On Writing: Using writing prompts
For the longest time, I have greeted every new university cohort with the same writing prompt: The sealed envelope.
I've asked rooms full of students to answer the query of what might possibly be in the envelope in question. I've had answers from glitter (a surprisingly malicious thing to mail someone) through to a severed finger (which, against some of the other suggestions, wasn't actually all that surprising). Once we've created a list of possibilities, I give the students five to ten minutes to pick an option and "free write" - i.e. pick an option and let your imagination be an outrageous toddler for a while. If you write rubbish, you write rubbish; you can't feel bad over something it took you ten minutes to draft. But if you don't write rubbish, then you have a seed of something - all from a small collaborative practice that warmed your mind up a little.
For the past few months I've been working with Tortive Theatre, in conjunction with Worcester Rep and The Swan Theatre, Worcester, to convene the Flash Fiction 101 writing competition. It's a monthly competition that we run - judged by myself and Ben Humphrey - that asks entrants to adhere to one rule: tell your story in 101 words. But this month (September, as it was), we changed things by introducing a prompt into the mix. It was a small prompt, complete with a picture, about a siren that sounds at the same time in the morning and evening in a town. Why?
Ordinarily, Ben would read the first round of submissions before sending me the shortlist, and we'd work together to thrash out our top three reads. Because the prompt was one I'd set, though, we decided that this month I could have the pick of the litter and shortlist my top ten (or, as it turned out, my top eleven). What amazed me, though, and what prompted this post today, was the diversity of the responses to my prompt. For something that was part of a horror or science fiction setting, writers managed to make their responses intimate, unexpected and hilarious, stretching the prompt to fit an impressive amount of narratives. It was a beautifully welcome reminder of a) how effective prompts can be and b) how underrated they often are.
It seemed worth touching base, then, to remind other writers - aspiring and professional alike - of the sheer joy in writing a story based on a seedling of an idea - like a sealed envelope - and just seeing what happens. I've picked a pack of tarot cards as the illustration for this post because, earlier this year, that's where all of my prompts came from. I would pick a card at random in the morning, read its meaning, and see what happened. Nothing I wrote was ever longer than around 700 words (with some pieces being as short as 300 or so words), and I don't have strong aspirations to do anything with the works once they're done. They were just a morning stretch, if you will, to get me thinking - and it worked! I sincerely enjoyed the practice and, were it not for the stress of 2020, I would have continued with it (but maybe one day).
So pick a card, or a colour, or an object in your kitchen - and write! Give yourself ten minutes and enjoy the time, safe in the knowledge that it doesn't have to be a masterpiece; it just has to get you started.
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