Writing Prompted by the Words of Others

Last night I sat down to write, having not written for almost a week. My writing brain took fright at being expected to think, to come up with something, to produce some writing. The blank page stared up at me, like all good blank pages do, chastising me for my neglect.

Something had to be done, so I wrote the following at the top of the page. “Open the book I’m reading at a random page. Choose ONE SENTENCE from the page and write it down. Then keep writing for ten minutes.”

The book I grabbed was “To the River” by Olivia Laing, the story of the River Ouse in Sussex in England. The first page I randomly opened contained a historical story of no help at all. I tried again. Still no sentence appealed. The third attempt offered several gems and I chose the following:

‘And there was the Ouse, all of a tumble, the sun skating off it in panes of light.’

A vision immediately came to me of the swimming pool I spent so many years of my teenage life in, the pool my latest writing project is telling the story of. I noted the time – after all I needed to write for ten minutes – and started writing with ease, describing the atmosphere on the night of an important swim meet, with the lights beaming down on the water and the darkened sky above the outdoor pool. I wrote for about 20 minutes.

My short piece of writing wasn’t brilliant, but the pool at night wasn’t something I’d thought about including as part of my work in progress. I made a few reflective notes to myself at the bottom on how to make improvements, turned off the light and went to sleep.

A few hours later – as often is the case with writers – I awoke, my brain having processed my scribbling while I slept. There was nothing to do but turn on the light and write down the wonderful ideas drifting through my brain. I jotted down a few interesting words, a couple of possible metaphors and a few more surprising images I recalled. That was it, lights out and back to sleep until morning.

The prompt of a random sentence from another’s writing hadn’t occurred to me before. Although the book I read spoke of a river and my book is about a swimming pool, the water and reflection of the light gave me enough similarities to get started. I’ll certainly use the words of others as a prompt again if my writing is shy about revealing itself to me.

What about you? What tips do you use when the words refuse to come?

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