Friday, June 19, 2009

Writing Prompts

We know that anything can be a prompt--form, sound, feeling, deadline pressure--but which ones work? I believe it differs for each of us. Usually, I respond to a phrase that has a halo of possibility around it. It might be a couple of words: "300 page widget" or "speaking in earnest." Or it might be a visual image: our choir director sitting with her aching foot propped up on a hymnal. Rarely a prompt comes when I'm hunting it like a snark in a Lewis Carroll episode. (And, by the way, snark is not in my big dictionary, though snarky is, from snore or snort. See how words lure me from my intentions?) The prompt I used this morning came from my friend Bill, "imaginary visitors." I imagine Thomas Hardy on my front porch, amazed at suburbia. How I'll pull it off, I have yet to know, because a prompt is just a little jolt of electrical energy to the brain, a battery to start the engine, but not a predictor of where the vehicle will finally come to a stop.

Once prompted, I have to follow the leads that free association provides. In each brain, those associations will be unique. No one else has the exact experience with Thomas Hardy that I have. This is not to say that mine are better or worse than yours. But I have to make a dozen decisions as I compose--oh, there's a nice sound combination, here's a gnarly line break, there's an image that engages me, but oops! I mixed metaphors in that spot. All of this and more happens almost simultaneously if I let it. But the instant I strain for effect, imagining the reader or listener, whether that be my writing partner Larry, or a gang of poets at our local readings, I lose the trail and have to chase my mind back into that thicket of composition, reminding myself that I will revise, that the prompt may lead to a place I've never been. And that's fun. Was it Robert Louis Stevenson who said a book is "a frigate to take me lands away"? A writing prompt is a ticket to Terra Incognita, to the future, to the Thomas Hardy past. One of these days I'll start a prompt file, but for now I must answer the door and hear what the man from Dorset has to say.

1 comment:

debra shirley said...

Love this examination of a poet's response to a writing prompt. I'm glad you joined in on the Imaginary Visitors prompt. I turned in my homework this morning.
Thanks for your kinds words at my blog. See you at Third Thursday.