As a poet, I have a love-hate relationship with writing prompts. Perhaps it’s simply a dislike of being told what to do, but I feel an instinctive resistance whenever I’m urged to write in response to an idea suggested by someone else. Logically I know I should get over this, because one can’t write a thesis by sitting around waiting for inspiration to strike – and because I have to admit that some of my best and most surprising poems have in fact been written in response to writing prompts.
My prompt-phobia is encapsulated by a particular memory from early in my writing life. The new writer-in-residence at my writing group asked us each to describe an imaginary monster. How many arms and legs does it have? What colour is it? What sound does it make? If I found myself in that classroom now, I like to think I might be more imaginative in my response, more confident about interpreting the instructions in my own way. At the time however, I felt completely alienated by this prompt; its subject matter couldn’t have been further from my own concerns. I was so uninspired after a few similar prompts that I actually stopped attending that group.
I have never written sci-fi or fantasy, and felt rather ashamed of my snobbishness in spurning a prompt that seemed to be geared towards these genres. But on reflection, I realised it wasn’t so much the prompt’s subject matter that I found unfruitful, as its emphasis on subject matter. It was a “Write about…” prompt, and I’ve come to understand that “Write about…” prompts are not the most stimulating for me. Subject matter is not hard to find, but there needs to be a reason to tap that subject matter for poetry: a memory or an image that suddenly makes a connection, a phrase that gives the first line of a poem that needs to be written, a formal aspect or some other factor that is going to make this poem want to be written.
Prompts that spark inspiration for me tend to be oriented more towards formal constraints. In response to the prompt “Write a poem that conveys emotion, but without using either the first or the second person,” I wrote this poem. The ostensible subject matter (trees, birds, wheat field) is very ordinary, but the expressive limits set by the prompt allowed an existing preoccupation – that feeling of nostalgia at the end of summer – to come to the surface and be expressed mainly through imagery and tone.
Because artistic inspiration is such an elusive thing, I have tended to think of prompts as being mainly useful for creative writing. It is only recently and belatedly, largely thanks to attending a wonderful session by Rowena Murray at this year’s SGSAH Summer School, that I have come to see how they can also spark academic writing. (I highly recommend her book Writing for Academic Journals, whose 4th edition will be published in November). Professor Murray demonstrated how perfectionism and procrastination can be overcome by using prompts for freewriting and generative writing, and how thinking in terms of prompts can structure a draft paper at the paragraph – or even sentence – level: “The purpose of this paper is to re-evaluate… In this section I will define…” and so on. This not only gives each section a clear purpose, but allows writing to be done in manageable “snacking” time slots in response to very specific prompts (e.g. “in fifteen minutes, write the paragraph summarising Brown’s argument”). It’s been something of a revelation to me to conceptualise a paragraph of critical writing as a response to a prompt, with a word or time limit that makes this small chunk of writing seem completely manageable.
Despite my ambivalence towards prompts, I have always loved deadlines, since I am certain I would never get anything done without them. Why do I need deadlines so much? Because they make me focus, and produce work. But clearly, I wouldn’t need to focus and produce work so much towards the end of a writing project if I had an equivalent impetus to focus and produce at the start. If I kept up the pace from the beginning by using prompts to generate text, I wouldn’t have to sprint as I approach the finish line. This blog itself will be an ongoing exercise in writing to prompts, and I hope will help me formulate and develop my thinking on academic and poetic matters. I’ve already put the deadlines for writing it in my diary, but I would welcome suggestions of prompts to kick-start the blog-writing process.