On Writing Prompts and the Weekly 10-Minute Brain Freeze

March 2, 2020 § 17 Comments

SegranBy Grace Segran

We are now going to spend the next 30 minutes writing in class, the instructor announces. I’m going to give you a prompt every 10 minutes. He flips through the stapled well-thumbed compilation of prompts from his years of teaching creative writing at the center. I heave a sigh. It’s that time again. The time when I never know what to do with the time.

Today he picks: Write a scene where a character has to say goodbye to a good friend without actually saying s/he is leaving and won’t be back.

The minute hand on my watch moves once. And then again. I stare at the blank page. Flip my pencil between my thumb and pointer finger relentlessly like a tic. The other students furiously type or scribble away. I hear Ally turn a page before she hunkers down again. What is wrong with me? Why don’t I have anything to say?

One more minute, he says.

Better write something quick.

Finish up your last sentence.

“See ya” is all I can muster.

I’ve never encountered the experience of the prompt before and I had difficulty conjuring up the scene. That probably explains why I’m a nonfiction writer and never took a fiction class again because I was in a constant catatonic state. Simply couldn’t create something from thin air.

Being under the tyranny of the clock made in-class writing harder. I hear the clock tick as I struggle to write something. Anything. But my brain freezes.

When I discovered creative writing six years ago, I dreaded in-class writing. I wondered why I couldn’t write anything when I had been a journalist for almost three decades. Had I lost the skill to old age? Or worse still, had I lost my voice?

So to cure myself of this malady, I decided to find out from my friends how they do it. Wait. That means I have to fess up that I am doing poorly in this department. But there’s no shame in that — especially at my age when I’ve developed thick skin. So I contacted 14 of my writer friends and asked them if they found in-class writing beneficial. Had it helped them in their craft? And more importantly, how do they do it?

The first response from Ally came back almost immediately on WhatsApp:

Ally: Hate it.

Can’t write a thing.

Me:  Oh.

Really? You too?

Ally:   Yup.

Me:   So what have you been scribbling all this time?

Ally:   You don’t want to know.

The email and text messages that trickled in over the next couple of hours were mostly those who didn’t like in-class writing because they didn’t find it useful or couldn’t do it. Responses ranged from a short, neutral “It’s ok” to kindly comments: “Don’t know why we do it. Must be the poor instructor is tired from her day job and needs a break.” Another ranted: “30 minutes of a 3-hour Master class for which I pay good money, is a lot of money. Even if the prompt is relevant and I have something to write, I prefer to do it on my own time.”

Whoa. Intense. It was just a simple question.

But I feel you.

Three of those pings on my cell, were from people who said they actually like the exercise. One looks at it “as not expecting anything from the exercise, more as a way to jumpstart the brain/pen.” Another said she found them useful but she goes into it “with zero expectations. Depends on prompts – must be relevant and thought-provoking.” Sounds like there’s more misses than hits, with zero results being the normal outcome.

If so many of us don’t like it, can’t do it, and the results are arbitrary – then why are we doing it? So I asked five of my most-admired instructors the purpose of in-class writing. What is it supposed to do for us? Three acknowledged they had difficulty doing in-class writing themselves because of being put on the spot. One instructor pretty much summarized what the rest were saying: “The idea is to let go of your internal editor and try to simply let the writing flow, without trying to craft perfect sentences. It’s meant to be exploratory and even messy. Some people really like to be ‘forced’ to write in class, to do something more active, and the exercises always tie in to the lesson of the night. So I’d try to treat those 10 minutes as low-pressure and see what comes out.”

Makes total sense. Theoretically. In practice it appears that for many of us, nothing much comes out of it.

For good measure, I shot the questions to my wise creative writing professor from college. I expected him to give me the proper academic response with lofty, albeit, impractical ideals. Instead I got this reassuringly crisp and candid response: “Truth is, I’ve never found ‘public’ (in-class) writing attractive–not as a teacher, not as a participant. It feels to me like taking an exam: I’m always distracted by wondering what others are writing. So, I’ve always avoided it in my classes.” Thank you, Prof, for being so honest. Now I know why I loved your class.

I’ve since stopped fighting the writing exercise and let myself go. Regardless the prompt, my paper looks a lot like this:

Notes to self:

Book $1 Megabus to Portland ME for writing retreat.

Book hotel for two nights using Birthday and Christmas gift vouchers. Find vouchers first. Check kitchen drawer.

Finish revision on Tituba goes to Barbados by Friday.

Start The Hermit Crab with Diabetes.

Ok. Finish up what you are doing and we’ll move to the next prompt.


Grace Segran is a former journalist who lived and worked in Asia and Europe before settling down in Boston, MA seven years ago where she discovered creative writing at GrubStreet. Her work has been published in the Columbia Journal, The Common, Pangyrus, and elsewhere. She was a finalist in Columbia Journal’s 2019 Fall Contest and won First Prize in the Memoir category of the 2019 Keats Literary Contest.


§ 17 Responses to On Writing Prompts and the Weekly 10-Minute Brain Freeze

  • You give me a lot to think about. I am conducting a two-hour workshop in the spring with adult writers. Nonfiction. I do not like to spend the entire time talking or reading. Asking them to list or write for a few minutes sounds like a way to break up the sage-on-the-stage role I might others be stuck with. What, precisely, would you consider the most productive use of class time?

    Weekly ten-minute “freewrites” were popular with my high school and college students to “simply let the writing flow” uncensored and quick. We did not share, we merely counted words. No pressure for quality, weirdness was expected and applauded.Even more was writing 350 words in ten minutes.

    Expectations of quality and the assumption of sharing in-class writing, also make me uncomfortable. My best work is not my first thought, but the result of concentration and revision. I know this.

    Nevertheless, such writing may overcome my own reluctance to visit a subject (my father’s death) or to discover a scene (writing from a prompt). Also, for several years I traded fiction writing prompts with a friend via email. We individually chose a time during the day when we had a half hour free, read the prompt, and then wrote—

    • gracesegran says:

      I am glad to hear that prompts work for you in overcoming your own reluctance in some situations.

      “What, precisely, would you consider the most productive use of class time?”
      For me, it’s discussing published essays/excerpts and workshopping each other’s pieces that we have read during the week. The exchange of ideas over a particular piece, why the piece is working or not working. With input from the instructor on craft. I find that some of these thoughts feed consciously or unconsciously into my writing.

      • Thank you. What you describe is what my MFA program described as a “craft talk”—yes, very helpful as a way of exploring what works and does not work. And, of course, when a workshop runs several days, I have also found reviewing previously read work very useful.

  • Thank you, Grace, for voicing what many of us writers have to be thinking about the in-class writing prompt. Ugh. Sometimes prompts are fun, but I can find a good prompt anywhere–and for free–and can respond to it on my own time, in a writing space I’m comfortable in. Have to admit, I’ve often thought of the writing teachers who use the start-of-class writing sessions as maybe less-than-prepared. Using the time to gather themselves before the actual class starts??

  • bingingonabudget says:

    Thanks for sharing, very interesting post about prompts. What’s your favorite subgenre to write?

  • Lorri McDole says:

    Prompts are great when teachers give you several to choose from over a week. In-class prompts are stressful for me. It probably depends on your writing personality or maybe even just your general personality.

  • Ah, a kindred spirit. Thanks for saying the unspeakable.

  • Me too. Forced or timed writing has never worked for me, even when I’m all alone. A prompt only prompts if it’s relevant to me.

  • G. J. Jolly says:

    I’m terrible at writing with a prompt, even if it allows me to write nonfiction, which few do. I’ve never taken a creative writing course where I’ve had to do something like that either. Chances are if I had, I would have backed away from writing all together.

  • kperrymn says:

    As a student in writing classes I’ve found prompts work for me when given as a suggestion for using writing time–say, a half hour added to a lunch break to use however the writer wishes. Prompts often take me places I would not otherwise have gone. They help me suppress my inner editor. But I agree that doing them “under pressure” is not usually productive. Thanks for your post!!

  • cbearungmailcom says:

    Well said, Grace! I laughed out loud!!

  • We talk about “writing prompts” but I’d call the experience Grace described “thinking prompts” or “imagination prompts.” Like Grace, I write nonfiction. To me a “writing prompt” is a deadline: You write what you’ve learned.

    Side note: Students in my first semester college writing classes say they dread having to invent stories or share their personal experiences. They are relieved to be able to write factual texts.

  • Suzanne Guess says:

    Truth! I can’t stand in class writing. I do grocery lists, to do lists, write “stay awake, stay awake, stay awake” if it’s right after lunch. When sharing time starts, I look down, around, tie my shoes, blow my nose, anything to avoid making eye contact, Great post! Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    • Whenever I assigned in-class writings, which was at least once or twice a week, I made absolutely clear up front that we would not share. Sometimes they begged to share, but no, I discouraged it. Cold reading is never a good choice imo.

      Instead, at the end I would ask: Did you repeat words? contradict yourself? write something weird? All good—laugh it at all of it. Take it away and revise it if you choose. If they handed it in, I focused on checking a good line, encouraging risks, gave full “process points” just as I did for drafts of homework essays and stories, a reward for the process. I only read graded, revised, edited, completed work. As a public school teacher this was also the way I could have my students write enough to grow without making my eyes bleed reading it all.

  • […] a recent Brevity blog post, Grace Segran describes “freezing up” the first time she was given an in-class writing prompt. […]

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