One thing you notice when you teach in an MFAW program is that students love writing prompts. And who can blame them?

When Lynda Barry was our visiting writer / cartoonist / guru two years ago, a bunch of the faculty sat in on the remarkable workshops she offered in the Haybarn Theatre. The exercises she offered (very similar to those in What It Is, a book that is so beautiful I don’t know anyone who’s actually drawn in it and cut it up, like she instructs) were basic writing prompts that had all of us scribbling away. It was not only great fun, it also left us with promising fragments. And that, of course, is the whole point.

Most people I know who teach writing collect prompts the way others collect recipes; and while I’m always happy to find any that seem promising, many of them seem like variations on a very familiar theme.

Leafing through the current issue of Poets & Writers, however, I recently saw an article entitled “The Time is Now: Writing Prompts for the New Year.” I came across one prompt that not only sounds terrific, it involves the rigor of a fresh perspective.

So here it is:

  • Pick a real time and place from the past: the Cedar Tavern in NYC, 1948; a middle-class apartment in Mumbai, the 1970s; the Australian outback, 1857.
  • Research this time and place as much as you can, reading old newspaper articles, images, first hand accounts, and whatever else you can dig up.
  • Write a story with this period and setting, infusing it with the details you’ve uncovered.
  • Make it feel as authentic and experienced as something you’d write set today, in your own home.

We rely on the imagination, of course, but research is often overlooked or even dismissed. Yet the actual details of time and place can not only be useful, they can be inspiring. Most important, they can make your work that much more vivid and powerful.  
Photo credit: Cedar Tavern, New York, 1959, ©John Cohen/Getty.

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