There’s a belief that one of the best ways for a student to practice writing skills is by responding to prompts. Over the years, I’ve noticed that most prompts are at best boring and at worse forced and near useless, amounting to little more than busy work for students. Busy work is anything where form triumphs over substance. This can happen when a teacher or instructor tries to interject fun rather than learning into an exercise, or attempts to merely occupy the students’ time.
What’s missing from most writing prompts is the “contemplation factor” that a prompt should generate. It happens when a prompt taps a memory of people, or events, or places on the shoulder and your brain jumps to attention and marches into realm of recollection. First you enjoy the recollections and then the flow of ideas about how you could write about them.
The fun comes from the freedom such prompts offer to the imagination, giving it an opportunity to explore ideas rather than merely construct some instruction-compliant work product. Don’t get me wrong, we all need to practice our skills like a newbie horn player rehearses her scales in various keys to gain facility with an ever broader array of music. But writing prompts, instead of confining the imagination by limiting its scope of adventure, should set the creative portion of our mind free to roam beyond a writer’s “middle C.” Writing is different from music; when writing, you make up your scales as you go and practice in what order to present them through editing.
I found a little book in one of my favorite Indie bookstores that does just that. Happiness is . . . (aptly subtitled “500 things to be happy about”) was compiled by Marin County creative couple Lisa Swerling & Ralph Lazar, and has a magical way of firing up your creative writing mind by tapping into and dusting off your card file of memories.
Here a few other entries that finish the line “Happiness is . . . :
• The smell of freshly washed hair
• A slinky
• Sleeping diagonally
• A great conversation with a stranger
• Jumping in puddles
• Seeing a stranger smile while he’s reading a book
There’s enough in those seven items to keep you writing for a week.
Swerling and Lazar likely had no intention to do that—write a book of writing prompts—but instead a book of illustrated memories to enjoy while sitting in our favorite easy chair, maybe on your deck, on a warm day, but for writers it could be titled A Little Book of Writing Prompts. Some of the entries lead to heavier thinking than others, but all, with a little effort, generate a litany of potential ideas that can be turned into short stories or fun little vignettes. I didn’t have the book when I ended up writing AFFTON: Time Upon a Once. Had I, perhaps my own chapters might have been expanded. If you are toying with trying your hand at exploring your childhood or being a memorialist, this book is a manual on where to drill for ideas. In fact, it will do the drilling for you.
Should you follow up and buy the book, I suggest that you also keep a notebook or pile of Post-It Notes handy so your flashes of memories don’t go for naught should you decide to explore any one of them further a bit later. If you try your hand, keep me in mind. It would be fun to receive and publish them on my website, www.lowellforte.com.
If you can’t find the book in your local book store, check Chronicle Books LLC, 680 Second Street, San Francisco CA 94107 – www.chroniclebooks.com.
In the spirit of short prompts, I leave you with this short blog entry.