Lit Life

Cobblestone, Parchment, Mom: Creating a Personal Universe Deck

“The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.” ―Ray Bradbury

Taking a creative writing class last summer was one of the best things I ever did for my writing life. In my undergrad I took a couple of creative writing classes and I’ve even taught a few myself, but after years of sporadic writing and half-started poems, I knew I needed something structured in order to truly relearn how to make writing a habit for myself.  The content of a class and the writing I produced  gave me the confidence to call myself a writer again.

I learned so much from this class including how to use meta-journaling, but one of the best techniques I learned from the class was how to create a personal universe deck.

What Is a Personal Universe Deck?


It is your life, your universe, distilled down to 100 words. The objective of creating a personal universe deck is to quickly write 100 words that have some bearing on your present, future, and past.  The purpose of this is to have a deck of cards handy to fuel your writing whenever you get stuck. All of these words will be associated with you as a person, with your universe, so they, in theory, will have layers of meaning that you can unpack in your poetry or prose.

To create one you simply need a stack of 100 index cards and a pen. Using the parameters below, you simply write 100 words onto the index cards (one per card).

The Rules

However, to be the most effective, you can’t just write any old words. So here are some rules to get you started.

These rules are adapted from Linnea Johnson’s chapter within the book The Practice of PoetryCheck out her full instructions here.

  1. You need to write 100 words that have some bearing on your past, present, and future
  2. They should show the positive and negative side of your life
  3. All words should be root words with no endings (no ly, ing, plurals, etc)
  4. All words should have some meaning for you
  5. All words should be specific (do not write bird, write sparrow or bald eagle)
  6. All words should sound good to you
  7. You cannot use adverbs.
  8. You cannot use plurals.
  9. 80 words should be associated with the 5 senses
    1. 16 Taste
    2. 16 Sight
    3. 16 Touch
    4. 16 Smell
    5. 16 Sound
  10. 10 words associated with movement
  11. 3 words can be abstract (love, freedom, truth)
  12. 7 words can be your choice (names, time of day, or any word that has meaning for you, but does not fit the categories above.

The Process of Making a Personal Universe Deck


Ideally, you will have a pack of 100 index cards (you of course can only use 50 and cut them in half) and a sharpie or pen to write down the words. If you want, you can start with a list, then transfer them onto the cards later.

  • You want to do this in one sitting over a short amount of time (about 15-20 minutes) not labor painstakingly selecting the perfect words.
  • You will also want to do this where you won’t be interrupted or distracted (silence your phone and put out the cat).
  • Begin writing your words down and don’t stop until you get to 100.
  • You might find certain categories easier, but just attempt to power through until you get 100 down.
  • Think of your deck as something that can evolve, one that you can add too or recreate every few weeks, months, or years.

How to Use Your Personal Universe Deck


  • Spread them all out and choose different combinations of words to create a poem or story.
  • Create poems or stories by selecting multiple words from your deck at random.
  • Choose only one card at random and use it as a jumping off point for a poem or story.
  • Use the deck to create more sensory imagery within your poems or stories.
  • Stuck on a plot point? Grab your deck and pull some cards at random to spark ideas.
  • Create characters based off of words from your deck.
  • Use the deck to focus your stories more on the things you value.
  • Use the deck to put more of yourself and the world you know into your writing.
  • Use as a way to focus your stories on specific values or ideas. 
  • Use them like you would word sprints. Pick a new card every 5-15 minutes and write, write, write 🙂
  • Have some writer friends? Each of you can make a deck then draw words from each other’s decks to inspire each other’s writing. You could even each put in a five or so words and create a community deck.

Making Multiple Decks

  • Make multiple decks to help you with different writing projects.
  • Perhaps make a dark deck (when you’re feeling pensive, negative, dreary) and a light deck (when you are whimsical, inspirational, joyous).
  • Make a fiction deck and a poetry deck.
  • Make a deck on a specific subject or time in your life.
  • Make a deck for each of your characters and use it to fuel their individual experiences.

What are some words you would put in your Personal Universe Deck? Share below 🙂

Lit & Love,

Amy Signature

Related Articles:

Create Your Own At-Home Writing Retreat

Using Word Sprints to Fuel Your Writing

Writing is Work

Spring Cleaning- Meta-Journal Those Thoughts!

Not Just for Kids: Star Stickers and Writing Well

6 thoughts on “Cobblestone, Parchment, Mom: Creating a Personal Universe Deck

    1. Thanks, lady! I loved this method while I was in the class, and I shared it with my writing students as well. I wonder if you could transfer it to blog writing? Maybe put in your favorite characters, books, and topics then draw cards and try to do a freestyle post that involves all the cards? Just a thought.

      Liked by 1 person

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