Remember in FIGHT CLUB when Brad Pitt (let’s face it, more of you have seen the movie than read the book) asked How much can you really know about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight? I’m may be paraphrasing, but you remember the line.

Well, the same goes for artists. I’m not saying whack someone across the face with your keyboard, but I am saying you need to challenge yourself. All artists do. It’s where we find out exactly what we’re really capable of, and where we’re able to raise our standards and our skill level.

Because how much can you really know about yourself as an artist if you never challenge yourself?

What I used to do, back in the days of snail mail submissions with self-addressed stamped envelopes and cover letters was, every so often I’d scour the upcoming anthologies that were taking submissions, many of them themed anthologies, and I’d write a short story to those specific guidelines. And the guidelines were always vague enough they left it open to many different interpretations, but just specific enough you knew pretty much what they were looking for.

Personally, I think some of my best short stories came from these writing challenges. “Working for the Fat Man”, “Maggie Andrews Gets the Facts” and “Terrible Thrills” to name just a few.

One of my earliest writing challenges came after I’d already written the first draft. It was a short, simple, somber story about a man gaining closure after visiting his wife’s grave. The story was called, aptly enough, “Closure”. But I always knew the story was no big deal, would maybe never be published, but that was no reason not to try to make it the best it could be. And with a story this short and simple, well simple was the key word. So I went back and challenged myself to make it as simple as possible. And the best way I knew to do that, with this story, was to eliminate every multi-syllabic word I found. What resulted was an even SIMPLER story that didn’t lose any of the detail or emotion, and told itself in nothing but single syllable words. It’s a detail I doubt many readers would pick up on, but it’s one that stands out to me.

Or there’s the challenges my ex-wife used to hand me, when we were married. Sometimes she would come up with an idea she thought would make an interesting story, a twist on a familiar theme, and I’d write a story from that. Stories like “Birth Day”, “Family Name” and “Luck of the Draw” came about this way.

Now, I know some people are intimidated by the word “challenge”. So let’s change our vocabulary. Instead of a challenge, consider it a mere prompt. And everyone likes a good writing prompt, right?

Writing challenges, or prompts, are an excellent way to motivate yourself when you want to create but have no idea where to start. They’re great exercise in flexing your creative muscles, and a sure way to keep your mind and your creative skills in top form, and every worthwhile artist I know uses them. So the next time you sit down to write, or paint, or whatever, and the drive is there but the ideas are not, try a challenge, a prompt, whatever you want to call it.

Some of my favorites are to write a sequel to your favorite story (book or movie doesn’t matter). If you listen to music while you create, write a story using the same title of the first song you hear, or one using a random lyric from the last song you heard. Rewrite a familiar story from a different perspective. Write a story using only 100 words.

There are any number of challenges and prompts out there, and plenty more you’ll come up with yourself as you get more practice using them. I’m curious to see what you can come up with. Now go out there and make some art.

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