Dear Reader: Day 2 Writing Prompts

Roland Barthes kept index cards with quotations and details from his readings. Often, those quotations appear in his essays and books as scaffolds or pivots in arguments. Here is how he described it in a 1973 interview in Le Monde:

I use my notebooks the way Barthes used his index cards. I often start writing a story from a quotation that fascinates me. Sometimes characters appear in relation to the words of others, and those characters challenge or unsettle the quotation in a way that makes me want to hear them out. So, I write. I write to meet these characters. 

For these prompts, try as many as you want—and then pick one to share with other readers in the sharing space. I am so grateful to have spent this weekend reading your work, and meeting you in your words. In the myrrh and the mire of it.

“I Can’t Get Naked Enough” Prompt

One can write in dialogue with something one has read by addressing the writer directly, as Vogel did with the character in Gladman’s novel. For this prompt, pick a favorite character or section or excerpt from a novel, an essay, a short fiction, a poem, etc. and write a letter addressed to the character or speaker of that piece. 

Open Letter to a University or Institution

Unfortunately, my open letter from 2019 was quite serious—and not much fun. But it offers a basic form that can be subverted for a story or a memoir detailed as a part of an open letter. For this prompt, pick any corporation or institution or even a church, and write an open letter based on actual events or imagined events. 

Letter to a Loved One About Current Events

Following Allison Adair’s letter to her niece, write a letter to a loved one about current events. Pick at least two specific details or images that you want to develop. Use italics for one word. For additional constraints, include the following: a song title or lyric, a piece of furniture, a green thing.

Paris Diary

I love this excerpt from Henri Cole’s Paris Diary, which isn’t quite a letter but approximates the epistolary in its intimacies. For this writing prompt, imagine yourself in Paris–or invent a character in Paris, or adopt the first-person of a historical character—and write a brief diary that mixes sensations, encounters, and meditations. You could be Marie Antoinette two weeks before her head gets chopped off. Other possibilities: Rilke when he was in Paris, Napoleon, a widow visiting her ex-husband’s grave, a pianist who sells books by the Seine, Annie Ernaux’s Soviet apparatchik lover, a diamond, Tristan Tzara, anyone, anything…. imagine it.

I Had To Ruin It

“I had had to ruin it to get out of it, but once I was out of it, I had to remain attached to it, as though what I needed was to be on the edge of it.”

—Lydia Davis, The End of the Story

Write a short flash, or a series of flashes in first-person, about a letter that troubled your speaker. Build a story around the letter itself without quoting it directly. Try to borrow from Davis’ clipped syntax as a strategy for motion— don’t focus on resolving anything. Focus, instead, on seducing the reader into the room.

Let Us Consider, after Edson

Write a prose poem that builds on the pattern of Russell Edson’s “Let us consider”. Use the poem as a way to explore strange images, objects, and juxtapositions without any ulterior motive. Then, after working with associative leaping, find your own phrase to use as foundation for repetition, and write a poem based on that. 

Let us consider the farmer who makes his straw hat his   
sweetheart; or the old woman who makes a floor lamp her son;
or the young woman who has set herself the task of scraping
her shadow off a wall....


There are stories that don’t quite fall into epistolary form, but which ride the line between the letter and the meditation. I’m thinking, for example, of Gerard Murnane’s “Boy Blue,” and the contemporary, self-referential nature of its address. On that note, there is also a writing prompt that consists of simply writing a postscript unattached to a letter, undated, but with all the ferocity and PPPPS of a postscript. Write one long, urgent postscript. Or write a numbered flash fiction that consists of a series of 10 postscripts. Or follow what your postscript demon suggests.