Prompt Writing: Not Just for Workshop
Leslie Pietrzyk | March 2016
Every August, at least one teacher in my Facebook feed asks for writing prompts, seeking exercises to loosen up and build bonds in early, awkward, typically undergraduate workshops. It makes sense that beginning writers need some handholding in the form of a guided prompt: Everyone, write about an early birthday. But it seems to me that many experienced writers discount prompt writing, viewing the practice as excellent exercise for, well, someone else, someone who needs their hand held and isn’t ready yet for “real” writing.
Or maybe only I thought that way. I’ve published two novels and a short story collection, and I certainly don’t know everything about writing but I hope I know a little. On paper, I do: I have an MFA. I teach fiction in graduate programs. For more than 10 years I was in a high level critique group where we read chapters of our novels in progress. Yet, four years ago I made prompt writing an important part of my writing practice.
I’ll be honest. Much of what got me thinking about prompts was needing my own hand held. I had poured myself into writing a novel that didn’t sell and was left flailing around, unable to commit to another long project. Anxieties about the publishing biz sapped my creative energy. More than anything, I wanted to remind myself that writing could simply be fun, not exclusively a pathway to publication. Starting a low-stress prompt group felt manageable.
I decided on the time, venue, and format that would work for me. (A tremendous advantage to starting something is that your rules are in place from the beginning!) We would meet once a month for two hours at a neighborhood coffee shop, where we’d chat for half an hour then write to two very open-ended prompts for 15 minutes each. Anyone who wanted to read out loud could but it wasn’t required.
Being a suburbanite, I posted an announcement on my neighborhood listserve inviting anyone who wanted to explore their creativity through writing to join the group—no experience necessary. Craigslist or a flyer on a bulletin board would also work. For me, the key to the group was an open-minded and casual approach to getting participants. I didn’t expect a bunch of MFAs to show up. And this venture didn’t need experienced writers as a critique group might. If you could put pen to paper, you were welcome to write prompts with me.
Our rules were so flexible as to be nonexistent: Compliments, no critiques; share or don’t share; any genre welcome. I respond best to the gentlest, vaguest prompts such as a single word (i.e., car, basement) or object (i.e., a square of gritty sandpaper), so that’s the pattern I established early on. We could write two separate pieces or combine the prompts into a single piece, jumping to the second prompt midway through at 15 minutes in. The no-rules rule also meant that if the first prompt was especially inspiring, then keep at it and disregard the second. The only real rule was, whatever works, works.
I didn’t know what to expect for my own writing practice, but I immediately noticed how pleasant it was to write something, to share it immediately with an audience, and to hear a chorus of affirmation. Gone were the careful phrasings of the critique group or workshop: “I need a little more here.” Instead, it was, “I loved that opening sentence.” The general atmosphere was relaxing because with rough, unpolished writing, we focused on potential and underlying ideas and the simple bravery of writing something in 15 minutes. Since many of us were strangers initially, shared work is how we came to know each other.
On the other hand, I definitely responded to the pressure of sitting with four to eight people, all quietly writing. If I wasn’t instantly inspired, watching them work made me feel lazy and loserish, pushing me into writing something. Knowing I didn’t have to read what I wrote was a get out of jail free card, but generally everyone shared.
I exerted my own pressure, becoming anxious if nothing was happening in my story. When teaching, I’m often reminding students that conflict is necessary for narrative drive, and in a 15- or 30-minute piece, what joy to throw down heaps of conflict, knowing I wouldn’t have to resolve a lick of it. Wanting to maintain interest, my writing bubbled to the point of the conflict quickly; characters would lie or do something unexpected, something I hadn’t even realized they might do. Often I discovered a twist at that 15 minute mark. Or I discovered a startling connection between two unrelated prompts and accommodated both in a single, sustained piece.
Naturally, I couldn’t entirely trust all this fun. Nor could I squelch the practical voice in my head, wondering what I was accomplishing with all these prompts. In the ideal world, I ignore that voice. But here in the real world, I wondered if I might explore characters for a novel I had in mind. Could I put them in action in the prompts? Could I explore backstory? Could I indulge tangents about characters who were secondary but who needed to be sharply drawn? Could I figure out plot points? And even have fun writing? Yes! I could do all of those things, and prompt pieces have found their way into my novel-in-progress: blue, adventure, lavender, dance…. Other members of the group also explored recurring characters or worked on long-form memoir, and I can’t help but fantasize about the distant future, our books side-by-side on a shelf, a scholar thumbing through the pages, spinning grand theories about the importance of “sandpaper” as an image in these varied works of art.
Leslie Pietrzyk’s story collection This Angel on My Chest won the 2015 Drue Heinz Literature Prize and was published by University of Pittsburgh Press in October 2015. She teaches fiction in the Converse College low-residency MFA program and in the Johns Hopkins MA Program in Writing.