The Power of the Prompt

March 28, 2022 § 5 Comments

By Colleen Kinder

I’m one of those writing teachers who swears by prompts. Narrative directives like, “Write about a childhood memory, set in a car.” or “Begin every single sentence with ‘I remember.’” (Hat tip, Joe Brainard). “Write an apology letter to a place.” 500 words, tops. Ready-set-go.

Usually, the more specific the prompt, the more magnificent the outcome. Students I would not have called exceptional writers burst out with essayettes I’ll remember for years. In ten minutes, they slide under the spell of voices so unmistakably their own, grounded in the radiant particulars of their lives. Again and again, it astonishes me: how writing students churn out their finest, most strident work when forced to create inside what seems like a box. All I have to do is design the walls of the container, then flip over the egg timer. Go.

I know teachers who take these constraint principles even further, assigning lipograms—essays or poems in which only one vowel is fair game—and pushing students to the point of exasperation, to the sense of handicap, which only disarms them for amazement at what they improbably produce.

“I’m jealous of your prompts!” I’ve joked many times to my students, because I’m one of those writers who chronically craves more time, more space. When I start a writing project, I easily get lost in it for years, paying zero heed to my snow-balling word count let alone the modest figures in my bank account. In short: I’ve always known, deep down, that the very creative limits I dole out to pupils would do me good.

Seven years ago, I finally acted on that hunch. What if “the prompt” wasn’t such a rudimentary tool, exclusively impactful in the classroom? Perhaps other writers also stood to benefit from some creative straightjacketing. When I asked around, my peers responded to these questions and theories with some version of “Amen,” or “yes, please.” With their help, I co-founded a literary magazine, Off Assignment, whose every column is rooted in a specific prompt.

Of all our early columns, “Letter to a Stranger” was the mightiest, the most universally generative. Write a letter to someone you’ve met in passing but still think about, we challenged writers. Write it in letter form, in the second person. 800-1200 words was the sweet spot, we said, setting a deadline that was arbitrary, but a deadline nonetheless.

Leslie Jamison was the first writer to submit a “Letter to a Stranger” essay. “Immediately, I knew the stranger I would write about: a one-legged traveling magician I’d crossed paths with several times when I lived in Nicaragua,” Jamison writes in the Foreword to Letter to a Stranger: Essays to the Ones Who Haunt Us (Algonquin Books, March 2022), a collection inspired by this flagship column. Like so many writers I’ve by now worked with on “Letter to a Stranger” essays, Leslie didn’t have to mull the prompt over—not for a month, or a day. Memory had done the work of distilling the scene, casting a strobe light on that one, glinting figure.

“Honestly I didn’t really know what [my letter] would be about,” Jamison goes on. “I just knew it would be a letter to him. And when I wrote it, several weeks later, it came out dark and gleaming and alive, as if it had already existed inside of me, fully formed. A secret stowaway. It just needed a home. The invitation of a letter had given it a home. This invitation said: Write to this man, even if you don’t know why you want to. It said: Write into that mystery.”

Another letter, from Lavinia Spalding, rolled in shortly after—a focused and searing account of a dalliance on a Thai beach. As for journalist Ted Conover, he sort of already had a “Letter to a Stranger” in progress, a side-story jotted down while on a New Yorker assignment in Rwanda almost twenty years earlier.

These seminal letters, published in the inaugural batch of essays in Off Assignment’s “Letter to a Stranger” column, opened the floodgates for hundreds more missives. Stories about missed connections and near-death scrapes; stories featuring gamblers and widows and DHL drivers; scenes set in the northern reaches of Norway, the rainstorms of Benin, Caracas at night, the South Pacific at age 22. 

The letter, it turned out, was the perfect vessel for these particular tales: a form brief and intimate, one keen on collapsing distance. What electrified Off Assignment early on was the sense that we’d found a literary shape that corresponded with a species of story already alive inside the writer. The letter form works like a whispered summons, coaxing out the long-dormant story. Come out. Here’s your place. Come, ghost: fill this nook out here in the world. If you’re going to haunt so persistently, then haunt us all. 

I no longer worry that we might exhaust the form of the “Letter to a Stranger,” thanks to the endless parade of writers who have since walloped me with surprises, bending our prompt in fresh ways. Writers like Anna Vodicka, who wrote not to one stranger, but to a room full of them at a Bolivian hostel; and Rachel Yoder, who penned a letter to the man who stalked her in high school, a fuming missive that felt destined for our collection, and yet entirely unforeseen.

I learned so much from editing the 65 essays that comprise Letter to a Stranger: Essays to the Ones Who Haunt Us: namely, that any nagging ghost makes for a glorious muse; that memory goes to work on the rough drafts of our pasts like a ruthless editor, whittling them down until all we see clearly are the scenes that glint with significance; and that there’s a great kingdom of narrative at the terminus of a simple, specific question: “Who haunts you?”

I’m convinced now that we “seasoned professionals” often need a dose of the medicine we prescribe to our apprentices. When our students amaze us with their output and their focus, their sudden lyricism and the singularity of their sentences, we’re wise to pay heed to what triggered it: those narrow instructions that sent them right on their way.

_____

Colleen Kinder is an essayist whose work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, National Geographic Traveler, Virginia Quarterly Review, AFAR, Salon.com, Los Angeles Review of Books, Creative Nonfiction, A Public Space, and The Best American Travel Writing. She is the editor of the forthcoming anthology Letter to a Stranger: Essays to the Ones Who Haunt Us (Algonquin Books, 2022), and the co-founder of the nonprofit magazine Off Assignment. A former Fulbright scholar and MacDowell fellow, Kinder has taught writing at Yale University, the Chautauqua Institution, and Semester at Sea.

“Transubstantiate” and the Dark Magic of the Body

February 15, 2011 § 3 Comments

Rachel Yoder, author of “Transubstantiate” in the latest issue of Brevity, discusses the origin of her brief essay:

The hair patty of “Transubstantiate” had actually made a much less prominent appearance in a longer piece, one that I was looking at again and trying to revise. But all I really wanted to write about was the hair patty, because it was weird and gross and, in some way I couldn’t articulate, magical.  I thought perhaps I’d write a piece about my Mennonite aunts’ hair and begin it with this hair patty scene.

The scene that came to me was very specific and vivid. I could actually remember (or thought I remembered) that night when I encountered the wad of hair on my aunt’s dresser.  The gospel music kept playing in the background of this scene and, as I wrote, the words started to pulse with something, that magic I couldn’t name.  I started thinking a lot about Jesus and how I used to take hymns literally when I was little and then would become terrified.  I wrote this paragraph:

If a hymn said we were walking with Jesus hand in hand in a garden, then we were walking with Jesus hand in hand in a garden, which I got nervous about because I didn’t even really know Him and what would I say. Torments of the grave involved, obviously, squirming uncomfortably at the bottom of a deep hole and getting my clothes muddy.  God was in the sky, as were birds and clouds and airplanes, although God was logically much, much higher, yet not so high He was in outer space because outer space was cold, airless, full of technology, and very lonely.  These were all matters of common sense.

But nearly as soon as I wrote it, I cut it.  This wasn’t about hymns, at least not at the beginning. It was about hair patties. Maybe the hymn section could go later in the long essay I imagined I was writing.

In the beginning, at least, I wanted somehow to write about that magic, the dark magic of the body, but I had no way at coming at this head on, of articulating it or defining it in any coherent way.  So when I came to what wound up being the last paragraph of the piece that appeared in Brevity, I flashed to whatever images were there in my mind – my father preaching, the clouds over the congregation, and then, yes!, that bright green puke.  How I felt that day after church when I looked in the coffee can and saw what had come out of my body generated an equivalent and similarly un-nameable feeling as holding a wad of my aunt’s hair in my palm. This was the sort of commentary I needed, one image to hold up against another image, a gross, funny, and hopefully poetic juxtapostion.

I stopped writing at that point and planned to come back to the work the next day to continue writing the longer hair essay. The next day, though, what I had seemed whole in and of itself. Plus, the word count was 606, which, as any good Mennonite knows, is the hymnal page number of the Mennonite anthem “Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow.” I took this as a sign that the piece was done, at least for the moment. And so it was.

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