Creative non-fiction writing exercises

(Re-posted from:

Writing Prompts

These prompts are intended to help inspire your creativity. Try your hand at any one of them or use them as quick ten minute writing exercises. More exercises will be added as time goes by, so please check this page periodically – the most recent prompts appear at the top. Remember what Natalie Goldberg says about writing practice: Keep your hand moving. Note: prompts #1 through #10 are preserved from the original Keep Writing classes, hosted by Linda Rome.

# 18:  Self-Searching

When you’re struggling with what to write about, sometimes it helps to get reacquainted with yourself…who you are…what matters to you. Here is an exercise designed to help you discover, and inspire you to explore in your writing, those things you feel most passionate about.

Take out two pieces of paper. Now answer every question in Phase One on the list below. If you would be willing to share your answers with the wider world, put those answers on the first sheet of paper. Any answers you are not willing to share should go on the second piece of paper. But all questions must be answered fully and honestly.

Once you’ve finished with Phase One, go through all your answers carefully, expanding on them by answering the corresponding questions in Phase Two.

If you find that those things you feel most passionate about are the ones you aren’t willing to share…don’t despair. Creative writing recreates reality – frequently changing events and characters, times and places – while staying true to the heart of the story – its emotional truth.

Pick one of your answers and recreate it into a story, an essay, a poem, a performance piece, that you would like to share.

Has a book ever changed your life? If so, which one and why?
Has a relationship ever changed your life? When, how, why?
Describe a friendship you wish you had. Why?
Describe a friendship you wish you had never had. Why?
What is the angriest you’ve ever been? When? Where? Why?
At what moment in your life thus far have you felt the most powerful? Describe the incident, recalling how it made you feel and why.
At what moment in your life did you feel a sense of wonder and awe. Describe the incident, recalling how it made you feel and why.
What would you like most to change about yourself ? Why?
What would you like most to change about the future world? Why?
What would you most like to change about the world’s past?

# 17:  Sketching

Think you might enjoy writing about some far-off place and time…or maybe even inventing an imaginary place and culture all your own? Here’s a basic exercise to help you define place, time, and cultural mores as a context for your story.

Geographical Features: Photos:
Books: Events/happenings:
Music: Famous people born:
Film: Famous people living:
Theater: Politicians:
Radio: Religious leaders:
Fashions: Philosophers:
Foods: Advertising:
Magazines: Education:
Architecture: Military:
Paintings: Geographical changes:

# 16:  Characterization

Use the following format to create your own character. No cheating. Do not simply fill in the blanks by describing yourself or someone you know. Instead, fill in the blanks describing someone you’d find it interesting to know. Then, remembering that conflict is the essence of all dramatic writing, repeat the process by imagining a character whose value, attitudes, etc. would likely put them in opposition to the first character you invented.

Full Name:
Where born:
Where live:
Favorite food:
Favorite subject in school:
Favorite game as child:
Best memory:
Worst memory:
Smoke/Drink/Drugs Profile:
Favorite section of newspaper:
Favorite type of music:
Last book read:
Last movie seen:
Morning or night person:
Indoor or outdoor person:
Greatest fear:
Closest friend:
Dearest possession:
Favorite season:
Home Life:
Political Affiliation:
Reading Interests:
Sex Life:
Psychological Complexes:

# 15:  Word Lists

Word lists can sometimes be a great spur to creativity. Try this one. Set your timer for ten minutes, then read the word list below and attempt to write something (a poem, a story, a short play) that contains all nine of these words.

iris handbag
fire engine cantata
M&Ms Shinto
porcelain jell

Once you’ve completed this exercise, reread what you have written. Is there a character or a situation worth pursuing farther?

Another variation of this exercise is to create your own word list, listing only words that in some way are significant to you as a person. Then, use this list as your jumping off place, following the same rules as those given above.

# 14:  Recollections

Write some memoirs about a favorite teacher..

# 13:  Celebration

Write about a special birthday.

# 12:  Reinvention

Write about an incident in your past that you would like a chance to relive and do differently.

# 11:  Suspense

Write in any form (poetry, drama, short story, nonfiction, memoir, etc.) a piece that incorporates the phrase, “Don’t pick up the phone.”

# 10:  Explorations

A. Write a paragraph or story about noise.

B. Make a list: Start each phrase with “It would be crazy to. . . ” Go until you run out of sentences. Then, write the other side of the coin: Start each phrase with “It would be perfectly sane to. . . .”

C. Explore the differences of the two lists – either in an essay or poem or put two characters in a dangerous situation together where one is more likely to have said the “it would be crazy” statements and the other would be more likely to say their opposite.

D. Put on a piece of music and write where it takes you.

E. Comment on a newspaper or T.V. clip.

F. Imagine yourself as a child, looking at your mother’s wallet. What do you see? How do you feel? Tell a story from this child’s perspective.

# 9:  Disclosures

A. Make up a word and tell us what it means. Use it in a sentence, a story, a scene. The word can reflect something you always thought needed a word or it can be a set of sounds that trigger your imagination. Try it as a verb, an adverb, or a noun. Be playful.

B. Write a short paragraph/essay about something you used to do with your grandmother or grandfather that you still do today. Questions you might ask and answer: Why do I still do whatever it is? Do I enjoy it, how have my feelings for the activity changed? Why? Have I passed this on to my children? Explore the then and now.

C. Look at a picture. What is the secret hidden in the picture? Explore it, push the characters until they reveal the secret knowledge, power, or pain that they conceal.

# 8:  New Perspectives

A. Write a story about a person turning eighty.

B. Write a dialogue between two people who have to share a seat on a plane and who are attracted to one another. Introduce an obstacle to the smooth sailing of this attraction.

C. Write about an ugly moment between two people, but don’t label it. Make the reader experience it without you telling them what is going on.

E. Choose one aspect of the natural world that you feel has something to teach you. What specific quality does it express that speaks to you about your own life? Cluster your thoughts and shape them into a poem. (From Poetic Medicine by John Fox).

F. Write about a birthday.

G. Write the saddest thing you know about friendship.

H. Go back to one of the exercises you’ve done since the beginning of class and edit it with an eye to new ideas, different approaches, clearer sentences. Add a sustaining metaphor or an apt simile. Approach it creatively.

# 7:  In the Moment

Today celebrate what you still don’t know. Make a list of the elements you are unsure of in the plot of your story; the ideas as yet undeveloped in a poem; or the point of an essay that hasn’t yet crystallized. These are your reasons to keep on writing. Or, write the phrase “I still don’t know” as a diving study and fill the page with whatever comes out. Select one thing you don’t know to write/learn about today.

— From Bonni Goldberg, Room to Write

A. In this exercise we’re going to practice being present to what is around us and reflecting that present reality in our writing. Get up and walk around the house, the porch, the deck, and/or the yard. Spend five or six minutes. Then write three pages about whatever comes to mind. This isn’t even a rough draft; this is just flow; pure mental, emotional, associative pure flow.

B. Go through your three pages and underline the sentences or paragraphs, phrases, or ideas you think are most interesting, provocative, amusing, enlightening. Underline or bracket them. With these thoughts in mind, again walk around. Then sit down and write something you might be willing to share, building on your first efforts. Let the ideas and subject matter pick the form.


# 6:  Motivation

“Always do what you’re afraid to do,” Ralph Waldo Emerson’s visionary Aunt Mary advised him. We tie ourselves in knots to sabotage the energy that might be unleashed if we move resolutely ahead. The risks of making changes are great. . . especially great changes.

Gail Sher, One Continuous Mistake

Write out all the things you are afraid to do concerning your writing and your writing life. Do not simply make a list, but use sentences so you can experience the flow of your thoughts. If you are stuck, start your sentences with something like, “I am afraid my writing will. . . .” or “I am afraid writing is . . . .”

Now make a list of other things you’re afraid of doing. Be as outrageous as you can.

In this exercise, we’re going to use quotations as our jumping off place into writing. You may choose the form: narrative or essay or dialogue. Spend the first five minutes thinking, jotting notes, clustering, doodling, gnashing your teeth, or wandering around, if you choose. If no response comes together for you, write three pages on what is going on in your mind, starting with the quote:

“Where we are going is here.”
“Both ways are best.”
“What is the straight within the bent?”

Who might say such words? In what context? You may use them as dialogue or images or theme. Write a poem or a story or a reflection. Let yourself play.

# 5:  Dialogues and Expositions

A. Write about a day in the “life” of an inanimate object. (Suggestions: a mirror, football, computer, refrigerator, rug, or paperclip.)

B. Write some funny dialogue between a father (or mother) and his/her daughter (or son) who must explain explain why she/he is two hours past curfew.

C. Expository essays that define call for short or extended definitions to help both the reader and the writer understand the meaning of a word. Depending on its length, you may develop your definition by examples, comparisons, and/or functions. Fill in the blank. Go for 10 minutes. Bad luck is __________.

D. Write a story about a factory.

E. Describe a lake as seen by a young man who has just committed murder. Do not mention the murder. (Exercise taken from John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction.)

F. Look around the room you’re in. Write about an object that you have an emotional attachment to or that triggers an emotional response in you. Some tips for writing ten minutes a day: Try to do it around the same time every day. It helps build a habit. Go with your first thoughts. Get down the sentences as they occur to you. Trust yourself. You can edit later. This ten minutes is for writing, not editing, not note taking, not planning. If you pick up a piece from the day before, you must make forward progress – at least one sentence. Keep writing!


# 4:  Narratives

Writing has tremendous energy. If you find a reason for it, any reason, it seems that rather than negate the act of writing, it makes you burn deeper and glow clearer on the page. Ask yourself, “Why do I write?” or “Why do I want to write?” but don’t think about it. Take pen and paper and answer it with clear, assertive statements. Every statement doesn’t have to be one hundred percent true and each line can contradict the others. Even lie if you need to, to get going. If you don’t know why you write, answer it as though you do know why.

— Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones

Tip: If you feel stuck, start out: I don’t know why I write, but . . . . or I feel that as a writer I have something to say, but. . . . But? But what? Stay with this “but” until you are about “but,” the most knowledgeable person in the world.

Since everyone likes a good story, it’s no wonder that the narrative is such a popular form of writing. Fairy tales, anecdotes, short stories, novels, plays, comics, and even some poems are all examples of the narrative form. Simply stated, a narrative is a story based on fact or fiction. Any type of narrative (or story) writing is built on a series of events. By telling about these events one after the other, just as they occurred, your story will satisfy a reader’s curiosity about what happens next. (A more complex narrative device of moving back and forth from past to present within a story is call the flashback technique.) A narrative composition can be used to entertain, make a point, and/or illustrate a premise.

A. Write a story about wanting and glue and staring.

B. Respond to the following quote. Follow where the words lead you.

A man’s life is nothing but an extended trek through the detours of art to recapture those one or two moments when his heart first opened.

 — Albert Camus

# 3:  Highlighting Details

A. Start a story with a word that starts with the letter B – any B, any word.

B. Pick a particular time of day and a particular window. Spend 10 minutes each day for three days describing what you see out of the window.

C. Write about what you hate most about writing.

D. Create a lovable character with one disappointing flaw. Put that character in the same room as you and a very favorite small child in such a way that the disappointing flaw is evident. What happens?

E. Remember haiku? Those 5-7-5 syllable poems that have a touch of nature and a hint of epiphany in them? Try writing one every day this week. Or try your hand at a sonnet!

# 2:  Found Objects

A. You find a checkbook on the ground-perhaps you’re in a park, jogging along the highway, or in the parking lot at the Mall. You decide to return it. What happens next?

B. You’re tired. Who isn’t? You make a mistake, a costly mistake. What happens next?

C. Question of the year: What do you see in that new piece of art your spouse or significant other brought home? How do you feel when you find out it cost the equivalent of three months pay? Write this story in the third person.

D. Let’s revisit the expensive piece of art your significant other brought home. Write a story from the point of view of the person who brought it home.

E. Paper clips. How important are they? Pick up your pen and write about paper clips for ten minutes.

F. Pick out one piece of your writing. Look in Writer’s Market or some other marketing tool and pick out three possible places to send it. Write them down, bookmark them. Or type up a query and send off your piece.

G. Pick out three current market listings that sound appealing to you. Think of an article idea that you would be able to write for that market. Write your idea and the approach you’d take down. Write down the names of possible contacts to interview or the titles of books for quotes you might need or use. Play around with a first sentence. Write a rough draft. (Take ten minutes to do each of the previous directions.)

# 1:  Observe and Analyze

A. Sit in your favorite chair. Write about the view. If you want to write a piece of fiction, imagine someone who is the total opposite of how you see yourself, and put him or her in that same chair. How does the view change?

B. The pair of shoes, scuffed and worn, stood sentinel, at the door. Use the previous sentence as the beginning or ending sentence for a short story-maximum 1200 words.

C. Today, notice all the people that grease your day but who you rarely think about: the newspaper delivery person, the mailman, the elevator doorman, the pizza delivery guy, the cashier at the grocery store or the hostess at your favorite eatery. One of them is a murderer. What’s the story here? Who tells it? What happens next?

D. Pick out one page of your work. Look at it very carefully, sentence by sentence. Cull 10% of the words. Look at the verbs in each sentence. Punch them up by choosing more vigorous, more active verbs. On your word processor, take out all the adjectives and adverbs. Add them back sparingly.

E. Pick out another page of your work. Look at it very carefully, sentence by sentence. Where do you make leaps of logic that may leave your reader confused? Where do you make assumptions about what the reader knows? Are those assumptions valid? Do you actually portray the scene you see in your mind’s eye-or are there important details you’ve left out? Add them in. Pay attention to the sensory details: add in whatever is necessary to make the reader hear, smell, taste, or feel what’s going on in the scene (or essay or poem).