Thursday, July 28, 2011

On Writing Prompts

Agent Courtney Miller-Callahan offered to provide a writing prompt on her blog for her followers to respond on thier blogs. I thought it was a good idea. Especially since it has been a month since I have blogged. I guess I was caught in the undertow of life as I know it. I am ready to be rejuvenated, renewed. I can do it through writing. I know this about me.

But today I wanted to say a word about writing prompts. I have been studying the craft of writing for almost thirty years now. In the last decade or so, writing prompts have become the rage. We writers dread the infamous "writer's block." Writing prompts are a tool meant to beat those "block" moments into pulp by inspiring thought, forcing creativity, and artificially providing a canvas for imagination.

Often writing prompts become an exercise in behavioral management. The process works like an antique pump. Our creativity needs priming. By offering a prompt, it inspires (or tasks, would be a better word)us to produce words: a story, a scene, some description, some dialogue, or an essay. We are story-tellers at heart. If our well is running dry, the thought goes, perhaps some forceful priming will coax some water to flow.

The problem comes when the prompt becomes the drug. If we begin to rely so heavily on the priming that story-telling does not come naturally, we are in danger of damaging our "muse" permanently. If we become too dependent on writing prompts, an artificiality can embue our writing. A prompt dependency can steal time from our schedule. Prompt-dependency can become our Facebook, our Twitter, our scrap-booking maniacal cousin, our Bunko-twice-a-week girlfriend, our fantasy football fanatical co-worker, our blogroll: another distraction that doesn't lead to productive writing.

Note that I didn't say that writing prompts are bad in and of themselves. They can be a productive way to give us that boost to punch on through to more productivity. Prompts can even inspire productive writing. I have used characters, dialogue and scenes from my writing prompt exercises in my manuscripts. This isn't always true, but it happens. It is like a writing journal: if you look past the stream-of-consciousness, self-centered, self-concerned, crud we write when we are struggling, you can find a nugget of good writing.

So, in the end, just be judicious about your prompt usage. Be careful purchasing those writing prompt collections that encourage a writing prompt once a day. I have seen these sold as calanders, as novelty books, and as workshops. I half expect their advertising to say, "Please buy this book so we can help you do endless busy work that helps none whatsoever to produce any meaningful or publishable writing. But you will be so satisfied that you are writing SOMETHING, that you will think you can publish these unconnected, meaningless writing tasks as a collection." Yeah, right after you sell your Twitter post collection, right?