Prompts, Time Limits, Creative Containers, and Magic

Here are five of my favorite writing prompts. They can help you to enrich your show or to find some major turning points in it. They can also simply be used as exercises to loosen you up right before you work on the script.

Have a timer handy so that you can answer each prompt within the recommended time limit. The time limits are short in order to prevent self-censorship and editing. Together, the prompts and time limits can stimulate deeply truthful answers, which are gold.

1. What’s the worst decision you ever made? (4-minute time limit.)
1b. Did anything good come of it? (2-minute time limit.)

2. What’s the best decision you ever made? (4-minute time limit.)

3. List five people who changed the course of your life in some way, for better or worse, short term or long term. Write about one of them and how they affected your life. (6-minute time limit.)

4. Write about something that’s gone. (5-minute time limit.)

5. Write about something that gives you joy. (5-minute time limit.)

Now that you’ve answered the prompts within the time limits, did you want more time for any of them because you didn’t finish giving your answer? Or did you finish but would now like to delve deeper into the nitty gritty? If so, set the same time limit that you had before, and continue answering that prompt.

If you still want more time after your second go, feel free to write for as long as you like. Take it away!

The point is to get yourself into the habit of writing truthfully on the spot without being precious about the process. If you hit the ground running (i.e., if your pen hits the page scribbling), something happens that allows truth, realization, and inspiration to flow.

This is preferable to writing gingerly around a topic until you finally get comfortable-ish. If you start with resistance, the entire job will be harder, and might not get done at all. You might end up writing about everything except the heart of the story.

Don’t get me wrong: I assume that you’re in a comfortable position with your favorite juice/coffee/tea/cocoa/etc. within arm’s reach, and that you’ve done some deep breathing to help yourself to “settle.” Any rituals you have that remind your psyche that it’s time to write/create are welcome.

But once you’ve sat down to write (or once you’ve stood up to improvise while recording it), the prompts and time limits are meant to jumpstart your creative process, regardless of your mood.

They’re simple questions (wink) and you only have to work on each one for four to six minutes. You can do one per creative session, or all of them in less than half an hour.


I recommend answering a writing prompt whenever you get stuck while creating your show. You can find prompts in umpticatillion books and online. Always give yourself a short time limit just to get the stuff out of your head and onto the page or into the recorder.

It is never a waste of time. It may spark something that manifests magnificently in your show or in some other way down the line. You never know.

Hold onto your answers! Even if they don’t make their way into the show that you’re working on, they are the proof of your truest self in the moment that you created them, and they will be good to refer to for future projects. They can also be very grounding. I’ve looked at my answers to prompts from years ago and thought “Yes. That’s exactly how that felt. There’s a recurring theme that I’d like to explore more in another show.”

Keep all of your creating-a-show papers and recordings in one place. Twyla Tharp talks about putting it all in a box. Wherever you choose to put it, make it something that gives you comfort and perhaps even pride to look at. Something that reminds you, “I’m someone who creates. And in that box/bag/binder/tupperware/etc. is magic that only I could make.”

Full disclosure: I have a bag for my new show, and it does make me feel good when I look at it. But there are also a nice box and plain storage container in my office that hold a lot more stuff that I intend to use for…something…someday. I tend to feel guilty when I look at them.

So here’s my promise: before I publish next month’s blog post, I will rearrange the box and container in an attractive fashion and stick pretty labels onto them that remind me that there’s magic inside. I think that’ll go a long way toward changing my feelings about them.

I hope the prompts and time limits and containers will all help you in the creation of your show. Regardless, I hope you always remember that no matter how unglamorous, confusing, frustrating, or slow-going this creative work can be, you are nonetheless making magic.

Now, in a time when bigotry is on an even greater upswing than usual, one might begin to fear that there’s a dark magic afoot. There’s not. It’s just people who can—and in my opinion must—be stopped.

However, people have achieved great and terrible things via the stories they’ve told, and that may be a kind of magic, figuratively speaking. Of course that’s what I’m talking about.

I’m going to assume that your story is truthful. Here’s a tip: the more you’re willing to be vulnerable and make yourself the most flawed person in the play alongside your more likable traits, and thus make a connection with your audience’s vulnerability (and humanity), the more likely it is that you’re not telling a self-indulgent, narcissistic, I Wanna Be Popular story. In other words, it’s more likely that yours is a good magic.

Thank you for sharing it.

BONUS: John Steinbeck’s brief and superb advice on writing and how there’s magic in it:

Six Tips on Writing from John Steinbeck compiled by Maria Popova on

[Edited 02/02/17.-EL]

Thank you for reading my twentieth post! I love your comments! Please feel free to leave one below.


The Why Is Everything

It’s the new year and for the last few weeks we’ve been reminded to look back on 2016 to determine how we succeeded, how we failed, and most of all what we learned, blahblahblah, etc., etc.

I’m not against doing the above—it can be eye-opening and galvanizing. It can also remind us to express gratitude. It can even inspire us to pat ourselves on the back for accomplishments we had previously neglected to honor.

Nonetheless, as a creative person, I think this is actually a good time to reflect on why we create what we create.

Have you been performing your show so often that you’ve lost some of the spark?

Or are you in the middle of creating a show and getting discouraged?

As always, the why is everything. Why did you create it? Or why are you creating it?

The answer is the engine to your creative pursuit. Sometimes, when you need inspiration or guidance, all you need to do is to close your eyes, take a deep breath, and on the exhale say “I am performing/creating this show because _____.” (Remember the business card I mentioned in my first post?)

Whenever I’m asked why I created Alien Citizen, I say it’s because I had never seen a story like mine told in any medium, and I wanted to tell it for all the Third Culture Kids and multiracial folk and multilingual people and intercultural persons and girls/women who never see our multifaceted, prismatic stories on stage or screen. I don’t pretend to speak for any of the above people, but I do believe that something in my show will resonate for them, or that it will motivate them to tell their own very different and unique stories. I hope that watching me will give them courage to express themselves more often.

(I also created the show because I wanted people to stop asking me if I was from the midwestern USA. That question made me feel like my life had never happened. I’ve never lived in the Midwest.)

When I perform the show now, I do it for one person. Every time, as the nerves creep up on me at ten minutes to “Places,” I remind myself that there is one person in the audience who needs to see the show very badly. Whether or not this is true is irrelevant. I decide that it is true, and I perform the show as a reaching out, a connection, a service to that person who feels like an incurable outsider who stifles themselves in order to avoid being seen as an incomprehensible misfit.

My belief usually turns out to be true. That person is in the audience and they thank me after the show. There are frequently quite a few of them and they all “look normal.” Yet internally they have yearned to see/hear a perspective that they rarely see/hear in any medium.

But even if no one cared for the performance afterward, I would still have given my all for that one person I imagined. That’s my job.

What I don’t say when I’m asked why I created Alien Citizen is that I needed to express myself in a direct, honest way, without hiding behind a fictional character. That may be obvious for any autobiographical solo show, but the need was manifesting in curious ways before I ever performed it.

I started writing it in 2009 in bits and pieces, but a funny thing started happening between that time and the world premiere in 2013. I was getting cast in roles I understood to the bone—even when they were nothing like me on the surface. That’s a gift for which actors yearn. It doesn’t happen nearly as often as we would like.

During that period, I was cast as a Brazilian standup comic who is hired as a maid in a homogeneously WASPy town in Connecticut or New York. She is described as having “a refined sense of deadpan.” The show opens with her telling a long-form sex joke in Portuguese with a Brazilian accent.

Now, on the outside, one might think I’m not good casting for that role as I’m not a standup or Brazilian and didn’t speak Portuguese. But I am Guatemalan and my family moved from Central America to Fairfield County, Connecticut, twice in my childhood. Thus I understand to my marrow what it’s like to be a Latina who moves from Latin America to a WASPy town in the Northeastern USA. I also have some facility with language and a good ear for dialects, in part because I had to speak four languages when I was in the 8th grade in Morocco. Thus I was able to learn and understand all of the Portuguese in the show during the rehearsal period. (Shoutout to the internet and language-learning podcasts.)

Furthermore, I’ve been told countless times that I’m deadpan in my everyday life, so that character description wasn’t a stretch for me.

Most importantly, I found that I needed to play the character. We understood one another. On top of all of the above, she has experienced traumatic loss, while I had experienced a steady accumulation of less traumatic losses that became overwhelming over time. Playing that character allowed me to express so much from my life without tipping my hand to the audience—it was “safe” because I was disguised in her character.

Directly after that show I was cast as a quirky woman in Kansas who believes that aliens abducted and raped her as a child. She and I literally had nothing in common. Right after playing her, I was cast as a Southern, dutiful big sister. Again, I was not an obvious choice. Yet I understood both roles in essential, emotional ways that I was able to express on stage.

I also learned from the roles, which is another thing that every actor hopes for. The Southern big sister is in almost every scene in a long play, so I learned how to build and maintain my stamina onstage. This is vital for anyone planning to do a solo show.

In their final scenes, both roles have to master fear, and one learns to fight for herself. Directly after that show closed, I began working on Alien Citizen in earnest, writing and revising the script about my life. It was scary, but I was mastering my fear and fighting for myself.

I played my next role right before I went into rehearsals for Alien Citizen’s premiere. In that last ensemble piece, I played a multiracial, born and raised in the USA, conservative control freak who travels to her deceased mother’s homeland of Vietnam and reconciles her emotions over her troubled relationship with her mom. She is very closed off to her Vietnamese heritage until the end of the play.

She’s the opposite of me—I grew up in six countries, I’m not conservative, and neither of my parents was born or raised in Asia…and yet. I knew I was going to open my solo show in a couple of months and I was afraid that my parents might be hurt or offended by it. I had to push through my own fear, defensiveness, and self-righteousness and just accept that my folks had the right to react however they would react. I sent them the parts of the script that they were in and told them that if they didn’t want one or any of those sections to be in the play, I would remove those scenes. They didn’t object to the scenes, which was both brave and generous of them.

Among my many flaws, I find it difficult to practice forgiveness in my own life. So it was helpful and moving to play a woman who learns how to do it towards her loving parent and for herself.

I think all four of the roles that preceded my solo show trained me for the solo show.

Serendipity, perhaps.

And then Alien Citizen opened, and my life is entirely different now from what it was in 2013.

So in the few years leading up to the opening of my first solo show, I accidentally discovered that I needed to explore and reveal elements of myself in the roles that I played—more so than I had ever needed to before. Of course, I also needed to interpret the characters as they were envisioned by the playwrights and directors, but underneath that was a need to stake my claim to my own story. Those roles challenged me in ways I hadn’t encountered before and they made me a stronger and braver actor, and thus better able to create and perform my show.

Why did you create your show? Did you find yourself landing very different roles that were weirdly right for you before it opened? Or did other coincidences occur that now seem like serendipitous stepping stones to your show’s premiere?

If you’re creating a show now, why are you doing it? There’s no wrong answer. You do need to know the answer, though. In any case, you are heeding a call, you are doing it via the act of creation, and the world needs creativity and connection. It needs it in person, “live,” in a room with your fellow humans, breathing together, sharing the ephemeral moment.

Thank you for doing it, and Happy New Year.

BONUS: My favorite TED Talk, bar none. For creative pursuits…and…existence:

The Power of Vulnerability by Brené Brown 

Announcement: I’m leading new solo show and memoir workshops in January and February. Give me a holler here if interested.

Thank you for reading my nineteenth post! I love your comments! Please feel free to leave one below.