Creative Writing Prompt: Art as Inspiration

“East River Divers” by Aruthur Leipzig. Source: MFAH

Here’s a creative writing prompt inspired by art. Looking at art can stir the senses and serve as an inspiration for words. Read more about my own inspiration and this photo below.


1) Sit with this photo for at least one minute: just look and take it in.


2) Set a timer for 3 or 4 minutes.

In that time, write all the words or phrases you think of that relate to the photo.
Think of the 5 senses: sight (shapes, colors), sounds, smell, taste, feel. Yes, even sounds and smells — what does the photo make you imagine? Really explore and write down everything you imagine without judgement.


**3) Extended version: Now, think of just one image or association you have with the photo. Write for 3-4 minutes just on that one image, exploring it even further!


4) Now look over your words and phrases. Circle the ones you really love, that are most vivid for you.


5) Make a 5-7 line poem with those words or phrases. Put them together in a way that feels good to you — they don’t have to all make sense or flow logically. The idea is to find interesting contrasts and associations between the images you created.


**6) Extended version: Edit your poem even more!

With a thesaurus, explore some of your word choices to see if you can find words that “fit” even better. For example: If you wrote “run’ in your original poem, type in “run” on thesaurus.com or other site.

Sit with, think about each option. Do you see how all these synonyms have slightly different meanings, or give different feelings (connotations)? Do you see how it would be different to say “race” vs. “jog”? Or “rush” vs. “fly”?

You can do this exercise with your own word choices. Maybe just try one or two for this poem. You can not only express yourself more precisely, you can also learn more vocabulary in the process.


I would love to see your poem if you do this prompt! Feel free to comment below or on Facebook.

This is just a small example of what I offer in one-on-one lessons or classes.

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More about this photo & prompt …

I personally find art very inspirational for my writing. (Writing in response to art is called ekphrasis — or ekphrastic poetry.) Often, when I see a painting or a photo like this one, I’m flooded with images, ideas — something is sparked.

Years ago, I saw this photograph at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, and that kind of “flood” happened. I had been kind of bored that day and decided to take the afternoon for myself. I needed inspiration. So I went to the museum really to look and see what I found.

And there I was, with my notebook, standing in front of Arthur Leipzig’s painting, all these memories and associations coming to me. The photo felt like my grandfather. It felt like the story of a man I’d talked to a few years before and had been wanting to write about. He was a steel worker, and like other workers bound in by the salary, the healthcare, the union. He knew what he would be giving up to quit, and yet he knew he was breathing in these chemicals every day. Somehow, in my mind, his story and this photo connected.

Seeing the photo allowed me to write what I hadn’t been able to put into form. It drew out of me the words to set the story down — to put it into a bigger context — of all workers, of what it means to build bridges, to make anything, to be part of a moment of history.

Keep looking around until you find art that inspires you. There are many organizations who have made their collections open and online during the pandemic. I hope you find art that prompts your own words, or gives you something meaningful to write about in English.

Why should English language learners read poetry?

Poetry. Many people–even teachers of literature–cringe a little (or a lot!) at the very word.

More than that, there is a perception that it is more useful for English learners — whether ESL or TEFL or TESL — to read mostly informational texts and learn to write practical things like emails and resumes. With so much English to learn, why spend time on something as useless as poetry?

Poetry brings out the meanings behind the words. Poems aren’t meant to be read literally (which may be why so many people feel they don’t “get” poetry). A poem can be taken in like a painting, like music. Reading poetry as an experience of the sound of language and image, felt more in the body than the mind, connects English learners with a deep understanding that moves beyond the limits of their current English comprehension level.

Language Beyond Words. Poet Archibald MacLeish writes in “Ars Poetica” that “A poem should be wordless / As a flight of birds.” Can you feel what that means? The flight of birds one can picture when reading a poem is more important than the words that point to it. There is an understanding that is wordless, and that understanding is where English learners can connect and feel that there is more to language than words on a page.

This “wordless,” deeper meaning is true in everyday communication, too. We read tone of voice, facial expressions, body language, situation; in fact, often we’re reading those cues more than listening to what’s said. Think of the difference between, “You’re my best friend,” said lovingly with a smile and “You’re my best friend,” said with anger, betrayal. It’s freeing for the language learner to realize that one doesn’t have to speak and understand every word perfectly to pick up on what is unspoken. There is much more to understanding, such as cultural context, to get the humor of a joke. Poetry and literature can immerse a reader in the cultural knowledge necessary for that deeper understanding.

Fewer Words! Let’s be honest: There are simply fewer words to deal with in a poem, and that makes poetry much more approachable to an English learner than a big chunk of tightly packed prose. There are poems I teach that have two lines, or four — and that spark rich discussion in just a few lines, which brings me to my next point…

Word Choice, Sound, Shades of Meaning. Because a poem contains so few words, every word counts. As one teacher of mine described it, a poem is “language working overtime.” A poem contains so many opportunities to talk about the shades of meaning in a word — far more than in an article meant to communicate information.

For example, in Langston Hughes’s “Harlem” (one of my absolute favorites to teach), the speaker asks “What happens to a dream deferred” (deferred means to or put off, wait to a later time). One of the lines asks, “Does it stink like rotten meat?” What are some other possibilities for the word “stink,” for example? Why would Hughes use “stink” and not “smell” or “give off odor”? Well, first, the sound of stink versus smell; stink is harsh! Smell sounds almost pretty with the “ll” sound. Also, the rhythm: Hughes needs one word there, where we kind of stop for a minute on that harsh word “stink.” A phrase like “give off odor” would sound too nice, too formal, and clunky in the rhythm of the poem. It wouldn’t have the power of that one, harsh-sounding syllable. “Stink” conveys the disgust and anger in that moment in the poem.

See what I mean? What valuable conversations to have about the intricacies of language — the shades of meaning of words, the sound and rhythm of English — while also having an engaged discussion about the poet and the poem’s human experience, in this case, how it feels to not be able to acheive a dream, about racism. These discussions about one word or one piece of background information can be so much more impactful than pages of news.

Wealth of Speaking, Reading, Listening, Writing Activities. There are so many possibilities for poems in a classroom. Students can read aloud and work on their pronunciation and speaking delivery, do activities exploring word choice and sound, try their hand at writing their own poems. Poets play with language, and what better way to teach someone a language than inviting them into it to play, to sculpt their own poem?

Final Thoughts. Poetry is feared because often teachers themselves don’t have great experiences with it or don’t feel comfortable teaching it. But if we, as teachers, ourselves wade into poetry and let ourselves also explore the questions it raises (why would he use that word?) without having to know the answer to tell students, if we could realize there isn’t one answer, we can bring this valuable form of language into the classroom and let students connect with the culture, history, and human experience that poems carry.

Poetry is not reserved for the academic, native-speaker, or privileged honors student. In fact, poetry is often most powerful in places where the least advantaged people of a society treasure it as a form to speak truth against dictators and the established power structure. Learning language is part of stepping outside of one’s nation, culture, and native experience into another. Perhaps nowhere else can language learners better connect with people who have done the same, with poets who sing of the journey.


I created ELLiterature to help make poetry and literature accessible — especially to English language learners. Read more about ELLiterature and about me.

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  • coming soon … book club! Stay tuned for the first (poetry!) book club selection in September 2020.

Ernest Hemingway – Every Word Tells

This short passage (Chapter VII from In Our Time) packed full of poetic prose is a great first lesson on close reading, I have never taught a group who didn’t connect with this powerful block of words, or who were not moved by both the will to survive and the pointlessness of life contained in these lines — as well as the power and complexity that so few words can evoke.

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These short interludes, neat little blocks of prose, interspersed throughout the longer short stories are so powerful. They’re a great example of William Strunk’s famous phrase when describing the importance of omitting needless words: “This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

Let’s start with just the first sentence. Read it a couple of times. Underline all the details you can find about setting, character, and the conflict of the story just in the first sentence. Don’t read ahead!

While the bombardment was knocking the trench to pieces at Fossalta, he lay very flat and sweated and prayed oh jesus christ get me out of here.

What details did you find about setting?

  • Fossalta (Where do you think that is, Italy?)
  • a trench
  • there’s a “bombardment” – a war?

Ernest Hemingway was an ambulance driver for the Red Cross in Italy during World War I. What do you know about WWI and trench warfare?

Ernest Hemingway, September 1918, Milan, Italy
Credit: Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection/John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library, Boston. WikiCommons.

You could do a bit of background research if you’d like. One important aspect for this piece is how futile, or worthless and hopeless, soldiers felt; they went to war expecting honor and glory, and they spent their days sitting in trenches waiting to attack or be attacked, with very little movement in contrast with intense moments of mass death and violence. Later in the war, the introduction of poison gases made the deaths they witnessed nearly unspeakable.

  • Who are the characters we see already in this first sentence? What do we know about them?

READ MORE …


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See more poetry and fiction lessons on ELLiterature!

Connecting English Learners with Books That Inspire

Here is a thought-provoking piece by Mayra Linares who shares her experience as an English learner feeling disconnected from characters who didn’t look like her or speak her language.

When a teacher handed her a biography on Diego Rivera, she says “it changed [her] relationship with books forever,” prompting her to read because she enjoyed it and not just because it was an assignment.

Linares also cites research showing that reading comprehension is improved when learners connect with their reading (not surprising!). Don’t we all remember and understand material better when we’re connected to it?

Not that learners can’t connect with characters who don’t look like them: Finding common and starkly differing experiences in the lives of literary characters — in both real and imagined worlds — is one of the invaluable gifts of literature and one of the most inspiring reasons to read.

I’ve taught Chinese teenaged students who resonated deeply with Edna Pontellier’s stifling wife-and-mother role in The Awakening. I’ve had students of many backgrounds whose most impactful novel was Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, which portrays colonialism in Nigeria in the late 19th century. It’s hard to predict sometimes why students connect with certain pieces and not others, and we certainly shouldn’t stereotype or pigeonhole students into identities we place on them.

The point is that students can more likely find literature that moves them (thus strengthening their reading comprehension and enjoyment of reading) when teachers give them “a large room of literary characters to connect with” (says Candis Grover at ReadyRosie, quoted by Linares). If educators can strive to offer a wide range of texts, authors, characters, contexts, and time periods in the curriculum (and enlarge our own banks of resources and networks so that we can help find connections for particular students) learners are more likely to find affinities in literary characters as well as be captivated by a completely different experiences, feeling the resonance of common humanity.

You’ll find a leaning toward contemporary literature on this site because most school curricula already include a heavy emphasis on “classic” literature. You’ll (hopefully) find a diversity of authors and backgrounds, again, in an attempt to offer as wide a room of literary characters as I can. I always welcome suggestions and enjoy hearing about your successes as a learner or as a teacher, as I’m only one person, and together we can hopefully create a wide network of resources!

  • Below are two more suggestions from author Gary Soto. Stay tuned for lessons on his poems or short stories!
A native of California, Gary Soto was born to Mexican-American parents. Themes of childhood and borders weave throughout his poetry and short stories.
Soto has also written several short story collections, including many for young readers.

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ELLiterature was created to connect students and teachers with quality, original, and accessible texts for English language learners. Visit to see the collection of poems, short stories, and creative writing lessons, and please reach out with any lesson requests, ideas, collaborations, or questions!