On Hating Writing from Prompts

February 22, 2017 § 12 Comments

zz Alice Lowe.jpgBy Alice Lowe

You hate writing from prompts, because you’re no good at it, because despite the human brain’s instantaneous capacity to absorb new input and coordinate an appropriate response, you cannot put pencil to paper with any degree of intelligence or coherence. Within seconds of hearing a prompt—prompts like “write about saying goodbye” or “riding the all-night train” or “a pool of blue water”—all potentially interesting and challenging topics—you’re at a loss, stammering internally, increasingly anxious as a fleeting memory or opening line evades you, as any possible direction remains out of reach.

You look around the table—prompt-writing usually takes place in a small group around a table—you look around as the prompt is being read, and at the dropped voice, the sound of the concluding period (or ellipsis) ending the prompt, it’s as if a starting shot has been fired, heads down, pens and pencils moving in notebooks with seeming constancy, confidence and speed. “Keep your pen on the paper,” you’re told, keep writing, don’t stop to deliberate or, god forbid, to edit, to scratch out a word and replace it with another; be spontaneous, let your hand be the channel for the words flowing unobstructed from your mind like water over the falls.

It doesn’t work that way for you, how well you know this, but you came here to write, to get past this impasse or phobia or whatever you want to call it, and so you grasp the prompt with both hands and hold it vise-like to keep it steady as you wrestle it to the table and firmly secure it with your left elbow, while with your right hand you grasp at the effluvia that looses itself from your mind until you have something in your fist, something soft and flabby but something nevertheless, and then, after more hesitation, after staring at the dark water stains like Rorschach blots on the ceiling, you start to write, and then lo and behold, you get on a roll of sorts, you write in fits and starts, but you write until “Time” says the timekeeper, and you stop abruptly, mid-sentence, mid-word, it’s like taking the GRE, pencils down or you’ll be disqualified.

Participants are encouraged though not required to read what they’ve fashioned, and the rules are reiterated—no comments or critique, as these spontaneous efforts rightfully fall into the category of Anne Lamott’s “shitty first drafts,” accepted and forgiven no matter how abysmal, received with half smiles of concealed scorn or pity or envy—and you listen and think, jeez how’d she do that off the cuff, or what crap and here I thought I was bad, and then it’s your turn and you know you could pass but you think come on now, this is part of the discipline, what you came for, and you read, knowing as you do that it’s a heap of excrement, you’ve written business letters with crisper verbs and better development, but you read, your handwriting getting increasingly indecipherable as you go, so you skip a word here, a phrase there, until you finish and look up and smile wanly without making eye contact with anyone as the next person takes up the baton, and then it’s all over, and you pack up your stuff and say your goodbyes, and you go down the stairs and out the door and head for home, an hour-long walk, and wouldn’t you know it, about a third of the way there you’re struck with the big “aha”—this is what I could have, should have written to that prompt, and you beat yourself up a bit for not thinking of it earlier, but you’re excited, and you start composing in your mind, and you walk faster and faster to get home and get to your computer to spew out these finely crafted sentences, the spot-on metaphors, the brilliant stream of prose.

And when, after several drafts, after considerable editing and revision and all of the pains that go into a completed essay, you read through it a few times, and you  smile and nod and say to yourself, “yes, this is it,” you submit it to several journals, and it’s accepted by one of them and published, and you look at it in print and recall that if it hadn’t been for that prompt, this sterling piece of work might never have seen the light of day—and yet you still hate writing from prompts.


Alice Lowe reads and writes about life and literature, food and family. Her personal essays have appeared in numerous literary journals, including 1966, The Baltimore Review, Crab Creek Review, The Millions, Permafrost, and The Tishman Review. Her work is cited among the Notable Essays in the 2016 Best American Essays and has been nominated for the 2016 Best of the Net Anthology. Alice is the author of numerous essays and reviews on Virginia Woolf’s life and work, including two monographs published by Cecil Woolf Publishers in London. Alice lives in San Diego, California and blogs at www.aliceloweblogs.wordpress.com.


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