Done…done, done, done, done-done. Done, done-done, done, done. The pomp and circumstance arrive for good reason. It’s great to be done.
But as the mirror meanings of “solemnity” and “commencement” remind us, some of the very stuff we’re celebrating this time of year is also loss. Most artists quit making art when they stop attending school—leaving behind homework also means stepping out of a constant current of feedback and inspiration.
So, you Bachelors and Masters of Arts (Fine, and other), here is my teacherly, writerly graduation gift for you: A summer’s worth of writing prompts—one per week—with accompanying suggested reading.
Most of these bend toward prose (since I’ve just finished teaching the essay), but now that you’re certifiably creative, I’m certain you can find ways to weave fiction, poetry, drama, and graphic narrative from them too.
Congratulations on all you’ve accomplished this season. And with a hearty welcome to life-beyond-schooling, here’s a set of training wheels for the open road ahead.
1. Commence with “It was fun being _______, but then, one day, it ended.”
“Beauty: When the Other Dancer is the Self,” Alice Walker
2. “Summertime, oh summertime, pattern of life indelible, the fade-proof lake, the woods unshatterable, the pasture with the sweetfern and juniper forever and ever, summer without end; this was the background…” Look past the foreground; focus on the background to your childhood summers.
“Once More to the Lake,” E.B. White
3. Set out to make something that’s not whole. A partial portrait. A partial landscape. Part of the story.
“Casa: A Partial Remembrance of a Puerto Rican Childhood,” Judith Oriz Cofer
4. Write about gender. Use as your first line, “Once upon a time…”
“On Discovery,” Maxine Hong Kingston
5. Write a piece titled with one of the fruits of the spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control). The piece may contain only concrete, sensory detail.
“Letter to the Galatians” (5:22-23), Paul the Apostle
6. Zora Neal Hurston describes herself as a "brown bag of miscellany." Consider the self as a container: What are you? A bag? (What kind?) A box? (What kind?) Do the contents of your container-self settle together like glass beads? Clang like loose keys? Slip out and smear against each other like a rogue PB&J in a backpack?
“How it Feels to Be Colored Me,” Zora Neal Hurston
7. Write an essay about something scientific––a real essay for a real audience with real information. 300 words. One hour. Go.
“Joyas Volardores,” Brian Doyle
8. Engage a social issue by recording or observing the silences around it—what we don’t hear, what you didn’t read, what isn’t played.
“I Stand Here Ironing,” Tillie Olsen
9. Define a “proper” job, house, family, neighborhood, education, dating relationship, friendship, Friday night, etc. Compare that definition to current statistics/research about that item.
“Stone Soup,” Barbara Kingsolver
10. Begin with “I used to be able to…”
“Grey Area: Thinking with a Damaged Brain” by Fred Skloot
11. What languages do you speak? (Evangelical? Passive-Aggressive? Hipster?) Do you speak any pidgin? To include someone? To exclude someone?
“Mother Tongue,” Amy Tan
12. Describe something dying. Either as you’ve seen death in life or through media. You are disallowed metaphor—the description must be only observation of concrete, physical detail. When you finish this description, hit Enter twice. What words come out next?
“The Death of the Moth,” Virginia Woolf
13. Where have you “done time”? Begin with King’s first line: “While confined here in _________.” Title after King’s title: Letter from the Eating Disorders Clinic, Letter from the AIDS Orphanage, Letter from the Female Body, Letter from a University of Privilege….
“Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr.
14. Take a sacramental/significant event from scripture and relate it to a prosaic event. Bonfire-Pentecost, Fishing with dad-calling of disciples, bath time-baptism, family dinner-Eucharist.
“Table Manners,” Joey Horstman
15. Stare down some evidence against God’s goodness. Work in two sections: 1) Reasons for unbelief, 2) Staying anyway.
“Jest and Earnest,” Annie Dillard
16. Title a piece (again) with one of the cardinal virtues or fruits of the spirit. Begin with a version of Lamott’s line: “I went around saying for a long time that I am not one of those Christians who is heavily into forgiveness—that I am one of the other kind.”
Any honest PhD candidate will tell you that our work can be isolating. Even though a great deal of our work involves interaction (teaching, office hours, comparing notes with colleagues, attending lectures, and sometimes venting with other students about how we never have enough time), the majority of our work requires great stretches of time spent alone.
I’ve always loved the etymology of kindness, which comes from kin—those to whom we are bound by choice or genealogy. And yet I often find kindness is most difficult to practice with my family—those who have witnessed just how unkind I can be.
Last summer, the book project I was in the midst of was mapped out on a drafting table in my writing space: sheets of paper with lists and quotes, photographs and maps, excerpts from 19th century books on gold mining.
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