Go Ahead. Prompt Me.

December 1, 2021 § 6 Comments

By Mary Hannah Terzino 

I once took a delightful prose workshop from a noted essayist and poet. His opening prompt was single word, an entry in his word-a-day calendar, and he required us to use it in the writing assignment: GORGONIZE. I was unfamiliar with the word, which means to have a paralyzing or mesmerizing effect.  I found myself writing about two rustics who found a word-a-day calendar at Walmart in a remainder bin and used the words they’d learned – often improperly, always unsuccessfully – in pick-up lines directed to college women at a bar. After stumbling home a bit inebriated, the younger of the boys was excoriated by his mother for drinking. “Do not gorgonize me with them yellow eyes,” he spat at her, causing her to back off immediately.  

Using both the assigned word and the real-life circumstance of its discovery – a calendar – in my piece made for a satisfying writing experience, even if it wasn’t the best prose I’d ever written. This experience launched new thinking about prompts; how minimal the spark can be to light up a piece of writing. Finding an obscure, highfalutin word remains for me an occasional way to break a logjam, a portal to freewriting when I am unsure what to write on a given day.

At the other end of the spectrum is David Means’ wonderful short story “Depletion Prompts” (New Yorker, November 1, 2021), written entirely in prompts generated by the narrator himself. They are so highly specific that the prompts themselves form not only a complete story, but also a meta-story about the insecurities of the writing process.

In nonfiction, I have relished using photographs and postcards as prompts, sometimes focused on what is shown in the picture, sometimes on what hovers just behind or beyond it. An old postcard from the Berghoff Restaurant in Chicago catapulted me into a story about my German great-grandfather’s early days in the U.S. A discomfiting polaroid of me in fifth grade seated next to my teacher, Sister Mary Alphonso, bore fruit in a creative nonfiction story about the spelling bee in that class, the photo taken shortly after my crushing defeat.

Often it isn’t what’s in the picture that’s interesting, but what occurred beyond its edges, either in space or in time. Responding to a prompt to write about what isn’t seen in a photo I chose, I wrote about the eventual cancers of the three relatives in it, and my food memories before and during their illnesses, in a recently-published essay called “Cancer Buffet.”

Some prompts encourage the writer to combine unrelated material. For example, one instructor asked workshop participants to combine a childhood memory with a story from the news, from a different era than the memory, that has stayed with the writer. Sometimes it’s futile to force a combination, but I saw at least one magical result in that workshop, from an eighteen-year-old just starting to write.

Most of us who write occasionally from prompts use these middle-ground approaches, prompts that provide a set of instructions somewhere between word-a-day and David Means, and they’re not hard to find. Workshops frequently include prompts. Writing texts often contain them. Entire books can be found comprised solely of prompts. In my experience, they don’t often result in a polished, saleable piece of work, but can be helpful fuel, warming a writer towards creativity and productivity. At their worst, they hem the writer in. Breaking free of such prompts isn’t an act of subversion so much as an act of liberation. 

With that in mind, here’s a prompt for today: Choose a postcard in which the picture has no obvious connection to your life, such as a postcard of artwork from a gallery. Salvador Dali’s art works well here. Now open a dictionary to a random page, close your eyes, and point to a word until you land on a noun. Finally, select a relative, living or dead, whose story you’d like to tell.  Beat at low speed until combined; then increase your mixer to high speed and continue until the ingredients form a silky-smooth amalgam. You may not use “amalgam” as your noun. You may not substitute Salvador Dali for your family member, unless he was a family member, in which case you may not use a postcard of his artwork. If Dali’s artwork reminds you of your life, please substitute a picture of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.” If that reminds you of your life, please don’t write today.

Mary Hannah Terzino writes overlooking the Kalamazoo River in Saugatuck, Michigan. Her prose has been published in The Forge Literary Magazine, MacQueen’s Quinterly, and Blue River Review, among other places. She was a 2018 finalist for a fellowship for emerging writers over 50 from The Forge, and was awarded first prize in 2021 for her flash fiction story “Blank Slate” from the UK’s Fiction Factory.


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