I used to believe writing prompts would only serve as one more distraction from whatever project I was working on.
When I took a creative writing class in college, however, I discovered that one of the best ways for me to shake off writer’s block was to stop what I was doing and spend about five minutes working on a writing prompt.
Prompts are to the writing world what a starting gun is to a sprinter. And it is a sprint. The goal is not distance, quantity, or energy conservation, it is to get something down as quickly as possible regardless of how coherent, silly, or irreverent it may be.
How I GotLit! :
Writing prompts also illuminate how many ways there are to look at a single subject. At Inland Northwest Writers’ Guild meetings, we often do a writing prompt or two, and even if we all have exactly the same starting point, the differences in the directions our thoughts take us is striking.
This was also the case at a panel I went to during the GetLit! Festival. Four professional writers were given a prompt: Red Eye, and asked to write something that could be read in about ten minutes. The person who came up with the prompt had been thinking of airplanes and red-eye flights, but that’s not how any of the authors interpreted it.
Kim Barnes, a professor at the University of Idaho and the author of In the Kingdom of Men, wrote a nonfiction piece involving her family history (Which was filled with scandal and made for a great story.) and the Red-Eye Gravy her grandmother made. It brought to life the complicated family dynamics involved with several generations of relatives, and the self discovery that comes from bringing who you are together with where you come from.
Shann Ray, author of American Masculine and professor of leadership studies at Gonzaga University, wrote a fictional story about a professional ballerina who marries a lumberjack. The connection to the prompt was a scuffle between the husband and wife, which he starts, but she ends by nearly putting his eye out. It sounds violent, but it had an emotional depth and a flow reminiscent of well-written poetry. By the end, I felt as if the characters were old friends, and was rooting for them to patch things up.
Nance Van Winckel, a Spokane poet, read a piece about a young child’s tragic accidental death, and the after math for the child’s parents and their friends. Everyone’s eyes were red from crying. It was so powerful partly because she had the courage to ask the question I can never bring myself to ask when I hear about something like this on the news: [Please note, I am paraphrasing, these were not her words. I could never hope repeat her exact phrasing here, but I tried to capture the sentiment because I found it so incredibly moving. My apologies if I fail to do so.]
This was an accident caused not by malice, but by a simple lapse of memory. He forgot. I forget things all the time. Little things mostly, but where is the line between and a careless moment that leads to inconvenience and one that leads to disaster?
Jim Lynch, author of Truth Like the Sun, ended the panel on a lighter note. His story was a spoof of old Noir detective stories (which faithful readers will know I love.) It was titled Spokane Envy, and involved a blues-music-obsessed son of a rich Seattle woman running away to Spokane. I never would have guessed I’d laugh so hard at anything so soon after contemplating death and culpability and whether good intentions mean anything. But as soon as Jim Lynch started reading, I was so caught up in the story of this socially inept, bumbling private eye who was running around Washinton State looking for a missing rich kid, trying to interrogate a girl who works in a fruit stand by the side of the road, posing as a waiter in the Peacock Room at the Davenport, and meeting a rooster named Red Eye, it was impossible not to laugh.
I found the spectrum of emotions and styles, all evoked by the same two words staggering. It was like some insane literary Rorschach test. But that’s the great thing about prompts, everyone comes up with something different. It’s also easier to venture outside your comfort zone because you don’t give yourself time to over think things.
My Own Prompt Response:
Annette Drake asked me to include my own response to the prompt given at the last Writers’ Guild meeting in this post. The prompt was GetLit! You could take it any way you wanted. We were told shorter sentences were preferable because that had been a style we were discussing at the meeting. Anyone who had anything at the end of five minutes was asked to read if they felt comfortable doing so. I did. It’s good practice for reading my more polished work, and you won’t find a friendlier audience. I came up with this:
Patches don’t do a damn thing for me.
Gum don’t work worth shit.
What I need is a cigarette:
The glow of an ember.
Smell of tobacco.
Warmth of smoke in my lungs.
But the bitch took my lighter when she left this morning.
The unlit cylinder hangs from my lips:
No fire hazard here.
[Please note, I am not and never have been a smoker. I have no idea what inspired this, but that’s often how prompt writing goes. Things seem to come out of nowhere.]
I liked that I’d found a rhythm different from what I usually do, but my feelings about the piece as a whole were lukewarm until I heard the response (laughter like you hope for in a comedy club) and Annette encouraged me to share it with all of you online. I highly doubt I would have even thought of anything like this, without a prompt, let alone written it down or shared it with anyone.