Totally Random

Writers! Get ready for something TOTALLY random, because this handy-dandy machine, constructed out of a simple pasta box, could house the perfect prompt for your next story. Pull the cardboard tab, and your prompt will drop out, ready to be elaborated upon!

You’ll need:

  • 1 pasta box with window
  • A box cutter
  • A bit of cardboard or poster board
  • A set of writing prompts
  • Scissors and tape for construction
  • Markers for decorating

This budget-friendly pasta box project was inspired by a mini claw machine in my own house, which is also stocked with writing prompt scrolls:

Why do I have a mini claw machine in my house? The short answer is: the pandemic. The long answer is that my kids and I didn’t take our annual beach vacation last summer. We always spend a couple days in Cape May, including fun evenings at the Wildwood boardwalk. It’s our one and only vacation each year. It didn’t happen, and spirits were low. So I surprised them with a boardwalk in my studio, which we visited nightly:

I had tabletop versions of our favorite games (claw machine, air hockey, skee ball). There was a mini roller coaster, remote control mini bumper cars, and balloon darts. I also decorated the room with string bulbs, flashing party lights, and blasted three kinds of music from three different places in the room (techno, pop, and calliope classics).

To be sure, this amount of stuff was a splurge for me. However, the most expensive item (the claw machine) is currently enjoying a second life as a writing prompt dispenser. Oh, and the remote control bumper cars have resolved many a sibling fight (TRIAL BY BUMPER CARS! THIS IS THE WAY!).

To make your own random prompt generator, you’ll just need an empty pasta box with a window! Use a box cutter to cut an opening in the front of the box, close to the bottom. This is where the prompt will slide out. Above that, cut a slot with a little, folded down ledge:

Next, slide a piece of cardboard (or poster board) into the slot so it rests on top of the ledge. This is the cardboard “floor” that holds the prompts in place inside the box. Make sure the cardboard extends well past the ledge, so kids can pull and push it back easily:

You’ll also need to tape a matching ledge inside the box to hold the cardboard floor steady (otherwise, the pile of prompts will just drop out). You can see the little white cardboard ledge I taped inside my pasta box below:

Finally, make your prompt scrolls! Here’s a list Katie and I put together to get you started. Just make sure the scrolls are thin enough to be removed from the bottom of your box! Slide the cardboard floor into place, and load the scrolls into the box from the top. Done!

To operate, pull the cardboard floor slowly outward until a single scroll drops down. Then push the floor back in. Grab your prompt, unroll it, and get writing! Reload new prompts into the top of the box as needed. You can also add a facade on the front of the box…just make sure it doesn’t cover your ledge or your windows:

If you would like some feedback on that fabulous story, we have an email editing service here, as well as a one-on-one Zoom program here. And 50 zillion bonus points if you recognized the final writing prompt on our list…yup, it’s from our annual 350 for 50 writing contest, which will be happening again this spring! So stay tuned!

Princeton Writes

From left to right: Princeton Writes Director John Wereen, Carla Zimowsk, Dana Sheridan, Dianne Spatafore, and Melissa Moss

Every year, for the past three years, Princeton University’s Princeton Writes program has sponsored a staff writing contest. Well, folks, uh…this year I won the contest! So please forgive a bit of horn tooting. I put blood, sweat, and more then a few tears into my entry, and I’m a proud essay mom.

The Princeton Writes program focuses on non-academic writing and clearness of communication. They offer classes, tutorials, writing retreats, and an annual essay contest in collaboration with the Office of Alumni Affairs and the Humanities Council. This year’s contest topic was to “describe an encounter or relationship that has given you a new perspective.” The results were truly moving.

All of us gathered at a reception earlier this month, and I was invited to read my essay out loud. Which was terrifying.

But the whole gang showed up to get me through. Full disclosure: they served wine and mini cannoli at the reception.

The links to the essays are below. We also recorded us reading them in a studio (very cool!). So if you scroll to the bottom of each page, you’ll find a sound file as well. If you’d like to read more about the authors, please see this article by Adrianne Daponte.

Princeton Writes Prize:

Dana Sheridan – She Still Hasn’t Told Me Her Name

Honorable Mentions:

Melissa B. Moss – Two Autumns
Dianne D. Spatafore – Untitled
Carla M. Zimowsk – Arkadas

I often feel like I’m writing in a void. Therefore, it’s incredibly encouraging and validating when someone likes and honors your work. I’d like to sincerely thank – from the bottom of my heart to the tips of my typing fingers – the Princeton Writes program for allowing writers a chance to channel and share their thoughts. Thank you so much.


Photos by David Kelly Crow