Mitchell Zuckoff is a journalist and the author of the books Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II.
I come from a background as a newspaper reporter, so writer's block really isn't an option. Deadline looms and you write, sometimes better than others. There's an old line in journalism that writer's block for a newspaperman is the unemployment block. But of course there are times when nothing seems to be working and I feel as though I've lost my voice and my fingers on the keyboard are unconnected to my brain. When that happens, I reread passages or pages that I felt particularly good about. I'll even read them aloud, so I can hear what I'm supposed to sound like when the pistons in my brain are firing and not backfiring. Then, while those confidence-building sentences are still echoing in my ears, I'll force myself to write even a couple of long paragraphs, just to break through.
I wish I could help here, but I don't use writing prompts, per se. As an author of nonfiction, the prompts for me are the documents, photographs, interviews and other materials I've assembled to create a narrative scene or an expository passage.
My first journalism teacher was a wonderful, brilliant, curmudgeonly, warm man named Wilbur Doctor. He set me on the path, and now, even after his death a couple years back, he remains the true north of my reporting and writing compass. When I was young and trying to prove what a gifted stylist I was, Wilbur took me aside and said: "Don't get in the way of the story." He could easily have said, "Stop showing off," but Wilbur was a great teacher, and he wanted to be constructive. I heed that advice to this day. In my work, if the reporting is rich and complete, and if I have a clear idea of the purpose of a particular chapter (or even a short passage), I know that if I leave my ego at the door and focus on the storytelling, I'll satisfy Wilbur's wise advice.