A Writing Prompt from Christian Moody and Margaret Kimball

Each Friday we have been posting writing prompts created by one of our authors. Prompts like this one are included in our reader's guides along with discussion questions and suggested further reading to accompany each title. So if you can't wait a week for the next prompt, visit our Reader's Guide page to find them all in one place!

Today's prompt comes from Christian Moody and Margaret Kimball, our 2014 Writers in Residence. The submission period for our 2015 residency is now open. Click here to learn more and apply!

Blizzard, Chalkboard, Forest: Or, The Three-Word Game

The first goal in this game is to choose three random words. For example, we’ll choose the first three for you, entirely at random, from Elegy on Kinderklavier by Arna Bontemps Hemenway:

City
Bed
Driftwood

Stare at them for a minute. Rearrange them. What image is coming to mind? What story is welling up from your subconscious? It might be weird. Be okay with that. Start describing what you see.

To play again, on your own or with a friend, it’s crucial that you select your words randomly. So take three D&D dice out of your leather pouch and tenderly blow the dust off your finest dictionary (if you don’t have these just grab whatever book). Open a page, roll the dice onto the page, and choose whatever word is under each die. If you don’t have D&D dice, just close your eyes and stick your finger on a word. If you’re the cheating sort, you can cheat a little and slip your finger over to a more-interesting word that catches your eye: concrete, descriptive words tend to work better than abstract words. When you have your words, let them form an image or story for you, and describe.

We like this exercise because it’s a confidence builder: The human brain is a storytelling machine, and it works hard to make images, stories, and meaning out of arbitrary or accidental combinations. We always think we’ll come up with the same image or story as other participants—our own images just seem so obvious to us—but even in a whole classroom hardly anyone comes up with the same thing: what wells up from the subconscious comes from you, your history, your current anxieties or preoccupations. While certain combinations fall flat, others help you steer right into your fears and obsessions, which is fertile artistic territory. Plus, the game makes use of the playfulness that comes with restrictions, like a kind of improv or sonnet.

There’s a visual corollary to this game. Instead of creating a story with words, render a composition using three randomly selected objects. For instance (also from Elegy):

Gate
Hands
Tent 

Using a large sheet of paper (18 x 24” works great, especially for in-class exercises) and a Sharpie, arrange the objects into a scene that conveys a feeling, or combine all three into a new and strange or terrible object. This prompt works great in a group, where everyone can compare interpretations, noting how one approach feels different from the next.

This is a great game for a first date, if your date is worth anything. Have fun.