The Power of the Prompt

From Writer Unboxed:

In 2010, the consensus was that a writer needed to have a blog.

As a dutiful rules follower, who at the time wanted an agent, I started blogging regularly about my journey, about a software program my friend had recommended called Scrivener, and—for more than a year—I penned a weekly blog post called The Sunday Squirrel.

The odd name comes from an experience I had in Toastmasters in my twenties. We had a member, Ken, who was truly a remarkable speaker. Anytime we had an unfilled speaking slot, he would give an impromptu speech using a random topic from the audience. His most memorable was a humorous, completely off-the-cuff, 7-minute speech about hunting squirrels as a kid, that may or may not have been complete B.S. I was impressed.

My hope was that I could grow a similar skill with the written word through extemporaneous writing. I especially wanted to hone my “show-don’t-tell” skills via short pieces of prose with low stakes. So, every Sunday, I picked a random word or topic and then wrote around it, publishing the result immediately, with minimal editing.

The very first squirrel was water bottle, and here’s what I came up with:

He reached for the water bottle tucked into the truck’s console, but it slipped from his grip as he lost the feeling in his fingers. The bottle fell to the floor with a thud, water pulsing out onto the dirty carpet. Every lost drop made him more desperate to quench the fire in his throat as his heart stopped beating and he gasped for his last breath.

A bit, morbid, but you get the idea. These grew increasingly longer, quickly becoming 800-1500 word scenes with a full arc.

Looking back, I’m shocked that I was brave enough to put the results of those impromptu writing sessions out there for all the world to see, and shocked that some of them aren’t too bad. It seems like limiting yourself to a word or specific idea would stifle creativity, but I’ve found that it actually feeds mine. The wilder the concept you have to incorporate, the more creative you have to be.

I’ve done similar prompts at writing conferences, and I’m always surprised how much fun it is and how easily my writer brain takes off when given an assignment.

One of my favorites used three words and a quote.

Words/Concepts: cocktail bar, Sunday school teacher, riding crop

Quote: “I’m just doing what the fortune cookie said. Who am I to stand in the way of fate?”

I somehow wrote a 504-word scene using all the elements in 30 minutes. There are a lot of days when I’d be happy to get 500 words in two hours, so that felt like a breakthrough. Sometimes a blank page is overwhelming. I can write anything! Except, oh, no, I can write anything, what should it be? Where do I start?

Narrowing the possibilities can cut through the indecisiveness and unfreeze your brain.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

1 thought on “The Power of the Prompt”

  1. Sometimes a blank page is overwhelming. I can write anything! Except, oh, no, I can write anything, what should it be? Where do I start?

    Narrowing the possibilities can cut through the indecisiveness and unfreeze your brain.

    Thanks for the link.

    The “blank page” is simply the fuzz of all possible results in the “search”.

    The blank page:

    Think of Google as an example. You enter “telephone” and get millions of results. What do you write when there is too much to write.

    Using a prompt:

    Narrow the results by making it “black classic telephone” and you get.

    Dial M for Murder Official Trailer

    This is like using a Chatbot, only you are asking the “Boys in the Basement” for the result. They are happy to provide any result that you wish, all you have to do is be more specific.

    This is the same answer for “Writer’s Block”. The “Block” is that “fuzz” of too many possibilities. Narrow down the possibilities by a clear “prompt”.

    BTW, Natalie Goldberg uses that same tactic in her book, Writing Down the Bones. She says to take the word/phrase and write anything about it for twenty minutes, then harvest the result that you like best.

    Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig, talks about the same. One of his students could not write because she could not focus on a single subject. He had her write about a building, brick by brick.

    That leads to, Bird by Bird, from Anne Lamott of course.

    But I digress.

Comments are closed.