On Writing Prompts and the Weekly 10-Minute Brain Freeze
March 2, 2020 § 17 Comments
By 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.
Really? You too?
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.