This prompt is titled “The Five Word Free Write,” and uses five words that have a specific order to them: in other words, there’s a method to my madness. The first word is always a specific living creature found in nature (usually plural, such as “sparrows”); the next word is a color; the next word is something that grows in nature, usually something edible (“apples” or “daisies”); the next word is a something large found in nature (“boulders” or “clouds”); the last word is always a verb ending in “ing” (“falling” produces some very interesting writing).
It’s a great exercise to loosen writers up and get them out of their linear minds. I always use a variation of it on the first night of a workshop.
Here’s how it works: I read five words out loud, one at a time, and allow 60 seconds to free write any associations, ideas, images, words or sentences that come to mind when you hear each word. After 60 seconds, I read the next word, until we’ve free written on all five. Then I say, “Lift your pen from the page for a moment, and when you put it back down, write anything that comes to mind.” Then we write for 20 minutes.
Sometimes the writing is very free-associative and sometimes it is tight and focused; sometimes writers actually use the five words in the longer write and sometimes they don’t use any of the words at all. There are no rules and there is no right or wrong way to do this.
Here are the five words that resulted in the following piece I wrote:
Butterflies Fuchsia Peaches Fog Sinking
Here I am, climbing the stairs effortlessly on strong legs, trying in this very moment to be present, fully present, as I rise from one landing to the next set of stairs. The split windows on each landing are open from the top and each time I pass one, I take in a flash of blue, blue sky, the tops of the trees, an occasional bird. I’m breathing in the blue, even after a week with a cold, coughing nights, swollen glands, pain in my sinuses in the morning, even after a week of that, I’m able to inhale deeply, to breathe in the blue.
I refuse to sink down into the sadness, knowing nothing but this moment, this privilege to know another, even as her body defies her, even as her life shrinks, I am holding the gift she offers: to be present this way in the familiar dance of illness, weak legs, a wheelchair. Dependent as we are on one another and the kindness of strangers at the hospital intake, the neighbor who holds the door for us, the woman who offered to help her into the bathroom at the theater when I had gone as far as my gender would allow me to go.
I turn the key in the bolt—I’ve run back up to the apartment for a jacket, some fingerless gloves (she’s cold), and a water bottle. In and out. The living room windows are filled with a view of green park slopes and white deco towers reflecting sunlight. Generous windows. And I pass the photos of her in the hallway: a little girl, a young woman with long, dark hair, her father’s daughter, holding his elderly hand, laughing. That familiar smile.
Back out into the hallway, locking the bolt, another photo on the door: she is standing in front of a spray painted mural that reads, “Everything takes longer than you think it should or thought it would, except your life.” Down, down, down into the lobby. She’s there, sitting on the steps, calm in my presence. I am not thinking of what’s ahead: the Emergency room, the note from the surgeon, the concerned friends who will call and email and text. I will teach her how to text later when she can’t get a WiFi signal in room 11, before I get up to leave, fighting old feelings of guilt about leaving other sick people I have loved. I am not thinking of the meal we will share in that hospital room, smiling at one another, the fig and prosciutto sandwich, the freshly baked whole wheat sourdough walnut roll, the little almond raspberry cake in the blue and white waxed paper bag with gold letters on it.
I don’t know yet that after I leave her, that I’ll try to float above the tears, that I’ll make a bee-line to the coffee cart and serve myself before realizing I only have a $1.00 in my pocket, and the guy running the cart will say, “No problem, my man.” His handsome Russian face and thick accent, “No problem. Bring it to me later.”
I don’t know any of this as we walk out of her building arm in arm; I hold on tight, but not too tight, knowing she might be leaving us soon, knowing she may never make it back up those stairs, knowing—finally, mercifully— that there is only this moment, the warmth of the sun on the tops of our heads, the crows calling in the trees across the street, my little green car, strong and dependable and warm, waiting dutifully for us at the curb.