Impromptu #5: List, Rant, Provide Detail, and Repeat

(My dog, Clover, is waiting. To pounce? To roll in the snow? To perceive a rabbit or herd of deer?)

I am not a poet by nature, which is to say that while I am quite fond of images and metaphors, I have always gravitated toward story and narration.

Yet throughout the pandemic, lines from poems I once studied have entered my head on a regular basis. I like the brevity. I like the potency that comes from a short form. In the past few months, I’ve been thinking about Lawrence Ferlinghetti, specifically, his poem “I am waiting.”

I view Ferlinghetti’s poem as a list poem, a rant poem, and a protest poem. For me, a list poem is just that – a list. Like a to-do list, or a list of groceries, or a list of grievances. That last list type is where the “rant” or “protest” comes in. Ferlinghetti does it well with his repeated line, “I am waiting…” because we sense his frustration, his impatience, his implied desire for change, although many of the lines are humorous.

For this impromptu writing exercise, I encourage you to take a listen to Ferlinghetti’s poem, for which I’m attaching a link here:


  1. Pick one of the following phrases to be the anchor phrase for your list or rant:
  • I am hoping…
  • I am wondering…
  • I am trying…
  • I am struggling…
  • I am longing…
  • You may also fashion your own phrase for repetition, but please allow me to give you a tip on what to look for in such a phrase. Ferlinghetti’s poem works because when we repeat the phrase “I am waiting,” we get two short unaccented syllables – “I” and “am” – followed by a long stress – “wait” and then the shorter “ing.” That is why choosing a phrase like “I am hoping,” or “I am trying” mimics the syllabic stress of Ferlinghetti’s repeated phrase but gives you some of your own artistic choices.
  • Set a timer for somewhere between ten and twenty minutes.
  • Begin writing the repeated phrase, completing the sentence however you like. Note that for each item, once you begin to move past whatever “ing” verb you’ve chosen to explore, try to be as detailed as possible in each item you are discussing. What are you hoping for, specifically – describe it in a concrete way. What are you struggling with, specifically? Try to depict it with an example so the reader can really comprehend it. I find it interesting to mix the levels of specificity, like working in small scale with something minute from your own life, and then working on something more global.
  • As you begin to write the list items with the repeated line you’ve chosen, see if you like it better in a chunky, paragraph format (prose) or in free verse (non-rhyming, non-metric lines of poetry). Since I am a writer who favors prose, I’ve gotten excited in the last decade about the prose poem versus the lyric micro-essay.
  • I will be honest and admit that I complete this kind of exercise most often to de-stress rather than a way to make art.

Interesting Tidbit: I use Ferlinghetti as a model here because his “I am Waiting” poem came into my head quite frequently in 2020. But lots of writers use this repeated phrase device. Most notably, Martin Luther King uses it in his “I Have a Dream” speech, but Maya Angelou uses it in some of her poetry as well. I will admit, too, that as an English major in college, I learned a great deal about literary devices, and I still have my dog-eared copy of Sound and Sense by Lawrence Perrine, but my brain didn’t log the concept of “anaphora” until the last few years. It’s a beautiful word, anaphora, that simply refers to the use of repeated phrases to provide structure.

Impromptu #4 — A Scavenging Field Trip


On a recent walk with my dog, Clover, I found the object depicted above, located at the gate that separates our back yard from the rest of the neighborhood, a house lawn’s width away from a sidewalk leading to the elementary school. I knew Clover and I would travel back through the gate, and I didn’t want her to slurp up the thing while I wasn’t looking. So, I plucked the nearly round growth (can you make out the odd contours of facial features?) from the ground and pocketed it.

Later, when I’d returned home and Clover was occupied with something else, I took it out to examine it. I was convinced it was a mushroom, but I knew that one could never be sure about random backyard growths without some training. My father taught me that some things resembling edible mushrooms were poisonous.

I let it sit for a day, leaving it on a chest of drawers, hiding behind something so that a wandering Clover wouldn’t find it and eat it. When I remembered to show it to my husband, I told him about my urge to slice into it. He recommended that I do that on the front porch rather than in the house. What would emerge? A noxious thick fluid? A baby mushroom?

I decided to save the mushroom-like orb for a few more days so I could show it to my friend and assistant, Joan.

I knew that it was a find. A major find. Perhaps I should write about it, as I’d written about so many other finds over the years.

The whole experience helped me to remember that one of my favorite types of writing prompts involves a scavenging field trip.

This prompt, like many of my favorite prompts, is a) an amalgam of several ideas rolled into one, and 2) a prompt focusing on objects. The prompt can be separated into two parts – scavenging items and writing about the items.

Scavenging Items: Choose a Method and then Choose a Venue

Choosing a Method

Method A: If you have a reliable, charged cell phone and like to keep your hands clean, use this photo option. Go on a walk and take ten pictures of things you see along the way. Make sure the photos you take are close ups, capturing lots of good detail. I am continually amazed and impressed by the minute details I see on others’ Facebook pictures – the water droplets on a flower’s leaf, the translucence of an insect’s wing, the angle of a buck’s antler as it juts upward, intersecting the rays of the moon.

However, keep in mind that your photos do not have to capture only beautiful things. They can be photos of half-torn pop labels, rusty car parts, or a pile of cigarette butts. You have the liberty of selecting the ten subjects of your photos.

Method B: Go on a walk and find ten items that you can BRING HOME to use for your prompt. As Ms. Frizzle from the Magic School Bus show would say, “Get Messy!  Make Mistakes!” The key here, however, is safety. We need to be careful about sharp edges of objects and/or potentially poisonous objects. For this reason, I encourage you to WEAR GLOVES! Take a doubled bag (paper within plastic or vice versa) along with you.

Choosing a Venue

This step is a little tricky because it depends on where you live. Ideally, you would be able to do your scavenging in your neighborhood. Neighborhoods have such strong associations for all of us, so making discoveries right near your home can be powerful. But some neighborhoods are admittedly much cleaner than others. If you live in a neighborhood or town where everyone is always on top of their litter, rejoice!  This is a positive in so many ways!  Your neighborhood my not yield the best kind of items about which to write, however.

An alternative is to plan a field trip in advance. This kind of adventure can add to the fun of the writing prompt. I live near a lot of suburban things; in addition to living near an elementary school, I also live near a major state university (Michigan State) which is built around the banks of a river. River banks can provide some good scavenged material. But so can strip malls. And beaches. There are just so many possibilities, as long as you make sure to be safe.

Writing teachers like me often use objects for writing, just as artists use objects for still life portraits. But part of the inspiration for this version of the exercise is an assignment my daughter’s AP History teacher gave her class related to found objects and collages created of such objects. We know that anthropologists and archeologists learn a great deal about earlier cultures simply by examining their tools, their refuse, the scraps from their daily lives. So, think of your items as historical finds.

The Writing

Once you’ve found ten objects that you like, give yourself freedom to work with them. You don’t have to create a story that uses all ten objects (unless, of course, you want to do so). For me, association always arrives in my brain first, so I naturally think of riffing on one or more of the objects. But you can establish your own pattern. For example, pick three items, and use them to trigger thoughts for a brief imaginary tale. Or find a way to put the items in categories that you make up (red things, sharp things, circular items left on the side of the road) and create a piece by working with those titles.

Give yourself twenty minutes to write about the items you’ve found, unless you want to keep going. But save a few ideas for another writing session; there should be lots to work with.


When Joan came over a couple of weeks ago, I brought out the ball-shaped mushroom thing. Joan is a nursing student who also works as a medical scribe, so she has that intense scientific curiosity about living things. We decided to dissect the thing together. I got out a paper towel and a knife.

Then I cut in.

Yes, the experience was, as we anticipated, a bit anti-climactic. No spiders crawled out, which is what Joan had secretly been hoping for. No blood came out either. No noxious, thick fluid. The mushroom ball wasn’t hollow at all. It was solid, made of the same spongy material that appeared on the outside. Maybe it was a real mushroom, after all!

But to be cautious, we wrapped it up in the paper towel and gave it a trash can burial. I washed my hands and the knife.

It was a good, Bill Nye sort of day, even if we didn’t figure out anything revolutionary.


Impromptu — Writing Prompt #3 — Someone Else’s Perspective


I was quite excited about the last writing prompt I posted, yet as I wrote out the steps, I realized that the exercise would have gone much more smoothly had I been in front of the classroom delivering the steps myself.  Pausing between complications.  Brainstorming examples to illustrate the most complicated steps. I decided that this week, in contrast, I must find an easier exercise to explain, at least, if not to complete.

I travelled back in time to a prompt I used in the “Writing the Novel” course I taught at Lansing Community College in the early 2000s. An exercise rooted in fiction primarily, it was meant to direct the writer toward character development, point of view, and voice.

This version of the exercise, however, does not have to be fiction.  Nonfiction or memoir will work just as well, because the exercise begins with you as a person.

Brainstorming, 5-10 minutes

Writing, 20 minutes


  1. Think about how you view yourself as a person as well as how other people might view you. Think about your traits, good and bad, and the kinds of things people say about you. Are you conscientious? Witty? The life of the party? A nervous Nelly (whatever that is!)? These words and ideas are mostly adjectives, but think about nouns that people use also, identity words like “artist,” “lawyer,” “pipe fitter,” and “pastry chef.”
  2. Now, slide a bit away from that person, that character who is YOU but not you. Step out of your body to observe. Let the writer part of you creep across the room to a spot from which to survey things. Note: the photo above sort of captures this step.  I was “creeping” as I looked out the window, viewing my daughter from an elevated room in the place we stayed during vacation. Imagine that the person in the picture is YOU being observed by someone else from a different perspective.
  3. The original exercise I explored nearly two decades ago said something like, “Using the first-person point of view, write about yourself from the perspective of an opposite sex relative who is older than you.” That instruction provides two little twists beyond the original instruction of thinking about your traits as a person – the opposite sex perspective and the age perspective. This works great if you are binary cis-gendered.  If you are not, think about an older relative with a sexual orientation that you view as “other.”  What we are looking for here is difference, so binary distinctions aren’t crucial.

Hopefully these steps seem straightforward. To play out an example, I have written from the perspective of an uncle who is describing me. Many of my uncles are deceased, so I must dig back to my childhood. I’m thinking about my Uncle Max, my mother’s brother. Here are a couple of sentences in Uncle Max’s voice (first-person), describing me as a young girl:

I wish I could tell you what makes that girl tick, but I just don’t know.  She and her sisters were supposed to come to our house for a week to spend time with their cousins.  Esther, her mom, was going to have a week alone at home to just relax and have some quiet time.  But the first thing you know, Vern comes in the door after his drive to Mt. Clemens with the oldest and the youngest, Linda and Lori.  Dawn stayed home.  She couldn’t leave her mother.  She wanted to, but at the last minute she just couldn’t leave her mom, Vern said.

I know kids get attached, but why is she so shy?  My sister is not shy, and it amazes me that she could have such a shy daughter. Dawn gets sick, too. Asthma.  I guess it’s just as well.  We wouldn’t know what to do with her if she stopped breathing.

  1. If you don’t like the idea of writing a first-person monologue from this older, opposite- or other-sex person, you could try a dialogue in script form in which the older, other character engages in a discussion with the younger person (the YOU character) and the script reveals something significant about the you character’s personality.

I tried to capture something of my uncle’s voice here, in this first-person narration that I did from his perspective.  I also tried to capture some of what would be completely incomprehensible to him – my shyness – because like my mother, he was a pretty extreme extrovert.

  1. Try to write for twenty minutes from this first-person voice of the older other.


Remember, if these instructions seem confusing, there is really no way to screw up a writing prompt because…


… the whole point of a prompt is to just get you writing; there is no wrong or right.

Just write!


Impromptu – Writing Prompt #2 – Containers/Vessels


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!



As first a student of writing and later a teacher of writing at a variety of grade levels, I have long recognized the value of writing prompts. In the beginning, I don’t believe any of my teachers used the word prompts. I initially received assignments and then maybe ideas for assignments. But sometimes those assignments or ideas were broken down into parts, steps, or processes, and somewhere along the way, in one of the many venues through which I was educated, I learned about and began to practice using invention strategies, which I now define with the more shorthand term prompts. Merriam Webster defines the noun prompt as “something that prompts: reminder.”  I like this definition because it hints at the idea of memory or remembering, which I believe is a component of most good writing.

For a brief time in the Fall of 2012, I offered weekly “Impromptu” sessions at Oakland University’s student union building as an adjunct creative writing faculty member. Merriam Webster defines the noun impromptu as “made, done or formed on or as if on the spur of the moment,” and “composed or uttered without previous preparation.”  I used the word impromptu to describe the sessions because, in part, I wanted to emphasize that writing is often done well or most honestly when we approach it obliquely – at least for those of us who like to procrastinate or suffer from the kind of avoidance that makes us cringe to hear ourselves say: “Well, now I’m going to sit down and write for three hours.” If we approach the act of writing sometimes as a little game we can play or a mere short-term commitment, often the act itself feels less foreboding.

I also like the word impromptu also because of the 1991 movie of the same name about musician Frederick Chopin and writer Georges Sand.

While writing prompts are helpful for individuals who write and like to have external ideas and forms available to shake up their thinking, writing prompts are also helpful for individuals who are trying to solve problems – not only complex analytical problems but also emotional and traumatic problems stemming from life events. Diary and journal writing has long been viewed as potentially helpful for individuals who aim to “get their frustrations out on the page,” but writing prompts also help individuals search inside themselves and find moments that are worth recalling, capturing, narrating, and reflecting upon as they are recorded on that page.

When I wrote my memoir about living and dying with cancer, I used several writing prompts along the way, especially on the days I felt most despairing about my circumstances and my state of mind. Some of the prompts were old standbys that I’d used for years, some of them were formal and published in books, and some of them came to me in an impromptu manner.

I share the prompt below with the idea that it can serve as an exercise for writers of all kinds – those seeking to create for the sake of creating and those seeking to make sense of experiences or exorcise demons.

The Tree Prompt

After my parents died somewhat unexpectedly, a few months apart, while I was pregnant with my second child, I struggled to make sense of things. A psychologist I was working with did a few sessions with me in which we worked on prompts, a practice that was fitting for me because of my life as a writer. The first prompt we did was about trees. I still have the entry in a journal. I found the exercise particularly comforting because like most people, I’d had significant trees that I remembered from my childhood, many of which had associations to my parents.

I’ve adapted and augmented that writing prompt I did myself so long ago, giving it a few layers. The result isn’t terribly complex, but the steps will help you find a topic by seeding your brain with a few preliminary questions to get you started.

  1. Take a large index card (or any other piece of paper that gives you some space). Write numbers 1-5 in descending order on the left side, leaving three lines open for each number.
  2. Examine the course of your life and think of any trees with which you have some sort of connection – the tree from a familiar yard, the tree on a path you travelled frequently by foot or by car, the unkempt apple tree down the street that everyone in your neighborhood stole apples from on Halloween to smash against some unfortunate stranger’s parked car.
  3. In as few words as possible, write down a brief way of noting each tree, just as little as you need to identify it in your brain. You don’t have to know what kind of tree it is – you just need to know how you relate to it and why it’s important to you. My few-word phrases are short – tree at the end of Sunderland house driveway, tree by the Sunderland house mailbox, trees in Rod Anderson’s yard, tree hanging over the steps at the Dalton cottage. Take about five minutes to complete this step.
  4. Next to each tree phrase you’ve listed, write one descriptive word. For example, I used the word “spreading” to describe one of my trees and “network” to describe another. Take about five minutes to complete this step.
  5. For the next step, write one emotionally charged word that is somehow related to the tree. Words I came up with for my trees were “guardian,” “empathetic,” “concealment,” and “refuge.” Take about five minutes to complete this step.
  6. Now you must make a decision. Which tree is speaking to you the most? Which do you want to write about?  What you say about the tree is going to be wide open, so you should pick the tree that you think has the most to say to you.
  7. After a few minutes, start writing. As you prepare to settle in and write for about fifteen minutes, think about the following questions:
  • Why did you pick this tree out of the five?
  • You don’t have to describe the tree, but many people do enjoy describing living things in nature, so you are certainly welcome to spend some of your time describing the tree as you remember it. If you don’t remember anything about its appearance, don’t worry.
  • Is there a person you associate with this tree in any way?
  • Is this tree a friend or foe? Since this tree has come up in this writing exercise, it may be of great comfort to you or it may be associated with a negative experience in your life. You may choose to write about either the positive or the negative. Or both.
  • Assume this tree knows everything there is to know about you. If it had one thing to say to you, one thing it could share, what would that one thing be?

Take fifteen minutes to write. Set a timer. Try to write without stopping; back in the 1980s, when Peter Elbow was the guru we educators turned to for help, this type of writing was called the “focused freewrite.” But if you need to stop because your fingers are tired or because you can’t bear to write one more second or because you have to go to the bathroom, I grant you leave to take a brief, brief break. But make sure to get your fifteen minutes in, and consider expanding that fifteen minutes to twenty, but no more.

What you have will not be a finished piece of writing, but you have produced something – an idea or a turn of phrase that you may want to keep writing about.

To add to this piece, consider these possibilities:

  • If you think you can figure out what kind of tree you selected, consider looking up the basic facts about this type of tree on Wikipedia. It can be really rewarding to name trees and learn about them, but not all people are wired to label or identify things.
  • Taking a field trip to the tree or one similar can be fun, and seeing the tree up close obviously allows for more descriptive opportunities.
  • If you are writing about yourself in a memoir or essay type of piece, fill in detail about how this tree came to you for this exercise.
  • If you write fiction, consider having one of your characters be focused on the tree, for whatever reason.

Happy Writing!