even a photo can be a writing prompt . gearhart, oregon . august 2010
If you have been visiting this space since the beginning or you have read Inner Excavation, you know I love prompts. Like big time. I even used to co-lead a site that was about weekly poetry prompts. I love to use prompts in my creative work, and I really, really love to come up with prompts. Yep. Love them.
And I especially love writing prompts. They give my mind, my crazy "can't slow down for one minute because then the ideas would not be swirling about and oh i should probably try to keep figuring myself out and think about why others do things and wait! what is for breakfast today oh we are out of eggs" mind, a focus.
Prompts give my mind a rest so my heart (where my most waiting to be told stories reside) can write.
So you can imagine my, well, shock when I discovered that my good friend and fellow writer and editor Jenna McGuiggan did not like prompts.
When we first talked about them a couple years ago, I can hardly remember what was said because I spent most of the time with my face scrunched in this weird look that was saying, "How can you not like prompts? I can't even hear what you are saying because I am stuck where you said, 'Oh, I hate prompts.'" (As I type this, my face is doing it again.) When I snapped out of that scrunched-up disbelief, I began a crusade of sorts to explain why I love prompts. But more importantly, why I believe prompts are something we should all keep in our creative toolbox.
Jenna wrote about her relationship with prompts on her blog last week, and when I read her post, I wanted to share her every word here in this space. Because, well, because she is really good at creating prompts, and I want my readers (and the creative souls working through Inner Excavation) to know about her next session of Alchemy Daily (which I loved taking in February). But, I also really wanted you to read about why Jenna has (mostly) changed her mind and now believes prompts are a good thing. Her perspective makes me smile big time.
Jenna's post, "Writing Prompts: My love-hate relationship," follows:
"I don't give prompts. The world is your prompt!"
So said the writer leading my workshop.
And I thought, "Yes, yes! Real writers don't need to be told what to write. I am an artiste! The world is my prompt!"
And then I realized that I've routinely found myself wondering what to write about, worrying that I'm not a real writer after all. Phooey.
Whatever shall I do if the world is not enough?
** ** **
I have a friend who loves prompts. For months she kept nudging me toward them, gently but firmly, trying to convince me that a good prompt is better than the whole wide world, because a good prompt gives you a focus and a way in.
** ** **
You know what I hate? The blank page. The blank, ever-so-white, mocking-me-with-its-clean-emptiness, no-words page.
When I was a teenager I wrote a poem called "A Bright White Room is Hell." I didn't intend it as a metaphor for the blank page, but I think I'd like to intend that now.
But give me a page with my own messy thoughts and I can breathe a little more easily. I have something to hang on to, something to swing around my head. Most days, words -- any words -- are better than a blank page.
** ** **
That same teacher who insisted that the world is our prompt conceded and gave us just one little bit of direction. She told us we could choose a color and write about whatever came to mind when we thought of that color.
I chose brown.
This is not what I wrote, but this is what I wrote about: how on the first day of first grade, the tip of my big, fat Crayola snapped off and left with me a pointless tree stump of a crayon. The teacher was a nice lady, but she wouldn't give me a new one. I cried during the whole walk home with my mother, who later recorded this event in the spiral-bound notebook she kept as a journal when my brother and I were little. Years later, that teacher, still a youngish woman, died of cancer. I began to think (while writing about "brown") how little things and big things can go wrong unexpectedly, and how there's not always a do-over or replacement waiting in the wings, even if your teacher is kind, even if God is loving.
All of that from brown. Brown was my way in.
** ** **
So here's the thing. The world is enough. But the world is overwhelming. And sometimes we're tired. Sometimes our creative mojonators slow down and we need help to crank things back up. I think of prompts this way: I know how to cook without a recipe. But sometimes I run out of ideas or get bored, and then I like to read cookbooks and websites for yummy ideas which I can follow verbatim or tweak to my liking.
There is no shame in wanting, needing, using creative prompts. I still resist them, but that's because I'm stubborn and silly. Even so, I am now a prompt convert. I believe in them. If nothing else, they can get us unstuck, get us writing, get some messy words on that blank page so we can swing them around later. If nothing else, prompts can be practice. And when I say practice, I mean as a musician practices scales and as a Buddhist practices meditation.
** ** **
Some days the world is enough. Other days, I need a little help finding the right piece of the world to write about.
I've discovered that I like a certain kind of prompt. I like ones that are open-ended enough to let me jump from the color brown to first grade to death (so to speak). I don't love the ones that are overly prescriptive and tell me to write a sci-fi story about toasters that come to life (for example). That's a bit too much of a way in, and I don't really want to go there anyway.
So I've created a batch of writing prompts that I'd actually want to do, and packaged them up for you, in case you'd like to do them too.
The next session of Alchemy Daily starts May 1. You'll get 30 days of writing prompts, inspiration, and magic delivered to your email inbox for just $35. It'll be fun. And no toasters, I promise. (Unless that's your thing, and then you can write about them.)