Pen to Paper Prompt: Choice

Election day is a good day to think about choice. Writing is all choice. The writer chooses, over and over again, from the vast catalog of everything.

Some of the choices a writer makes include:

• Who’s telling the story: narrator or narrators
• Who else is in the story: supporting character or characters
• Who are the characters: name, age, race, gender, height, education, employment, social status, backstories, etc.
• Why is this story being told: what’s different about today / what’s changed from the normal world?
• How is the story told — from whose point of view (POV): main character, supporting character, multiple characters, or omniscient
• How is the story told — person: first, second or third person (and in different degrees of “closeness”)
• How is the story told — verb tense: past or present (or sometimes future)
• What happens in the story: narrative plot points
• Where does the story take place: settings for the story and its scenes
• Where is it in time: year/era for the story, time of day for scenes
• What is the genre (e.g., literary, women’s fiction, memoir, mystery, romance, and so on)
• Who is it for: adult, young adult, middle grade, etc.
• What is the writing style / voice: how it sounds on the page
• How to write a specific scene: show (immediate scene) or tell (exposition / narrative summary) or a combination
• What does it mean: what theme(s) are explored
• What words to use: word choice and reading level, symbolic language (metaphor, analogy, simile)
• How does it end

For today’s prompt, you are going to explore the power of choice.

First, you will imagine or remember a situation with at least two characters. Then, write a scene that includes these characters for five minutes. (If you need a scenario, use this: You are at a fair, and you’re six years old. You and your mother step up onto the carousel, and you try to select which animal to ride on.)

Set a repeating timer for five minutes. Every five minutes, change one thing and continue writing or begin the scene again. Tip: before you write, ask: What changes in the telling because of this? Here are some changes you can make. Use these or choose your own.

• Change the tense (that is, from past to present or present to past).

• Change the person (that is, from first to third or from third to first — or if you’re brave, try second).

• Change to the other person’s point of view.

• Change the age of one character by at least 20 years.

• Change the relationship between the characters (for example, make a mother and daughter into sisters or neighbors)

• Change where the scene is set to a very different location.

• Change when the story takes place by at least three decades.

• Change the point of view to an observer who is not one of the primary characters.

And so on!


Our lives are marked by breath. The first thing that happens when we leave the warm water of our mother’s body is the in breath. The very last thing we do, the thing that marks our passage from this world into the next, is the out breath. In between is a constant tide––inhale meeting exhale meeting inhale meeting exhale.

Last week, many of us watched video (and all of us heard reports) of a man’s desperate plea for breath. “I can’t breathe,” George Floyd cried, as a police officer held a knee to the back of his neck. “I can’t breathe.” This week, between fear of the breath-stealing Corona virus and the image of Floyd’s murder, few of us can think of anything else.

Ironically, we don’t usually think about breathing at all. Our bodies do the work for us. Until something goes awry––a stuffy room, a strenuous workout, a panic attack, asthma, a bout of Covid pneumonia, a pillow over your face, a canister of tear gas, or a knee on the back of your throat. This week, I’ve tried to be more mindful of my breath and, after many years of meditation practice, I’ve developed an entirely new appreciation for breathing.

Without the breath, we are nothing. We do nothing. We say nothing. The breath conveys our emotional state. It’s behind every word we say. And, it’s just as much the force behind every written utterance. For this week’s writing prompt, I invite you to rediscover that force.

Begin by setting a timer for five minutes. Sit quietly. Close your eyes. First notice the weight of your physical body in your chair. Then gradually bring your attention to your breath. Without trying to control it, simply pay attention to the shape of each breath—the length and depth of your inhale and exhale, its changing rhythm, the sound, the taste, and even the smell of your breath as your body carries on this most basic life function. When your timer goes off, bring your attention back to the rest of your body, and when you feel ready, open your eyes.

Now, some choices for writing:

  1. Write a scene recounting your first (or an early) memory in which you are suddenly aware of your breath. Where were you? What were you doing? Who was with you? How did you feel? In what ways did (or does) this experience inform your understanding about life and your relationship to the world and others in it?
  2. Write a scene with dialogue (fiction or memoir) in which breathing is central to one or more of the characters. Perhaps one character has had the wind knocked out of them, is having a panic attack, is giving birth, or breathing their final breaths. Or, perhaps, one of the characters displays their emotional state through the way in which they breathe their speech.

Hearing Voices

Part of Charlotte Lit’s “Keeping Pen to Paper” Series.

Writers who are developing their craft are frequently encouraged to find their voice. This can be confusing. Many of us write in many different forms — poems, personal essays, fiction, screeds, and so on — and different forms, even from the same writer, can require different voices.

So how might we learn the nuances of voice?

One of my favorite methods is to copy. And I mean this literally: open up a book by a writer whose voice you like or find interesting, and copy out (long hand or with your computer) a page or two. Then, continue the scene or start a new scene trying to emulate that voice. Repeat with two other writers.

This helps you to find your own voice in several ways. First, it immerses you in writing that has a distinct voice, in a way that’s different than just reading it. If you can find the cadence and choices of, say, Anne Patchett, you are on your way to understanding voice more deeply. Second, it should help you to better understand that your voice is not something that springs forth naturally and without effort. You choose your voice; you cultivate it over time. At Charlotte Lit, we like to remind writers that the finished product is not the result of magic, not of luck, not just of talent. Rather, “it’s a made thing.” You make it what it is. And so too do you make your voice what it is.

Surviving a Difficult Time

Part of Charlotte Lit’s “Keeping Pen to Paper” Series.

Many of us are experiencing a difficult period of life, and, no doubt, we have gone through difficult periods in the past. Read “On Dumpster Diving” by Lars Eighner and consider another, earlier difficult period in your or your character’s life and how you or they survived. Now, in the vein of Eighner’s piece, write a ‘how to’ on surviving a difficult period. What advice would you (or your character) give your reader, specifically and generally? What strength and quirks might it reveal about yourself or your character?

Be Here Now

Part of Charlotte Lit’s “Keeping Pen to Paper” Series.

If you were alive and awake during the 1970s or have practiced much yoga or meditation during the last two decades, you’ve probably heard the refrain Be Here Now, which also happens to be the title of a best-selling book by author and one-time Harvard University professor Ram Dass.

Ram Dass was a psychologist and researcher in the field of consciousness studies. He participated in Timothy Leary’s research on psychedelics in the 60s and eventually journeyed to India in pursuit of higher levels of consciousness, the highest of which in eastern religions is called enlightenment.

He became a serious student of Hindu yoga and meditation and began to understand enlightenment not as an earned place or a spiritual goal, but as a state of perception that can be achieved only when we are willing to accept the reality of our current circumstances and to maintain a fully conscious attitude toward them.

The phrase popped into my head while I was walking yesterday. I happen to get a lot of my best ideas when I’m walking. I think it’s because the activity grounds me in the Here and Now better than most of the other things I do each day. Let’s face it, sitting in front of a computer isn’t particularly conducive to living in the present moment.

What does it mean to be here now? To live in the present moment? To me, it means slowing down, paying attention to what is, dealing with what is rather than trying to escape, ignore, or reject it.

I think the reason the phrase popped into my head is that this is what all of us are being asked to do in our lives right now. We’re being asked to stop, slow down, stay put, tolerate the uncomfortable tension of not going, not doing.

Suddenly, we need to be more aware of our bodies and the way we interact with others. We’ve also become more aware of essential services and workers we’ve too often taken for granted in the past.

Of course, even if we’re not going to work, out to dinner, or to the movies, there are still plenty of ways to distract ourselves. We can binge on tv and news shows. We can clean closets and tend other tasks on our to-do lists. We can escape down the Google rabbit hole. We can anesthetize ourselves with alcohol and sleeping pills. As benign as it seems, sometimes even maintaining our commitment to work as usual is a way to escape being in the current situation.

The internet, of course, provides us with a kind of space in which to be, whether a Zoom room or a website. But the internet can also feel fragmenting because it quite literally asks us to be in at leasttwo spaces at once––the physical world in which we sit and the virtual world(s) we’re visiting.

Prompt 1:

a) Write a scene from your current personal life. What is it like for you to Be Here Now in these days of covid? Describe your quarantine space and the people in your pod using good sensory detail. How do you get through your days? What do you like about being here now? What do you hate? How do you try to get around current restrictions? Does this experience bring up some episode from your personal past? If so, consider option b.

b) Write about a time in which you patently refused to Be Here Now. What were you resisting? What tactics did you use to avoid what was being asked of you? What awareness arose from the experience?

Prompt 2:

Put one or more fictional characters into a situation in which they are forced to Be Here Now, that is, they are pushed into accepting something or someone they hadn’t expected. Using rich sensory detail, show your character(s) develop some new awareness about themselves or the world.

Writing as Ritual

Part of Charlotte Lit’s “Keeping Pen to Paper” Series.

Sometimes writers come to the page with an idea, a character, or an event in mind. But what if you sit down to write and your head is suddenly blank as your page? Poet CA Conrad has a helpful practice in using ritual to spark ideas for a poem. Many writers use some form of ritual to aide the writing process, whether lighting a candle or favoring a specific pen or notebook. Conrad has formalized ritual in a more structured way to coax notes for a poem. For a period of seven days, they contemplate the same brief filmed scene and then write about what they’ve seen for the 15 minutes that follow. Conrad’s website offers a variety of video scenes like water rushing down a mountain stream, insects visiting a blooming tree, or sunrise over the Golden Gate Bridge. The scenes are meant to be contemplative. You can find an archive of Conrad’s prompts here. Watch the scene, write your notes, and at the end of the seven days, go back over your pages to see what you’ve come up with. This is the raw material from which to build your poem.

I was surprised by the unexpected leaps and connections that showed up for me in this writing exercise. It is for the most part an exercise in paying attention and being acutely present to the details before you. Each day, I realized subtleties I’d missed the day before—a cloud crossing the sky, the sound made by a sudden breeze. This exercise can be adapted if you’re working on a memoir or a novel. Instead of watching Conrad’s films, choose one item central to your story or your character and give that item your full attention for ten minutes a day and then write about what you discover. Remember this is a kind of meditation and as such it’s normal to lose your focus. As with any meditation, bring your attention back to the item and try again.

Recalling the particular details of the world brings our writing to life, but we can’t write about what we don’t notice. Ritual attention strengthens that muscle and makes us better writers.

Future Self

Part of Charlotte Lit’s “Keeping Pen to Paper” Series.

Right now, it is difficult to envision and plan for the future, something we would take for granted through most periods of our life. Therefore, I thought it might be a cathartic experience to imagine ourselves in an indefinite future (one year, ten years, fifty years from now?) in which we are past our current crisis, looking back.

Consider how your life may change by then, whether due to the coronavirus or the typical march of time, and think about the good things you might notice and appreciate. Now, write a letter to yourself from the future, aimed at comfort and acceptance.

Show and Tell

Part of Charlotte Lit’s “Keeping Pen to Paper” Series.

One of the great lies of writing instruction is “show don’t tell.” The truth is, you’ll need both. Here’s a quick primer, and an activity to help you to understand and use showing and telling.

Showing is a catchier way of saying “in scene.” When we write in immediate scene, the action is happening on the page. If you’re writing dialogue, you’re in scene. If you want the reader to experience the moment, write in scene.

Telling is another way of saying “summary.” When we write in summary, we’re explaining. You will write in summary when you need to speed up time or to describe events or give information that doesn’t have to happen in real time. A good hint: when there is unnatural dialogue—two characters telling each other things they already know for the reader’s benefit (“Well, brother, I know we’ve been estranged since Dad died and Mom ran off with the church organist…”)—that’s a good sign it should have been told in summary.

It’s not either/or, it’s both/and. This can be true even in a single paragraph, where some of what happens is live and some is summarized.

Here’s your prompt for the week, adapted from Alice LaPlante’s The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing, which is used as the textbook in Charlotte Lit’s Authors Lab program.

  1. Think about something you witnessed in the past week or month. You could be a bystander or involved in the event.
  2. Take 15 minutes to write a pure narration (telling) version of the event.
  3. Take another 15 minutes and re-write the event using only immediate scene (showing).
  4. Write a version that combines the parts that are best shown and those that are best told.

What do we owe each other?

Part of Charlotte Lit’s “Keeping Pen to Paper” Series.

Today is (usually) tax day in the U.S., which got me thinking about the biblical exchange where Jesus is asked whether it’s lawful to pay tax to Caesar. He asks whose image is on their coins; they reply: ‘Caesar’s.’ To which Jesus says, ‘Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.’ Whatever your beliefs, it’s a good story, and a great allegory.

And it led me to a question: what do we owe each other? Today’s prompts allow you to dig into that idea.

  1. For fiction writers: Imagine a conversation between one character who believes we owe nothing to anyone (that is, entirely selfish) and a character who feels that everyone else’s needs are above our own (that is, entirely selfless). Both characters are extremes, of course, but writing from extreme points of view can sometimes help us to find the nuance that represents our own position. For extra credit, don’t make one the hero and one the villain. Try to make each person earnest in their beliefs.
  2. For nonfiction writers: Make a list, including items both serious and lighthearted, of things we owe each other. This can be specific things we owe to specific people, or more generally things that a person owes to another person in this city, in this country, on this planet.

The Mask!

Part of Charlotte Lit’s “Keeping Pen to Paper” Series.

Until a few weeks ago, the only surgical masks I encountered were those worn by characters on my favorite medical TV dramas—ER, Gray’s Anatomy, and House, M.D.—and by my dentist and dental hygienist at my twice-yearly cleanings and checkups. Now, the surgical mask is haute couture, which has me thinking about “masking” as metaphor and archetype.

Wearing a mask is a way of touching the archetypal world of forms. When we intentionally cover our ever-changing faces with something plastic or static, we focus on just one aspect of our being. It’s a way of entering mythical time, of experiencing one of life’s highest, lowest, or most often repeated human dramas—an initiation like graduation, marriage, or parenthood; or a typical situation like birth, falling in love, heartbreak, old age, or death.

Masking puts a barrier between us and the world. When we don a mask, whether literal or figurative, we protect, veil, or conceal our total selves from others. At the same time, we reveal or shine a light on particular aspects of our characters. Psychologist C. G. Jung posited that we all present a masked self, a specifically curated version of our more complex wholeness, to the world. He called this self the Persona, a term he borrowed from the masks worn by actors in classical Greek theatre. The Persona isn’t a problem unless we begin to believe that the mask is all we are.

This is where writers have an advantage. We study the roles beneath the masks we typically show the world by trying on other aspects of ourselves. We cloak our personal experiences inside the characters we create. And, we “try on” experiences we’ve not yet had by imagining ourselves into new situations, allowing ourselves to act out hidden desires and impulses.

Nonfiction writers also assume a mask: the mask of the writer. This mask permits us to step back, to become less active as participants and more active as observers. Imagine a carnival wallflower hiding behind his or her mask while sipping champagne in a shadowy corner of the ballroom. We can see life very differently from this vantage point.

This week’s writing prompt wears three masks:

  1. Reflect on a “mask” experience you’ve had or witnessed over the last week. This might be a surface-level exploration of life in the age of COVID-19 or a humorous riff on the theme of surgical masks.
  2. Write about a mask you have worn, physical or metaphoric. How did you feel beneath the mask? In what ways were you different? What feelings and impulses did the mask allow you to express? How did others engage differently with you?
  3. Explore “masking” from the point of view of a fictional character. What aspect of themselves does your character hide behind? How does this mask benefit your character? What does it cost them? (Bonus points: What part of yourself does this character mask or protect? What do they say or do that you can’t or won’t?)