The Toys We Never Had: A Writing Prompt

This post is late today because I got back yesterday after teaching a week-long novel workshop at the Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Writers’ Conference. While there, I spent some time talking about the importance of finding a way to feel the emotional complexity of a character by tapping into some complicated moments from our own past experiences. It’s not that we’re looking to transcribe those experiences in our fiction. Instead, we’re hoping to make our inventions matter more to us because we see our emotions in those of our characters.

I suggested a writing activity to help us with this transference, and I’d like to share it with you. This activity might very well work for both fiction and creative nonfiction writers. Its objective is to put us in touch with moments from our past that had us feeling simultaneous contradictory emotions.

When you were a child, did you have a toy you always wished you had but never did? My dream toy was a Bobo doll, that inflatable toy that always sprang back up when you tried to knock it over. What was yours? Can you describe it? Why did you want it? What did you love about it? Do you remember a time, or times, when you begged for one, only to be told no? Why do you think you never got that toy? These are some of the questions you can use to let the toy access significant moments from your childhood.

Now, zero in on a specific memory that was emotional for you. Maybe it was a time when you threw a tantrum. Or maybe you have a memory of your mother and/or father being ashamed of not being able to get you that toy. Maybe you even did get that toy but felt ashamed because you knew your parents couldn’t afford it. Whatever you can recall that attaches to the memory of wanting this toy will take you to emotional complexity. Allow yourself to feel those emotions. Keep asking yourself what else you felt, so you can take an inventory of contradictory emotions.

You can write about the toy in the form of a personal essay, or you can freewrite, letting the movement of your hand sweep you through memory in a way that might surprise you. You can also find yourself feeling things you couldn’t have predicted if you take a reflective stance and consider what you didn’t know at the time.

If we can remember what it was like to feel contradictory emotions, we might very well be able to push our characters into similarly complex moments when they feel themselves pushed one way and pulled another.


  1. Jane on August 15, 2023 at 3:38 pm

    Hi Lee,
    Thanks for the prompt. It got me thinking of a toy I had received and a member I have of my brother Jeff who died of pancreatic cancer in May.
    As an aside when I took the Writer’s class in Marion last fall you graciously provided us with your contact information. I have a couple of questions which I need your direction on please. I just finished a short story on an unrelated subject. Thanks so much!

    • Jane Baily on August 15, 2023 at 4:03 pm

      Of course I meant to say memory of my brother regarding a toy. Sorry about that.

      • Lee Martin on August 16, 2023 at 11:35 am

        Hi, Jane! It’s fine to get in touch with me with a question or two. If you need my email address, just let me know.

  2. Angela on August 15, 2023 at 4:51 pm

    Fortunately, I scored said toy. You didn’t miss too much, although it was fun to punch it real hard!

    • Lee Martin on August 16, 2023 at 11:34 am

      Good for you!

    • Jane on August 16, 2023 at 4:40 pm

      Dr Martin’s prompts are great! Aren’t they?

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