Write About a Day Moon: Creating Prompts for Writing Practice

For months now, every other week when it’s my turn to lead our Thursday Writers writing practice group, I open a copy of The Lively Muse Daily Appointment Calendar for Writers to find a prompt for us to write to. But when my co-facilitator Steve Montgomery told me one of our fellow practitioners suggested members of the group might like to offer up some prompts, too, I was inspired to create some new prompts of my own.

Creating good writing prompts (by good I mean a prompt that is compelling and evocative, an image or phrase that sets up a kind of buzzy excitement to put pen to page) has always been fun or me. I can’t even imagine how many I’ve created over the twenty-five years I’ve been leading writing practice groups, not to mention those that are in the books I’ve written about writing and writing practice.

As Steve and I were talking about what makes a good prompt, I remembered that I had written on this topic in Writing Alone, Writing Together. I pulled that well-worn book off my shelf to refresh my memory. Here are a few excerpts:

“… Prompts created for writing practice don’t give explicit direction. They are not intended to help the writer learn some particular skill or work in a certain area. Instead, based on the idea that what each person wants to write about will emerge organically as the writing occurs, the prompts are general and wide open with the unadorned invitation to ‘write about…’ and without additional directives such as ‘describe’ or ‘create’ or ‘remember’ or ‘imagine.’

“Writing prompts can be in the form of a simple word (mosaic, moonflower, iridescent, potpourri) or the suggestion to ‘Write about…’ (someone who left, a river, falling), a line from a poem (‘A year after your death…’ Czeslaw Milosz), or from a book (‘She learned to tell time with her skin,’ from Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver.). Anything that causes some slight hum of response as you read it can be the origin of a prompt.

…”The ingredients for a good prompt are much like the ingredients of a fine meal. When they are placed before us, we let go an involuntary ‘ummmmmm’ and we feel a delightful urge to pick up the pen and dive in.”

There are many more ideas about where and how to find and create good prompts in the book (p. 103-106)—opening the dictionary to a word, any word, and going from there; always having a notebook beside you when you read so you can record the perfect prompt when it appears; lyrics from a song, directions from a cookbook (“The mixture should be highly seasoned”). The real world is also a source for writing prompts—eavesdropping as we writers are wont to do, signs, graffiti, notes on a luncheon menu —and on and on.

So writing practitioners, keep your notebook with you, keep your senses alert to any kind of stimulation that sets the fingers itching, and create your own ongoing list of writing prompts. I copy mine to little strips of paper and put them in a cigar box. That way each prompt I pull will have a spontaneity that reading them from a list won’t have, a spontaneity that will transfer to the writing itself.

Not long ago I received an email from a writer who said that she wrote one of the best scenes she’d ever written from the prompt, “write about a hot wind.” What about you? What’s your favorite or most evocative prompt?

Returning To Old Habits

I’m house/kitty-sitting for a friend at her small studio in Santa Fe. Outside the sky is a blue I don’t have a name for and the cottonwoods along the Santa Fe River glow golden yellow. I came here after two weeks in Greece, a journey with my daughter, daughter-in-law, and our friend, to celebrate my birthday and for me to return to some of the places I’m writing about in my memoir. My time in Santa Fe is also a writing retreat and a time of solitude.

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I’m watching the pumpkin fatten in the neighbor’s garden across the alley, I’m watching the spider’s web expand in the corner of my kitchen window, I’m watching as the tiny buds on the African violet on my writing table swell, then open, then shout “I’m here,” to the morning sun.

Day-by-day, at my kitchen table in the square between two windows, I open my notebook and write. I’m halfway through notebook #8 now in the notebook draft of my memoir, which I started on June 16, 2016. I have the ending, but I don’t have the beginning yet. I have over 125,000 words, far too many for any kind of finished manuscript.

But I’m only on the notebook draft. After this, I’ll do my first edit as I work from the handwritten notebooks, transferring some, but not all, of the scribbled pages into Scrivener and I’ll write new ones, too. This will become my first manuscript draft and then, day-by-day, draft #1, #2, #7, ad infinitum. Who knows how long until I can say “The End.”

All I know if this: the pumpkin will fatten and fatten until it is ready to be someone’s jack-o-lantern, the spider web may trap a creature or two before Carolina uses her cleaning brush to knock it off the screen, the African violet on my writing table will lose its blooms, and pause and wait, and then create new ones.

Day-by-day, the pumpkin, the spider, the violet, and I will do what we do every morning. Day-by-day is what matters.