Writer’s Log, August 1: Prompts!

It’s far too easy to dismiss prompts as throwaway exercises used only in writing classes for novices, but the truth is that prompts are the perfect antitoxin for short- and long-term writing ailments, most of which are symptoms of the larger disease of taking yourself and your writing too seriously. This may sound flippant, and it is, a little, because so much of the time we spend agonizing over our writing does not have to do with the magnificent stories we weave about how we’re just not talented or deserving enough, or about how the demands on our time are just too tragically significant, or because it is our fate to be woefully misunderstood. In reality, we just need to take a deep breath, remove our heads from whatever dark hole we’ve inserted them into, and put one foot in front of the other. Get the ball rolling. See that moving forward is often just a matter of refusing to stagnate.

And yes, it’s just another layer of easy excuse to say you would use a prompt if you had one, but you don’t have any. Any kid next door can direct you to any number of prompts online, and no, they’re not too simple for you. Simplicity, in this case, is just what the doctor ordered. The point is to stop taking things so seriously and to have some fun. So often we forget that the source of our richest creativity is tapped not when we bear down, but when we loosen the reins on our self-conscious, self-limiting, self-flagellating tendencies. And that goes both ways: if we find ourselves judging other artists as being too simple, or not doing serious enough work, guess what happens when we close the door and look at the blank page? The point, of course, is not to aim low; it’s to release the chokehold most of us have on aiming altogether, so that the generative, unformed parts of our minds that need to stretch and soar in order for us to realize our best work can stretch their wings. It’s a little counterintuitive, but trust me, it works.

That said, if you must insist on a little advice to get you going, I find it helpful to consider prompts categorically. I hope you’ll identify more, but I can think of at least three different types of prompts that help me move forward, depending on how I’m stuck. The first is the basic prompt, the kind you’ll get in-class at a writing workshop. The second is the targeted prompt, one you use to address a particular issue you’re struggling with in your work. And the third is the self-reflective prompt, the kind you use when you suspect that maybe, just maybe, it’s not so much that the work is stuck, but that some small, panicky voice within you has been leaving jumbo-sized orange cones at the head of every new path you think of following.

The basic prompt is the easiest to invent and track down. These are the lowest hanging fruit, and make glorious eating, unless your own pretentious tendencies are making you clench up tighter than a clam on Hyannis in July. If you could sit down with any famous person in history, who would it be? (And what would you eat? And what questions would you ask him or her? Would you get hit on? Would he/she remember your name after five minutes? How might they disappoint you? How might they surprise you?) If you had a million dollars to spend in one day, how would that go down? (OK, I added a little flavor to that old chestnut, because how it would go down is much more fun to imagine than where the money would end up.) These don’t even need to take the form of questions. Write a paragraph using only three adjectives. Write twelve poems in a week. Rewrite the opening to one scene three different ways.

The targeted prompt is particularly helpful when you’re in the midst of a project that suddenly short circuits. First, take a deep breath. Second, remember that the greatest pieces get written when we allow ourselves to learn from the writing, and surprise, confusion, and/or disillusionment are signs of something really interesting going down. Now for the prompts. I usually go in the direction of focusing on a character or a scene: something small, but not too small that the prompt won’t have legs. My absolute favorite prompt of all time is to fill out a character chart (probably because it reminds me of my carefree theater days, when improv was king and the height of my hair reflected the height of my dreams). These can begin simply: birth date, birthplace, parents, siblings, etc., and can grow in infinite directions. What does your character eat for breakfast? Is it the same thing every day? Is it what she/he wants to eat? Does he/she eat alone? Does he/she remember his/her dreams, and if so, does he/she share them with anyone? Clearly, I could go on, but I think you get the idea. And if you’d rather go after a scene, I strongly suggest trying to write it as poorly as you possible can. Make it really, really terrible, and put in all the things you’d usually never dare to include, either because they’re just so bad, or because they’re just so out there. Alternatively, ask yourself how the setting of the scene is a character of its own, coloring things accordingly. You can even get more micro on it: if there’s a dialogue, try rewriting it in such a way that one of the characters wants desperately to ask another a question, but never gets around to doing it. Or one character is sure the other is on to his greatest secret, while the other is just interested in making a grocery list. Have fun. Loosen up. Let the juices flow, even if you don’t like the taste of them at first.

Finally, the self-directed prompt. I’m very proud to say that I once gave a student an instant headache by offering one of these in class. In fact, if they make your stomach turn or your knees quiver, you’ve probably hit the nail on the head. These usually take the form of giving yourself fifteen minutes or less to answer a question you’d rather not answer. What are you unable to write about? What do you not have permission to write about? What would happen if you jettisoned that chapter/character/plot development that you’re sure is the key to your novel but refuses to behave? What would happen if you jettisoned the novel as it stands, and started over with a new POV, or main character, or time period? The good news with these prompts is that if you sit quietly with your own thoughts for just a few minutes, they’ll usually come to you. (It might feel like bad news, at first, but at the end of the day, it never is.)

Above all, the worst thing a writer can do is talk herself out of her writing, so know that any writing that gets you back in the game is exactly the kind of writing you need to do right now. I’d wish you good luck, but we both know it’s not about that. You’re a writer with a way to write. That’s all the luck you need.

Art: Henri Matisse, Open Window, Collioure

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