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.

How Studying Sound in Poetry Can Help Language Learning

I just wrote this lesson on Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.” While I’m trying to include diverse, contemporary literature on my site (which helps make literature more accessible, especially for language learners), this poem is just so beautiful, so I had to include it.

And as I started to write, I found myself pulled to making a whole section about analyzing the most un-contemporary quality of this poem: its meter and rhyme scheme. Most poets today don’t write in form. And analyzing these elements is exactly the sort of thing that makes students fall asleep, that seemingly takes the joy out of poetry in school. That’s what I want to avoid here! So why do this analysis?

Of course we can read the poem and enjoy it without thinking about its meter. But I suppose it’s like any literary device that we stop and take time to notice: a certain amount of analysis, of understanding what the poet is doing, or how the poem works, can add to our appreciation of it. When you understand the tools and possibilities of poetry, you understand and appreciate its artistry. You notice things that add to your enjoyment.

Even more important for the langauge learner, you can focus in on elements of language — sound and rhyme and rhythm — that add to your knowledge and appreciation of English. Like painters who revel in the color and texture and smell of paint (this is a reference to Annie Dillard, by the way), poets revel in words, in language and how it works. As a poet myself, I always love meeting students who are learning English and who have discovered that joy, seem fascinated by the sound of words, how they can rhyme, how one word can resonate with many shades of meaning.

So in “Stopping by Woods,” analyzing the rhyme scheme can make you more aware as you read, as your ear tunes to the rhyming sounds in English. While imagining the scene of the poem, you’ll feel the beats, the syllables, and you’ll hear the rhythm of this particular combination of English words. You’ll start to feel how that music actually helps you “see” the images. As you listen and feel the langauge, your ear absorbs subtleties you might not even be conscious of, like our brains are made to learn language as children. You practice listening closely — to the workings of the language itself — rather than just grasping for the literal meaning and analyzing it rationally, as you would in everyday communication.

Ready to dive in? Read more of the lesson here!

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“Eating Together” by Li-Young Lee

Go straight to the complete lesson here!

And see a creative writing prompt based on this poem here.

To me, Li-Young Lee writes some of the most complex and layered and beautiful poetry I know. Yes, his work can be difficult for even the native English speaker with a big vocabulary and with lots of poetry reading experience.

But at the same time, he relies so much on memorable images that langauge learners can quickly surpass the langauge on the page and access the visual, tactile, sensory world the language only points to. And isn’t that the beauty of poetry, the reason to read a poem?

That characteristic of poetry — relying on the image and the symbol more than literal language — makes it a form especially rich and rewarding for those learning English. If we can make it past those initial black and white letters on the page, we can see and hear and taste the meaning, particularly with a poet like Li-Young Lee.

And in “Eating Together,” we see also how the simplest language, the first words you might learn in the language — “brothers, sister, my mother” –become so important. This is another advantage for the language learner: if you know even these basic words you can read this poem — and feel how just by saying their names he honors them. In a beginning English textbook, these words might seem so elementary. But here, in this poem, these most basic English words are carefully, intentionally used in a way that creates a feeling of honor and love.

In poetry, simple language does not mean a lack of meaning. Because in poetry, the way a word is used, its position on the line, the amount of space devoted to a subject, the sound of the words themselves, all contributes to the meaning. These poetic signals are like having conversational cues in addition to the literal words being said — and with these cues people learning a language have much more help in understanding the exchange.

Here’s an excerpt from my lesson on the power of naming and the importance of these poetic signals:

Poets often do this listing or naming in poetry to honor things, to acknowledge their presence — even things that seem commonplace, that we see every day. Think about how many objects or people you see everyday without really seeing them. Somehow when poets write things into poetry, give them that attention — like placing “brothers, sister, mother, together on that one line — it honors them.

(Walt Whitman, one of poetry’s most famous “namers,” wrote many poems simply listing the people he would see on the street in this country, and somehow bringing them all together in a poem brought them together even if they didn’t notice each other or feel connected in everyday life.)

So Lee, here, devotes half of this poem to naming the food, the people together at the table — a way to give honor and appreciation for their presence, for the moment of gathering.

Read more


After you read the lesson, see a creative writing prompt based on Li-Young Lee’s “Eating Together”!

And see more lessons on ELLiterature.

Visit ELLiterature homepage.

Langston Hughes: Dream Theme and Variations

I’m excited about my first book club session live on Instagram on a poem I’ve mentioned here before: “Harlem” by Langston Hughes. I demonstrated the activity and some of the key ideas from my lesson on the poem here. (And of course I’d love for you to follow the book club if you’d like!)

There’s a reason I chose to think about Langston Hughes this month, or rather why his poems just won’t leave me.

Let me try to explain — through looking a bit closer at his poems!

Hughes published a whole series of poems on dreams, where the “dream deferred” line comes up again and again, like a thread through the poems.

Here is the first stanza of “Dream Boogie“:


Good morning, daddy!
Ain’t you heard
The boogie-woogie rumble
Of a dream deferred?


Hughes brings up that theme — dream deferred — again like a musical theme. His musical intention is reflected in titles like “Dream Boogie” and “Dream Variations.” The idea of dreams weaves through the poems like theme and variations in music: the main line, the variations in melody and harmony, the eventual bringing together of the theme, now layered with all its strands.

And “Dream Boogie” reflects another one of Hughes’s projects: to capture the life and sound of “his people,” as he says in one of his autobiographies I Wonder as I Wander. We can see this in the language, which sounds like the music streaming out of a club in Harlem.

But what happens in the poem? We hear (We’re even told to “Listen closely –“) the rhythm of the music in this poem, and then there’s a shift, or several shifts as the poem breaks up with dashes, lines, italics, pieces of lyric:


Listen closely:
You’ll hear their feet
Beating out and beating out a—

You think
            It’s a happy beat?

Listen to it closely:
Ain’t you heard
something underneath
like a—

What did I say?

Sure,
I’m happy!
Take it away!

Hey, pop!
            Re-bop!
            Mop!

            Y-e-a-h!


“Is it a happy beat? … Sure, I’m happy.” There’s almost this address to the reader, an imagined conversation with the performer, emphasis on “performer. It’s obviously not a happy beat that he goes on performing. The upbeat “boogie,” covers the reality. Or actually, the performer doesn’t even think about how he actually feels, doesn’t have a chance to reflect on the reality because the music interrupts the speech, with dashes, with stanza breaks, even the question, “What did I say?” He just goes on performing, and the lyrics get more sound-based and non-logical. “Re-bop,” “Mop,” as if to say, forget it. I can’t hear you anyway — or you can’t really hear me …

Read “Dream Variations” to compare, to add another layer to our exploration of the dream theme. What comes through for you in this poem?

I see a range of feelings in “Harlem” of the dream deferred — drying up, festering, rotting, pretending to be OK, deep sadness and depression, the threat of explosion of anger and frustration. In “Dream Boogie” there’s a tragedy of not even acknowledging or being able to ask the question about a dream, or the pursuit of happiness, but going along playing this “happy beat.” But in “Dream Variations,” the dream is more overtly expressed: It’s simply “to fling my arms wide.” Just that. Freedom.

Through all these variations, there’s also a pride in “his people.” “Night coming tenderly / Black like me,” pride in the langauge and sound of people he highlights in the poems — the musicians, the everyday working people. There is something powerful about a poet who can articulate an experience, who can give reality to an experience usually not put down in literature. Here, on the page, is the sound of his neighborhood. Espeically in “Dream Variations,” there is beauty.

And this is why I can’t let go of Langston Hughes’s poetry, or why his poetry won’t leave me these days. He speaks — often very simply and bluntly — truth about the Black experience, about a country where people have to defer their dreams of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, or never acknowledge them. In a poem I’ll address later in the book club, he says, “America was never America to me.”

The power of poetry lies in saying it on the page, bringing forth truths too long ignored. Through capturing the voice of people, the music, the complexity of feelings, the limitations of dreams and freedom and happiness, Hughes makes it hard to turn away — but if we do, we still hear the melody, the musical phrases, the sound of these voices now echoing through us.