I was raised on writing prompts. In the beginning of my addiction to writing fiction they were usually self-administered; at ten I’d maybe choose a tree outside to describe or a clichéd spooky phrase to help set my fingers clacking on my mom’s old blue Royal. At thirteen, I was selected to be a member of my school’s Power of the Pen team, and I was then introduced to a never-ending, weekly barrage of writing prompts tailored to plump up the brains of junior high Parkers and Whitmans and Eliots. We’d practice in one of the English rooms, our heads in the sweaty hands that weren’t grasping our pencils (drafts were always done in pencil, finals with pens). We’d scratch out whatever narrative might come to mind after our coach wrote something like this on the blackboard:
You receive a letter in the mail from your future self at thirty. What does it say?
My stories were usually weird. Apocalyptic and psychedelic. I recall one where I was turned into a lemur and another told in the voice of a ballerina who had been flirting with LSD (I had just read my mom’s old copy of Go Ask Alice). I must have struck a chord with judges from both the local and regional levels, because I went all the way to the state tournament at Denison University. While there, my writing sadly fizzed, crashed, and burned. Probably because I had spent the night before the all-day free writing portion of the tournament making out with a boy from Northeastern Ohio. Never trust boys from Toledo!
After eighth grade, I kept writing both formally and on my own (POP is only open to 7-8th graders), but generally stopped using direct prompts. Even today, I’m usually quite lucky in that I don’t hit too many walls, and can pull my inspiration from the animate and inanimate around me without that sort of nudge.
But I’m curious, as a writer, or a visual artist, have you ever used traditional prompts? There’s certainly an ocean of them online:
Writer’s Digest has some nice ones. Though I don’t use prompts I might try this one:
“Take the first line of your favorite song and write a story using it as the first line.”
It would be fun to write a short story with the first lines of one of my favorite songs as the lead in or first line:
Poets and Writers Magazine will send a fiction or poetry prompt to your inbox weekly. Here’s a recent one that I dig a lot:
“For one week, collect words and phrases you encounter throughout the day from signs, advertisements, menus, overheard conversations, radio programs, headlines, television, etc. At the end of the week, write a found poem, using these snippets.”
Ooooh that one sounds right up my dark and deserted alley. Love it.
I’d be interested to hear if you use prompts regularly, whether as a visual artist or a poet/writer. Have they caused your synapses to fire rapidly, your brain creating so fast that your fingers can barely keep up? Or have they hindered your normal creative process?