Writing Prompts

On this page, I will post some writing prompts in addition to the ones on the “Weekly Assignments” page. All prompts copyright me, 2015-16!

The close your eyes prompt from class on 3/29:

Generously provided by Maxine Hong Kingston!

Feeling/Notice: Close your eyes. Breathe. What emotion are you feeling? Open your eyes. Write down your emotion. If more bubbles up as you write, go with it. When you’ve exhausted what you have to say about that feeling, take a look around you. What do you see? Notice something or several things around you. Write it down. If more bubbles up as you write, go with it. When you’ve exhausted what you have to say about what you see, close your eyes. What do you feel? What emotions or thoughts run through your head? Open your eyes and write that down, running with it. Then look around you again, noticing what you see. Write down what you notice. Repeat as needed!

The step-by-step prompt from class on 2/23:

    1. Choose an abstraction to write about, something large and intense like grief, or sorrow, or love, or joy.
    2. Daydream a list of emotional memories that the abstraction calls up in you. Write a paragraph focusing on one of those memories. Begin with the line, “I remember. . . .”
    3. Now do a bit more daydreaming. When you think of the moment you’ve portrayed in the first paragraph, what other memories come to you? Grab onto one of them and make that the focus of your second paragraph, moving forward or backward in time.
    4. In the third paragraph, concentrate on a particular object, person, place, or thing that comes from one of your memories. This object will be the title of your 750-or-fewer word essay. Describe the object. Put it into action. Gather the details that will lead to your final paragraph.
    5. In this last paragraph, let the object grow into a metaphor for the intense emotional meaning rising in the essay. Write a simile, such as “That sloth is as slow as grief.” (From Jill Christman’s “The Sloth,” a much better example than my own essay.)
    6. Find a fact with which to open the essay. Add a sentence to the beginning. Find a way to reference or suggest that fact at the end.


Close your eyes, and imagine, in detail, a place you know well. It should be an everyday place, even if it’s not somewhere you go every day – your backyard, your parents’ kitchen, your writing space, the river near your house, a church/synagogue/chapel/sacred place. It should a regular place but a place that is important to you. What do you see before you? Opening your eyes, pick three specific elements from what you see, and describe them in detail but without lingering. Then, in writing, examine how they correspond to each other. Try to understand why they are the elements you have chosen, what association they bring to you, and how they illuminate why this place is important to you – and why it is a matter of life or death. (Adapted from The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Flash Nonfiction)

Writing the News:

You know how sometimes, you read a news story and can’t stop thinking about it? About the person in the story, or the people affected by the story? You can write about that, too, in flash nonfiction. Use what you are writing as a space to explore your feelings about the event, about why you can’t stop thinking about it. Choose a concrete image from the news to connect to. (Example: the recent anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.)

How to:

Write your own instructional essay: How to ____. What you choose should have a compelling emotional component to it for you. So if you write “How to Do Laundry,” there should be some emotional connection that you make to doing laundry. Or if you write “How to Bandage a Skinned Knee,” the reader will expect there to be some compelling emotion tied to cleaning and bandaging a skinned knee.

The Pretender:

Write about a time when you pretended to be someone you were not, either for good or for bad (to be a person you wished you were or to impress someone else, etc.). Tip: Use a concrete image to help you convey this (like wearing safety pins in your ears).

I’m Sorry:

What do you feel sorry for? What do you regret? Write about what you regret, what you are sorry about, or what you have always wanted to apologize for.

In Dreams:

What did you dream about last night? If you don’t remember, write what you may have dreamed about or what you wish you had dreamed about or what you did not dream about or what you hope you don’t dream about.

A Significant Person:

Capture a person who raised you, overtly or covertly, well or not so well – a parent, a grandparent, a coach, a teacher, a friend’s parent, a sibling, a minister, the mean kids on the bus. Capture them by describing a telling moment or detail, or several moments or details. Compress your memories; allude to the damage they did or gifts they gave. Give the reader a glimpse. And what does this glimpse say about who you are? Try writing in segments, though you do not have to, using asterisks or song lyrics or words or anything or nothing to separate the sections. You could also choose different objects that represent the person as pieces of your segments. (Adapted from The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Flash Nonfiction)


Choose a flash essay you’ve already written in first person, and rewrite it in second person. OR write a new draft to a person. Is there someone you want to tell something to? Someone you wish you could talk to, but can’t? Something you wish you could say? Write an essay as if you are writing a letter to that person, but just leave off the salutation and the ending. OR write a postcard. Whom would you send a postcard to? Where would it be from? What would you want to say?


Choose a kind of writing that has formal structure—a prescription, a syllabus, a food review, etc., and write about an unexpected subject or topic or experience using that structure.

How it feels to be:

Zora Neale Hurston wrote a famous essay, “How It Feels to Be Colored Me.” With that in mind, what is something about you that is significant, or what is an emotion that you experience? How does it feel to be that? (Ex: How It Feels to Be a Mom of Three; How It Feels to Be Anxious)

After the storm:

Write an essay on these three words. The storm could be literal or figurative. What storms have been in your life? (Adapted from writenowcoach.com)


Flip through the photos on your phone, or take a photo of something that catches your eye. Use the photo to dig into the emotions behind it. Describe the photo in your microessay, and describe the emotions that it conjures up for you. How do you relate the two?


Choose the title of or a line in a song, and use that as the first line of your essay. It could be a song that particularly resonates with you, or it could be a song you just like.

Phone call:

Write about a phone call that changed your life in some way (see Steven Church’s “Lag Time.”). This phone call could have impacted you in any number of ways – you found out you got a job, you found out someone was in the hospital, you found out a baby was born, etc.

Ask me:

Thinking about Jordan Wiklund’s essay “When You Meet My Father,” write an essay about what someone should ask someone in your life upon meeting that person. The person your reader is meeting could even be you!

The End:

Thinking about Patrick Swaney’s “Wednesday Night at the Maplewood,” what is an ending in your life that is particularly resonant with you? It could be the end of anything—a relationship, a friendship, school, a vacation, a move. Write about what the end was like and how you knew it was the end.

A List:

Think of an emotion or feeling or abstraction, and draft a list of things, people, places, or ideas that make you feel that emotion or experience that abstraction. Or think of a person, place, thing, or idea that you have a particularly strong emotional attachment to, for good or for bad. Then draft a list of things about that person, place, thing, or idea. See “Things Sad People Shouldn’t Have” and “Things that Cannot Be Compared.”

* You can put any of these prompts into a formal or strict structure: a phone book, a prescription drug label, a Web MD page, etc.