Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Writing and Prompt(ness)

Money changes everything.
Just like in the movies.
Small, medium, large.

Huh? (No, it's not bad poetry.)

The above are four of the daily writing prompts I sent to writers since the start of 2010. In early January, I offered to send anyone who signed up, a daily writing prompt, which I ordinarily send out only to those writers enrolled in one of my online or Rutgers classes.

It was almost always fun for me to think up the prompts, and it was always fun to hear back from writers about how they used (or avoided) them. What I didn't anticipate was how much the experience of choosing and sending out the prompts would impact my own writing. Looking back of course, how could I have expected otherwise? Every time I do anything for another writer – offer feedback, teach a lesson, share tips – I always get something in return; any energy I put out into the writing world invariably finds it way back in to my own work. An idea. A phrase. A new, unexpected angle. And I'm grateful for that.

Aside from the simple – but not to be dismissed – act of helping me start my work day, knowing I had about five dozen people waiting for the prompt each morning was a small happy thrill for me. Now, don't get me wrong. I never imagined for a minute that dozens of people were really waiting to hear from me, fingers poised on the keyboard, hanging on the inspiration my prompt may provide. Please. I know writers have lots of other things to do, and I realize many of those prompt emails may have been (purposely or haphazardly) ignored. That's okay, because even very early on I heard from enough writers who did find them useful, and that kept me going. When it was over, I asked participants to share their experiences.

Carrie Wilson Link wrote to say: "Two great months of prompts; they've been wonderful, and very helpful. I'm using the various prompts that really jump out at me to form my chapter outline for the newest book I'm working on, or rather, conceiving!"

Andrea explained: "I only wrote from one of them (pie), and saved all the rest for 'some day when I have more time,' until this past weekend when the person who was supposed to lead my writing group bailed last minute. When no one stepped up, I quickly opened the three most recent prompt emails, scribbled them in my notebook, and we did three free-writes using your prompts. Thanks for saving the day!"

From another writer: "I mostly saved the prompts for the future, because my writing time these days is devoted to a novel revision. But there was one prompt that, combined with a setting I've been playing around with and something about the novel I was reading at the time, sparked a short story idea. I haven't written it yet, but I've gotten some notes down and am hoping to draft the story soon."

Ann Newman, a retired teacher and writing student, had this to say: "As a student new to creative non-fiction I found the prompts provided a much needed 'kick in the pants' to write every day. I wrote the daily prompt at the top of a clean page in my notebook, left the notebook open on the kitchen table while I brewed my morning coffee, and returned, mug in hand, and started to write. Sometimes the prompt wiggled its way into my entry, other times the prompt just inspired me to recall an event or person. There were days I couldn't respond as deeply, but I still wrote the prompt on a clean page in my notebook and wrote short triggers off of the prompt. I am now revisiting the prompts to see what stories I can 'mine'. There were prompts that didn't resonate for me, so I wrote them in list form on a page in the back of my notebook for future reference."

A translator who received the prompts explained she was "putting the prompts in a 'writing' folder to use sometime. The only thing that really works to start me writing seems to be deadlines."

Along the way, I also published what two of the prompt participants wrote in response to particular prompts (here and here).

Another writer wanted to know about my writing process for the prompts. In general, I wanted the prompts to be a varied assortment to increase the chances that even if one day's prompt – or a few in a row—didn't speak to a writer, there would be another, far different one, landing in his or her inbox soon. One day it might be a short sentence, usually one that can be taken several ways ( I know all about it.), or a phrase, often one I would probably delete in a piece of writing for being trite or overused, but which surprisingly makes a good prompt (the best of friends). Another day it might be a provocative verb (judged), a noun with the likelihood of rich associations (vows), or an adjective just as likely to evoke positive as negative feelings (free).

In fall of 2009, when I began sending prompts to students, I simply sat at the computer each morning and wrote something, anything. By January, when I was sending them out to a far larger group, I spent some time each weekend generating a list of a dozen possible prompts for the following week. Often it was something which had recently crossed my mind (what took so long?), desk (required reading), kitchen counter (report card), or patience threshold (read all directions before starting). Occasionally, one of my kids contributed an idea (please stay in line).

For February, I was in a more playful mood and wanted to experiment with a theme, so I wrote all the prompts in one sitting, taken from the lyrics of Michael Jackson songs, which I was researching for a future article – from one-word snippets (Butterflies) to longer phrases (should have seen it coming). For March's prompts, I sat down in front of one of my bookcases and wrote down the titles of books – novels (Lost and Found), memoirs (Without a Map), essay collections (Money Changes Everything), and poetry (We Didn't Come Here For This) – which suggested they might resonate.

Right now, I'm between classes (two weeks until both the Rutgers and online classes start up again), so I'm only sending prompts out to two private writing coaching clients, and not every day. In a few days, however, I'll start a new list. I'll need eight weeks worth total, and am leaning toward using a theme again. (Sure, suggestions are welcome.)

Later in the year – perhaps summer time when many writers have more time to write – I'm thinking of offering the prompt project again to anyone who wishes to sign up. In the meantime, when I find myself floundering in my own writing, I flip open my prompt notebook and find one that I've usually forgotten all about. Yesterday, it was: The boys in the band. You see, once when I was a teenager on vacation in Miami Beach…..


Judy Merrill Larsen said...

I love this! I've never used daily writing prompts, but I'm thinking I might use the ones you mention here . . . thanks!

Anonymous said...

well if you do choose to offer to send the prompts to new readers this summer, please let me know! i would love to receive the prompts!