Weekly Prompt: It Was the Animals


During spring, we ran a daily social media writing prompt aimed at sparking creativity for those of us who were going on day thirty, forty, fifty of sitting inside our homes. Now that it's summer and the world is beginning to, slowly, unfurl its wings again, we wanted to think bigger. So much of writing happens in response to our experience and to other writing we encounter. The latter is what this new weekly series will focus on.

Every post in this series will include a weekly reading and a list of prompts in response to that reading. Some of them will be focused on craft; some will ask you to evaluate content. This idea was born from an MFA course I took that focused almost entirely on emulating the style of other writers and then reimagining that first draft into something that was our own but still had echoes of the original. It's also inspired by the heightened sociopolitical reality so many of us come face to face with each day. Writing can be for pleasure; it can be cathartic; it can be used as a tool; it can preserve memory; it can foster connection. Whatever it may be, I hope this series helps you find what you're looking for out of your practice.


Week of July 27

Reading: "It Was the Animals" by Natalie Diaz

Craft element to note: Narrative poetry. Often, when people think of scene and dialogue, their mind goes to prose—fiction and creative nonfiction. But a poem can just as finely encapsulate a scene, as Natalie Diaz shows us here. While poems almost always include figurative language, they don't have to be solely comprised of it—and sometimes the contrast between straightforward narration and figurative language can make the latter that much more powerful.

In "It Was the Animals," we start firmly grounded in the reality of the scene: Diaz's brother arrives with what he claims is a part of the ark, which we know because he tells Diaz this in dialogue. We get bits of backstory and physical detail about her brother, making him really come to life. We get glimpses of her brother's mental state and their relationship. The scene is vivid and feels familiar to those of us who have complicated relationships with family members. And then the poem a turn. Suddenly, we are no longer grounded in the reality we shared with Diaz—the script has been flipped, and we get insight into her brother's reality. We are now truly in possession of a piece of the ark and are surrounded by the animals held therein. This turn of reality holds so much emotion because we spent the first half of the poem witnessing Diaz interacting with her brother and seeing how she saw him in that moment. Without that preamble, we wouldn't understand the importance of Diaz sitting with her brother and sharing in his altered reality.

Writing prompts: 

  1. In Diaz's own comment to her poem, she writes, "My love for my brother is both the flood and the ark. It is what makes me want to teach him the error of his ways but also what makes me want to hold him as we ride out whatever storm is battering us. He has his animals and I have mine. They hollow us. They make us dark inside. They split us open on the rocks. At the end of it all, everything has changed—the land, the sky, the rivers, the sea—but what doesn’t change is that we are brother and sister. What never change is love." Diaz was able to find a scene that perfectly captured the complexity of their relationship. Think of your own complex relationships—familial, romantic, platonic. Write a true scene that sums the relationship up. 
  2. As mentioned, Diaz shows us her empathy by making her brother's reality equally true as her own on the page. Using the scene from the previous prompt or a new one, write an alternate version of how the events played out for the other person. Let the two realities exist side by side.
  3. Our primary characterization of Diaz's brother comes from how he speaks to her. Write a poem based on someone in your life and use dialogue to characterize them. Every line they speak should be telling us something about them. 
  4. Through the poem, Diaz's brother slowly transforms into the ark: Early on, she notes his fingers are "wrecked," like the ship. Later, when we're in his reality, he's "wrecked open." Finally, his body is "a hull of bones." Using the same style of extended metaphor, slowly turn someone in your life into whatever object embodies the scene you've written. 
  5. The kindness of this poem comes through stillness—when everything else is flooding, rampaging, passing them by, Diaz simply sits with her brother. She creates a bubble of quiet within the chaos. Write a scene that mimics this moment—a time when you or someone else has extended kindness by sitting with someone through a difficult moment.