Nine times a month I teach classes devoted only to writing from prompts. The prompts can range anywhere from a line of poetry, to a picture, to an object, to writing a story that places an object within a picture, to a suggestion. I have been creating prompts and combining them for a dozen years now and the possibilities are endless.
At the start I tell students to write nonstop without editing, to not worry about spelling, punctuation or grammar, to not worry about staying on topic, and to let the writing go where it wants to go rather than trying to control it. I set a timer for 15 minutes, or 25 minutes, or 10 minutes and off we go. After we write we read (this is never required of anyone), and comment, and here, too, there are rules. We say what we liked about a piece, we use the power of recall to recite back particular lines or vivid imagery. If we notice something unique we point it out. We never try to edit or fix or meddle in something written under the gun like this.
Often times when I describe this class to someone who hasn’t experienced the process they ask, “What’s the point?”
Other times someone will come to one of these groups for a year and then ask, “What do I do with all this stuff?”
I’ve also experienced people, after reading and receiving comments dismiss what they have produced by saying, “It’s not real writing.”
But it is real writing.
We are all intelligent beings and intelligent beings have stories to share. I see three types of stories that we all carry inside: stories we know and have told a million times, stories we know and have never told anyone, and stories we don’t know. And that is the point of this work. To tell these stories, even the ones you’ve told a million times, on paper now.
Maybe by writing that million-times-told story in this pressure-cooker way you’ll gain a new insight. Maybe you’ll use a verb you’ve never used before. Or maybe, after writing it down, you won’t feel so compelled to repeat the story at the next Thanksgiving dinner. Maybe you’ll work something out, or feel more satisfied with the story now that it’s on paper and has been received by a group of fellow writers.
It is also the point to tell the story you’ve never told anyone, to cry while writing it down, to feel the sadness and the loss and the aliveness and the survival of your amazing, beautiful self. There is power in owning our stories, even the dark ones, even the ones that embarrass us, the ones that portray us in a less than flattering light. Even if we never read or share with another human being, there is power in writing these things down.
And then there are the stories we don’t know, the ones that land on our pages from out of nowhere. Where did that come from? That therapist? That tiger? That cave? That mountain? That war? That maiden? That plague? That spear? That cloud of locusts?
There is so much we know that we don’t know we know.
There is also the equality of the process, sitting in a room full of people writing from the same prompt, none of us knowing what we’re going to say or where we’re going with it, each of us vulnerable and human and willing and brave. It feels squirmy to write without stopping. It feels squirmy to read out loud, to release it, and write, and release it again. It feels squirmy to receive compliments, and to give them. It’s a shared vulnerability and a transformative process, and often times a collective genius arrives and holds the space. The act of writing with people from prompts and then reading out loud can help you get comfortable on the page, comfortable with your own mind, and comfortable with not always knowing what you’re doing, which is essential in the life of an artist.
As for what to do with all the pages generated by such a practice, I can’t answer that. I too have notebooks upon notebooks of scribbles. Some of my prompts have gone on to become something bigger, a chapter in a novel, or a short story, or an essay. Most have not. Some of what is left could be developed. Some of what is left is embarrassing. Some of what is left is illegible. Some is whiny and tight and bitchy and mean. Some is generous and insightful and touching. All are from my heart, and writing is how I know my heart.
That is all. This is the process. Feel the power in doing something without the big goal of publishing, or “being a writer,” or anything else. Lather, rinse, repeat. Write. Let it go. Write again.
I know someone who looks down on writing from prompts. He says he does not do it because he has his own ideas. This is fine, but there is writing that comes from your conscience and writing that comes from some place deeper. What I offer in a prompt is not an idea, but a portal, a doorway into the unknown. I wrote this blog post from a prompt. The prompt was “Lather, rinse, repeat.” Set a timer. Not one that ticks. Go for it.