Sometimes writers find themselves like I was this morning: staring at a blank screen listening to dubstep hoping magically that words will fill the screen.
(And that’s when my cat Yoda walked across the keyboard and words did actually fill the screen. They just didn’t make any sense.)
Here are three writing prompts to help you find your creative juice or kick you out of writer’s block thanks to some good old friends like Jack Kerouac. You can also use these writing techniques to identify your passion and purpose because all of these writing strategies are meta-cognitive in nature, which is a big fancy word that means you call attention to your thoughts and think about your own thinking.
1.)￼ The Beat Word Sketch
This is something my wife and I do often when we go on a date. It’s fun. You should try it. The idea comes from Jack Kerouac, one of the most famous Beat Generation writers, who loved exploring the world around him through the art of language.
Kerouac believed that grammar and punctuation constipates our use of language and so by forgetting all of these rules, writers can write words more freely — much like a musician would create a riff off a jazz beat.
So, here’s what to do:
Stop and look around and grab a pen and paper or use Evernote. Set a timer for 5 to 10 minutes. Then, write down what you see and think for the next 5 to 10 minutes. You are not allowed to use any grammar or punctuation, except a dash to separate your thoughts. Allow yourself to think silly thoughts and jump around like a firecracker or just write exactly what you see. It’s a game between your left-brain and right-brain that gets you to breakdance with your words.
Afterwards, you should have unlocked the potential to continue writing whatever it is that you were trying to get at before writer’s block came about. Or… you’ll just have a really cool bit of language to share at your next slam poetry event.
Here’s what it could look like:
The lamp shade to my right looks like something straight out of the game clue and my Macbook shines bright in my face illuminating the intensity in my eyes as cafe guests mill around drinking beer coffee and chatting with their friends in spanish — maybe a Spanish lesson? — I remember when I first learned Spanish and tried to order a sandwich in Barcelona only to be laughed at by a teenager for my terrible American accent — learning a language is something I love to do and haven’t focused enough on — learn French or Spanish next? I don’t know — Language is such a beautiful thing like a tango on the tongue between two souls that wish to connect.
See? It’s pretty weird and takes a bit of getting used to, but once you let go, it flows naturally and something you’ll be surprised by what you create. I’m proud of the one line at the end. The rest of the paragraph is kind of junk, but that last line, “like a tango on the tongue” sounds beautiful to me and reminds me of the beautiful sing song of language.
2.) Journaling… (Remember That?)
Yes, journaling — the manly word for writing in a diary. I would be a major hypocrite if I said I journal consistently. The truth is, I have a long inconsistent string of journaling.
When I was a kid, I had these dream journals where I would write down my dreams as soon as I woke up. And even as an adult, I can’t stand handwriting, nor have I been able to type a consistent journal.
Michael Hyatt struggles with this too and writes about the need to journal. Here’s a helpful template he created.
The thing about journaling is that if you write in a journal every day, it will turn into a habit that will develop your reflective ability to be more aware and present, all while being able to make sense of your emotions. Consistent reflecting like this and trying to make sense out of the tangled yarn of life experiences will allow you to grow into a more present being. In other words, you’ll be in control of your emotions and perhaps empathize with your readers more so than others.
Go ahead and try it. Try to keep a consistent journal. Real men would.
Start small with maybe just a few sentences every day and then grow it into what you want. Says Jeff Goins, “If you want to get this writing thing down, you need to start writing every day. No questions asked, no exceptions made.”
3.) Focus Freewrites
These are a bit different than journaling and Beat Word Sketches. Journaling is entirely reflective and builds your meta-cognition. Word Sketches break free from grammar restrictions and ask you to describe the physical present (through descriptive language) all while allowing you to roam into your steam of consciousness.
Focus freewrites, however, are… a bit more focused. You’ll need to choose a topic to start off with and will need a prompting question.
Here’s what to do:￼
Step 1: Choose a prompting question. The question should somehow relate to the topic you are writing. Here are a couple examples:
- Why is the topic I want to write about important?
- How did I learn about this topic?
Or they could be more existential in nature:
- What events have most shaped my purpose or the purpose of my reader?
- Should I grind the coffee beans at the store or right before I make a cup of coffee?
Step 2: Set a timer for 10 minutes (feel free to have the Star Wars theme song be the timer ring tone!)
Step 3: Start off by answering the question and then let your mind wander a bit.
Once it wanders too far away from the essence of the question, pull yourself back in and redirect and refocus your writing to the origin of the question. So that means you can answer the question a different way, or tell a new story that highlights your answer, or write how someone of another view point would answer the question.
The goal here is to become aware when you stray off your focused path and train your brain to come back to the focus of your writing. It’s very much like meditation. When in seated meditation for instance, a common practice would focus on the breathing (in/out) and not think of anything else except, like Tom Hilgardner says, “be one with the breath.” What happens, however, is the mind likes to think of… well… pretty much anything to distract you.
The mind will say things like “That itch in your right butt cheek is really annoying, isn’t it? You should probably scratch that” or it will say “You should really prepare for that meeting today because it’s going to be a tough one.”
The practice then shifts to acknowledging that the mind has wandered and simply bring it back to the breath. Because the mind wanders so easily, many meditation practitioners will put words to the breath to help stay focused. During yogic meditation, David Life had us think the traditional mantra “Let’ and “Go.” So, you may think the word “Let” on the inhale and think “Go” on the exhale.
Just like the focus freewrite, the practice of meditation is about coming back to focus on the present. So, with the focus freewrite it’s about saying “Whoops, I’ve been a bit too tangential here” and then coming back to the main topic.
I hope these micro-roasted writing tips have helped you with your writing. Of course, these are only three tips when there are hundreds more to learn. But, then again, it’s all about small beginnings right? Drip by drip.