kentagyi.) I hope you’ll check out our Indiegogo campaign, consider donating if you can, and help us spread the word. We can’t wait to share with our little one the love so many have shown us.

Triangular Relationships

1 Dec

My 15th set of writing prompts for the Ploughshares blog explores triangular relationships in fiction, with discussions of Mavis Gallant’s “Lena”, Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum, and Peter Mountford’s The Dismal Science, and featuring Kathleen Skeels’ wonderfully suggestive drawings. Here’s how it begins:

In a previous blog post, I mentioned my difficulty with conflict and tension.  For this reason, I love triangular relationships, which bring up conflicting desires, competing loyalties, and dilemmas. All the things that make a juicy story go. When I was just starting out writing fiction, when my writing tended to be a formless blob and I learned that good writing needs a shape, a design, I turned to the idea of things happening in threes, and then I turned to triangles. As I learned along the way, there are many, many ways you might use triangles in your fiction.

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Hugo at the Henry: Senses in Reading and Writing

25 Nov

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On March 21, I’m teaching a special one-day Hugo House class at the Henry Art Gallery. As I mentioned in a recent Ploughshares blog post, I’ve been helping out with the literary component of Ann Hamilton: the common S E N S E, the exhibit that has taken over all of the Henry from October to April. The show explores the sense of touch and our relationship to nature as well as being touched–emotionally, intellectually–through the private act of reading.

The exhibit has filled the galleries with scanned images of taxidermy animals from the Burke Museum of Natural History, with children’s ABC primers and bestiaries from the University of Washington’s Libraries Special Collections, and with clothing made from animal products both from the Burke and from the Henry’s collections. Throughout the galleries, at different times, chorale singers sing to the objects. And, reader/scribes read aloud to objects of their choice, like a bedtime story, from a common text that will change over the course of the show–the first is J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine, a beautiful book. These reader/scribes, when particularly moved by a passage in the text, record that passage into a log book. These log books will accumulate over time, becoming a record of a collective reading experience.

There are a number of ways to participate in this rich exhibit:

  • Submit a fragment from your own reading that deals with the sense of touch (literally or intellectually) to this tumblr site; your submissions may be included in the exhibit!
  • Volunteer to be a reader/scribe. I’ve done it four times so far; it’s a powerful experience, and I’m writing about it now and hope to share it with you soon. Perks: free admission, a free pass to return to the exhibit, and an invitation to participate in a discussion of the experience with other reader/scribes and facilitated by a member of the literary community (including me!).
  • Take my Hugo House class Senses at the Henry on Saturday, March 21, 12-3 pm. We’ll do the reader/scribe activity, contributing to the exhibit itself (exciting!), discuss the experience, and then dive into creative writing in response to the show. Member registration begins on December 9 and general registration opens on December 16.

Hope to see you around the Henry in the coming months!

Intro to Fiction: Writing the Short Story

21 Nov

This winter, I’m teaching Intro to Fiction: Writing the Short Story, a six-week class at Hugo House laying out crucial elements of story. Here’s the course description:

This class will zero in on the three-part backbone of story: character, plot, and landscape. Who is your main character? What do they want? What keeps them from getting what they want? Readings and discussions will include canonical and contemporary stories from James Joyce, Anton Chekhov, Mavis Gallant, Jamaica Kincaid, Louise Erdrich, and others. Writing exercises will focus on crucial craft elements as well as generative exercises to get started.

I’m also teaching a special one-day class at the Henry Art Gallery in conjunction with Ann Hamilton’s show the common S E N S E, which I’ll write more about in a separate post. Registration for Hugo House members begins on December 9 and for the general public on December 16. Hope to see you there!

The Tangible, The Visceral

3 Nov

My latest blog post for Ploughshares explores the sense of touch in writing, with wisdom from Aristotle, Ann Hamilton: the common S E N S E at the Henry Art Gallery, Natalie Goldberg, Diane Ackerman, and John Edgar Wideman, and with a bit of inspiration from Hieronymus Bosch. Here’s how the post begins:

Touch is the sense common to all species. So wrote Aristotle in Historia Animalum and De Anima. And so is the premise for the art show Ann Hamilton: the common S E N S E, which I’ve been helping out with here in Seattle, and which explores the sense of touch and our relationship to nature, as well as our ability to be touched, emotionally and intellectually, through the private act of reading.

This got me thinking about the importance of touch in writing. Like the sense of smell, touch is a tad neglected when compared to the senses we gravitate toward first: the visual and the auditory. But think about how connected you’ve felt to a text when the author captures a particular tactile sensation or visceral reaction? How do those moments create emotional and intellectual resonance?

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“Skitter” on LitRagger

14 Oct

“Harush” by John Osgood, painted during the 24-hour art marathon at CoCA (text painted by yours truly).

I’m very happy that my story “Skitter,” first published in The Massachusetts Review and previously only available in print, is now online at LitRagger. I love their project of reprinting stories, poems, and essays so that they have an online presence. Here’s how “Skitter” begins:

Another tooth plinked into the tea glass and Harush blinked at it twice.

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Escalating Conflict

13 Oct

My latest blog post for Ploughshares offers suggestions for inserting and escalating conflict in fiction, with advice from Stephanie Kallos, Janet Burroway, and Merrill Feitell. Here’s how it starts:

In fiction, only trouble is interesting. For the conflict averse, instilling a story with juicy conflict may take some practice. Someone who has read many drafts of many of my short stories once dubbed me “Anca Did She Forget the Conflict Szilagyi”–a moniker that has become helpful as I work on second and third drafts of stories. As is often the case in learning something, I was aware, theoretically, that I had this problem. But how to proceed?

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“Come Dance with Me,” a song inspired by “More Like Home Than Home”

6 Oct

A while back, I shared a YouTube video of Bradford Loomis performing his song “Come Dance with Me,” which was inspired by my short story “More Like Home Than Home”. This August, he released a new album with Beth Whitney, Banner Days, which features a gorgeous recording of the song. Check out the song and the whole album–they are so, so talented. You can read “More Like Home Than Home” in the Emerald issue of Fairy Tale Review.

Experiments in Perspective

29 Sep

My twelfth set of writing prompts for the Ploughshares blog explores writing from the perspective of characters unlike yourself, with insight from Jodi Angel, Chris Abani, and Keith Ridgeway’s great short story “Rothko Eggs”. Here’s how it begins:

A crucial lesson I learned early on in my attempts at writing fiction is that every character is you–and not you. Characters have parts of you inside of them because you wrote them. But they are still not you. Chris Abani once said in a workshop that readers will always wonder if your characters are you–even if your main character is a Chihuahua. There’s not much to do about this wondering except write the characters you want to write with complexity and empathy.

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