In college I had a bad date with my then-boyfriend. It was clear from the not-talking and him not sharing any of his steak that we were near the end. I used the receipt from that meal as structure for an anti-love love poem — the prose was itemized, the sub-total and the total had explicit meaning.
Though that exercise was a bit hokey and my relationship with the steak-hoarder failed, I developed a new love after that receipt experiment: paperwork as writing prompt. Two decades after that bad dinner, my belief in the creative potential of administrative detritus is still going strong. Here are some of my favorite ways to find inspiration in junk mail.
A while back, I started researching how people get divorced in my state of Connecticut during the pandemic, and found out they have to go through a poorly-named procedure — “PEP!” — that forces aspirational divorcees to journal about their feelings. I pictured what that journaling would look and sound like during quarantine, and created a story that ended up as an Audible Original called “This is Not Your Fault.”
Other places you can dig for inspiration that could lead to rom com writing:
- Receipts: There’s the obvious example of my failed dinner out, but there are many other ways that a couple’s life is memorialized both together, and apart. Grocery receipts, takeout receipts, electrolysis, Amazon wishlists, pet food, Ikea receipts, a nursing home invoice…
- Vacation itineraries: You can easily apply the meme here; how it started, how it’s going. Also consider using the “Airbnb Experiences” site as a place to mine for ideas. Karen and Bob’s make-your-own-empanadas night in Cabos was exceeding their picky expectations until….
- Couples therapy transcripts Who wouldn’t want to listen in on that? If you don’t have experience being in a couple, listen to Esther Perel’s fantastic “Where should we begin” podcast to understand how people talk (and interrupt each other) when things start to fall apart.
- Zillow listings Imagine someone trying to write the copy for the home they don’t actually want to sell…
Utilize your kids
The autumnal Socktober flyers that come nearly everyday in my child’s backpack both haunt and fascinate me, as most obsessions do. If you’ve been parenting through the pandemic, you’re sitting on a wealth of material — what is your Socktober? What is the thing that irks, excites or fascinates you in the phantasmagoria that is the parent/school relationship? Use your kids for fresh material. They owe you that much.
- Weird-ass prizes from charity drives: Whether it’s going door to door with popcorn, cookies, or buying two Scholastic books in order to give one away, my child is always bringing home initiatives she needs to participate in…for incredibly odd prizes. What if the “ball launcher” she won for selling X boxes of popcorn became suddenly possessed? Or if the “Grow Your Own Sprout” kit pulled a Jack and the Beanstalk thing inside of our kitchen?
- Report cards: Have some fun re-imagining a blatantly honest report card, or a report card of the caretakers, or a report card where the teacher just goes off about their life.
- No gifts, please: You’re telling me that six year-old Axis actually prefers donations to the ASPCA over getting a birthday gift? Yeah right. Writing up satirical kiddo birthday party invitations is a sure way to blow off steam and passive-aggression, while also meeting your daily word count. (Yay!).
I never signed up for this
Instead of fighting the flux of catalogs that won’t stop coming to your house, use them as textbooks, mine them for material. I tried for years to get the Sundance Catalog to stop showing up at my house, until I realized that the ambiguously ethnic, no-makeup made-up models were just trying to help me.
How can I work the ranch with this much turquoise on my fingers?
This buttoned leather vest is not my attempt to be poetic, it is a cry for help.
No, I don’t know why I’m out here in the woods with only a sweater robe on and an Andalusian horse. Do you?
Whether you are being driven mad by the persistency of the Venus swimsuit catalog (this girl right here) or there is a certain kind of spam that you just can’t seem to whac-a-mole, (mine is an invitation to see naked pictures of my wife, intriguing, as I don’t have one), be one with your spam. Create backstory for catalog models — how did they get to this specific place and do they actually like the bodega tumbler that they’re holding and/or the double-collared khaki trustafarian at their side? What would happen if you clicked on a spam link and it led you down a portal to a parallel life?
If we’re going to be stuck more or less inside, we should make the most of everything that comes in from the outside, including third-class mail.
Courtney Maum is an author and book coach. She has a free newsletter with publishing and writing tips that you should sign up for because she’s known for telling you things that others won’t.