Last weekend, I spent two full days hanging out in the studio during Doors Open Milwaukee, seeing several familiar faces and meeting plenty of new ones (thanks to everyone who stopped by!). And if you follow me on Instagram, you know one of the goodies on the giveaway table was a bowl full of
cigarettes #writing prompts (see left).
Offer freebies at any event, and you get a range of reactions from people squinting at said goodies but keeping their distance to folks digging in for three or four. It’s a real sociological experiment.
From the people who chose their pencil and read the paper right there in the studio, I saw a lot of head shaking and heard repeat “oh no’s” and “I can’t.” In those observations, I realized most of us carry misconceptions about how writing prompts work.
Since misconceptions can sometimes be traced back to fear, and fear stunts any good writer, let’s clear up a few of those fallacies right away.
Misconception #1: With a prompt, you have to make up an award-winning story ON THE SPOT.
If you can write an award-winning story in one sitting, forget the prompt; I want to know your secret! For the rest of us, think of a prompt as a nudge, a spark of an idea.
One of the hardest things about writing is to start. The prompt simply opens the door. Even if it’s a word or phrase you hate (and one person did toss his tiny prompt in the garbage), you still walk away thinking in STORY, telling your buddy later about “that time I stopped at that crazy writer lady’s studio and she tried to get me to write a book….”
Misconception #2: You have to take the prompt literally.
Listen, creative expression is all about interpretation. If the prompt says, “yesterday’s coffee,” you could start with the cup of coffee you had yesterday. OR you could go straight to the syrupy mix you discovered in the office carafe last Monday morning and the fact that you were totally desperate, because (you fill in the blank), so you heated up that sludge in your officemate’s “I’m the BOSS” cup and drank it anyway.
Maybe you read the prompt and head down a road to the incompetency you felt the first time your wife brought home a Keurig and rattled through the instructions to “pop in this pod–” and “The what?” you asked. But she waved you off and kept talking right past your scrunched nose and furrowed brow. So the next time you were alone with the machine, all it did was beep at you and flash its lights, and all of a sudden the story is no longer about yesterday’s coffee but about man’s infinite struggle with mechanical beast.
A prompt works to get your creative juices flowing. Once you get moving, the prompt doesn’t even matter.
Misconception #3: A writing prompt is for writing, and that’s it.
Here’s the other thing about creative expression: prompts can be used for all kinds of inspiration.
My favorite conversation during the open house was with a woman who wasn’t a writer at all. She picked out a prompt–with enthusiasm–and said, “I’m a quilter, but you never know where things like this will lead, what kind of new quilt this prompt might inspire.”
I absolutely love her idea.
Because STORY is everywhere. It’s on paper; it’s in conversation. It’s in the next letter you might write (hey, another use for a prompt!). We find it in images all the time. Why not let a prompt inspire another creative venture?
“Okay fine,” you say. “Where do I get these prompts?”
I’m soooo glad you asked.
>> Subscriptions to places like A.Word.A.Day. Back in 2010, I ran a series on the blog called Wednesday’s Word of the Day, where I gave myself 24 hours to write a flash fiction piece based on A.Word.A.Day’s…word of the day (how many times can you fit the same phrase into one small paragraph? boy oh boy).
Most weeks, it was harder than heck to crank out a decent story in such short time, but all that choppy writing was worth it. One of my very-raw pieces, “The Peninsula,” grew in length and depth through years of revisions and recently found its way to publication in Streetlight Magazine. You’ll have to search the archives for the really rough version, but you can read the final story online.
And it all started with the word of the day on that fateful morning: “never-never land.”
>> Books! Check out Midge Raymond’s Everyday Writing, which offers quick five-minute prompts and prompts for longer sit-downs with pen and paper. Her advice is:
“Choose whatever prompt(s) you have time for—and feel free to use them as they are or to rework them in whatever way best fits your mood or project. The only rule here is to put pen to paper, or fingertip to keyboard, and see where it takes you.”
Raymond and I think alike.
Plus, she offers insight and tips on living the life of an everyday writer, even when writing is last on your to-do list.
>> Fellow writers. Bet you’re wondering what prompt you might have discovered in that pile of wrapped pencils. Here’s a sneak peek:
- It came in waves.
Give one a try. Better yet, write about all three in one fell swoop.