When I don’t know what to write I turn to poetry exercises. A defined poetic form such as a ghazal or pantoum or sonnet, a set of random words required to be used, or a series of instructions about simile, meter, number of words, etc. I tend to use writing books to find exercises, but if you don’t have one to hand, you can simply make up your own constraints.
I think I am drawn to writing exercises for the same reason I am drawn to ballet. The rules exist to give shape and form, and they are not to be ignored or avoided; but they are meant to be transcended. Follow the rules, but go beyond the rules. Make the rules invisible.
Most audience members don’t know all the rules of ballet—they just know when it looks good, great or amazing. Only the most sophisticated realize that 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th are not just positions for practice at the barre—they are required positions for the ballerina’s feet to pass through between each particular step. They are some of the constraints within which the dancers must work. When they transcend those constraints, they soar.
One risk of doing a writing exercise is that you may not get anything “good.” But even when that occurs, a “good” idea frequently manifests later as a result of the exercise.
And occasionally you find an exercise leads you to something amazing and unexpected. Occasionally you achieve transcendence and you, too, soar.