Barbara Abercrombie describes her book of writing exercises as "warm-ups and side doors into stories, ways to kick down the walls and surprise yourself with where your writing can go."
Abercrombie, a writing instructor, offers five-minute exercises and has seen novels, memoirs and many essays get started that way. From reading and enjoying her book, I can definitely see how.
There are 365 prompts which offer a myriad ways to get started or continue a project. Each page begins with an inspirational quote from a well-known writer, such as Madeleine L'Engle, Barbara Kingsolver or Mary Oliver. The quotes lead to the prompts. Joy Harjo's line from one of her poems, "The world begins at a kitchen table," leads to suggestions related to the kitchen—such rich territory for family stories.
Following a quote from Haruki Murakami, Abercrombie suggests writing about an activity you love and wonders: "Could a memoir be based on this activity? An essay?"
If you're writing fiction, Abercrombie proposes giving the "you" in the prompt to one of your characters.
Specifically for fictional characters yet related to your own life is this prompt: "Write about the part of yourself you can hand over to fictional characters. Is it your flaws, your fears? Your knowledge about something specific in the world? Your values?"
I was energized by this book, which is now full of notations and flags. I have many prompts to go back to. The excerpts had me looking further to find the book or the poem because I was enticed by a few quoted lines of it. Further reading is always a good practice for a writer.
I found it fascinating to see the thread of inspiration from the quotes that resonated with Abercrombie, the writing prompts that followed, and the way the prompts inspire the reader. I got ideas for poems, for personal essays, for a novel I'm working on and for writing circles I lead. Even writing this review, I'm feeling invigorated by inspiration and support from a tribe of writers' voices for what I'm doing and plan to do—even for what I didn't plan to do.
Here's an excerpt from William Carlos Williams that is inspiring for the writing life: "Their story, yours, mine—it's what we all carry with us on this trip we take, and we owe it to each other to respect our stories and learn from them."
The results of in-class, five-minute exercises from sixteen of Abercrombie's students are also included in the last section of the book. No matter what your writing stage, newbie or long time writer, you'll find an invitation to plunge right in.
Barbara Abercrombie is a widely published author and editor (see our review of A Year of Writing Dangerously) who teaches at the UCLA Extension Writer's Program. She lives in Santa Monica, California. Visit her website.
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