Tag Archives: writing prompts

“change is the only poem”

cartoon of a brown-haired woman with a megaphone standing in front of a crowd all holding signs -- the ones near her say, "The moment of change" "is the only poem"

"the moment of change is the only poem" -- Adrienne Rich (artist Karen Rustad created this image for her freshman year 'graffiti wall)

Good morning!

I should be getting in the shower right now, not just starting my blog post.

There was a dog to walk, to run up and down a long flight of stairs a couple of times, just to work off some puppy energy. There was dog breakfast to make (fill those Kongs — how does she empty them so fast?) and a new garden to water.

My shirt, from the SFBC, says change is happening. That’s not wrong.

There’s change happening that I resisted for decades, change happening that I’ve only just opened to — but the change happens, no matter what I do or how I’m feeling. It happens. Change is.

So, it’s another quick-n-dirty today: What change is present, happening, poeming itself around you or your character right in this moment? Let yourself dive into it for 10 minutes (or more, if you like), explore all its edges, show us, and yourself, what’s cracking open in and around you or them.

Thanks for the ways you let change happen around you, for the awareness of your resistances, for your presence in it all. Thanks for your consciousness. Thanks for your words.

become your dream

graffiti -- "become your dream"Sometimes, after an intense weekend or an intense anything, what you need — what I need — is something completely different.

So here are prompts for today:

Take 10 or 15 minutes, and tell me about

the trees in the backyard of one of the houses you or your character grew up in


the playground of the school where you or your character went to second grade


an early memory of television


the name and characteristics of the first person you or your character wanted to kiss


write about that image above, that phrase: become your dream. What does that mean?

Thanks for the ways you are you, even the things you don’t like — especially those things, those bits of you that are so deeply human. Thank you for your words.

in the now and also in the Then

graffiti: red heart and the words (faint): the way is in the heart

"the way is in the heart"

(A bit of this morning’s post gets into some specific details around sexual trauma — just be easy with yourselves as you read, ok? xox, -Jen)

It’s a wet Saturday morning here in NorCal — puppy is learning to handle wet feet.

There are things I want to say today about a deep kind of patience, a hollow place called faith that opens in the body and hurts like hell, present and ready to be filled with successes and joys.

There are some stories that feel the most terrible, that ride in us like nausea and hunger, that carry our guilt and shame in stony lodgings all over our body. There is a story I want to tell you. I have told you a little about my first dog, how do I tell this story, I have been trying to understand the overwhelming anxiety I’ve been feeling since first falling in love with our Sophie at the shelter two weeks ago (has it really only been two weeks?). It’s been thick and constant in me, totally out of place for this situation — too much — clearly older than now. Do you know that feeling, the dual-body feeling that happens when you’re triggered, when you’re in the now and also very much in the Then?

My first dog, back in secondary school, she was not my best friend or companion, she was the only one. We would take endless walks around the neighborhood together: It was my escape from the house with my mother and stepfather. I would walk as long as I thought I could get away with, would talk to Katja, and would talk to the air. This was about trying to be free, about getting free, about taking the air back into my lungs — as soon as I walked into the house again, the air got removed, this is no time for the passive voice, he, my mother’s husband, took the air back from my lungs for himself. I’m not sure if that’s a metaphor.  Katja was a solid black lab-husky mix who scared every boyfriend that walked through our front door with her barking. She was barely trained and unspayed, eventually getting pregnant — my mother’s husband said he took the puppies to a farm, and I allow myself to continue to believe that was true. (Every one of these sentences is its own story.) Her coat held most of my tears and many of my wishes, dreams — the ones I would let myself say out loud, I would say to her. I’d wanted a dog my whole life, and now here she was, my heart’s only companion. I distinctly remember a time (when I was home from college, it must have been, maybe freshman year) that he wanted to rape/have sex, and I couldn’t talk my way out of it and Katja was in the room. We were all on the floor. At this time, the room that had been my bedroom through high school was now the business office for our family company — the one that ostensibly paid our way through college — the girls’ bedroom was by then down in the basement, far from where my mother slept. The carpet was light colored, there was computer equipment all around. Katja whined and growled at him — she wanted him off me, like I wanted him off me. I don’t think I told her to stop. I hope I didn’t. My heartbeat didn’t tell her No, like it isn’t now. I want to say that he got up and shut her out of the room, but there’s a good chance he made me do that. What I hold on to is how she held on to my breath, was the growl that I couldn’t make, was part of the body of my resistance.

When I was a sophomore in college, home again on vacation, he demanded that I take her to the pound. She was 8 years old. After my sister and I were both gone from the home, my dog spent nearly her whole life down in the basement, away from any natural light, away from people. He was mad because she was pissing and shitting in the house, mad that she barked, mad that she was a dog and that I loved her.  I lived in the dorms and couldn’t bring her back to school with me. My sister drove me to the animal shelter because at 19 or 20, I still hadn’t been allowed to get my driver’s license yet. The woman at the pound was honest with me, forthright, she’ll have a week here to get adopted. I was trying to keep a straight face, to kill the thing in me that was screaming, that looked at my dog’s face and had to leave her in that fenced concrete horror. I said I understood. I understood. I asked if she thought it was possible that Katja could be adopted. She tried to be kind and clear with me at the same time. In the concrete parking lot, bright sun blaring off ever car and window, I fell apart. My sister tried to comfort me, but there wasn’t any way to comfort the place in me that broke. I’m still wailing there in that place. Just a few months later — fewer than 6, I think — I moved out of the dorms and into an apartment. I repeated to myself and to friends: she could have come with me. I could have brought her here.

There are reasons I haven’t wanted to love another dog, reasons that I’m terrified, reasons to want to do it right. I breathe deep into those ancient aches, that horror of shame that craws still up the inside of my skin, I take her muzzle in my face and apologize and ask forgiveness and ask for help now.

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There are the old stories that ache to be written and shared, and are terrible to write and share. Is there one you are thinking of now? You can take it in small pieces. 10 minutes, let the words and tears and/or rage come out onto the page, breathe it true, and then let yourself do something completely different — make an amazingly delicious breakfast, take a good hot bath, go for a run, watch a fantastically-terrible movie. This is about positive reinforcement: we can do the hard work, and get rewarded for it.

I am grateful for the ways you carry your history, your old and true loves,  in and on and under your skin, even and especially those you, we, have betrayed. Thank you for their stories, for all of your words.

if I listened

graffiti: a black bird in a blue window, with the word 'listen' pushing out overheadHappy Tuesday! It’s quiet and grey here on the left side of the Bay (well, when facing Oakland — but who isn’t facing Oakland?) — how is it where you are? The birds are waking slowly; I think they’re not quite convinced of daytime yet.

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You know what’s coming up next around Writing Ourselves Whole, right? Everything kicks off the second full week of June: our 8 week workshops (Write Whole for women survivors of sexual violence — this one’s about fully registered — and Declaring Our Erotic, open to LGBT/SGL/queer folks of all genders) and the next Writing the Flood, on June 18! Got some resolutions for Pride month  around being truer to your fierce, creative self? Come join us!

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This morning I’m thinking about listening — and, of course, puppies. I’m learning to listen to Sophie, just like she’s learning to listen to me. We are practicing hearing each other, testing out what happens when we do. She communicates differently from other dogs that I’ve lived with, at least so far. There’s a way in which she’s been both herself and an instantiation of the other dogs in my life, all at the same time, since she’s been living with us — and slowly, as I get to know her better, as she herself becomes more known to me, that sense of being a representation or a placeholder for another animal begins to fade. I can hear her better for herself, just as she is, rather than listening for how my other dogs used to communicate with me. This is a moment to moment practice, and it’s both exhausting and wonderful.

Don’t we have to do this all the time, with animals, yes, but with people, too? You remind me of someone I used to know, and so it takes me awhile to quit expecting you to act and sound like them; it takes me awhile to really listen to you: to how you speak, to how you act, to how your youness manifests in the world.

And then, of course, there’s the learning, the every-day practice, of learning to listen to self — and the work required to become gentle enough to say yes to deep self longings.

This weekend, at the Reclaiming Our Erotic Story workshop, we did this exercise: Begin writing from the phrase, “If I listened to my body…”

And if you want to take some time with this one this morning, 10 or 15 minutes, remember to change up those pronouns if that makes the prompt more interesting for you: if he listened to his body, if she listened to hers, if you listened to her body, etc…

This was my response during the write:

If I listened to my body, this wreckage would begin to pool away, would slim first heavy then thinning from my shoulders, all the iron bars would falter, then break — if I listened. If I stepped aside, traded ears for armor, if I took the stories in. If I let you ask in all your nighttime longing and I shut aside the worry, the need to sleep or work, the heavy heartbreak or old aches that every relationship accumulates like jewelry, if I closed those thoughts into a warm room with iced tea and good conversation, if I just listened to the quick thud of my heart in my belly, the soft pearling beginning beneath and between, would yes slip more easily from my lips? If I could nuance my way through old panic and just let the body live its now, just here have your skin and mine speaking in filamented blessings, if yes were not tangled in a thicket of terrible history, if I weren’t still so glossed by the anvil glamour of no, would we ride hard and fast into more muscle-achey mornings, would I have more days when I had to keep a scarf around my neck at work?

If I listened, there would be more massage and dance — and don’t I slip into the passive voice there — because who would put on the tall shoes and take those steps on behalf  of this one brave and resilient body, whose scars lie invisible and brazen in her underbelly and along her breasts?  This body, who wrestles deep with every angry wind, this tenacious tired body who has been strung up like a live wire on red velvet alert for so many years and now would just like to recede into something like mo(u)rning and good rest, into something like day — this body, that carries pleasure in her cervices like it belongs there, this body with the taste of chocolate and bitter greens between the teeth, and the taste of salt and moon everywhere else, this body with its tensions and knots, this body is screaming       is howling        just wants me to put down my book and listen, like a little sister: play with me. And what keeps me from saying yes? What breaks open like a geode when I do — glittery, dusty, unfathomably faceted, and unable to close up again?

Thanks for all the times you keep listening, to the hard stuff inside and even, yes, to the easy, gorgeous, fun stuff. Thanks for your strong, knowing words.

on (not) getting messy

stencil graffiti of a bunch of mushrooms growing out of the concrete, painted at the base of a  post

amazing stuff comes up out of mess, when we let it...

Good morning! On today’s short short walk, we saw a long-eared jackrabbit, sitting quiet in the road (at least until he was accosted by a puppy), and then, so quiet overhead, slung the enormous wingspan of a great blue heron — silent amid all the cacophony of birds around us.

Right now I am sitting on the floor, legs in a diamond shape, typing over the puppy sitting in the middle of them. This is a good morning for sure.

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Just a quick one today, about messiness.

Yesterday at work, I was a mess. Exhausted and trying to focus while my sweetie and pup spent their first day at home alone together — I missed them, it was hard to focus on work tasks, not because I didn’t want to do them but because I was so tired. Then I got a message that brought the tears just erupting to my eyes (see the comments from yesterday’s post) and I tried immediately to stuff them down, to deep breathe them back into my eyes: Ok, Jen, it’s ok. Ok. But I couldn’t stop them, got up and hustled down the hall to the bathroom, where I patted my face with paper, breathed more, did not let myself sob.

But why not?

And then it happened again when I went back to my desk, the scene of the ‘crime,’ body memory takes over, we’re still not done with this feeling yet. I put on my headphones, redirecting myself. The internet radio station plays Moby’s At Least We Tried (which includes the lyrics, “Oh now baby, don’t cry / Oh my babe, at least we tried”). This did not help. I changed the station to KCRW, which was playing Peter Gabriel’s Don’t Give Up. Are you kidding me? I took off my headphones — and yet, it felt like a clean message from the universe: Go ahead. Break down.

But I didn’t. I let a few more tears come, because I couldn’t stop them, but I didn’t let all the sobs come: I was at work! We’re supposed to be together at work, not messy, not crying, not overly upset, not overly anything. Workplace is for modulation, where we ride that mild middle ground of feeling, never too much. People who are doing too much, we look askance a them, like they don’t know how to modulate their emotions.

We keep the feeling out, because people are easier to control that way.

I cried later, when I was telling the story to the Mr., and that was good. But why not just go to the bathroom and let my work-self get all messy? What would happen? I go back to my desk, red-faced and eyes puffy, maybe a little emptier, maybe one more wave in a long ocean of grief passed through me.

There are plenty of other places where I don’t want to get messy: this isn’t just about work. This is about those public personae, maybe about a white or Protestant-mainstream culture that devalues emotional displays as irrational, about being socialized as a woman and learning, quick and early, crying girls are not smart or respected girls (and let’s not even mention crying boys…). Even in bed, during sex, I mean, I worry about being messy: not my-hair-is-f-ed-up messy, but my-feelings-are-coming-out-and-I-want-too-much messy.

Messy is out of control, maybe that’s it. This is a trauma aftermath thing: learning to be ok with being out of control, and with what new growth can emerge from that release. Yesterday, I felt no control over those tears, they came up fast and immediate and were suddenly there — this is ongoing learning, how I let myself just be in all those different places, feel exactly what I’m feeling, remind myself, my inside selves, and even the people around me (should they wonder or worry): it’s ok, I’m ok, even when I look not ok. Even when I’m messy.

So, here, now, in these 10 or 15 minutes: what happens if you get messy, or for your characters if they get messy? What does that mean, that phrase: do you see physical mess, emotional mess? What do you look like? What does it feel like inside your body? What do you want when you’re messy? Follow your writing where ever it seems to want you to go — even if it doesn’t make logical sense; yes, even if it’s messy.

Thanks for your bravery, you deep innocence, the parts of you that can still splash in the mud: those are deep, creative parts, I think. Thanks for how you can be present with others’ mess. Thanks for your words.

telling stories

Slovenian graffiti of an elephant, a mouse, and cat's head growing on a stem(It’s 6am and I’ll have to get ready for work in a half hour. for what work? for the paid work. Writing has never been the paid work. it’s the love work. it’s the thing I clear out my calendar for, and then sweat over. it’s the passion, the heartbeat, what I betray with television and busy-ness and food. )

I want to figure out how it is that we tell our untellable stories, the stories we aren’t supposed to know the words for.

Last night I went to see Words First at CounterPulse in San Francisco, because my friend Dominika Bednarska was going to be performing excerpts from her longer solo performance My Body Love Story. As I sat in the audience just before the show began, I had that experience that often happens for me when I’m out at a Bay Area performance, that I’m in love with everyone in the room — I’m in love with the performers for their ferocity and bravery, for their audacity and artistry, for their belief in themselves and their own work, their understanding that what they are creating is something that others will want to see/hear/taste/smell/feel/experience. And I’m in love, too, with the audience, for their time and commitment, for their willingness to spend their money not on french fries and a coke, not on a movie, at least not this night — on this night, we’re in a quiet performance space in the middle of noisy way downtown San Francisco, and we are here to see new live solo work. I fall in love with the spaces, too, the performance spaces and bars, the coffee houses & restaurants that will host these gigs, that believe in live art, in art-in-community. I find myself profoundly grateful to be living where I do, and understanding, too, that all over the country, all over the world, folks are standing up and sharing art and creativity this way. It’s stunning to me, and glorious.

Before the show began, I finally met Martha Rynberg, who runs the Solo Performance Workshop which a handful of my former writing workshop folks have participated in — I’ve heard great things about her workshop, and last night I got to see excerpts from a couple of performances that she’d worked with!

And then the lights went down and we were witness to excerpts to four different personal stories, stories that the performers told off the page, through their bodies and movements as much as their words: a story about the love of breasts, about mammograms and cancer; a story about race, acting, director expectations and an actor’s willingness and unwillingness to bend; a story about disability, dancing, body and being seen; a story about diabetes, online community, running and sweets. The whole show ran just over an hour, but look what we received! What a generous gift they offered us! The acting was varied, in that amazing way that happens when a performer is bringing themselves, as a performance, to the stage.

I left wanting to see more of each performer’s work, wanting to return to Words First next month (every first Wednesday!), wanting to encourage some of  ‘my’ writers to check out Martha’s workshop so that they can develop their own solo performance, and, too, wanting work on my own performance. That’s a lot to come away with in just one hour. Thanks, CounterPulse.

Do you have a story that you would want to work on as a solo performance? What is that story? Do you want to take 10 or 20 minutes today and write out an overview of what that show would cover, what the performance would include, how you would want to move or not move, how you would want to engage the audience or remain still. If that voice pops up that questions, “Why would anyone want to see that?” — just let it go quiet. You don’t have to answer that voice directly. This question comes up for all artists. If you have a desire to perform it, there is an audience for your story, as is true for our writing. (Then, if you want, think about checking out Martha’s workshop!)

Thanks for all that you tell, the way you find words for the things that there weren’t supposed to be words for, for your words and your sharing and your life.