Hi. I'm Jenna McGuiggan.
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My Complicated Relationship with Writing Prompts

"I don't give prompts. The world is your prompt!"

So said the accomplished poet leading a writing workshop I was in several years ago.

And I thought, "Yes, yes! Real writers don't need to be told what to write. I am an artiste! The world is my prompt!"

And then I realized that I've routinely found myself wondering what to write about, worrying that I'm not a real writer after all. Phooey.

Whatever shall I do if the world is not enough?

** ** **

I have writer friends who love prompts with pure, unadulterated hearts. They have always nudged me toward them, gently but firmly, trying to convince me that a good prompt is better than the whole wide world, because a good prompt gives you a focus and a way in.

But I thought that I hated prompts.

** ** **

You know what I really hate? The blank page. The blank, ever-so-white, mocking-me-with-its-clean-emptiness, no-words page.

When I was a teenager I wrote a poem called "A Bright White Room is Hell." I didn't intend it as a metaphor for the blank page, but I think I'd like to intend that now.

But give me a page with my own messy thoughts and I can breathe a little more easily. I have something to hang on to, something to swing around my head. Most days, words—any words—are better than a blank page.

** ** **

That same workshop leader who insisted that the world is our prompt eventually conceded and gave us just one little bit of direction. She told us we could choose a color and write about whatever came to mind when we thought of that color.

I chose brown.

I wrote about the first day of first grade when the tip of my big, fat Crayola snapped off and left with me a pointless tree stump of a crayon. My teacher was a kind lady, but she wouldn't give me a new one. I cried during the walk home with my mother, grieving my broken crayon, trying to make sense of this introduction to loss. Years later, that teacher, still a youngish woman, died of cancer. I began to think (while writing about "brown") how little things and big things can go wrong unexpectedly, and how there's not always a do-over or a replacement waiting in the wings, even if someone is kind.

All of that from brown.

Brown was my way in.

** ** **

So here's the thing: The world is enough. But the world is overwhelming. And sometimes we're tired. Sometimes our creative mojonators slow down and we need help to crank things back up.

I think of prompts this way: I know how to cook without a recipe. But sometimes I run out of ideas or get bored, and then I like to read cookbooks and websites for yummy ideas that I can follow verbatim or tweak to my liking.

There is no shame in wanting, needing, using creative prompts. I still resist them, but that's because

I'm stubborn and silly. Even so, I am now a prompt convert. I believe in them. If nothing else, they can get us unstuck, get us writing, get some messy words on that blank page so we can swing them around later. If nothing else, prompts can be practice. And when I say practice, I mean as a musician practices scales and as a Buddhist practices meditation.

** ** **

Some days the world is enough. Other days, I need a little help finding the right piece of the world to write about. And I'm cool with that.

I've discovered that I like a certain kind of prompt. I like ones that are open-ended enough to let me jump from the color brown to first grade to death (so to speak). I don't love the ones that are overly prescriptive and tell me to write a sci-fi story about robot toasters that come to life (for example). That's a bit too much of a way in, and I don't really want to go there anyway.

So I created a batch of writing prompts that I'd actually want to do, and packaged them up for you, in case you'd like to do them, too.

The Alchemy Daily ebook contains 30 days of  writing prompts, inspiration, and magic, available for immediate download.  The prompts are fun and accessible, with room for you to go as deep as you want. And there are no robot toasters, I promise. (Unless that's your thing, and then you can write all about them!)

(Why "alchemy"? Alchemy is the "power or process of transforming something common into something special." Something common = words. 
Something special = the way you put those words together.  stories
Alchemy Daily is about the magical transformations that happen within us and on the page when we allow ourselves to start stringing words together, delighting in language, and giving form to our stories)

** ** **

What about you? How do you feel about writing prompts?



Thoughts on Creativity & Time

Doing stuff takes time. Doing creative stuff can take a lot of time. It can also make time go all wonky, contracting and expanding it, making it refuse to play by the normal hourly rules.

Scenario #1: You sit down to write and the words won't come. You tell yourself: I'll sit here for one hour and do nothing else but focus on writing. Time limps, drags, scrapes by until you're begging for mercy, aching to stand up and do something more pleasurable, like wash dishes. 

Scenario #2: You set out to write (or paint or dance or take photos) and you shimmy into a sweet groove. You are in the zone. You look up and zip! You've "lost" an hour or two or five.

Scenario #3: This is the in-between scenario: You write something, say, a blog post. You think it will take about an hour to write it, edit it, proofread it, add a photo to it, and hit "publish." Sometimes it takes an hour. Sometimes it takes three. It's not that time zipped or dragged, it's just that the process was more involved and consuming than you thought it would be.

I was talking about creativity and time with one of my students who is frustrated because Scenario #3 happens to her a lot. It happens to me a lot, too. Things often take much longer than I think they will. (Except when they don't, of course. Sometimes I put off doing something because I'm sure it will be difficult and a major time-suck. And then it ends up being easy-peasy and taking five minutes, and I feel like a schmuck, albeit a productive schmuck.)

I've been thinking about the nature of creative work, and how it forces us to play by different rules than if we were just making widgets on an assembly line. Creative work isn't so regulated, so orderly, so perfectly timed.

Ideas don't come down the conveyor belt in perfect succession, spaced apart just so

Developing an idea doesn't happen in an orderly, assembly line fashion. It's messy. Things do not always proceed in a linear direction. There is much doubling back, doubling up, rearranging, redoing. I have to remember this every time I start writing a new essay or developing curriculum for a new course. Each time I do it I learn something new, but the learning never stops.

If I sit down to write, I want to be writing -- actively. I want to see words filling up the blank page. Letter after letter, word after word, line after line, punctuation mark after punctuation mark. Progress! I worry that if I'm not typing, I'm not doing anything. And if I'm not doing anything, then I must be lazy or stupid or creatively blocked. But no, this is not so. Idling is a good and necessary part of the creative process. Let your mind wander. Daydream. Doodle. Give yourself -- and your work -- time and space to breathe. I mean this literally (meditation, yoga, deep breathing, taking walks -- all good things), and more metaphorically. Let things steep and simmer for awhile. It adds flavor and depth, like a good soup.

(Not everything needs -- or can wait for -- a lot of marinating, of course. This blog post, for example, won't get a lot of breathing room. It's a bit more slapdash than that. But the essay I'm working on this week is getting a lot of breathing room. I've been noodling with it for months. This frustrates me, but I also know that it needed this long to come into being and to come into its own.)

This is what I know: Creative work needs time and space to breathe.

{click to Tweet}

What about you? How does time fit into your creative process?


(This post was originally published in a slightly different form in January 2012.)




{A slightly different version of this essay was originally published in The Collapsar.}

Somewhere west of the Pennsylvania border but east of Columbus, the tree-dense slopes on either side of the highway started to ease themselves down to the ground. It was subtle enough that I didn’t notice it at first, but eventually the mountains shrunk to hills shrunk to fields, the way icebergs of plowed snow in parking lots melt and melt in the spring, until one day there’s nothing but a puddle where once stood a dirty white mound. Out on the highway, maybe an hour from Columbus, the treetop vistas and the cradling valleys gave way to farmland flat as paper.

Last spring I drove to and from Ohio twice in eleven days, and each time that I hit the edge of the heartland, an unexpected unease set in. The same thing happened a few years ago when I drove from my home in southwestern Pennsylvania to Indiana for the first time. Somewhere around Sandusky the landscape changed, and I understood why Ohio is part of the Midwest. In all three cases, when the foothills of the Appalachians melted away into plains carved by ancient glaciers, my internal compass went haywire. I felt twitchy. Overexposed. As though I were suspended in a perpetual state of waiting.


In a grocery store parking lot in Ashland, Ohio, I saw an Amish family: Mother in her bonnet. Father in his beard and suspenders. Young son in his little-man hat. They climbed into their black horse-drawn buggy and drove away. I was eating baby carrots and hummus inside my blue RAV-4, having a quick snack before I started the 190-mile trip home. With one or two rest stops along the way, I’d be back in my living room in three and a half hours. The same trip in an Amish carriage would take nearly 24 hours. That’s without stops and going full-tilt at a buggy’s top average speed of 8 miles an hour. If the horse is slow, you’re looking at a full day and a half on the road.


My second spring trip to Ohio took me six hours west and south to Cincinnati, and then two minutes over the river into Kentucky. At that point, things begin to tilt Southern and the terrain picks up some more hills.

Six hours west and north from my front door puts me near South Bend, Indiana, which is just a short commute to Michigan, a state I’ve never visited.

When I was a kid, six hours in the car invariably meant heading east to our family’s annual New Jersey beach vacation.

Six hours on a plane has taken me west to Seattle and east to London.

Six hours in a carriage with a fast horse would get me almost from my house to Pittsburgh International Airport 50 miles away.


The first telescope was unveiled in the Netherlands in the early 1600s. Scientists finally confirmed the existence of the first planet beyond our solar system in 1992. In the last 20 years, they’ve confirmed hundreds and hundreds more, with a projection that several hundred-billion others pepper the vast tracts of the universe. Hundreds of billions of planets, up from fewer than 10, in just two decades. These are true astronomical numbers, beyond human scale. A million, a billion, a trillion, a google. The words roll out of our mouths with all their implied zeros subsumed in a few syllables. No one can count that high.


Jetlag is more than the effects of crossing timezones. It’s an affliction deeper than knowing when to sleep and when to wake. Travel far enough or often enough by plane, and sooner or later you’ll need to sit yourself down and wait for your soul to catch up with your body. Your internal compass, the one that tells you where you are in the world, and why and how to be there, will need some time to reset.


How fast is too fast? How far is too far? Are human beings meant to travel at 300 miles an hour through the air? Are we meant to travel at 65 miles an hour in a car? Astronauts on the space shuttle Atlantis travel at a top speed of 17,500 miles in orbit, a sunrise and sunset to greet them every 45-minutes. The fastest marathon runners reach a speed of about 12 miles an hour, one and a half times faster than that Amish horse-and-buggy. Most of us walk at a pace of about 3 miles per hour. At that rate, it would take me more than two-and-a-half days of nonstop ambulation to reach Ashland, Ohio, from my house in western Pennsylvania. On October 14, 2011, a 23-year-old named Andrew Forsthoefel walked out of his front door in eastern Pennsylvania and set about walking 4,000 miles across the continent. He arrived at the Pacific Ocean 332 days later. That’s an average pace of 12 miles per day.


An old, lone tree stands in the middle of a field. You see it all the time in farmland if you look for it: a giant maple or oak keeping vigil on an island of grass, smack dab in the middle of tilled brown earth. A shady oasis for farmers, some say; a holdover from the old days before motorized equipment could take you quickly from one end of the wide field to the barn. Or shade for livestock, should the field be used for grazing. Or a landmark by which to keep track of your location in all those featureless acres, others say. Or the result of intact land where large boulders made clearing it impossible. Or an invitation of hospitality to birds that eat the fieldmice. Or, as the Irish say, a portal to the fairy world. Or a simple matter of aesthetics and sanity, something beautiful to rest the eyes from the terror of all that open space. A single tree in the perpetual act of waiting.


The Writing Life Starts Monday

Just a quick reminder that the next online session of The Writing Life: Rituals, Rhythms, & Practices starts on Monday (June 30). There's still time to join us.

This class is all about creating a writing life that you love -- and one that works with your whole life. From where you write to how you approach the blank page, the topics in this class will take a comprehensive look at the internal and external aspects of your writing life. The exercises, lessons, and experiments will empower you to mindfully create practical (and enjoyable) systems that work for you

Writing is hard enough on its own. We can set ourselves up for success by choosing how we think about writing and how we actually put words down on the page.

I'm using the techniques of this class to create a more prolific, sustainable, and enjoyable writing life for myself.

If you want to do the same, sign up here.



winter water-sky, good harbor beach, gloucester, mass.

The sky played tricks on me over the weekend. Maybe it was something to do with the long summer light on the days around the Solstice. Or something with the moisture content in the air. I don't know. Whatever it was, I could have sworn that the wild blue sea was just over that ridge of trees. Here in landlocked southwestern Pennsylvania, I spied water-sky.

It reminded me of this passage, from one of my essays in For All We Learned, The Sea (my manuscript in progress):

Stone, water, light. These are the sum parts of a seashore.

Certain curves of land and sky are known (to those who know such things) for their light. I’ve spent hours thinking about how to describe this light with words. It’s like describing true love. What creates this love, this love that infuses everything? Is it the sky? The sky covers everything. At the sea, the love flows down to your toes in the sand.

Light washes air. The air itself is a sheer, rarified color, the palest yellow and the most translucent blue. The air is transparent with light. So much here depends on this light that glazes everything. Every object stands in stark relief to everything else, painting a harmonious whole. Cerulean blue is the sea. Even the greys shine from within. Every scene is scrubbed clean and smoothed, then steeped in patina like an old Polaroid, faded or with sun-flare.

People come to such places to paint, but the very idea makes me despair. Painting this light is as impossible as spelling it out in words. No medium is transparent and shining enough to recreate this air. Light everywhere is peculiar, wave and particle both. Seaside light in particular defies logic; it is both saturated and clear. Light is the invisible conundrum by which we see everything.

I used to think that God is light. Now I think that light is a god.

The sky is a holy spirit. She cannot keep a secret. She always gives away the presence of water. Even in the distance, even when I cannot see what lurks beneath, I can tell if water lies below. Look out into the distance, through a stand of trees or across a stretch of road. When you find an openness in the sky, a light that glows from below, you have found it. I call this water-sky.

I invented this phrase in Massachusetts before reading that the term already exists in Arctic climatology to describe a phenomenon that is the polar opposite of my definition. If you climb north, all the way to the imaginary circle at the top of the world, the underside of a cloud will look darker over open water than it does over land. This makes sense in the Arctic, where the black water absorbs more light than the bright white land. Being able to discern the appearance of Arctic water sky is helpful for navigation, say those who know such things, and I believe them. But I'm sticking with the latitudes I know and the water-sky I love.