For the last several years, I’ve been the sole teacher for a group of senior citizens in a Creative Writing Class at Harwood Place Retirement Living Center. This year, I invited a fellow writer, Maura Fitzgerald, to join me as co-teacher. She’s taken on the role with enthusiasm and dedication. (It’s tough to get up early on a Saturday morning to talk essays and poetry and “homework for next month.” Ask the seniors, they just requested to push the start time to a half an hour later!). Today, Maura shares a bit about teaching, about students young and old, and about the power and mystery in prompts. And yes, she leaves you with an assignment.
In Praise of Prompts
by Maura Fitzgerald
I once gave a group of 8th graders the prompt, When I am hungry…, and said “No rules. Just write.” Surely this exercise for kids who are almost always hungry would unleash their creative wild child to roam free across the blank page and leave a trail of original thoughts and insights. Instead, hands shot up. “Do you mean what do I eat when I’m hungry?” or “When I’m hungry for what?” and “I’m never hungry.”
Several students responded to the ‘hungry’ prompt by simply writing “I eat,” or they listed favorite foods. (Okay, prompts don’t always work.) But others were surprising and fresh on the page: A brief conversation between a girl and her empty, gurgling stomach; A boy who stuffed himself with fortune cookies for nutrition and wisdom. Same prompt, very different treks across the vacant space.
Recently, I gave our group of writers at Harwood Place the essay, “The Potato Harvest,” by April Monroe, in which she describes how easily her garden surrenders to the approaching autumn. After reading the essay, the group’s prompt was “Surrender.” Around the edges of the silence that followed, I sensed discomfort with the prompt. But I let it be. Prompts don’t come with comfort scores. In fact, discomfort can sometimes butt-kick a pen like nothing else. (Try it sometime with a prompt that chafes or confounds and confuses.)
The students—young and old—reacted like many writers do when facing a prompt. We crave directions for traversing the wide-open landscape of empty paper. Give me a destination and show me the landmarks along the way. Please. A compass might help, too.
The thing is, prompts come without instructions. On purpose. That’s why they work. Creativity holes up in unexpected places, so a writer must put pen to paper and follow the prompt to the unexpected.
While many writers don’t use written prompts, we encounter them daily.
A waitress’s hairy arms or the brick-solid nurse whose name tag says Taffy. Sunday voices spreading salvation through open church doors. Sounds and sights and smells to catalogue for future use. Details that say, “follow me.”
Used items from MECCA, a clearinghouse in Eugene, Oregon that’s filled with scraps and discards for creative use—a clearinghouse of prompts. Newspapers and magazines from the 50s, family photo albums, previously sent greeting cards and letters, unusual postage stamps. I don’t need any of it. And I’m no hoarder. But there are countless items that prey on my curiosity. Who wrote this 1942 letter and what’s with the photo of the man and goat on the porch? I always leave with a bag of treasures competing for Prompt of the Day.
Even the local crime report: “Mints, a phone charger, and a softball were taken from a locked car…” Who takes mints and a softball? Write about it.
Or park yourself in any airport or Laundromat and scribble away.
Go ahead, grab hold of a prompt and let it pull you in. Relax and enjoy the ride.
I’ll leave you with this prompt, a few lines from Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “I am a Town.”
I’m the language of the natives, I’m a cadence and a drawl
I’m the pines behind the graveyard, and the cool beneath their shade….
Read the full lyrics to the song here. Then, write details of a town from the viewpoint of the town.
Maura Fitzgerald has written nonprofit grant, marketing and communications, annual reports, and campaign appeals. Her nonfiction has appeared in Milwaukee Magazine and her fiction in Pank. Her writing has been featured on Milwaukee Public Radio, and she has done public readings at Fixx Coffee Shop and Woodland Pattern Book Center. She has taught creative writing to 8th and 9th grade students through Pathways Milwaukee, and presently co-leads the Harwood Place Writers Group with Christi.