Writer’s Toolbox

Ask The Writer

Your most pressing and perplexing questions about writing answered here by Gotham teacher Brandi Reissenweber.

I'd like to keep a journal, but I never know what to write in one. How do I start?

Perhaps Philip Lopate stated it best in his forward to Writers and Their Notebooks: "No one can expect to write well who would not first take the risk of writing badly. The writer's notebook is a safe place for such experiments to be undertaken." Those blank pages are an opportunity to take risks and practice translating experience and emotion onto the page.

If you have an idea of what you'd like to write, but you balk when you sit down to actually do it, the writer's journal might help. Approach the story or poem as an experiment; you might feel less pressure. You may also find writing exercises helpful. Here are a few to get you started:

  • Choose a favorite book. Close your eyes, open the book and put your finger on the page. Begin a scene or a poem that begins with that sentence or phrase.
  • Make a list of objects you associate with yourself. Jot down as many as possible. Choose one or several and begin writing on that topic. This might take the form of a poem or a personal essay. You could even do this for a fictional character instead of yourself and see where it leads you.
  • Describe a place you know well. Use sensory and specific detail to bring it to life. Add a character who has never been there before. What happens? For non-fiction, this character might be you the first time you discovered this place.
  • Write from the perspective of a machine, a seasoning or a body of water. Be specific. What would a robot notice? What would paprika want? How would a puddle behave?

Finally, here's an exercise that has so many variables, it can keep you busy for a long time.

  • Divide a stack of note cards into three piles. The more cards you have, the more combinations you can create. For one pile, write a character trait on each card: enjoys snowboarding, generous, unusually tall. For the second pile, write a setting on each card: dentist's office, meadow, haunted house. For the third pile, write an action on each card: dismantled the holiday decorations, tossed the note in the lake, ate a four-leaf clover. Shuffle each pile separately. For fiction, pick one card from each pile so you have a character, setting and action. Write a scene that includes all three. Perhaps the unusually tall character throws a note in the lake before going to the haunted house. Or the generous character is in the dentist's office when she decides to eat the four-leaf clover. Explore character motivation and how the three elements—character, setting and action—influence one another. For non-fiction or poetry, choose one card from two of the piles and write an essay or poem that draws a personal connection between them. You may have to choose more than one pair to hit on a combination that works, but don't give up too easy. Part of the fun of this exercise is finding unexpected connections.

Writing exercises are a great way to practice and grow, so use them as a springboard for journaling. You may also find that the process of regular writing invites ideas. Follow what intrigues you.