I mentioned in an earlier blog post that I wanted to put up a writing prompt weekly. Alas, I fell short of my goal, and this post has been delayed. But finally, I’m now delivering another writing prompt to help those who are searching for something to write about or those who want to explore journaling as a way to move through life and chart the joy they experience or the sadness and trauma they must confront in life.
I had the idea for this prompt firmly in place in my brain BEFORE my family members and I went on our much-anticipated trip to Ireland, but then, on our very first day in the lovely city of Kenmare, I snapped this photo on a family walk. It captures exactly what I wanted to evoke in this writing exercise.
I can’t remember where I found the original word that prompted my version of this writing exercise. That word was vessel. I wish I could credit the source, but I offer thanks and appreciation to the unknown party that planted this word in my brain.
I want to look at containers and vessels as objects that we employ at various points in our lives to hold or carry things that are important to us in one way or another. But I also want to get at the idea that we have words in our lives that are mundane and common, like container, and words that are more exotic or highbrow like vessel. Likewise, we have words or terms that are highly specific like samovar or crepe pan, and words that get at more generalized, broad concepts, like kettle or pan.
Brainstorming, 5-10 minutes
Writing/Riffing, 25-45 minutes (can be divided into sections)
- Think about the word container, which I would call a common or garden-variety word. It can be used as a very general term to describe a lot of objects that carry or hold things. Brainstorm ten common or garden-variety words that refer to a container of any sort OR words or items that you think could be used as a container although that might not be their first designated purpose. The words can be common in terms of their meaning but also in terms of the way they sound.
- Think about the word vessel, which I would call a highbrow word – highbrow or lofty as opposed to common. Brainstorm ten highbrow or lofty words that refer to vessels of some sort. The words can be highbrow or lofty in terms of the way they sound when you say them or in terms of what they make you think of.
My container words: laundry basket, paper bag, ashtray, newspaper, sandbox, pill bottle, spoon, wagon, bucket, hand
My vessel words: samovar, cedar chest, hearse, Lazy Susan, camelback, kayak, syringe, decanter, toilet bowl, bassinet
You will note that I have categorized these words as containers or vessels loosely; there is no right or wrong.
- Select five or six of these words from either category that resonate with you; the words can be from both categories as well. Words that resonate tend to be words for which you have a fully formed memory or a flash of association. That flash of association can be a personal association or some image you saw once. Advertisements that we’ve seen over the years tend to stick with us – the girl on the front of the Morton Salt container or the three guys who make snap, crackle, and pop noises on the front of the Rice Krispies box. For obvious reasons, words that trigger strong emotional responses or memories are often the best ones to work with when you’re writing, but words with fewer connections can also yield good results.
Note: Feel free to use any of the words I have listed from my brainstorming.
- Riff on each of these words, one at a time, for 5-7 minutes each. As I mentioned in my last writing prompt post, I’m a big believer in writing guru Peter Elbow’s use of the term “focused freewrite.” When you allow that one word to be the focus of your writing, you are letting yourself be free within the confines of that word and its associations for you. Let each word you’ve chosen be your focus, as I’ve said, but feel free to throw many ideas down for that one word OR develop one idea at length. Those who write extended metaphors or comparisons like to hang with one idea for a bit. A reminder: original freewrite guidelines encourage the writer to keep the pen (or computer keys) moving, even when the ideas stop. One can do that by repeating a word over or a phrase, something mundane, like, “where’s my idea, where’s my idea,” repeatedly. If you are a slow writer, as I am at times, you may find five riffs to be overwhelming. Break it up, if need be. Do two riffs at one sitting and three riffs at another.
- When you’re done riffing, put your writing away for a few days, unless you have fallen madly in love with what you’ve written and want to keep going. When you come back to it, consider viewing it as a “lyric essay.” The lyric essay is a relatively new structure or genre of writing that combines poetry with the traditional first-person type of essay. It focuses on words and their arrangement in much the same way that a poem does, yet it encourages writing with the kind of tangents, digressions, and lack of transitions that makes it a more experimental or fragmented.
- Allow each word to serve as a heading for a section. What is the connection between the words? What do you think this collection of riffs is about? Should you discard one of the words and do an additional riff on another container or vessel word that would suit your purpose (which you’re still discovering) or your subject matter better?
Walt Whitman said, “I contain multitudes.” My daughter keeps an extended version of this quote on the wall of her Philly apartment. For me, it’s the perfect three-word statement of this writing exercise. “I” indicates that the exercise is to be written in first-person and focused on the self. “Contain” gets at the idea of the container or vessel. “Multitudes” captures the sense of the huge variety you can allow yourself in the palette of riffed words.
What do you contain? Happy Writing!