Try this fun day-long writing prompt from Jack Heffron, author of The Writer’s Idea Book. You’ll gain a lot of insight, and may just come up with some great ideas to spark your next writing project.
A Day in the Life of a Writer
by Jack Heffron
This excerpt, which is essentially one long prompt, guides you through the process of writing down everything that happens to you in a single day. The thinking behind the prompt is easy enough to understand: In a single day, you can find enough ideas to write about for a good long while. Details, images, dialogue, events—in your life, in the news, in the lives of those around you. We have hundreds, maybe thousands of thoughts, ideas, impressions, and reactions that often are forgotten minutes later.
We notice that the roof on the garage takes on a golden hue in the morning sun; our mate always puts milk and sugar in the coffee cup before pouring the coffee; the woman in accounting who usually looks so enervated is suddenly dressing up a bit and has a new spring in her step; drive-time disc jockeys are the most annoying creatures on the face of the earth; the water in the shower is never quite hot enough; the guy in front of us at the grocery checkout is buying enough hamburger to feed Ecuador; we feel a touch of melancholy around seven o’clock every evening. Many, many more.
This exercise is also an exercise in what the Buddhists call “mindfulness.” Writers must pay attention; they must cultivate this mindfulness. As Henry James told us, we must “be someone upon whom nothing is lost.” An entire day of journalizing everything surely will push us in that direction. Doing this prompt more than once will help, too. The first time you do it, you may be very self-conscious and, perhaps, too aware of your writer’s apparatus: the notebook and pen or the tape recorder that you use to record what’s going on. Doing it a few times will diminish your concern about the equipment and will allow you to focus more on what you’re doing and observing. Also, it helps to try this experiment on various days—a workday and an off day, for example, or a weekday and weekend day.
Your goal here is not to develop material for a single piece but to plump your notebooks with ideas and details. It could lead, of course, to a day-in-the-life piece, perhaps a story or an essay. If you want a model for this form, read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s essay “Afternoon of an Author.” You’ll notice that nothing much happens in it. The events and observations are not pulled tightly together. Observation mingles with reverie. But Fitzgerald does create unifying elements and themes, and the accretion of detail creates a quiet, somber essay about a man moving on the fringe of his own existence, dispirited and yet obviously quite aware of the subtle nuances of his life and the world around him:
He went into the kitchen and said good-bye to the maid as if he were going to Little America. Once in the war he had commandeered an engine on sheer bluff and had it driven from New York to Washington to keep from being A.W.O.L. Now he stood carefully on the street corner waiting for the light to change, while young people hurried past him with a fine disregard for traffic. On the bus corner under the trees it was green and cool and he thought of Stonewall Jackson’s last words. . . .
The bus was all he expected—only one other man on the roof and the green branches ticking against each window through whole blocks. . . . Somewhere church bells were playing “Venite Adoremus” and he wondered why, because Christmas was eight months off. He didn’t like bells but it had been very moving when they played “Maryland, My Maryland” at the governor’s funeral.
A Day in Your Life
Let’s get started. Tonight before you go to bed, spend a few minutes setting up your tools. It doesn’t matter if you use a notebook or a digital recorder. You could use, I guess, a video recorder if you want, though that will be a big distraction—to you and to those you meet throughout the day. The point is, use what makes you feel comfortable. Place your notebook—we’ll call it a notebook for the sake of convenience and consistency—on the nightstand next to your bed. Set your alarm, perhaps a little earlier than normal, to give you time to get this exercise underway. You’ll be writing a lot, so you’ll need to adjust your schedule to allow for the added activity.
Decide, too, how you’re going to do the writing. You can’t scribble a conversation while you’re having it, obviously. You could do hourly reports, checking to note what’s happened, or, if it works better for you, jump in whenever you get a minute. But don’t let more than an hour pass without writing. Too much will be lost. Remember, you’re trying to get everything on paper. So even if you’re thinking that absolutely positively nothing is going to happen, structure your day for writing it down.
When you wake up, grab your notebook and record what you can remember from your dreams. Quickly. They can slip away even as you’re writing them down. Scribble everything you can recall. Get out of bed and start your day, taking your notebook with you. As you go through your morning routine, jot down what you’re doing and what you’re thinking. It may look like this:
Eating a bagel and a banana, coffee. Coffee is too weak again. need to set up time for oil change in Jeep. In newspaper—county commissioners still fighting about where to put the new stadium. Morning sunlight looks warm and yellow on the countertop, pours in through the east window. Packing lunches for kids. Remember when I was in grade school, racing through my lunch to get to the playground where we played big games of catchers, sometimes using the whole parking lot, coming in after lunch our hair damp from running . . . .
And on and on, moving through the day: Shower and dress, drive to work, talk to people, do your job, eat your lunch. And as you experience your day, keep your notes short and simple. They shouldn’t be long asides, unless you have a lot of time for writing today and won’t miss out on the day by writing about it. Try to keep your notes short, impressionistic, capturing details, thoughts, memories. Write only what is necessary to help you remember the thought or event or detail later.
Whatever you do, don’t stop. Trust me on this. Keep pushing ahead. Halfway through the day, you may begin to feel that nothing much is happening and you’ll try again tomorrow. Fight this urge to give up. Try again tomorrow if you want, but finish this day. If the day grows too hectic to write about it as you go along, shorten your notes to a few words. You will take tomorrow—and the next day and the next day—to flesh out the notes.
Continue taking notes throughout the evening, making the final note as you get into bed and turn off the light. The next day, examine what you’ve done. Highlight details or events that interest you. If you find nothing of interest, put away your notes for a few days, even a week. When you return to them, you will see them more clearly. Highlight the details of particular interest. You will be amazed at how much is there and how much, even after only a few days, that you’ve forgotten.
Write a piece narrating your day, selectively using what seems to be most interesting. From the distance of a few days or a week, offer insights and observations about the day as you write, enlarging the scope of the piece. If you want, create a fictional character and allow him to experience your day.