manic monday: wednesday edition with thoughts on the purpose of prompts


Corvus moneduloides, New Caledonian Crow from wikimedia

Reader, where do the days go?

Since my last post there has been:

  • one family movie night
  • one lost basketball jersey
  • one basketball game
  • two basketball practices and one ballet lesson
  • one crockpot fail (I know — so unfair)
  • an unknown number of loads of laundry washed and folded
  • one load of sheets, clean but unfolded, left that way for a week (even now it stares at me expectantly)
  • one sick husband
  • one hot, and many cold, cups of coffee
  • one first grade bike rodeo
  • many checks for head lice (so far, no head lice, fingers crossed, knock on wood, and all that)
  • one lost social studies project
  • two miracles. I mean two poem drafts.
  • one parenting workshop on developmental assets (don’t worry, parents, you’re only on the hook for 40)
  • one leaking dishwasher
  • one canceled dishwasher repair appointment
  • and some crows in the ginko tree

Life is full, life is good. And I, for one, need a nap.

But first let’s talk about writing prompts. Because I’ve been working through a series of 21 prompts called the “21-day Antidote” with some po-friends, I’ve been thinking a lot about prompts and their purpose.

When I first started out writing in a serious way, I relied heavily on prompts to get me going. General prompts helped me to mine my life and my memories for subjects: Write about your earliest childhood memory. Write about a family secret. Write a poem about an object that you keep on your bedside table. Et cetera.

As I continued along the writing path, general prompts became less useful to me (I only have so many childhood memories, and very few objects on my bedside table! unless you count books) and I gravitated to more language-based prompts, or at least prompts with lots of constraints, including prompts that required writing in forms. I’d often begin to write unsure of what the poem would ultimately be about, and invariably I’d be surprised at the product: Oh, I didn’t know I had a poem in me about that!

These days, I still like to use language-based/constraint-based prompts sometimes, but I also have ideas about the poems I’d like to write: sometimes a title will come to me, or a snippet of language; sometimes a memory will nag at me, asking to be written about. In this phase of my writing life, I’ve learned to use the prompt to get me to the page, but to abandon it the moment it ceases to be useful to the draft as it unfolds.

For example, the two drafts in my list of craziness above came out of prompts from the 21-day Antidote. One required working in syllabics, and the other was more wide open so I decided to use a much more constrained prompt called “Twenty Little Poetry Projects” which Margo Roby has written about here and which, like the 21-day Antidote, is found in this book. In each case, the constraints of the prompts were useful to begin with and took me places I’d never have gone without them. But then, but then. At a certain point, each draft took on some energy and wanted to do some things that the prompts didn’t allow for. Buh-bye, prompt.

A prompt can get you going, yes, but a prompt can also get in the way of what a draft wants to do. This is when you cut yourself loose from the prompt, perhaps returning to it later in the draft if the draft’s momentum stalls, or perhaps letting it go forever.

Sometimes I have to remind myself not to be a slave to the prompt, but instead to be a slave to the poem.

If you’re interested, here are my favorite books of writing prompts (I guess it’s bulleted list day on the blog):

If you have any other favorite books of prompts, share them in comments. Happy writing, thanks for reading, see you back here soon!

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