Taking Flight Through Writing Prompts
April 24, 2020 § 17 Comments
By Jan Priddy
Unlike a bird that finds safety perched while asleep, human beings have no physical locking tendons to hold us still.
In a recent Brevity blog post, Grace Segran describes “freezing up” the first time she was given an in-class writing prompt. The idea of such writing, Segran writes, “Makes total sense. Theoretically. In practice it appears that for many of us, nothing much comes out of it.”
As a public high school teacher and college adjunct I regularly gave writing assignments to all students. They wrote about their most peaceful places and reader-responses to essays set in front of them. They wrote to in-class prompts off the top of the heads and counted words written in ten minutes. They wrote complete stories of 225-275 words, one each week for most of a term. They wrote essays in MLA format and explored arbitrary revision strategies such as cutting the last lyric paragraph and moving it to the beginning, cutting five words from a paragraph, five more, and then half the total number of words. I insisted they do it. It’s the reason John Rember claims teaching is an act of aggression. I made them buy that dress.
No one likes to be forced to do anything, and even I hate being compelled to write, so I get that. On the other hand, nearly every piece of writing I have published came from an assignment or prompt. Each year, I completed the essays and stories I assigned to my students. Much of that writing started right in class with all of our heads bent over journals. Writing under pressure? Revising sometimes only because the instructor will check to be sure it’s done? Because I feel I must? Deadlines? That’s the way it goes. Writing responds to something, in conversation with experience or with ideas.
Early in the year we drafted a satirical “pet peeve” essay entirely in class, one paragraph in twenty minutes each day for a week. Strict guidelines, that is: prompts. Later we added sources, went to the lab and typed, peer edited, and revised. I did not read their early drafts unless they insisted. The completed humorous essays were twelve hundred to two thousand words and modeled a strategy for breaking down a complex task into manageable pieces. We did this assignment in October and even by June’s anonymous assessment, it remained one of their favorites.
My students wrote to assigned, boring prompts in order to get into college. They wrote essays and stories they would not have chosen merely because they wanted to pass a class. Sometimes they took the prompt home, but often they had to complete the first draft in front of me. They didn’t always like what I made them do. They complied because I pushed hard. And eventually most of them noticed how it helped. Moving their conclusion improved both beginning and ending. Cutting words made their essay stronger. The rules of MLA are predictable and allow ideas to shine. A few of them went on to gain MFAs in writing or tenured professorships. Most of them became better writers because I made them write more than they would have on their own and on topics and within structures they would not have chosen. They developed efficiency and confidence along the way.
I know my process is ugly and I don’t want anyone seeing that mess. Not having to share first drafts is reassuring—indeed, essential—but writing from prompts is absolutely the most effective way to get myself writing, whether the prompt is from someone else or myself, even when the prompt is addressed in public. And especially when it is difficult. No one writes their best in their first draft, but in a generative workshop, challenging writing prompts are kind of the point.
For five years, I attended The Flight of the Mind, a weeklong workshop for women writers intended to commence new work. Writing prompts given by the women I studied under—Gish Jen, Molly Gloss, Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Janice Gould, and Charlotte Watson Sherman—allowed me to find the writer in myself. Sometimes I need that push. In reality, most of us do. Someone says go and then we do the work.
Don’t like prompts? Forced writing is “useless”? A waste of time? Pure laziness on the part of the instructor? Fine. Don’t attend that class if there is a choice. Go ahead and check out. But recognize that assignments and prompts were and remain critical to progress for many of us.
Perching birds must flap their wings to rise and unlock tendons that keep their toes wrapped around a branch. Sometimes writers are like that, our toes curled around safety. We may even need to be prompted to let go. Writing what I would not have thought of and in ways that are uncomfortable is useful, and makes me stronger, fueling both adrenaline high and undeniable terror. The courage to risk myself past fear pushes me toward the good stuff. It’s one way I take flight.
Jan Priddy‘s work has earned an Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship, Arts & Letters fellowship, Soapstone residency, Pushcart nomination, and numerous publications. An MFA graduate from Pacific University, she lives in the NW corner of her home state of Oregon, collects trash off the beach each day, and blogs at IMPERFECT PATIENCE: https://janpriddyoregon.wordpress.com