Thursday, March 4, 2010

Writing prompts

The Tupelo "Poetry project" page had a discussion of writing prompts-- little exercises, or snippets, designed to serve as a seed of creativity, a stimulus to a story or poem.

"Some people dislike prompts, while others enjoy them and use them with students and in writers’ groups. We’re interested in hosting an ongoing discussion of the utility and pleasures of writing in response to arbitrary or serendipitous occasions. Please feel welcome to send us your thoughts. Recently we posted three prompts from poet Karen An-hwei Lee, which elicited a circumspect response from poet Dan Beachy-Quick, whose comment sparked poet Paul Bone to reply in defense of prompts. Follow the links to read these commentaries.
"What do you think?"
  • Karen An-hwei Lee: “Ten Prompts for Writers” (excerpted from the Reader’s Companion for the book Ardor)
  • Dan Beachy-Quick: “Some (Skeptical) Thoughts on Prompts:
  • "I should admit to a long and increasingly ambivalent relationship to the use of “prompts” in the classroom, as well as in my own writing practice, to the point where now I exclude them almost completely... I like to think that the blank page is its own best prompt—"
  • Paul Bone: “A Defense of Writing Prompts”:
  • "But in the classroom, and in our own work, the idea that assignments somehow profane the poetic process suggests the poet is simply waiting for the terror and the fits to seize him: a conduit rather than a conjurer. It also negates the notion that, as Mallarme said, poems are made of words, not ideas."

As an sample, the poems from one of the earlier poetry project prompts, "Prompts after Petrarch," can be found here.

"I swim a sea that has no shore or bottom."
--Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374)

I have mixed feelings about prompts. As a whole, I have far too many ideas in my head and fragments and notes about things I want to write to need to be prompted in order to have something to write. On the other hand, prompts can be fun. There's a lot of freedom in writing to a prompt that you didn't generate yourself, and therefore that you have nothing invested in. And there's a thrill to trying to come up with something on a topic you've never given an instant's thought to, on the spur of the moment. It's most interesting, in fact, when after the writing, you get together with a bunch of friends and see how a handful of writers grew completely different flowers out of the same seed.
So, thinking on it, I guess I don't really have mixed feelings at all-- a writing prompt can serve as a kick in the head, something to get you out of your rut, and I've gotten some good work out of prompted exercises. And even when I haven't gotten anything good, I've had fun.


Rob said...

I dislike prompts. I can see their value in a class full of students who are not motivated poets/writers. In a writers' group, however, they often sidetrack people from their projects. My reaction is always less than positive when told to "be creative," "let your imagination fly," and then I'm given some cookie-cutter shape that reminds me of party games.

John B. Burroughs said...

Methinks all writing is prompted by something.

pottygok said...

As Geoff explained, prompts are great for poets who occasionally need a kick start or find themselves regurgitating themselves and need a fresh direction. I think one must always remember that prompts are not intended to create final polished drafts but to force the author to work within certain guidelines to create a draft which then can be tweaked, ignoring the rules of the prompt, to a final piece.

One thing about prompts is that there are those that are too specific, and can limit the author, as opposed to those which put up a few boundaries with which the author must work, but don't restrict them beyond that. Too often I find that books on writing are filled with the former, and not the later, which tend to restrict and stifle writers as opposed to honing their skills and encouraging them in new directions.


The poet doesn't invent. He listens. ~Jean Cocteau