Prompts for the Doldrums

That time of year when we set our clocks back an hour has rolled around, paving the way for winter days of short light. I don’t know about you, but here in central Ohio the cold and the dark are enough to sometimes send me into the doldrums. I just looked up the etymology of the word, “doldrum,” and Merriam-Webster tells me it’s probably akin to the Old English word, “dol,” which means foolish. Foolish or not, writers often find themselves struggling through stagnant periods during which the writing is difficult or perhaps nonexistent. To keep us all from a winter of discontent, I’d like to offer a few prompts to keep us writing even through the darkest days.

Start with an Object:  Choose an object that you find remarkable in some way. Write an opening line that includes this object. If you’re writing a narrative, perhaps a character is using this object, or maybe that character is desperately desiring it. What’s the story of how the character either got that object (inherited it, purchased it, stole it, received it as a gift, etc.) or decided it’s something they can’t live without (they envy the fact that someone else has one, they consider it a luxury they deserve, they think it will bring them happiness, etc.)? They key is to use the object to put a narrative into motion.

Write a Really Bad Sentence:  Write a sentence full of abstractions, lacking concrete details and active verbs, and using the passive voice. Here’s an example: Sometimes she was overwhelmed by the simultaneous joy and the burden of responsibility that came with motherhood. Now rewrite it, translating it into particulars and giving it forward momentum: Saturday afternoon she drove to the bakery in the shopping center. Yes, that’s the opening sentence of Raymond Carver’s story, “A Small Good Thing.” The objective of this prompt is to give yourself permission to write badly and then to challenge yourself to simplify and concretize with particulars that could start the narrative leaning forward.

People Watch: Go to a public place—the grocery store, the public library, the municipal courts, your dentist’s office, wherever—and get interested in observing people. Who makes you curious? Imagine a story for that person. Write an opening sentence that puts them into some sort of action. The purpose of this prompt is to invite you to become curious about someone you don’t know and to let your imagination engage with the details that you’ve gathered. Good writing is often the result of a writer’s curiosity.

Daydream Your Past: We all have memories from our pasts of moments we wish we could change. We often daydream those memories because something about them is unresolved. Let your daydream take you to the heart of what still troubles you. Let some question arise. Why did you do something you now regret? Why did someone do something horrible to you? What do you wish you could say to someone now gone? Turn those questions into fiction, memoir, or poetry. The objective is to find something that’s very complicated, something that may very well make you uncomfortable, and then to find a way to dive in and to write about it.

Find whatever tricks you can to keep the writing going through the dark days. Let your words light your way.


  1. Kathleen Cadmus on November 8, 2021 at 9:59 am

    Great prompts. My favorites are the last two. “People Watch” reminds me of the comment my daughter has repeated to me too many times to count: “Mom, you’re staring!!” You have just given me permission to continue this act. Thank you, Lee. 🙂

    • Lee Martin on November 9, 2021 at 11:23 am

      How can we not be interested in people? We’re voyeurs of other people’s lives.

      • Donna Burtch on November 10, 2021 at 8:18 am

        These are solid prompts, and doldrums could be another name for the time change era in our Ohio. My best people watching place was the dialysis clinic where Dad received treatment for several years.

        • Lee Martin on November 10, 2021 at 11:14 am

          Donna, as you know, the real dark days of winter are yet to come, but the time change always reminds me they’re near.

Leave a Comment