Thursday, June 23, 2011

On Writing Prompts

Writing prompts are ideas that are meant to kick-start a writing exercise. For example: "Think about what you had for lunch three days ago. Write about that, or about the place where you ate." Prompts are jumping-off points. They serve to get the writing mind going, to start the creative process. They're very useful for writers who are stalled, if not stuck, who don't know what they want to do next. They're useful as exercises for beginners.

I have a mixed relationship with writing prompts. Occasionally they are very stimulating, and interesting to me. It can depend on the mood.

Writing prompts also can be problems to be solved. That can keep it a bit too intellectual, a bit too detached. Your writing response to a prompt, which is really just a thought-form, a word-image, can stay safely at the level of the five-finger exercise, the étude, the study.

I have decided that, overall, I don't like writing prompts. There are two reasons. First is that they are someone else's idea of what to write about. That rarely works well for me. Not that I'm opposed to suggestions, rather that if your mind is already going in one direction, it can be completely derailed by an abrupt change of direction, and thus it can actually defeat the purpose by blocking the creative impulse.

I'd rather go wandering and see what catches my attention, what in the world generates a response. When I do like a writing prompt, it's because it generated a response, as if on a wander. I do this in particular with what I call camera walks, which are wanders with camera in hand, which cane be a meditation in itself.

The second reason is that I find most writing prompts insipid and unchallenging. They're just not very exciting. They don't activate my creative impulse, usually. That's not meant to sound arrogant, although it probably does. The truth is, I've been at this writing and making art game for some years now, and at some point you stop wanting to repeat all the beginning-level creative exercises, which is what most such offerings are.

Of course, there's no real reason to get irritated by writing prompts, and there's nothing wrong with beginning-level writing tools. In fact, they're essential. And no one is forcing me to use them.

What actually irritates me is the seemingly permanent assumption that we as writers never grow past needing such tools. When you're at certain stages in your creative process, having the tools on hand to kick-start your creativity is excellent, necessary, wonderful, essential. But at some point you must become a self-starter. At least to a minimum extent. You can't rely on external kick-starts forever. If you can['t switch over to kick-starting your own self internally, then what have you ever learned? How can you expect to continue to grow as a writer and go on?

There's a certain lowest-common-denominator aspect to this. While it's true that there are always new beginning writers who need the tools, there is a silent assumption, often enough, that we never outgrow such tools. And that's a false assumption. If you assume you're never going to grow up, then of course you never will. If you cannot conceive of something, you're unlikely ever to fulfill it.

So while I acknowledge that writing prompts as a craft tool have a definite and useful place in one's writing life, I also acknowledge their limitations. There comes a point in a writer's progress where you have to fly alone, or not fly at all.

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Blogger Glenn Ingersoll said...

I like writing prompts/challenges/assignments when I'm writing in a group - when everybody is working off the same prompt. It's fun to hear all the different takes, the similarities, too.

Plus it creates an opportunity for performance and immediate feedback.

Use a prompt on my own? I don't. If I really want to produce from a total standing start, I'll find something around me. I like cafe poems - "The man at the next table is drumming with his spoons" - and cat poems - "one cat is curled to the left, one to the right."

As to flying - sometimes it's better to crawl, or dig, or squirm.

11:27 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Writing in a group is a good occasion for prompts, I completely agree. Thinking back, that's most often when I've followed them. Once or twice it led to a poem, or something useful, but mostly it just stayed on the exercise level. But that is a good time for them, I agree.

I like cafés, too, as there's always something to observe, write about. The last time I hung out for a long time in a coffeeshop, I was writing music; the time before that, I sketched a tree nearby. So that's a good environment, or can be, for creativity.

12:21 AM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I have no problem with writing prompts as long as there is no obligation to write. I see them as no different to walking down a street looking at stuff for inspiration and then the unexpected happens. I’ve written some good poems to prompts but mostly not. I would certainly never commit to a fixed period of writing based on someone else’s ideas. A lot of my friends do, they write poems every week based on something called the Poetry Bus. I look at the prompts because they’re often visual and then the poems and mostly they’re fairly middling stuff, stuff that if I’d written it it would end up being discarded but then I’m not satisfied these days with just writing a poem. I get my writing fix producing articles. I’ve always tried to keep my poetry pure. I’m in tune with my inner poet 24/7 and am always looking for something that I can transform into a poem but I’m choosy. I went to have my eyes tested a couple of days ago and for the first time in years I don’t need new glasses but while I was there getting my usual barrage of tests something out of the ordinary happened. I always have the pressure of my eyes tested because of a family history with glaucoma only this time for some reason I was having difficulty keeping my eyes open wide enough so the girl could do the puffer test and so she got a colleague to help me, to gently hold my eyelid whilst the test was in progress, and I found I liked this brief human contact and there was the idea from which a poem will be written: I envisaged an old person who lives alone and whose only physical contact that day was this. That reminded me of when I used to live alone and enjoying the feeling on a shop assistant handing me my change. I’ve not written the poem yet. I’ve left a file on desktop and will get to it. I’m long past the desperate need to get the poem written lest my inspiration slip away from me. Now what if someone had offered me that as a writing prompt, would it have had the same effect on me? Who knows? Unlikely I’d say. Observation has to take second place to experience.

4:28 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Observation has to take second place to experience.

I completely agree. That's something I've always felt to be true about poetry, and writing in general. It's not that observation is unimportant, it's that experience is more so.

I also agree about feeling obliged to write. I don't like feeling forced, and I know from my own experience that it yields mostly bad poetry.

The Poetry Bus concept wouldn't work for me. For one thing, I am not interested in writing a poem a day, because when I've tried it in the past, almost all of them have ended up in the wastebasket. While it might be good for honing ones craft, nobody, but nobody, writes good poems every single day.

I agree about being in tune with my inner poet all the time. That's where poems come from, for me, not from my conscious intention or desire. My only conscious intention is to be ready for when a poem does want to be written. Sometimes the back-pressure has to get pretty intense before I can get to it.

I observe a lot of poets still believing that writing a poem is an act of conscious will, or intention, and I note how most poems conceived from conscious acts of will are mediocre. They might excite the mind, but they don't stick to the ribs. But that's because they were generated from the mind, and only the mind, and not from experience.

11:22 AM  

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