The Writing Prompt

A little known fact, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina was inspired by a writing prompt suggested during his Thursday evening writing group at the Moscow library. The prompt: “write a story that ends with a suicide via railway. Make vocab twelfth grade reading level and use numerous flashbacks, a minimum of one blizzard, and two characters with names ending in ‘nina.'”

I confess a certain snobby, literary disdain for the idea of writing prompts, as if a real writer wouldn’t need manufactured inspiration from the exercise section of a how-to writing book.  A real writer wouldn’t enter the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction contest for worst first sentence similar to “it was a dark and stormy night.” And yet, the truth is that I’ve had personal success using writing prompts. One of my grad classes at Penn required us to write a story in the form of an advice column. My story (and others) found publication in volume based on this idea (Prompted). Without that very specific nudge, I never would have written the piece, or probably even conceived of the format.

I’ve also found that when I teach writing, students often respond with creative work that dazzles based on some basic constraints (examples: giving students a startling first line of dialogue, asking them to base a story on a single painting, writing exercises that start with “I remember the first time I…”). Most students seem to thrive on some level of prompting, rather than facing an entirely blank page and carte blanche to write whatever they want.

My hesitation to suggest that you use writing prompts to get started comes from some bad writing prompts I’ve seen. This one, for example: “Suddenly, she discovered…” To me, that prompt sets the writer up for a fatal first sentence that places the climax at the beginning of the story, rather than near the end. It also sets the writer up for some bad first ideas. “Suddenly, she discovered she was a dog. Suddenly, she discovered, she was on Mars. Suddenly, she discovered she didn’t want to marry Bob.” And yet…One of my favorite short stories by Amy Bloom, “Love is Not a Pie” begins very similarly: “In the middle of the eulogy at my mother’s boring and heartbreaking funeral, I began to think about calling off the wedding. August 21 did not seem like a good date, John Wescott did not seem like a good person to marry, and I couldn’t see myself in the long white silk gown Mrs. Wescott had offered me.”

In addition, there are a number of writing contests that use writing prompts/constraints as formats for submissions. NPR used to do an excellent fiction contest called “Three Minute Fiction” that would give writers a first line to start with, and the constraint that you had to tell a complete story in under 600 words (something that can be read in under three minutes). I never won any of those contests, but I tried them every time. There’s a recent contest by Owl Canyon Press that dictates the first and last paragraph of a story, asking the writer to fill in the 48 paragraphs in between to create the story. I started that challenge on a day when my brain wasn’t giving me much else, and the trickiness of trying to weave in the first details with the last details in mind felt exhilarating, like figuring out a difficult crossword puzzle. In the meantime, a story started to take shape and I was able to get my word count done for the day. They are out there, those rogue writing prompts, and they are often associated with other constraints, including a deadline to finish.

There is a part of me that still resists this idea of prompts because it feels like I’m cheating somehow by not coming up with my own fuel. But the truth is, it’s sometimes hard to jump-start the creative mind, and so anything that moves you forward—first lines, last lines, deadlines—has value. The goal each day is to put words on the page, and so I suggest that if you, like Tolstoy, find you’re getting the work done by starting with “Suddenly, she found herself on the train tracks…” then by all means, jump in.