Writers have vivid imaginations. We imagine all kinds of scenarios. We imagine other writers are never at a lack for story ideas. We imagine them hunkered over their desks, their fingers a blur over the keyboard into the wee hours of the night. This makes it very difficult when we sit down to a blank screen with only the fleeting sensation of our last creative burst. But we’ve blocked out time for this writing thing, between trips to day care, and midnight grocery store runs, and reading up on Prop 8. We’re focused on the product and can’t wrap our minds around the process.

What do I do when my imagination threatens to get the better of me? Pull out a folder of all the writing prompts that were given to me by the writing instructors in my MFA program. I admit I’m not always in the mood to follow this route toward creativity. It feels counterintuitive, like trying to use your GPS to get to Mars.

Nevertheless, I’m never disappointed. I may be less than inspired, but I’m never disappointed. I’ve got something on the page and even if only one metaphor seems worth keeping, it’s one more than I had yesterday.

I was curious to see what kinds of prompts Writers’ Program instructors use and give to students. Now I pass some of these gold writing-prompt nuggets on to you.

Marian Pierce, who teaches The Essential Beginnings online, likes to introduce a bit of playfulness into writing with an exercise from Making Stories: How Ten Australian Novels were Written” edited by Kate Grenville and Sue Woolfe.

Free associate for 15 minutes using alliteration and the first letter of your character’s name. For example, if your character is Pearl:
Pearl has panache. She likes prime numbers, physics, and when in the mood, Proust. Although Pearl lives in an apartment that is anything but palatial, she feels like a princess. She points her toes in the morning and before she goes to bed at night. When passing a platter of pork chops garnished with parsley to her Aunt Petunia, Pearl urges Petunia to go to the public library and check out “Remembrance of Things Past.

Marian says, “This exercise always works wonderfully because it’s fun. You can be silly, play with words, and come up with unique twists on your characters, good dialogue, and ideas for new stories.”

Fun is important, especially in writing. We can’t let ourselves get bogged down with would-haves, should-haves, etc. For me, prompts are a great way to take the pressure off. I’m not trying to write “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,”I’m trying to get words on the page: simple as that.

Don Webb who is teaching a new online course in winter quarter called Bad Guys, Big Money—Or How I learned to Love Norman Bates has three surefire writing prompts:

You think of a kid you remember from elementary school. It could be a friend, or the weird kid or the dumb kid or the girl you had that crush on. Then go to a weird picture site like ROBOT NINE (http://robotnine.blogspot.com/) and explain a photo to the kid.
Think of a movie or story that you loved up to the end. Write a new ending.
Write what you wish you had told your ex-boss.

Laurel Ann Bogen, who teaches poetry courses onsite, has two great writing prompts to get her students to churn out new creative material:

Write a poem about one of your parents at a time before you were born (i.e. if you were born in 1955, the poem should take place say in 1948 or so).
Go to the bargain bin in any chain bookstore — arrgh I hate to condone this, but now that Dutton’s is gone, the pickings in terms of bookstores are a bit slim — and buy inexpensive photography books that you can tear apart (other art books will work as well, especially Magritte) and write about what you see in the photo/picture or from the standpoint of one of the characters in the picture.

And for her own writing, Laurel says, “Nothing gets the juices flowing better than reading other poets. When I am REALLY stuck, I pick up a book by someone I am in awe of, say Margaret Atwood, or Weldon Kees, or Philip Levine, and let my mind go sort of blank, or receptive, to their creativity. I quite often write in response to work by other poets.”

Clea Simon, who also teaches The Essential Beginnings online, has a prompt that will open your point of view, “What is your pet thinking right now?

Yes, give a voice to your critter companion and see what kind of story develops. Clea offered another prompt you probably shouldn’t do when you’re hungry (just reading the prompt is making me want to break for the kitchen):

You or your character are cooking (or making coffee). What do you pull down from the shelf first, what do you think about while grinding beans/chopping onions, waiting for the water to boil? Do you daydream? Salivate over what’s to come? Write it!

Not convinced that a writing prompt can take you to that breakthrough moment in you writing? Alyx Dellamonica, another of our online fiction instructors, details how a writing prompt provided her with one of those “light bulb” moments. “The first time I ever managed to create a really complex character, it was in response to a prompt from author Michael Swanwick at the Clarion West workshop: ‘Everyone,’ he told me, ‘Wants a glass of water.’ The essence of the exercise was to write a piece about someone who absolutely could not have the thing they wanted most. I’d been writing and selling stories for some time, at that point, but I’d been balked by a sense that they were all a little one-dimensional–the main character would be struggling with something, meet up with obstacles in the usual manner of fictional heroes, and then usually overcome them. Their development was often interesting, but it often moved in a rather straight line. By taking success off the table, I found myself with a protagonist who did odd and very human things, from procrastinating at work to lying to the people she was close to, even as she thrashed against the unfairness of her insurmountable problem. Not every story can be plotted this way, obviously, just as every story can’t have that pat, successful ending, but this particular prompt was a revelation for me.”

Whether you come to a break-through moment through a prompt or end up rambling for pages through the point of view of your iguana (actually, maybe that could be your breakthrough moment!), you’ve got your fingers moving at the very least. Now there’s no excuse—get writing!

Gabrielle Stephens is the Program Assistant in Creative Writing (Online).

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