“Turn to [it] every morning, noon, or night when you sit down to write.”
Jacqueline Winspear, author of the Maisie Dobbs mysteries
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"I would go as far as I could and hit a wall," said musician and memoirist Patti Smith. In response, playwright Sam Shepard advised, "When you hit a wall, just kick it in." Writing teacher Barbara Abercrombie's powerful writing prompts give us just the push we need to do it. Like a workout with a top trainer, her exercises warm up, stretch, and build creative
"I would go as far as I could and hit a wall," said musician and memoirist Patti Smith. In response, playwright Sam Shepard advised, "When you hit a wall, just kick it in." Writing teacher Barbara Abercrombie's powerful writing prompts give us just the push we need to do it. Like a workout with a top trainer, her exercises warm up, stretch, and build creative muscle. Kicking in the Wall includes quotes from famous writers to accompany the exercises, as well as real-world examples of completed exercises by the author's students in the UCLA Extension Writer's Program. Though Abercrombie says readers need only commit to five minutes per exercise, she writes, "I've seen novels, memoirs, and many essays get started in those five minutes, and a lot ended up being published." Her playful method is essential fuel for writers trying to get off the starting block, persevere through challenges, and cross their personal creativity finish lines.
Writer's block is not a problem for me, ever. It comes from being diverted ... by outside considerations, such as self-censoring, fear, and accepting the dictates of others.... The cure is to do exercises.
— Kate Braverman
1. Jot down the details of your wall or whatever stands between you and the page. Close your eyes and envision it. Maybe it's a real wall you see — gray, thick, and impenetrable. Or maybe it's a voice you hear — a teacher or parent, or possibly your own voice. Imagine a concrete image or sound, then note whatever details or pictures float into your head. Is the wall thick? Flimsy? Covered with ice? If you hear negative voices, what are the words? If you have a kitchen timer, you might set it for five minutes, or just check your watch or a clock. Take a deep breath and don't think — go for five minutes.
2. Write an intention, a new way to look at the block or wall that's keeping you from writing, or a plan to ignore it and move on. Maybe you have a description of a formidable wall, or a negative monologue, or maybe just random words scattered on the page. It doesn't matter, as long as you write something, anything, for five minutes. Could your wall also be giving you privacy and protection? Or maybe you need to blast a hole in it or dynamite it to smithereens. It's your wall; you get to decide how to handle it.
The hardest part is the first three sentences. Sitting down with pen and paper and just getting those first three sentences out; I sometimes have to write my way into something knowing that the first paragraph is just preliminary, but I have to write myself in. It's like being in a cold lake and sometimes you have to go in toe by toe. Some of you can plunge in, but not always; you have to write your way into it. And then you're swimming.
— Madeleine L'engle
3. Write three sentences. They don't have to connect. They don't even have to make sense. Just three sentences.
4. Write about a time you went into cold water — a lake, pool, shower, or rain. Write about how your body reacted. Was it delicious relief from the heat, or a shock that caused goose bumps and made your lips turn blue? Or write about the cold water as a metaphor.
I'm trying to cause people to be interested in the particulars of their lives because I think that there's one thing literature can do for us. It can say to us: pay attention. Pay closer attention.
— Richard Ford
5. Write what your five senses are picking up right at this moment. Keep it simple. You don't have to write down thoughts or feelings — just the specific details of sound, touch, smell, taste, and what you see. Years from now those simple, specific details will bring back this moment to you.
6. Write about a time you tried to pay attention but couldn't. You floated out of your head, or you fell asleep, or you studied your fingernails. What was it you didn't want to pay attention to? What was it you were avoiding? Or was boredom part of it?
What I wanted was some dreamlike Frank Lloyd Wright bungalow where we could sit on the veranda forever and it would always be twilight in the temperate zones, in the most beautiful house.
— William Kittredge
7. Where do you live? In a house, in a town, in a dream? Be literal or not. The photographer Dorothea Lange once gave her students an assignment to photograph where they lived. They asked her to do the assignment too; she brought in a picture of her foot. (She'd had polio as a child.) Go with your first thought.
8. What is the landscape of your heart? What place moves your soul? Flat desert and dry heat? Mountains and pine trees? City streets? The Midwest or the New England you grew up in? Or maybe a landscape that you've only read about or seen in a film. Don't think; trust whatever comes up for you.
9. Write about a place you lived in as a child. If you can't remember the details of a house or apartment, make them up. Often when you start writing about the past, things you think you can't remember will come back to you.
Moving unleashes fear, yes, but it also provides as compensation the potential for boldness, bravery, and newfound strength.
— Louise Desalvo
10. Write about a time you moved from one house or town to another. Either with fear and anxiety, or with boldness, or a combination of both. Write about packing and unpacking, the smell of cardboard boxes, fresh paint, or mildew in the new place. Write about what got broken or what was lost.
This is the one thing that stays the same: my husband got hurt. Everything else changes. A grandson needs me and then he doesn't. My children are close then one drifts away. I smoke and don't smoke.
— Abigail Thomas
11. What is the one thing in your life that stays the same? Is it a huge event like an accident or illness that changed your life forever? Or is it something ordinary, so familiar that it's like wallpaper.
12. What changes constantly in your life? What leaves you breathless sometimes? What is it that you want to hold on to?
There are two relationships I have with the outside world — one is with my hair, and the other is with the rest of me.
— Veronica Chambers
13. Start with the words "My hair ..." Is there anyone on earth who is totally happy with their hair? If you are, write about it. If you aren't, write about it. If you're writing fiction, what do you know about your character's hair?
I find that if I don't give shape to my experience in language, if I don't spend time in the crafting and honing of that experience in words, I don't feel real to myself.
— Mark Doty
14. Write about a time you weren't sure who you were. Maybe when you were a kid and pretending to be someone else. Or maybe as an adult when you were in the wrong relationship or job.
15. Write about your favorite Halloween costume. Did you go trick-or-treating in the costume? Did you feel transformed — more powerful or more beautiful? Or did you feel hidden and safe?
It's a curious risk, fiction. Some writers choose fantasy as an approach to truth, a way of burrowing under newsprint and formal portraits to find the despair that can stow away in a happy childhood, or the affluent grace of a grandfather in his undershirt. In the final accounting, a hundred different truths are likely to reside at any given address.
— Barbara Kingsolver
16. Write about a moment of despair you felt as a child. Try giving the moment to a child with a name different from yours. Write in the third person. It can be fantasy or the truth — or somewhere in between. And if you can't remember a childhood moment of despair, write about not remembering.
17. Write about a lie you told as a child.
18. Write about a childhood birthday — the presents, the cake, the games, the guests. Or write about birthdays never celebrated.
19. Write about a time you were unfairly accused of doing something wrong.
20. Write about a time you did something wrong and got away with it.
We need stories to live, all of us. We live by story. Yours enlarges the circle.
— Richard Rhodes
21. Start with the words "I remember the time Mom/ Dad/my brother/my sister ..." Nothing is too trivial or silly or serious to remember. See how many stories you can come up with. Maybe you've never even thought of these experiences as stories; it was all just stuff that happened. Writing down the details and remembering those times can lead to shaping the stuff that happened into a story.
Before I wrote the book, I wondered: Am I going to get in trouble? Will I be perceived as a dirty woman? ... And you know what? Nothing bad happened, everyone liked it, it was fine. The secret is: You don't need to keep it secret.
— Caitlin Moran
22. Write about a time you got into trouble. How deep was the trouble? What was the worst thing that happened?
23. Write about a time you worried about something, but then nothing happened. Did you feel foolish? Relieved? Disappointed?
The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.
— Joy Harjo
24. Write about your mother's kitchen. Was the kitchen the heart of your home or the scene of conflict? Did your mother's kitchen shine, or were there dirty dishes in the sink? Did it smell like things baking or things burning? Or maybe there was no mother.
25. Write about your father's kitchen. Did he just open the fridge occasionally for a beer, or was he the cook and caregiver? Or wasn't there a father?
26. Write about your current kitchen table or counter. Is it piled with newspapers, a catchall for your stuff? What has been the most important discussion at that table? What are the best and the worst memory of what's taken place in your kitchen?
Help one person at a time, and always start with the person nearest you.
— Mother Teresa
27. Write about a time you tried to help someone by giving advice. Write the dialogue, the urgency of the advice, the reaction of the person you were advising. Write about what was at stake.
28. Write about a time you tried to mend fences. Write about what had been broken. What stood in the way of the mending?
Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle
Everything I do is stitched with its color.
— W. S. Merwin
29. Who or what do you miss? Does it feel like a needle? Or like an empty space in your heart?
30. Write about a time someone didn't show up. Did you feel disappointment or worry or relief?
Habits are cobwebs at first; cables at last.
— Chinese proverb
31. Write about a time when you realized something you did became a habit. Did it feel like a chain? Or was it a good habit, something you had worked hard for? When and how did it go from cobweb to cable, from fragile to unbreakable?
32. Write about a ritual in your life. Does your ritual come from needing to feel safe, or is it done to celebrate something, to remember, to care for someone or something, to follow a religion — or for another reason?
When I wrote something wrong I always took it to mean that something was wrong with me, and when something was wrong with me I lost my nerve, my focus, and my will.
— J. R. Moehringer
33. Write about a time when you felt something was wrong with you — either physically or in your head. Maybe you were sick, or maybe you felt crazy.
34. When something was wrong, what did you lose? Your nerve? A sense of safety? Did you plow on, or did you give up?
The key is to be here, fully connected with the moment, paying attention to the details of ordinary life. By taking care of ordinary things — our pots and pans, our clothing, our teeth — we rejoice in them. When we scrub a vegetable or brush our hair, we are expressing appreciation: friendship toward ourselves and toward the living quality that is found in everything.
— Pema Chödrön
35. Write about an ordinary action — housecleaning, gardening, taking a bath, washing a car, doing dishes, cooking — as a mindful act. If you're writing fiction, this exercise can be a way to learn more about your characters — how do they clean house (or not clean house)? Do any of them have a garden? Indoor plants? Do they cook, and if so, what do they love to cook most? Do they take baths or showers? The details we create for our characters inform our fiction, whether on the page or not.
36. Pay attention to an ordinary action you do today, and then write about it. Focus on verbs, not adjectives.
My shoes are worn out, and the friend I live with at the moment also has worn-out shoes. When we are together we often talk about shoes. If I talk about the time when I shall be an old, famous writer, she immediately asks me "What shoes will you wear?"
— Natalia Ginzburg
37. Write about a pair of worn-out shoes you own. Write about the miles you've walked in them, where and when you bought them, why you still have them.
38. Write a memory of a pair of shoes you had in grade school. Or write about not remembering anything about shoes you wore as a child.
39. Write an opening of a scene with someone asking a question about a pair of shoes.
40. Write about how you will live when you're an old, famous writer.
The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.
— Mary Oliver
41. Write about a time you felt called to do something creative but ignored it. Were you too busy to heed the call? Or were you afraid? Or were you too busy because you were afraid?
42. Write a list of small regrets. Or write about one huge regret.
Actually, the real secret was stranger than wanting to write a book. The real secret was that I already thought of myself as a writer. I'd hardly written a word and I couldn't think of a single idea for a book, but in my mind, I was a writer. I'd been a writer since I was seven.
— Susan Richards
43. Write about when you decided you were a writer. Or when you realized you wanted to write.
44. Write about the real secret.
Self-pity is the graffiti of the heart but not so easy to avoid. I don't want to wallow. But I begin to see that wallowing is a chronic malady easy to condemn and hard to cure.
— Anne Roiphe
45. Write about a time you felt self-pity. How did you handle it? Wallow on the page as much as you want. You have permission to wallow until you come to the end of it. Maybe you'll even find some humor in it as you write.
If life is made easy by technology, it is made meaningful by observance of its rites of passage: the baptisms and marriages and funerals — those rich and deliberate idioms by which we are pronounced alive, in love, gone but not forgotten.
— Thomas Lynch
46. Write about a rite of passage, religious or not, that you observed or took part in — a birth, a relationship recognized by a community, or a death. Write about the details of the ritual, the emotion, the surroundings, the weather.
47. Write about a nontraditional wedding. Yours or one you attended or one that you've dreamed about.
All well-brought-up people are afraid of having any experience which seems to them uncharacteristic of themselves as they imagine themselves to be. Yet this is the only kind of experience that is really alive and can lead them anywhere worth going. New, strange, uncharacteristic, uncharted experience, coming at the needed moment, is sometimes as necessary in a person's life as a plough in a field.
— Katharine Butler Hathaway
48. Write three adjectives that describe you.
49. Write about a strange experience you had that was totally uncharacteristic of how you imagine yourself to be. How did it make you feel? Ashamed? Free? Uncomfortable? Exhilarated? Or maybe you'll discover how you really felt as you write about it.
I had a strange thought this morning. If I were to imagine myself walking through the upper floor of a large house with different parts of myself in different rooms, which door would I be afraid to open, what self would I be afraid to meet?
— Phyllis Theroux
50. Write about the part of yourself that you're avoiding or are afraid to meet. Imagine a series of closed doors, and in the different rooms behind the doors are the different parts of yourself. Maybe the different parts are you at different ages, or the various roles you play in your life, or what you consider to be the real you versus the public you.
51. Write about opening one of the doors and being surprised at the self you discover.
Arrival. The rust. The launch: white and gray, banged about, roughly painted, old paint. A general rundown air. The waiting crowd massed in the terminal; the colours of the ladies' clothes.
— V. S. Naipaul
52. Write about a time you arrived in a new place. Paint the scene with unfinished sentences.
My work is strung on moments when I realise something — a novel is, by nature, one long Realisation, which is not to say other pursuits aren't dependent on discovery: sailing is. Cooking is. Playing music is. Sex always is. Loving is a series of discoveries: it starts, significantly, with a Realization.... If writing were as exciting as falling in love, I'd get a lot more written.
— Marianne Wiggins
53. Write about a time you realized something significant about sex. Something you might have discovered while making love. Or a discovery you made when you didn't or couldn't make love.
54. Write a scene in which your character cooks breakfast and makes a discovery.
55. Write about a time you fell in love. Maybe with the love of your life, or maybe it was an intense, short-lived infatuation.
The journals are a way of finding out where I really am.... They are not dependent on the muse.... They sort of make me feel that the fabric of my life has a meaning. What often seems fairly meaningless, like weeding a patch in the garden, when I write it into the journal, it sort of becomes something else.
— May Sarton
56. Write about the fabric of your life. Be literal or think of it as a metaphor. Is your life fraying, stretched, or tucked in tightly? Cotton, wool, silk, polyester, cashmere? Are buttons missing, or is it covered with sequins? Ironed or wrinkled?
57. Write about a time your life unraveled.
58. Write a list in your journal of ten ordinary things you did yesterday. If you don't already keep a journal, start one today.
I understood that living itself had a deadline — like the book I had been working on. How sheepish I would feel if I couldn't finish it. I had promised it to myself and to my friends. Though I wouldn't say this out loud, I had promised it to the world. All writers privately think this way.
— Anatole Broyard
Excerpted from Kicking in the Wall by Barbara Abercrombie. Copyright © 2013 Barbara Abercrombie. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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A widely published author and editor, Barbara Abercrombie teaches at the UCLA Extension Writer’s Program. She lives in Santa Monica, California.
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