Dear Reader: Day 1 Writing Prompts

Remember how I fudged Joy Williams’ “Eight Essential Attributes of the Short Story and One Way It Differs from the Novel“? 

Maybe you shouldn’t trust me. 

However, if you elect to trust me anyway, you may be one of those readers who does so on the condition that I give you more. You may, for example, be wary of my ethical commitments as someone who loves writing letters and who also writes fiction and who poo-poos the lines we invent to separate the two. And that is exactly how I want you, the reader, to feel as I address you in this form— I want you to wonder why I would share something as intimate and private as a letter. I want you to mistrust me a little, and wonder if I need therapy. I want you to mistrust yourself as you read me, and wonder if we both need therapeutic intervention. I want it to bother you.

Because we are talking about objects today, we are engaging the physicality of a non-speaking thing that wants to speak, or a material that can speak in lieu of the human who isn’t sure they want to say a vulnerable thing. 

A nest is a dwelling-shape that harbors. This paragraph, can you rest here?
A nest’s form exposes the logic of its construction as well as the past,
present, and future lives of its fragments.

—Danielle Vogel

The letter is the nest—the vessel for the story as well as the form of its construction. As you work on writing prompts, take risks in imagining your character and dare by making too much of them. Take liberties that enact narrative intimacy.  (Clare Beams has written on the “the intimacy of letters.”) Thieve your way into the story.

Letter to An Imaginary Friend

In an interview, writer and poet Brenda Miller admitted to having had an imaginary friend as a child. “I did have an imaginary friend when I was very young,” Miller says, “Her name was Susan. She was always in charge, always criticizing, always stomping away from me in disgust.” Susan was a very critical imaginary friend. One can almost imagine her scowling over the writer’s shoulder in the present as an internal critic. Reach back into your own childhood, whether real or invented, and tell a story about something that happened with friends or family using a letter to this imaginary friend as a form. 

Epistolary-Ekphrasis of Photo Ghost

“The Hat” by Cathy Sweeney is epistolary in its address; the author speaks directly to an old photograph of a person she never met, and thinks aloud. Following Sweeney’s direction, find an old photo of a person who is no longer living—it may be personal (family, ancestry, close friend) or it may be borrowed from the annals and archives of dead people online. Use this photo to tell a story about the character (it can be fictional or close to fact). Pick a specific aspect of this photo as the frame, as Sweeney has done with “the hat,” and develop it through the story which is addressed to the ghost, or the traces of the person who existed in the photo. 

Pretending to be a Famous Literary Character

The twitter account, Letters of Note, constantly publishes excerpted letters from artists and writers. Find a correspondence that intrigues you and use it as a prompt or frame. Respond to the letter as if you were the addressed. Use language that the speaker might have used. 

Epistole on Autofiction

There’s an ongoing debate about what autofiction means, and the energy of this debate lends itself to the epistolary, precisely because a letter often feels like autofiction, or attends to the same positionality vis a vis the reader. On that note, read Walker Caplan’s list essay, “10 New Definitions of Autofiction” and be sure to follow the links. Notice how she uses links as gestures which undermine or support or parody her own humorous statements? Now, write one or two short flash fictions addressed to an editor or a publisher or a friend in which the speaker attempts to convince the recipient of the letter that autofiction is (or is not) a literary genre, using examples from their relationship and what the writer has just published or is planning to publish.