Taking Flight Through Writing Prompts

April 24, 2020 § 17 Comments

janpriddyBy 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


§ 17 Responses to Taking Flight Through Writing Prompts

  • rubelnil says:

    How can I read so much writing? If I hadn’t read so much writing with the exam, I would have got Golden A Plus

    On Fri, Apr 24, 2020, 5:05 PM BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog wrote:

    > Guest Blogger posted: “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 prom” >

  • Interesting points of view. I just read Segran’s essay and found it resonated with me … to a point. I don’t Iike writing to prompts in or out of class but I wouldn’t say they are useless. Must every writer write the same way? My favorite writing professor LOVED prompts and exercises. She wrote poetry and fiction but is mostly known for writing about rhetoric and composition. I envied the pleasure she took in writing from prompts since it was a ubiquitous exercise when I was a grad student. I honestly don’t remember if my high school English teacher employed in-class writing exercises. However, she was one of those teachers who would push you harder and I appreciated that. I do think there’s a difference between how writing is taught in high school versus “adult education” (using this as a catchall for those like myself who pursued creative writing classes much later in life). When I do think back about my high school days, it was those teachers who demanded the most out of me that got the most out of me, those teachers who encouraged me to test my imagination in ways I probably wouldn’t have thought of myself. As an adult, I have had less patience and even less self-confidence so sitting in a class, having to spend ten minutes on a prompt never went over well. But it did for others. And I envied them. I still envy people that can get an email with a writing prompt in the morning and feel that spark to write.

    • Thank you for your insights.

      In a generative workshop (I attended many in my post-grad/pre-MFA days) I always felt a sort of near-panic until I wrote something I liked. In a weeklong session, that usually took till the third day. I did not enjoy the process because I was too busy doubting my ability at the beginning. Aren’t expectations always scary-high in workshop? Perhaps that is just me. But I learned to have faith in that process.

      For nearly four years, I traded writing “assignments” with a former student who was completing a PhD in English, and those half-hour writings were great fun. By then I knew what I could do, my partner set a bar higher than I could reach, but she did not judge.

      • Perhaps it’s just “performance anxiety.” Depending on how the output from, say, a timed writing exercise is handled, the student might freeze, worried that her off-the-cuff, spontaneous bit of writing will be held up as an example of bad writing. That would be me anyway, unless I was assured that I didn’t need to share. That leads to trust: does the student trust the instructor to be critical without being mean, to be encouraging without being demanding. Your students enjoyed their writing assignments, I assume, largely in part to how you assigned them and the fact that they could trust you.

    • rubelnil says:

      I don’t understand anything about composition poetry

      • Find Dorianne Laux and Kim Addonizio’s marvelous craft book, The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry (W.W. Norton, 1997). It will get you started.

  • I regret never having had you as a writing instructor. Your words always resonate with me. (There, I’ve used never and always in just two sentences!)

  • Catherine says:

    Jan, I teach generative writing workshops and I loved reading what you have to say about pushing harder. It really depends upon the setting, doesn’t it? In an MFA class, learning to push through is essential. In a community class, there’s more a sense of discovery, of finding how to connect to the prompt. In that setting I choose prompts that speak to human experience and can take a variety of forms and responses. I think what works is for each writer in a workshop to find the connection or phrase is that sings.

    And yes, insisting on cutting words helps the writers in a workshop to really see what’s essential and crystalline.

    Thanks for your post.

    • It is terrifying sometimes to trust that the terrible first draft will become something worthwhile. Getting past that first draft is the hardest thing, getting something down to work on . . . Thank you, Catherine. I became a writer, became a person who thinks of herself as a writer, thanks to generative workshops.

  • I like this very much. Now I’m really said the coronavirus pre-empted your workshop in Newport. We look forward to seeing you here sometime soon. Meanwhile yes, prompts really can get us going.

    • Hi Sue—yes, I was also sorry the event was cancelled. (I have an event in December that I fear may also be cancelled.) Anyway, I posted five “assignments,” one each week beginning the 23rd of March on my blog, usually followed by a weird revision strategy. That was thanks to WW.

  • cassie arnold says:

    I think of “Cut to Bleed” which was the first piece I read of yours which grabbed me at the leading edge of my writing.

  • saloni saluja says:

    I think you must read my blog for your own peace so that you may be able to know what you want liked or follow it too.

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