Natalie Goldberg introduces the prompt I'm looking at or the variation what's in front of you in every one of her books on writing. Practicing this skill - writing what's visually around you - sets yourself up to use unique, specific detail in your prose. I keep this prompt in my back pocket and use it several times a week, particularly when I've scheduled myself time to write but feel ungrounded.

Thursday, 6:20 AM, for example.  My head feels detached from my body. I am in my car. It is running. When I left the house, stars still blinked in the sky. I start to paint with words the way the barista is preparing to open the coffee shop on Newport Avenue in the darkness, his broad shouldered silhouette moving back and forth along the bar, the only light a fat Edison bulb in a square wooden lamp.

I see evidence of this prompt in use by authors I admire. Whether they are conscious of it or not, I don't know. Case in point:

An excerpt from Terry Tempest Williams' When Women Were Birds:

I am in jail because I was speeding, driving under a suspended license.

I am in jail because I didn't have the money to pay the fine. 

I am in jail because one night can't be that bad. 

I am in jail because part of me thinks I deserve to be.


Three sets of doors open and close behind me, then lock shut. I enter the women's pod, where twelve prisoners like myself are dressed in orange. It is a crowded room, with seven metal bunk beds; a toilet, sink, and shower; and four bolted-down tables with attached chairs that swing out from under them. The walls are cinder blocks painted white, with no windows, only fluorescent lights. The floor is covered with shiny linoleum squares.


Seems as though TTW asked for a pen and paper in her jail cell. Practice what I'm looking at // what's in front of me wherever you find yourself: car, prison, or otherwise. 


Photo by Robert Hickerson on Unsplash