Weekly Prompt: Sticks


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: "Sticks" by George Saunders

Craft element to note: Unique detail. Flash fiction is a difficult form for many reasons, but one of the main reasons is that it's so hard to really capture a person, place, or idea in less than 1,000 words. One of the tricks to doing this well is employing unique detail. Essentially, a unique detail is something so offbeat that it has to be real, and it almost always does double or triple duty—telling us multiple things about a person/place/idea at once. In this case, the unique detail is the father's obsession with and various dressings of this pole. The story is so memorable because this detail is so strange and visual. It's working on the one level to let us actually see what's happening in the yard, but it's working on a secondary level to show us the family dynamic and a tertiary level to show the progression of the father's mental and emotional state through time. We don't need to see much of the dad at all—the moments with the crayons, apple slice, and ketchup suffice—because we're shown who he is based on his fixation with the pole. 

Writing prompts:

  1. Practice identifying unique details by starting with your own. What can you tell people about yourself that gives them a well-rounded understanding of who you are? (As an example, the unique detail I always share about myself is that I wrote my MFA thesis about my experience as a female MMA fighter and the falsehood of the societal construction of women as non-violent beings. This is working on three levels: academic background, hobby/activity, sociopolitical view.) Now extend this to the people you know and/or the characters you write. 
  2. Following Saunders's use of unique detail and time, choose a character and give them an obsession. Write a time-lapse that focuses on that character and their obsession but is really showing that character's arc over time. 
  3. Similarly, choose a character and their obsession, but this time, write a time-lapse that focuses on that dynamic but also doubles to show what has happened in the world over time (à la the dad's reconstruction of the Chilean earthquake). 
  4. The narrator of this piece is only singularly present in one moment: when they bring a date home and she inquires about the pole. For the rest of the piece, their function is to report on the collective sibling experience and who their dad was. Write a flash fiction piece mimicking this style (often described as a Nick Carraway style of narration, referencing the narrator of The Great Gatsby). Make the purpose of the narrator to show the world around them, but also include enough small moments so that the reader understands how the world around them has a reciprocal affect. 
  5. If you read the contributor's note, you'll see that this piece was born of an actual pole that Saunders drove by for two years. Think of an item in your neighborhood or an your commute that sparks similar curiosity. Imagine the life of the person or people who control this item, and write their story.