In Defense of the Lowly Writing Prompt

...and anything else that gets you to the page

Photo by Julia Joppien on Unsplash

“The hardest thing about writing, for me, is facing the blank page.” ~Octavia Spencer

Hi friends! Is your summer treating you well? I’m writing to you this month as my oldest daughter and I are in the midst of a road trip out east. It’s be just the two of us, crossing states and time zones in a leisurely fashion. We aim to enjoy this journey, with real time alone together for the first time in many years.

“Big Stories in a Small Space: An Introduction to the Art of Flash Fiction”

Before today’s craft piece, just FYI: I’m teaching a flash fiction class through the wonderful Lounge Writers on Saturday, July 24th and would love for you to join me! I think as we speak there are only a few remaining spots. You can register HERE.

Now, today I’m compelled to speak out in defense of writing prompts. Every so often I see folks shooting arrows at them. The objection? Prompts are for beginners or poseurs. Real writers don’t need prompts (because presumably they take dictation from God). Or any story written from a prompt can’t possibly be good. If it didn’t spring from a tortured soul, toiling away in a dim, but tastefully decorated cell it must be artificial or facile. Writers who use them lack imagination. And so on.

Let’s right here and now dispense with the notion of the “real writer” and while we’re at it, anything else that’s designed to make you feel small. You’re a writer because you write, period.

My mantra, as a writer and teacher has always been: “Whatever gets you to the page.”

I want to distinguish prompts vs. exercises here. Exercises (and these are what I offer in my workshops) are aimed at acquiring and building skills as well as illuminating and concretizing concepts that might otherwise feel abstract. A prompt is chiefly aimed at getting the words flowing. Anything that achieves both is a huge bonus and is what I always seek to deliver in my Fast Flash workshops.

So prompts / exercises:

  • Support and build upon skills introduced in a workshop setting.

  • May take the writing deeper by tapping into the subconscious.

  • Get the pen moving, serve as pre-writing warm-ups.

  • Can simply be a low-stakes, fun way for writers to generate new work.

I love when writers surprise themselves under the transformative spell of a good writing exercise. Something loosens. Words once stuck in the throat flow freely.There’s new daring, risk-taking, joyful exploration.

Pamela Painter has a terrific essay on the value of writing writing exercises (“You and the Piano Bench”) in Rose Metal Press’s Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction. Painter makes the case that writing exercises are just as important for writers as practicing scales is for piano players or doing vocal exercises is for singers. Writing from prompts, and anything else that gets you to the page regularly, is good creative hygiene.

Your Prompts (Of course I’m giving you lots this month!)

  • Describe in detail some scene from ordinary human life from the point of view of a space alien. Practice defamiliarization. Need a nudge? Describe one of the following: Travelers going through security in a busy airport. Marauding Trick-or-Treaters invading a suburban street. Rabid football fans in a packed stadium. The process of choosing, boiling, and devouring a lobster. You get the idea. What does this do? It forces you to see the world anew. You may unearth some insights on human behavior. You may find yourself drafting a surreal, uncanny, dystopian story and I for one, am all for it.

  • Write a dream as if it’s real. Do not identify it as a dream. Embellish it with strong sensory and specific details. Likely an actual story will begin to germinate in your brain. Run with it.

  • “Dreamify” an incident from your life, significant or ordinary. Doesn’t matter. What does this do? It creates a sense of magic on the page, the flowy, gauzy feeling of prose poetry.

  • Begin with “I remember…” and go from there. Keep the pen moving for ten minutes. Make stuff up with abandon. Let loose your inner liar. You may find yourself “becoming” a character with a past. His or her distinct voice may assert itself. OR you may end up with a great personal essay!

  • My 50 RANDOM SENTENCES exercise. (That’s on the Flash Fiction Retreat Blog. Nancy Stohlman and I published a whole month’s worth of prompts there during lockdown. Check them out!

Recommended Reading

What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers (3rd ed.) by Anne Bernays & Pamela Painter

The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction (Tara L. Masih, ed.)

Going Short: An Invitation to Flash Fiction by Nancy Stohlman (also available on Amazon)

Fiction Writer’s Workshop by Josip Novakovich (a classic, lots of exercises)

The Daily Poet: Day-by-Day Prompts For Your Writing Practice by Kelli Russell Agodon & Martha Silano

Before you go…

I’m excited to let you know I have a new flash, “some hard, hot places,” out in the 50th anniversary print issue of Ploughshares, guest edited by Aimee Bender. If you subscribe, I’d love for you to read it!

I’ll be announcing my Fall/Winter round of workshops and opening registration soon! If you are interested and have not signed up for my mailing list, you will want to now. It is the best and only way to get information about upcoming classes. I will, as always, be offering some classes ONLY for first-timers. Sign up for notifications on my website.

Also…are you ready to recommit to your art, commune in a restorative place with like-minded souls? Nancy Stohlman and I will soon be launching our next retreat, scheduled for February, 2022. These retreats sell out fast! If you’d like to gain early access to information & registration sign up HERE. We’d love for you to join us!

Thanks so much for stopping by, friends. See you next month!


Tropical Breakthrough: Restore, Renew, and Recommit to Your Art in Costa Rica, Feb. 2022