The problem with writing prompts

I do not use writing prompts. I know that many, many writers out there really like them, but I don’t. And I do not think that you need them, either.

Prompts are artificial.

You don’t need to stimulate your writing with a prompt. You only have to look around your life and just write down what you think of it. Isn’t this writing, fundamentally?

“Do you think there is an afterlife?” Maybe. And maybe I would like to address that topic. But the minute I frame it as a response to that question, my writing becomes a bit too structured; I put on the academic hat and start playing accordion. And the whole thing sounds different than when I just write.

I like it much better when I just let myself write.

I think you probably like it better when you do, too.

And I know that not all prompts – in fact, the vast majority of prompts – are not framed like that, as philosophical questions. I know that the tremendous majority of them are instead framed as something like “you find a shoe on the street. Whose shoe is it? What color is it? How did it get there?” And that prompt may not seem academic at all, but in order to actually answer those questions, I will artificially massage my writing to fit the explanations in where I may not have otherwise cared to do so.

Consider real life. I see a real shoe on the edge of the street and it may interest me, but I do not necessarily care what color it is. (Do you?) Instead, I may reflect or daydream about what happened logistically or, perhaps more interestingly, what happened psychologically: what might compel a person to leave it behind.

And it is not really appealing to me to immediately make up a story about some little boy, Timmy, who once lost his shoe – it was blue – in a game of tag.

I don’t care.

You see, for me, this lost shoe isn’t really about the shoe – not in the grand scheme of things. To write about the shoe, I am actually exploring the losing of shoes in general, everywhere. I want to talk about the city streets or the nuances of kid cliques. I want to talk about psychology, not make up some imagined Timmy and his bad day or the fact that he’s not athletic – those details are meaningless if I do not even know what to do with them; how they tie; how they fit into the story.

You see, not just anyone can lose a shoe. Certain people never would. (Incidentally, certain shoes – those worn mostly by these people – are never lost.)

And writing it in a story does not magically “make it so” in the reality of “things.” I know that it is your story; your writing; your creative fiction, but the work means nothing if it is not rooted in real life; if I as a reader – or, more importantly, a writer – cannot trust that this could really happen, just as it is described, even if this specific scene was fabricated.

Timmy might lose his shoe. Did he throw it at a passing car? What sort of person would be compelled to throw a shoe at a car? Did he surrender his shoes in a lost game of marbles? Or basketball? These two games are different, too, and their players differ as well. Maybe Timmy lost his shoe to a bully who demanded it; a barter in place of the lunch money Timmy did not have to hand over.

All of these situations are different.
I could write that “Timmy was a good boy, but he got angry one day and threw his shoe at a man crossing the street.” Perhaps I can add context: “It was the sullen milkman, who always gave Timmy’s family a little less milk in their bottles.”

Well, now we have a little drama and intrigue. Why did Timmy do this? Why did the milkman short them on their milk?

Timmy is described as a “good boy” but then seen throwing his shoe. Is he really a good boy? Perhaps we as readers are left to decide this for ourselves. Or perhaps many of us will reserve judgment and wait to see what else Timmy does. And what of this milkman? Is he, too, a “good” character who is perhaps just misunderstood?

And again, all of these questions are natural responses. We have certainly piqued interest.

But now let me ask you:
If I were to offer you the passage I just shared – with Timmy and the milkman – and sufficiently win enough of your attention for you to keep on reading to the next paragraph or page, would you agree that the most important questions you are left wondering is: “why?!” and “what’s the history here?” and “what, pray tell, is going to happen?”

And would you not agree that to answer any one or all of these questions is far more interesting to you as a reader than if I were to instead interject to say, “oh yeah! And the shoe was blue.”

Who gives a shit?! Do you? I most certainly do not. I also do not particularly care where it landed. I am far, far more interested in what is going to happen next, or what brought them here, than I care at all about the shoe hue.

The shoes do not matter here. The shoe is only a tool to talk about something else.
And if, in writing responses to prompts, I suddenly recall that I have to include these details and break up the organic quality of the writing, I destroy it a little.

I could, of course, instead write about the shoes – the fact that, perhaps, they were the only blue pair in the neighborhood, and that perhaps all the other boys made fun of him for his blue shoes. And then, perhaps, the color might be interesting.

But still – are we not innately more interested in far more dynamic and complex things here?

Look, the reality is this: prompts are stupid. I could write a million responses to this shoe scenario (I mean this literally. There are literally endless options here, with regard to shoes. Or the color blue. Or anything. Because that’s how life works.) But the point of writing should never be to check a box (“Shoe was thrown; check. Shoe color was specified: blue; check.”)

No. There are so many other worthwhile stories. And if we do not have a reason to bring up Timmy and his shoe – if we do not have something we want to say about this shoe-throwing – then why are we even writing about it to begin with? We do not have to use our work just to satisfy prompts.

We as writers do not need them.

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One comment

  1. […] this post (including Part I) is very long – too long. It is long because it is the entirety of one day’s word count. I […]

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