Birdseed: a writing prompt with Tayyba Kanwal

Tayyba Kanwal

Birdseed is a series of micro interviews that glean writing prompts, insight and advice from the talented writers leading our workshops.

What course did you teach at Grackle?

I had the pleasure of teaching “Finding your Story: A Generative Fiction Workshop.” We workshopped with an eye to identifying the heart and themes of stories we’ve been working on, and how our craft and shaping choices can hone and illuminate them. We also mined work by authors such as Jenny Zhang and Lesley Nneka Arima to discover hidden elements in our own stories and identify narrative techniques to generate lively new work.

What stands out in your memory as a special moment from your workshop?

Our in-class generative exercises, though fiction, often resulted in new story starts that were uniquely in the voice of each of the writers, revealing layers of personal interests and, sometimes, obsessions, so that we developed a multilayered understanding of each other and became delightfully close as a group by the end of the course.

Do you have a favorite writing prompt for your students?

Ghosts, as with living characters, are more successful as true, complex characters; that is, if they have histories and longings and rages, intentions and regrets. Ghosts are both magical and real. For this exercise, let’s first create a ghost, or rather, a character sketch for this ghost. Jot down notes on: Why might this ghost return to life? What unresolved concerns does this ghost have? With this understanding in mind, write a scene in which this ghost appears to some other character, or write a scene from the ghost’s perspective. Consider why the ghost has chosen to appear.

What is one pearl of writing wisdom you like to offer your students?

Don’t be afraid to be playful with your fiction. Your storytelling is a game whose rules you get to make up. Follow your instinct for the language, rhythms, details and narrative patterns you might choose as you gather your readers under a tent in the woods and regale them with a flash-lit tale.

Tayyba Maya Kanwal’s work appears in Juxtaprose, Quarterly West and other journals and has been anthologized by The Doctor TJ Eckleburg Review. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, chosen as a finalist in the CRAFT Fiction Contest and longlisted for A Public Space Fellowship. Tayyba is a recipient of the Inprint C. Glenn Cambor Fellowship. She is a Pakistani-American writer pursuing her MFA in Fiction at the University of Houston and is Fiction Editor at Gulf Coast Journal. Visit her at and on twitter @mayakanwal.

Birdseed: a writing prompt with Georgina Key

Georgina Key

Birdseed is a series of micro interviews that glean writing prompts, insight and advice from the talented writers leading our workshops.

What courses do you teach at Grackle?

I teach fiction classes at Grackle and Grackle. I’m really excited about my Lyrical Prose class, a subject near and dear to my heart. As a reader and a writer, I’m drawn to lyrical passages that don’t take away from the story itself, but instead add depth and nuance to every aspect, including character, theme, place, tone—the possibilities are endless! Finding a poetic cadence, adding sensory detail, or distilling profound meaning in just a few select words can raise writing to another level that sets it apart from mere plot-driven storytelling.

What stands out in your memory as a special moment from your workshop?

That moment when my students and I can identify who wrote which piece, when each student’s voice is so powerful and unique that their work has its own distinct style and cadence. My goal is always to recognize each unique voice and build and enhance their writing, empower them to tell their own story in their own way. 

Do you have a favorite prompt for your students?

One of my favorite writing exercises is the process of distillation. You know those passages you read sometimes where you pause, re-read, and ponder over the author’s intention, taking in each word. As a writer, you are probably in awe and ask yourself how the author achieved such mastery. The distillation exercise gets you closer to writing those passages in your own work. You learn to identify places in your story that lend themselves to this form of lyrical prose. For example, your character is walking through a forest. You could describe the trees, the shade they form, birds singing, etc. But zoom in and consider one aspect of that walk (e.g., stepping over a fallen tree). Now zoom in again (e.g., a beetle crawls into a crevice in the rotting wood). Consider all sensory details—go deep. Then pay special attention to word choice and rhythm (I have a technique for this). Once you’ve written the minutia, think about how this scene might be relevant to the character’s emotions or the theme of your piece as a whole—how could it enhance your intention for your story?

What is one pearl of writing wisdom you like to offer your students?

Writing is an isolating activity—we shut ourselves up in small rooms, behind laptops and earbuds. But for me, the writing community is a vital part of my process. Learning from other writers, receiving feedback, going to readings and conferences, joining writing groups—all these activities deepen our writing practice. Engaging with other writers forces us to look at our writing with new eyes and exposes us to other forms that enrich our knowledge and encourage us to experiment. The camaraderie and critical feedback of other writers inspires us to keep writing and refining our craft. Networking is also an excellent way into the publishing side of writing. It took me several years to finish my first book, at which point I crawled out of my lonely room and reached out to the writing community. At the end of that next year, I landed a publishing deal. Remember, we’re all in this together!

Georgina Key is an award-winning author and artist whose debut novel, Shiny Bits In Between (Balance of Seven Press, 2020), was a recipient of the Kops-Fetherling Phoenix award for Best New Voice of 2020. Her poems have appeared in various journals, and she is currently working on her second novel based in part on memories of her childhood in England. Georgina currently lives in Texas where she received her M.A. in English from Stephen F. Austin University. She has taught writing for over 30 years and founded Silver Rocket, a literary zine celebrating children’s voices. Visit the author’s websiteInstagram, or Facebook shiny bits in between for excerpts, news and updates.

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