Remember the book, Harold and the Purple Crayon? Imagine that the blank page or screen is a white wall. No windows, doors, not even a painting. What are you supposed to do there?
Whether you’re beginning a new piece of writing or deep into a more sustained project, you may be familiar with one or more of the “Four Ps” of the creative process:
Passion: A story you’ve been turning over in your mind for a long time that you feel ready to tackle. The promise of the blank page or screen.
Paralysis: Good old-fashioned deer in the headlights. The blinking cursor. On a continuum with sheer terror of beginning.
Procrastination: Includes overthinking, list-making, coffee- and tea-brewing, laundry folding, Facebook scrolling, and mindless eating. In other words, anything to avoid the act of writing.
Perfectionism: If I don’t know it will be amazing, I won’t even start. The death knell. Bypass at all costs.
This is where the fifth “P” comes in: Prompts.
A writing prompt is a bit like taking Harold’s purple crayon and drawing your own doorway, nothing more and nothing less than a portal to the unknown. This doorway can make a world of difference by offering you a point of entry. A stepping-off point, if not into the abyss, then at least into one word, then another, perhaps a sentence. A spark that starts a small fire that might become a blaze.
A prompt might take question form (“Where are you right now?”), look like a suggestion, (“Tell me about missing”), or offer a few opening words to begin with or return to in your writing (“I am from…”). My prompts are often paired with evocative photographs, links to related poems and other readings, and, occasionally, ideas for getting started, e.g. “Begin today’s writing as an eviction notice.”
I can’t count how many times people have told me how surprised they were by where a prompted piece of writing led them. It’s a bit like being blindfolded on a path and walking forward with the prompt at your side, assuring you that you won’t step off into a bottomless chasm. And then lo and behold: You get to remove the blindfold. You open your eyes and think, “This? Here?”
Who knew you’d wind up writing about that time in your mother’s kitchen or on the playground in second grade or how the light looked on your drive to work this morning? A good writing prompt can unearth memories long forgotten or covered by time, spur new ideas and images into language, and help creative juices once stagnant start flowing again.
There’s no right way to use a writing prompt. My practice falls in the tradition of Natalie Goldberg: I set a timer for ten minutes, write without stopping, and give myself carte blanche to write what she affectionately calls “the worst junk in America.”
Sometimes a prompt can function more like sourdough starter; it needs to sit overnight before you can use it to begin making the bread. Rather than procrastination, this “waiting period” can be a powerful form of gestation, when an image, suggestion, or question is burrowing into your subconscious or conscious mind and preparing it to put words together on the page. (Keep a notebook or voice recorder with you at all times!)
So much of writing creative nonfiction is channeling latent content. As Scott Barry Kaufman, co-editor of The Psychology of Creative Writing, describes: “I think one must trust the writing process. Understand that creativity requires nonlinearity and unique associative combinations. Creative people do a lot of trial and error and rarely know where they are going exactly until they get there.”
Each of us must conduct our own creative “trial and error,” requiring a degree of uncertainty and curiosity about where our writing might lead. And what works for one writer will not necessarily work for another: just as you wouldn’t try to pry open a can with a hammer, it’s important to recognize what’s stuck and to assess which kind of tool will help loosen things up. A prompt may provoke an unexpected torrent one day and nothing the next, varying in impact not only from writer to writer but from day to day.
The important thing is to keep showing up.
JENA SCHWARTZ is a poet, promptress, and writing coach whose groups and retreats have been called “magical” and “life-changing.” An incorrigible lover of humanity, coffee, and naps, she is known for providing fierce encouragement and gentle creative guidance. She recently published her third collection, Why I Was Late for Our Meeting, and lives in Western Massachusetts with her wife and two kids. Visit her at http://www.jenaschwartz.com. (@thejenerator)