"A writer has to read everything from Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations to the backs of cereal boxes."

Ever since we received a galley of John Dufresne’s latest writing book, Is Life Like This?, a couple of us WD staffers have had a bit of a literary crush on his work. For our September issue, the editor of WD and I assembled a feature called “10 Experts Take on the Writer’s Rulebook,” in which various writing gurus riff on common “rules” and accepted wisdoms of the pen—“Show, Don’t Tell,” “Kill Your Darlings,” etc.—and opine on when to follow them, and when to break them. Which gave us an excuse to invite Dufresne into WD land. (And to subsequently bring him back for a full-length feature in our forthcoming January issue.)

After detailing the importance of writing ever day, Dufresne riffed on why you shouldn’t follow the credo “Read What You Like to Write.” A portion of his explanation is the latest from Promptly’s Top 20 Tips From WD in 2010 series (the quote-worthy quips that branded themselves in my mind when we were creating these magazines throughout the year). A regular prompt follows. Read on and write on.

No. 16: The Need to Read
Don’t disregard this rule, but don’t let it limit you, either—because it’s not enough to read what you like to write. A writer has to read everything from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations to the backs of cereal boxes. The writer’s problem, and his opportunity, his obligation, is to know the world. Imaginative writing is a craft that favors the diligent and informed over the inspired and indifferent. You need to know the world, and you also need to develop your craftsmanship. The best teachers of fiction, for example, are the great works of fiction themselves. You may learn more about the structure of a short story by reading Chekhov’s “Heartache” than you could in a semester of Creative Writing 101.”
—John Dufresne, “10 Experts Take on the Writer’s Rulebook,” September 2010 (click here to check the rest of the issue out)



Feel free to take the following prompt home or post a response (500
words or fewer, funny, sad or stirring) in the Comments section below.
By posting, you’ll be automatically entered in our occasional
around-the-office swag drawings. If you’re having trouble with the
captcha code sticking, e-mail your piece and the prompt to me at
writersdigest@fwmedia.com, with “Promptly” in the subject line, and I’ll
make sure it gets up.

Write a scene about someone at war—on a battlefield in an actual war, at home, in a boardroom, in a relationship.

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5 thoughts on “"A writer has to read everything from Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations to the backs of cereal boxes."

  1. Josh Colwell

    Slow motion. Or at least that’s how it feels as the blade whips over the ducking head of one of the fighters. The sound that the two soldiers blades made every time they clanged together was astonishing. It was as if the hammer of Zeus was pounding simultaneously upon every anvil within ten miles. Backpedal…now thrust. Parry. Make no mistake about it, this was a dance of death. Move faster…have to keep pace. Now parry once more. Thousands of eyes peered down upon them from the arena seats.The cheers that once were consuming the eardrums of the opponents now only sounded like a whisper in the distance. Every molecule in the body was screaming one thing: stay alive. Every backpedal, every foot they would plant caused the calm sand to be disturbed in a way that rivaled a comet smashing into the earth. Blood trickled down the arm of one of the soldiers. How warm it felt. The moisture from the blood was almost making it too hard to grasp his weapon properly. Every time he would parry at attack he was feeling the blood slip ever so slightly. Have to readjust…now duck. Thrust! The speed at which these fighters were performing their art was jaw dropping. They seemed a constant blur of motion to the untrained eye. The fighters tight coarse muscles bulged in anticipation. Sidestep, roll. Have to move faster. Get up! Parry! Back to square one. A slight breeze was rolling in from the sea. It was refreshing, if only for a moment. Back to battle. Aches crawled up the ankles and burrowed into the knees. Quick thrust, now spin. This has to end. The warrior has the opening. Slice. Skin. Bone. Blood. Blackness. Death.      

  2. Mark James

    On the last day of the world, it was overcast with a twenty percent chance of rain.

    “Time to go,” dad said.

    “Why bother? It’s a war. We lost.”

    Dad might have been four centuries old, but he still packed a right hook. He knocked me across the kitchen. I flew into the wall, shattered brick.

    I got up, turned my back on him, hands down at my sides, the vampire signal of surrender. “All right, dad,” I said to the wall. “You win. We go. But it’s mostly over.”

    His hand on my shoulder, he whipped me around to face him. “Barely a century old, and you think you’ve seen anything, boy?”

    “Every human is a walking poison dart for us.”

    When human scientists found the cure for the vampire virus, they designed dirty bombs and jacked up the world’s atmosphere from space. All humans had to do was breathe; all vampires had to do was starve.

    “Blood banks are still there,” dad said. His eyes were already turning yellow. He was starving. “They can’t taint their own blood sources.”

    “Maybe not,” I said, “but they can guard them with killer bots.”

    “Wires and circuits are no match for the mind,” dad said. “Get my things. If I have to tell you again, I’ll drink from you.”

    And that would hurt enough to make me wish I was beyond dead. I dropped the hammer, nails, duct tape and his other tools in my work bag.

    We drove to the Blood Bank through silent streets. Most vampires were too scared to be out on the street, and humans were exhausted from the poison they’d breathed.

    Except for the ten foot tall Death Droids stalking the sidewalk on eight legs like giant metal spiders, the Blood Bank looked pretty much the same. A small crowd of humans, desperate for cash, had their faces pressed to the darkened windows, their cupped hands shading out the morning sun. The droids ignored them.

    Dad smiled. His fangs were sharp and long, the way they got when he was hungry. “We can’t just drink from them dad.” The droids were making me nervous enough to sweat tiny drops of pale blood. “We’ll get fried before the poison gets us.”

    “There’s very little humans won’t do for money.”

    Dad popped the trunk, got out of the car, and unloaded planks of wood from the trunk. Vampires move ten times faster than humans. In just under a half hour, we’d built a wooden shack. Dad painted “Cash For Blood” across the front.

    The droids went right on ignoring us, but the humans migrated across the street like pigeons following a homing signal.

    “Dad? Why aren’t we dead?”

    “Private collection isn’t against the law,” he said.

    It only took a few days for other vampires to catch on. Vamps started storefront businesses, paying cash for untainted blood. Humans went to their Blood Bank accounts, withdrew a bag of blood and sold it to the highest vampire bidder.

    Another war’s brewing; too many vampires, dwindling blood supply. If humans thought Al Capone’s street wars in prohibition were bad, they’re about to get a lesson in bad.

  3. Dare Gaither

    The restlessness begins.
    Rats gnaw the edges of my soul,
    omens of impending doom.

    They attack from behind, reflected in the mirror of my self.
    I spin around, gripping my sword with both hands.
    Laughter echoes in the darkness, taunting from beyond reach.

    Unseen talons pierce my fortress of flesh.
    A mangled heart beats on, spewing forth the last
    dregs of my soul onto the barren field.
    I scream defiance, thrusting my sword deep into the black veil
    surrounding me. Searing pain courses through the depths of my being.
    With empty hands I stare into demon eyes, forcing evil to face me.
    Instead, I see…..Nothing.
    The eyes of oblivion stare back, pulling me inexorably toward fate.

    The demons vanish, leaving me in silent terror.
    I feel myself falling.
    Faster and faster I descend into the abyss of Nothingness.
    Clawing frantically, I plead for Something to save me.
    Hell-hound or Angel, I reach for any thing to Be.

    In the last flash of awareness, I drown in the void of …..

  4. Nathan Honore

    I should have died twenty-two times today. Twenty-two of my compatriots have fallen around me. Their blood stains the ground we charged on. We lost the battle, and they lost their lives. I counted each of their bodies collapsing like a puppet whose strings have been cut. One second we’re charging together and the next they’re gone. But the gap closes quickly and a new ally would join me. None of them looked at me until their lifeless eyes stared up from the ground. The chaplain would help them blink once more.
    I wasn’t glad when they died. But as they fell I became more thankful that it was them instead of me. It didn’t make any sense. We were all charging blindly, into a cloud of smoke that sat inches above the ground. It was like the lottery, but my number was never called. In this game, it paid to be unlucky.

    The trenches felt like mass graves waiting to be filled. We had literally dug our own graves. It was hard not to cry, to scream, to collapse in agony. I wanted to. As each of the twenty-two fell, I wanted to mourn for them. The news of their death would not travel home for months. Their families would receive crisp, formal letters devoid of emotion. Someone should have cried for them while their souls still resided on the battlefield. Some human emotion should have been shown on that primal, animalistic plain. But I couldn’t.
    I wonder how many more men will die instead of me tomorrow. The tally increases daily. But I only keep track of the day by day. Surviving today is all that matters. Twenty-two today. Maybe I’ll be part of someone’s twenty-two tomorrow.