In Praise of Prompts

What is a prompt? It is a trigger to get the subconscious boogying. Prompts come in all sorts and varieties. For the creative person, they can be very useful.

Food, that piece of broccoli lying on your plate, may remind you of a teacher you remember fondly. He was a wonderful teacher. You haven’t seen him for years and you’re wondering what happened to him. He had a kind face, an interesting face. He was a vegetarian with a fondness for broccoli. You haven’t thought of that man in twenty years. Over the next few days your mind keeps returning to that stalk of broccoli, how similar it was to your teacher’s face. Your mind just won’t let go of that teacher. Then it hits you. You decide to paint a portrait of that face. And you are off on a new adventure, rediscovering the face that lunched on a thousand stalks of broccoli. The painting you finally complete may be of the teacher as a husband or father, as an old man or a young man. That trigger, of broccoli, made you explore the many facets of that man’s life.

One day you are leaving school and you see a penny dropped onto the concrete. You reach down and pick it up. For some reason, you accidentally drop it again. It makes a sound. An interesting sound that causes you to go hmmmm. You drop it again and there’s that sound. You bounce that penny against the brick wall next to you. The sound is different. Pretty soon you are dropping all sorts of change onto the concrete and the dirt or against the brick wall. You are listening, listening hard. This activity is becoming all consuming. You spend hour after hour dropping things, not just change, but pots and pans, wallets and knives. You are falling in love with the sounds. Before you know it, you sit at the piano, trying to reproduce those sounds. Within a short period of time, you have a completed piece of music. All because of one little penny you found in the parking lot.

You are a scientist and you have been working on a problem for twenty years. It’s had you stumped. You are at a party and someone hands you a glass of wine. You accidentally drop a crumb into the wine. You start to drink the wine. You go to sip the wine. You notice that crumb staring back at you. Hmmm. You sit the glass onto the table, then you drop another crumb into the wine. They are close together. Looks like those two crumbs like each other. Looks like they may even want to date. You take your finger and stir the wine. Now they are across the glass from each other. You stir again. Now it looks like they are near, but not so near that they are waltzing. Again and again you stir the wine, fascinated by those crumbs in that glass of wine. You go to the lab the next morning and reproduce the experience from the night before. Bells and whistles go off inside your head. It’s the answer to your twenty-year quest thanks to that prompt of a crumb in a glass of wine.

You observe a grasshopper on a leaf. You watch him for a few minutes. He leaps to another leaf. He spends a few minutes there and you shoo him off. He is not a quitter. He goes to another leaf, and then another, and then another. It’s a dance and you are the choreographer. It hits you what a perfect dance nature can present. You start observing squirrels scampering in their quest for nuts. You watch your cat jump high in the air, your dog go catch. Before you know it, you have choreographed a complete new dance all because of that grasshopper.

Prompts, triggers can be very useful to a writer. They help the subconscious come up with new lines of poetry, new dialogue, new characters. Say you have a heavy case of writer’s block. You’ve been trying for months to shake it off. It just won’t quit. You set your writing aside. You are just not going to try anymore. You turn on a piece of Beethoven’s music. Perhaps “Fur Elise” or “The Emperor’s Concerto”. You sit there totally absorbed in the wonder of that music. Or you find yourself looking through some old postcards from the early part of the twentieth century, or you are reading a novel you have read at least thirty times. One line jumps out at you and knocks your subconscious on its rump. Suddenly you are writing, not just for a few minutes but for hours.

Sometimes when I don’t know where to begin a chapter or a blog or a story, I pull out a book of photographs. I start looking deeply at one of them, letting my mind explore that time and that place. There are other times I will be watching a movie and I get the answer to a problem that I had been trying to solve in a story. Or I read a line of prose, like this one from A Moveable Feast: “And then there was the bad weather.” It starts me on a whole new journey with a character or a story, detouring me from what I thought might be the plot. It may start me me off on a new story or a new poem.

We are lucky. Writers have so many choices when it comes to prompts. It may be a woman in a restaurant, a man in a nursing home, a blanket with a strange pattern, the cover of a book, a stack of dirty laundry, a neighbor’s cat, the words from a dream, a postcard. You name it. Anything can prompt our subconscious with inspiration.

So be brave and trust. You never know where that subconscious of yours will lead.

What is your favorite kind of prompt?

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10 thoughts on “In Praise of Prompts

  1. Since I deal in memoir much of the time, smells are my favorite prompts. They instantly take me to a time, a place, the people, the event that together become a fully-fleshed story for me.

  2. I have to agree, any prompt that sparks my imagination becomes the best ever for the duration of it’s sparkiness. LOL. Then, with a little luck, a new prompt comes along to knock the old one off it’s throne and I am burning down the house with imagination.

  3. I just had my favorite prompt a few weeks ago! (You may know this 🙂 ) My least favorite prompt is one that leads to soggy bottom broccoli. Yuk. Or cabbage. Great post, and very, very true. I only started using them recently. They’re like that popcorn ceiling I had as a kid. I got more stories and images staring up at the ugly ceiling.

  4. My favorite kind of prompt…ones that actually lead to me writing something terrific. My least favorite kind of prompt…ones that label me as a social pariah because I’ve been caught at a party stirring wine with my finger that has a crumb in it.

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