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Writing Prompts for Stay-At-Home Writers: Armin Tolentino

Armin Tolentino is the author of the poetry collection We Meant to Bring It Home Alive (Alternating Current Press, 2019). He earned his MFA at Rutgers University in Newark, NJ and his poetry has appeared in numerous journals including Common KnowledgeArsenic Lobster, Hyphen Magazine, and The Raven Chronicles.  He is a former Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship recipient and works for Multnomah County managing education and anti-poverty initiatives. He is a phenomenal clapper, a passable ukulele player, and a bumbling, but enthusiastic, fisherman.

Armin shared these prompts:

Random Words – Grab a book* off your bookcase/nightstand/floor. Pick the ninth word on any four prime number pages. You’re looking for nouns and verbs and, like candy, maybe just one adjective, as a treat**. So if the ninth word on page 7 is “but,” pick the next noun/verb/adjective. There’s no science or magic to this whatsoever. It could be the fourth word on pages that are multiples of 3. Make your rule and stick with it. 

Write those words on top of scrap paper. Set a timer for 5-20 minutes, whatever works for your stamina. Start freewriting with those words and make sure to use all of them. Don’t try to make something cohesive. See what connections come from the words as you work them on the page. Do this longhand because it prevents you from trying to edit anything. Do this with scrap paper so you dissolve any notions of preciousness.

If nothing comes out of it, it was a solid callisthenic to build sentences and images. If you stumbled on a nugget of gold, type it up for future use.  *This isn’t a plug for poetry books, but maybe it sort of is. They work better for this exercise. They just have more nouns and verbs per pound than fiction and non-fiction. There’s less room for syllabic fat.

 ** “hovered, prayers, fertile, photo” were the words I landed on following these rules for Eugenia Leigh’s book, Blood, Sparrows and Sparrows.

Nothing More than Feelings – Find an inventory of feeling words online. The practice of nonviolent communication uses these a lot, so if you Google “feeling words” and “nonviolent communication” you’ll find something. Pick a word (say, “appreciative”) and write a scene or metaphor that evokes that feeling without mentioning the word itself. This is basically the “show don’t tell” callisthenic, but it might have an added benefit. There is such a range of feelings we as humans experience and depending on your culture, environment, and history, you may not have vocabulary for the incremental degrees and nuances to these emotions. Trying to create a piece of writing that captures that feeling allows you greater awareness of it in yourself which you’ll be able to use in future writing. 

Block, Pillar, Slab, and Beam – This exercise is from a book of writing exercises called The Practice of Poetry edited by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell. The exercise, written by Deborah Digges, asks you to write a poem where you “literally build and/or take apart something for the reader.” I’ve found that attention to detail and the concreteness of description really helpful (I’ve been thinking a lot about building fishing knots for instance). I think this exercise works just as well for prose writers. All writing can benefit from looking at a thing closely and cataloging how it came together or was broken apart.

Tune in Tuesday for a prompt from Nick Jaina. Let us know how you’re doing, and how your writing is going, and let us know if you have a prompt to share! Email Susan Moore, Director of Programs for Writers, at susan@literary-arts.org.

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