quaranTEEN voices Writing Prompt: 'Playing With Words'

News —— May 26, 2020

Special guest author Aracelis Girmay joins us for this week’s quaranTEEN voices! An award-winning poet, Aracelis’s poetry collections include Kingdom Animalia and Teeth, and the collage-based picture book changing, changing. She says of her work, “I hope the poems are songs sometimes. I want the poems to ask questions. To engage other people. To promote compassion.”

To join us this Friday and hear from Aracelis (and share your own work if you’d like), sign up HERE!

From Aracelis Girmay:

How can writing help us to sense connections between even the seemingly disparate things? If we are used to traveling the same metaphorical routes, how can we write toward further meaningful surprise and world-sensing in our own writing? Part of what matters so much to me as a reader has to do with new ways of rigorously, imaginatively thinking about seemingly everyday things. Even the things I think I know. I’m interested in the histories in the bloodstream of this very moment, and the words, elements, nouns that carry the charges of our personal associations and lives. Such practices insist on infinite engagements with our surroundings, lives, communities, histories, and imaginings. I hope that the prompts below, written in collaboration with 826NYC, help you surprise yourself in ways that are generative and good.

Prompt 1
Choose a text to work with—it can be a novel, a cookbook, a magazine, etc.—and choose 5 words that strike you (for their sound or meaning or shape or…). Write the words in a randomly ordered list (or ladder!). Now, swiftly and intuitively, “look inside” the first word on your list and write what you find inside of it. Then write what is inside of that. Do that a few times before going to the next word on your list and somehow incorporating it into your description. This is an experiment of surprise and association so please try not to limit your imagination. (Inside of the mother’s braid, for example, might be a piano.)

Example of list:




blue cloth

Example of looking inside while moving down the ladder:
Inside of “sing” is a telephone ringing
and inside of the telephone ringing is my mother’s voice
and inside of my mother’s voice is the yellow rose
and inside of the yellow rose are cousin’s soft, closed eyes
and inside of the soft, closed eyes is the caterpillar’s slow work
and inside of the caterpillar’s slow work is a wooden guitar
and inside of the wooden guitar is a head of onion singing the song of dirt
and inside of the onion is cold
and inside of the cold is a window
and inside of the window is an elder writing our names into a blue, blue cloth

Revision Tip for Prompt 1:
Much of our inspiration often comes from the things that inspired us the most. If you’re stuck, go straight to your favorite book or piece of writing. What made that writing stand out to you in the first place?

Prompt 2
Go back to the original text that you’re working with. Find a noun that you’re struck by and/or wouldn’t mind working with. Write a portrait of someone as that noun. (It could be a self-portrait or a portrait of a fictional character, a real person, a historical figure.) You might ask: “How” has this person been like this noun before? What do they have in common both literally and metaphorically?


noun: house

Portrait of Lula as the house: Lula was the only person on the street but she was hardly alone. There she stood, a house among houses. Hers was a body of bones, teeth, hair, and the other houses were made of wood, steel, glass, but they were all filled with people all the same. They walked through their rooms, they stood at the windows, they sometimes hollered for someone to bring them something on their way back from the store. The girl stood quiet as a house listening, like something nobody would ever imagine could speak. This is why she heard what she did. And this is how she knew what to do when…

Revision Tip for Prompt 2:
Describe your noun! What images pop into your head? Does it conjure any memories? Now think about this person and list things that describe them. How do they connect with the description of your noun?

Be sure to sign up for our newsletter HERE to receive weekly prompts and other virtual youth writing opportunities right to your inbox! On Thursday we’ll send out a few ideas to help you revise your pieces. Sign up to talk to Aracelis Girmay and share your writing with other quaranTEENs on Friday HERE!