Some writers are never at a loss over coming up with writing ideas, and some find themselves frequently stuck in the unpleasantness that comes from a blank page and no idea what to write about. This is why so many of my students ask me for writing prompts.
If you find yourself stuck, with no writing prompt in sight, I suggest you lower the bar and look at what’s around you. Examine the five-foot radius around the chair you’re sitting in and list some of the objects you see.
I’m going to do this on the spot: a half-burned candle with wick fragments in the wax, an alabaster carving of a buffalo, a jar filled with my father’s boyhood marble collection, the new earbuds I use to listen to books on my walks, wall art featuring sentence diagrams (I loved to diagram sentences as a kid), an old electric wall clock that used to hang in my grandfather’s filling station, a trash can that needs emptying,…
Any one of those things could spark a poem or a flash essay. Now that I’ve noticed that candle with its imperfect wax, the image will be going in the fiction piece I’m working on. And it’s not always the thing itself that your writing project will be about, but what the thing represents. What it might symbolize. Memories it might bring up.
My dad’s jar of marbles could get me thinking about him playing with them as a kid. And remembering that he said his father didn’t play with him too much because he was always working. Which gets me thinking about how my dad played with me all the time when we were growing up. Which gets me thinking about…
You get the idea. And I feel now that the things around me aren’t mundane at all but full of rich stories. So let me bring it back around to the truly mundane (I’ve committed to this in my title). Let’s talk chores.
Here’s a writing prompt I like from Jack Heffron’s The Writers Idea Book:
Perform a household chore that you do on a regular basis—cut the grass, wash dishes, load laundry in the washer. As you do this chore, remain keenly aware of every step in the process. Feel the texture of the towels as you place them in the washer; listen to the hiss of water as it fills the cylinder; smell the detergent. Be there, in the moment. If you catch yourself drifting into reverie or to what else you could be doing, stop these thoughts and gently guide yourself back to the task at hand.
I wonder if this Richard Jones poem could have been written from such a prompt:
I have been studying the difference
between solitude and loneliness,
telling the story of my life
to the clean white towels taken warm from the dryer.
I carry them through the house
as though they were my children
asleep in my arms.
Laundry might have been the triggering subject, but it is not the deeper subject of this poem. And that is what you’ll find when you pick a seemingly mundane topic to write about and let yourself go a few layers deep. Our lives, at any moment and in all activities, are full of resonance.
You know what’s ripe with writing ideas? Your utility closet. You know what your reader wants to know about? Your morning getting-ready-for-the-day routine and why you do it that way, what it says about what you value and how you were raised and what you expect from your life.
Think those cruddy grass-mowing tennis shoes in the garage can’t make for the subject of a beautiful essay? Read The Old Sneakers With Which We Mow the Lawn by Brian Doyle. Ugh. I love it too much. And notice that he subtitles it A love song.
That’s what the stuff of your life is. Your office clutter and your mother’s stockpot and the dishes in your sink dirty with the food you made last night for your daughter who is home from college. These things are part of a love song about your life.
So choose something mundane and write about it. As Jack Heffron says, “You are a creative person. You have the power to transform the raw stuff of daily life into something beautiful. Trust yourself.”