Friday, April 13, 2012

Writing Prompts Matter

I was an actor in my former life. My high school years can be summed up in two words: drama geek.

Sharon’s Wednesday post had the sweaty palm feel of a night at the improv—you know, when you jump onto a bare stage, someone yells out a situation, or maybe just a character trait, and then says, “GO!” You start acting your heart out, creating scene, tension, character, and reaction on the fly.

There’s nothing like a creative riff to blow the rust off your brain.

There’s a secret rule to improv, something never mentioned on Drew Carey’s old show ‘What’s My Line’, but it was always practiced. In improv, you never say no.

You don’t resist. You find a way to go with an ever changing, ever evolving moment. If you’re up on stage pretending to fly a kite and another actor comes in and tells you he’s a lion tamer and starts cracking his whip at you, you don’t resist. You don’t turn to that actor and say, “I’m not a lion.”

Instead you embrace the whole thing. Not necessarily by becoming a lion (that seriously limits your range as an actor), but by bending to the lion tamer’s will (not to mention that whip), and reacting to him in a way that allows the kite flying scene to continue, grow, become more than it was.

You go with it.

Writing prompts are the improv of words: permission to let go of our preset ideas and splash in the puddles of our minds. And when we let loose, when we go a-playing for the sheer fun of it, something amazing happens.

We get real honest, real fast.

When we let our mind fly, we’re able to take the fetters off. The real fetters, the real things that hold us back as writers. Truthfully, we’re not really worried, “What will an editor think?” We’re really worried, “What will Grandma think?” It’s the social constraints, family, church, fussy friendships that hold us back from riffing on what we truly think and feel.

Writing prompts help us stuff Granny in the closet and let our true selves free. It’s mentally and emotionally taking our girdles off and scratching. The freedom to explore our true selves, without the constraints of caring what someone else might say or think about what we’ve written.

And that’s why we should all be riffing with writing prompts.

Burn the thing after, if you have to, bury it in the backyard with the bones of Fifi the poodle, but get to that honest place.

If the golden rule is to write what you know, then the governing rule is Writer, know thyself.

 Here are a few more prompts to nudge you to the knowing place. Have fun with them, and, if you’re daring, please share your riff with us in the comments section.

1)   1. A bag lady finds a crying baby in a back alley dumpster.
2)   2.  Write a paragraph about orange.
3)   3. Write a stream of consciousness sentence that begins with the word “noise”. Write down the next word that comes to mind, then the next, and the next. Do not stop to think, just write the words down for three minutes.
4)   4. Describe falling asleep.

The above prompts are original to Bonnie Grove. You are free to share them as you like, just please reference Novel Matters when you do. Thanks! 


Susie Finkbeiner said...

"Oh, oh, oh," the woman said, fingering the soft blanket, her armpits resting on the edge of the dumpster. "No, no, no."

She could swear that something under the blanket was moving. Wiggling.

Then she heard the cry. Her brain snapped backwards, into a memory. Catching rabbits when she was a girl. They'd scream and cry. Sounded just like a baby.

"God," she whispered to the blanket. "Just like a baby."

Lifting the soft, filth covered blanket, she saw it. The flesh of the thing was so yellow. Touching the skin, it was so warm. Hot, even.

"Who would'a done this?" She looked all around her. No one was there. "Who would'a?"

Breathless, she picked up the small creature. It changed. Purple. Blue. Green.

"No. That's not real," she said. "What is real?"

The dumpster. The hard, cold concrete. The stink of the alley. All real.

Was she real? No telling. The baby? Was it even a baby? Or some lump of leftover ham that went bad in someone's fridge. She could never be sure.

Just in case, she carried the bundle, still crying like a rabbit, to the streets.

A man walked by. Full suit. He talked on a phone. Walked with a purpose.

"Sir!" she yelled out to him.

He turned his head. "Can't walk out here without some bum wanting a buck," he said into the phone.

"Can you tell me if this is real?" she asked him. "I found something in the dumpster."

He shook his head. "Listen, I'll call you back."

She walked toward him. The baby was wailing.

"I just need you to tell me if this is real," she said, holding the baby out toward him.

He looked at what she held. Laughed at her. Pulled a dollar from his pocket and gave it to her. Walked away.

"It's okay," she whispered into the bundle. "We'll be just fine."

She walked back into the alley, holding the blanket and her baby close to her chest.

(I have no idea what the bundle is...but I had fun writing this)

Wendy Paine Miller said...

Taking you up on the paragraph about orange when I get a moment today.

That one practically pulled my collar and yanked me into my computer screen.
~ Wendy

Margaret Snider said...

I never liked writing exercises because of the time they took away from my Work in Progress. But I've found a way to incorporate them.

I put at the top of a blank page, "Write the next scene as if it is an exercise . . ." and then I have have a two page bullet list of possibilities, such as: "In which the weather plays an important part," "To avoid using the verb 'to be'," "In which color permeates the writing," and so on.

That way I focus on the exercise, but I'm still advancing the narrative. And if it doesn't quite fit when I'm done, I just revise, but it's got me going.

Bonnie Grove said...

Susie: Thanks for sharing your piece. You think in short stories, don't you? :) That's a gift!! Makes me wonder about that crying bundle too. Great!!

Wendy: I like thinking about orange too. Have fun!

Margaret: What a great idea! And it keeps you on track which is so important. Innovative! Thank you for sharing with us.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

I guess I never thought of it that way...but, yes, I suppose I do think in short stories. For my novels, I just string all those short stories together to make a bigger one.

Thanks, Bonnie. And this was a very fun post. :)

Megan Sayer said...

I'm impressed with these writing prompts too, much more so than the usual fare.

I'm reminded of the time I watched the movie Amadeus when I was 16. I kind of ingested the characters whole, and while I watched I sat and wrote stream-of-consciousness stuff from their perspectives. It was different to anything I'd ever written before, and really interesting stuff. I used that writing later to inspire an art work.

So now I'm inspired to do that again, now that I'm in the very early dreaming-stages of my next story. I need to pull out a movie or a piece of music that feels like this story feels, or shares the colours or the rooms, and riff (or jam) to it. This is good. I'm inspired!

V. Gingerich said...

Orange is the flavor of a child-sized headache, the smell of my one trip to Florida, the feel of the plastic tablecloth in my playhouse under the evergreens. Orange is my hands after I tried tanning lotion the summer I was fifteen and it’s the Skittles I eat last of all, when my tongue is too candy-sore to taste them anyhow. Orange is stripes on a thrift store dress, the sun going down on the Caribbean, light warming a bench in an old church, the sound of a bicycle horn, the feel of corduroy. It’s what I see when I close my eyes while sunning myself, what I hear in the market, what I breathe in October. Orange. Not my color, exactly, but a color the world wears well.

Fun prompts; thanks!

Vila Gingerich

Bonnie Grove said...

Megan, so glad you're feeling inspired. Happy daydreaming! Hope it leads to all kinds of artsy fun and intrigue.

Vila: Loved this, so dreamy, and nostalgic, and poetic. I love the stripes on a thrift shop dress, and plastic tablecloth. Great stuff! Thank you for being brave and sharing!!!

Megan Sayer said...

Hey I've been thinking again, and now I'm REALLY inspired, so inspired I just had to come back and share it with you.
Here's the thought, right?

My heart for writing is to be able to bring people into the presence of God, which might sound a bit audacious, but hey, musicians do it all the time. I told a worship-leader friend that last night after we'd just had a long discussion on worship bringing in the presence of God in church, told her that I want to do that in writing, and she looked at me like I was just kooky (not the first time), and said "how you gonna do that?" and I don't know, not really. But I can dream.
And I can practice.
So this morning when I got up and grabbed my bible and put on some worship music and prayed (like I always do) I grabbed a piece of paper and started writing stuff - whatever stuff, but trying to stay away from loaded words and Christianese - letting my bible and the music be my writing prompts. And it was FUN!!!!! Actually it was awesome.
And what came out was a few paragraphs that relate to the very ending of the book I'm just editing, stuff that fills out the narrative with feeling. It's far from perfect (or even really useable), but I've added it in anyway. It's a start.
I'm going to continue, and see what God does.

Bonnie Grove said...

Megan: Wonderful! It's so interesting what can happen when we just let things happen. Awhile back, Katy did a review on a book called Imagine: How creativity works. I'm reading it now, and what struck me was how modern science is just now catching up with the ancient wisdom of God's word. When we relax, and trust, our brains are capable of producing amazing insights, epiphanies, and problem solving.