Weekly Prompt: Paper Menagerie


For the past few months, 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 June 29

Reading: "Paper Menagerie" by Ken Liu

Craft element to note: Scene. If you, dear reader, are anything like me, this short story made you fairly emotional. Which is pretty incredible, because it covers almost 25 years of our main character, Jack's, life, and this isn't a particularly long story. Liu pulls this off so magnificently by splitting up the story into thirteen segments and, out of those segments, writing nine completely in scene, which means we get a front-row view of what happened between Jack, his parents, Mark, Susan, and the young woman who interprets Jack's letter. This in turn makes each character and each event that transpired feel real, like we're reading a true recollection, despite the fantastical element. Once characters feel like real people, the emotion follows.

Liu shows us the necessary moments in Jack's life and barely does any work between scenes to fill us in on what happened outside of those moments. He's trusting we'll do that work ourselves and, in the process, insert our own emotional resonance, which makes the story even more personalized to each reader. By the time we're at the penultimate segment—the letter—we've become so invested in Jack's mother's heartbreak, her life story packs a wallop. It feels like the story of this particular woman in this particular story, but as intelligent readers, we also recognize it's the story of so many women who actually exist. The precision of the fictional and fantastical lead up to a moment of truth: we're seeing a very real history and relationship that exists in hundreds of thousands of households that straddle cultural lines—a much more emotional resolution than any one character arc. 


  1. Liu starts us out with a very specific memory of Jack's that sets the tone for the whole story. Write three different moments in your MC's past that define the characters and relationships that will be the focus going forward, then choose which one feels most like it can only belong to your MC—that it wouldn't function with any other character dropped in.
  2. The paper menagerie works on two levels: 1) it stands in as symbol of childhood, one Jack is gifted, then destroys, then regains as he is gifted, destroys, and regains his role as his mother's son; and 2) it provides a mirror to what Jack refuses to accept about his mother—her Chinese culture. What sort of symbols are important to your MC? How can you turn them into functional aspects of your story?
  3. Liu could have given us more background on Jack's mother through Jack's narration, but he instead chose to let her speak for herself by using a letter. This both gives us the information necessary to see her as a full person and gives her autonomy of her story, something that had been stripped both by the language disconnect and by us getting her story through Jack originally. How can you use a letter in your story? In what ways could is work on multiple levels, as this letter does?
  4. Jack's character arc is essentially a redemption arc. What could have transpired in your MC's past that they now have to atone for? How does that history make itself present?
  5. Liu wrote this story chronologically, which steadily built tension. He could have instead written it by jumping around in time, which would have alleviated some of the tension—had we known Jack's mom dies, for example, or that the menagerie goes lifeless, or that it comes back to life—and would have instead built up other elements. Take a story you've already written and reframe the timing. If it's chronological, chop it up. If it jumps in time, make it linear. See what aspects a new structure can really heighten.