Writing Is Not Iron Chef. Or, Why I Dislike Prompts.

Critique groups, workshops, and writing classes offer a wealth of help to an aspiring author. I’ve never been part of a critique group, but I did take two creative writing classes in college. One was screenwriting, and the other was a fiction class taught by Oprah Book Club author Bret Lott.

Both classes had assigned reading that I enjoyed and both professors offered wise feedback. What I didn’t like about either class was the excessive use of prompts. That seems to be how most writing workshops go, probably to make things easier on the teacher’s grading. They throw out an arbitrary scenario/emotion/buzzword and make the whole class write about the same thing.

Each student comes up with a different story. There is an element of fascination for that, because one can see how widely a prompt is interpreted by 30 different minds. But then you realize at least half the class has crappy stories – not necessarily because they’re crappy writers, but because their arms were twisted into writing a scenario they care nothing about.

We all have different reasons for writing. Let’s look at just three – 1) people who write as a stress relief/way to cope with life/way to process emotions (Empaths), 2) people who write because they want an audience (Performers), and 3) people who write because it’s fun to play with fiction (Tinkerers). You might be none, or all, or two of the three. This isn’t all-inclusive. Anyway, prompts seem to be aimed at the Tinkerers – as soon as they’re given a kernel of an idea, they can build anything. They’re easily inspired, they can get excited enough to make most prompts work, and they’re altogether a foreign creature to me. I think Tinkerers are probably Pantsers too, in that they work off-the-cuff.

I’m a Performer. I write because I have stories to tell. Or more to the point, I write because there’s stuff that I want to read and it hasn’t been made yet, so I take it upon myself to make it for the rest of the world. Yes, it is fun to me, and yes, it does help me process some emotion. But ultimately, I write because there are stories within me that are clawing their way out. They take up the majority of my headspace every day. It has been this way all my life. I am hard-wired to build world after world in my head and it’s almost like I’ll run out of room if I don’t sweep some of it out.

A notebook sits by my bed with 98 of my unwritten prompts in it. It’s overwhelming to know that I probably won’t get to them all by the time I die.

Additionally, I’m a Plotter, so I don’t feel comfortable with short deadlines to come up with an entire world (a prompt deadline can be anywhere from 15 minutes to a couple of weeks, and neither are long enough for me to develop anything of meaning). So, I don’t respond to prompts like people are supposed to. I usually find myself shoehorning one of those 98 scenarios into the prompt I’ve been given. I feel like that’s cheating, as prompts are meant to inspire new thought, but otherwise my writing is inorganic and insincere. Which in turn makes it unimpressive. Which in turn frustrates me, because I know I can do better – if only I was writing something I actually cared about.

There are some exercises – like writing a paragraph without using any adverbs, or writing a half page two people after a murder without mentioning the murder – that I find short and clever. These flex a writer’s muscles without straining them. (When prompted with the murder assignment, I did use Connor and Clara from Paradisa as my characters. So…I still cheated.) I seem to like stylistic exercises that force me to use the English language in a unique way, or to play with storytelling mechanics.

But I am not going to be excited with a prompt like “include the words bucket, grenade, and apple in your story!” (an actual prompt from my creative writing class. No lie.)

How do you feel about prompts? Did you enjoy working with prompts in workshops, or were you bothered by them like I was?