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Transactions with Beauty.
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– Shawna



A Week of Prompts – From The Pillow Book

A Week of Prompts – From The Pillow Book

This is the third of four weeks of writing prompts. You can start them now, or save them for when you have time. Use them to spark your own writing prompts. Share them. It's up to you. 

Today I have 7 prompts for 7 days of writing. The prompts are pulled from The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon which was written over a thousand years ago. You might remember me talking about the book in another post about insomnia, titled "Insomnia for Poetry Lovers." 

What is a pillow book? This is what Wikipedia has to say about Shonagon's book:

The Pillow Book is a book of observations and musings recorded by Sei Shōnagon during her time as court lady to Empress Consort Teishi during the 990s and early 1000s in Heian Japan. The book was completed in the year 1002.

The work of Shōnagon consists of a collection of essays, lists, anecdotes, poems, and descriptive passages that have little connection to one another except for the fact that they are ideas and whims of what Shōnagon was thinking of in any given moment in her daily life. In it she included lists of all kinds, personal thoughts, interesting events in court, poetry, and some opinions on her contemporaries. While it is mostly a personal work, Shōnagon's writing and poetic skill makes it interesting as a work of literature, and it is valuable as a historical document.”

old books and flowers

The Prompts

1. Poetic Subjects

The first prompt is to write a list of "poetic subjects." This can be done as a poem, or a journal entry. 

Here is Sei Shonagon's entry:

The capital city. Arrowroot. Water-bur. Colts. Hail. Bamboo grass. The round-leaved violet. Club moss. Water oats. Flat river-boats. The mandarin duck. The scattered chigaya reed. Lawns. The green vine. The pear tree. The jujube tree. The althea.

The poet, Rebecca Lindenberg, has actually written just such a poem, and you can read it here on Poetry Foundation. 

open book with dried flowers

2. Pleasing Things 

Write a list of things that are pleasing. 

Here are some of Shonagon's:

Finding a large number of tales that one has not read before. Or acquiring the second volume of a tale whose first volume one has enjoyed. But often it is a disappointment.

Someone has torn up a letter and thrown it away. Picking up the pieces, one finds that many of them can be fitted together.

A person of quality is holding forth about something in the past or about a recent event that is being widely discussed. Several people are gathered round him, but it is oneself that he keeps looking at as he talks. 

I am most pleased when I hear someone I love being praised or being mentioned approvingly by an important person. 

I look for an object that I need at once, and I find it. Or again, there is a book that I must see immediately; I turn everything upside down, and there it is. What a joy!


3. I remember a clear morning 

You can begin this prompt with "I remember..." and go on to describe a particular type of morning. 

Sei Shonagon writes:

“I remember a clear morning in the Ninth Month when it had been raining all night. Despite the bright sun, dew was still dripping from the chrysanthemums in the garden. On the bamboo fences and criss-cross hedges I saw tatters of spider webs; and where the threads were broken the raindrops hung on them like strings of white pearls. I was greatly moved and delighted.”


4. Boring Things

Example from Sei Shonagon:

To leave home because of an abstinence. To be unable to move a piece forward in a game of backgammon.
The house of a man who has not received a post during the period of official appointments.
The most boring time of all is when it rains heavily.


5. Elegant Things

From Sei Shonagon:

A white coat worn over a violet waistcoat.
Duck eggs. 
Shaved ice mixed with liana syrup and put in a new silver bowl.
A rosary of rock crystal. 
Wistaria blossoms. Plum blossoms covered with snow.
A pretty child eating strawberries.


6. Splendid Things

From The Pillow Book: 

Chinese brocade. A sword with a decorated scabbard. The grain of the wood in a Buddhist statue. Long flowering branches of beautifully coloured wistaria entwined about a pine tree. 


7. Make a list of things you could list

Make a list of things that you would like to make lists of. This could be a poem unto itself, or, you could use them for future writing prompts. Examples of things that Sei Shonagon wrote about are, things that arouse a fond memory of the past, things that give a pathetic impression, unsuitable things, trees and shrubs, things without merit, enviable people, presumptuous things. 

You might find more ideas from this compilation. And Suzanne Buffam's modern pillow book also offers many examples. 

Happy writing! 

2-books and dried roses-6.jpg
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