A Prompt for Writing about Troubled Times

My blog post is late this week because I came home yesterday evening from giving three craft lectures at the West Virginia Writers annual conference and couldn’t bring myself to face the blank page. I’d given what I’d had to the good folks in West Virginia, and all I wanted to do was watch a baseball game on TV.

But here I am after a good night’s sleep, a run, and brunch with my wife and a friend, ready to see what else I might be able to offer.

The conference in West Virginia was a good reminder that none of us make it on our writers’ journeys without the help of others. We throw around the term “good literary citizen” all the time. For me, that term asks me to consider what I can do to help someone else along their path. I’ve written blurbs for books, been in conversation with writers at their events, written countless letters of recommendation, taught more students than I can remember, written years of blog posts I never meant to write, and even published a book about the craft of narrative.

It would be so easy to stop, to turn my attention to only my own writing, but for some reason I can’t. I can’t stop remembering the days when I felt far removed from any sort of writing community, those days when I felt very alone on my writer’s journey. I kept writing and gradually other writers who knew much more than I began to offer their knowledge and their assistance. I try to always remember their selfless acts of generosity, and I intend to keep paying it forward as long as I’m still able to write.

So, here’s a quick writing prompt meant to help us write about subject matter that’s difficult for us to face.


  1. Recall a troubled time from your life. (Of course, you could also do this for an invented character in a piece of fiction).


  1. Highlight a specific object that you associate with this time of your or a character’s life. An apple, a bottle of Scotch, spittlebugs, loose change—these were some of the objects that came up when I led this writing activity in West Virginia. Let the object lead you to a memory of a specific event that happened during this troubled time.


  1. Give some brief context of the trouble (e.g. “I was struggling with addiction,” or “On the night my father died”). Then let the story unfold with a particular emphasis on the object. Describe it and the place it had during this time. Associate it with other things. I remember a water jug I carried to my first paid job, detasseling corn, and the way my mother would fill it and have it ready for me each morning. I think of the biblical story of Rebekah at the well offering water to those in need. I remember my mother, after mowing the grass in a dress, washing grass clippings from her legs, her feet in a dishpan of water. I also recall the water bucket we kept on our kitchen counter (we had no running water) and how cold the well water was when I drank from the dipper.


  1. Let the object and its associations take you through the story you have to tell while also taking you down through the layers of your own character, or that of an invented character, as you consider how a detail can evolve into a metaphor if you pay attention to the associations.


All forms of writing are ways of thinking out loud on a page. Sometimes we think through stories, but sometimes we think through leaps and associations as images accrete. Start with something like a water jug and see where it might take you. Lower the discomfort by absolving yourself of writing directly of the troubled time. Tell yourself you’re only writing about a water jug, or an apple, or some loose coins on a tabletop. “Tell the truth, but tell it slant,” Emily Dickinson famously wrote. Indeed.

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