Life-changing Writing Prompts

The other day, I ran across this headline on NPR's site: "The Writing Assignment that Changes Lives." It's an article about how writing affects students' emotions and motivation. But it got me thinking about which writing prompts have changed my writing career. It was hard to narrow down, as I've taken many classes with talented Grub instructors who gave prompts that fueled a piece towards publication. But there are definitely three prompts that stand out as game-changers.

During my MFA program, I had the great fortune to study under Joe Meno. I'd enlisted as a Fiction Writing major and was writing thinly-veiled autobiographical fiction pieces while there. But, as a requirement, we had to take Prose Forms, which was led by Joe. On the first day of class, he gave us 10 minutes or so to write about our first kiss. I wondered how a story about my sixth-grade smooch mattered, but over the semester, Joe encouraged us to write our true stories through different forms. During that time, I wrote flash prose pieces about my long-distance relationship with my now-husband. Joe gave me, and every other student, permission to write our own stories without apologies. He also helped us focus on single smaller moments, where as I was always trying to squeeze a book's worth of material into a scene. His class completely changed my writing focus. My love of non-fiction writing is owed to him.

I went to Guatemala in 2012 for a writing retreat. It was a critical time in my life. I'd almost bled to death after an IVF procedure six months prior, and I was in a fragile mental state. During a morning swim with the workshop leader, Joyce Maynard, it was impossible not to reveal the long scar that ran down my belly. I told Joyce how the doctors didn't know the source of my bleeding--if my ovary or my uterus had been knicked during the egg retrieval--and a third of my blood volume had already drowned my organs, so they had to cut me down my middle to find the source of the bleeding. We had 9 frozen embroys in storage, but I didn't know when/if I'd ever be ready to transfer some of them into my uterus and attempt to get pregnant because I was so afraid of risking my health again. At the end of the retreat, all the participants received journals with writing prompts in them. Joyce encouraged me to write about my nine embryos. Two months later, I wrote an essay called Nine Babies on Ice which became the basis for my recently completed memoir. (Excerpt here.)

Last fall, I took an online essay class with Ann Hood. If you ever want to give your writing a kick in the behind, take Ann's class. She is an amazing editor and can tell you precisely what should be cut from and added to your piece. One of her assignments was to write a food essay. I grew up on cereal and Lean Cuisines, so I have never attempted food writing. I ended up writing a piece about how my husband helped heal my past traumas through his homecooked meals. This essay has become the inspiration for my next book-project. 

So, now it's your turn. What was the writing prompt that changed your perspective or became the basis of a larger project?

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About the Author

Nadine Kenney Johnstone is the author of the memoir, Of This Much I'm Sure, which was named Book of the Year by the Chicago Writers Association. Her infertility story has appeared in Cosmopolitan, Today’s Parent, MindBodyGreen, Metro, and Chicago Health Magazine, among others. She teaches at Loyola University and received her MFA from Columbia College in Chicago. Her other work has been featured in various magazines and anthologies, including Chicago Magazine, PANK, and The Magic of Memoir. Nadine is a writing coach who presents at conferences internationally. She lives near Chicago with her family.

See other articles by Nadine Johnstone
by Nadine Johnstone


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