Prompt Perceptions: Considerations of the Uses and Attitudes of Writing Prompts
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A magazine exists, as part of a graduate program at the university where you are a grad student. You are an editor for this literary magazine. Your professor / managing editor gives you an assignment: Choose a specific and interesting literary-based topic and write an editorial. Add to the current discussions on this topic. 800-1500 words.
This is your prompt. Prompts are the topic provided, and the call to action for a writing task. They are the question or challenge for which we, the doers, are posed. You find this assignment interesting by nature. You decide to look into the prompt, that it is likely that such a thing cannot be dated to any specific event or time. But you wonder when the prompt as a literary device became popular? Your online search yields results like: “SAT Writing Prompts for Practice,” “A Goldmine of Journal Prompts,” “Getting Real: Authenticity in Writing Prompts.” These seem like a mix of exercises for students advancing to college, adults who enjoy writing, and professional and aspiring writers. However, you can recall being prompted in grade school. You once wrote a reinterpretation of a play, a nature journal, and of course, “What did you do over summer break?”
You think, it happened before that; when you were a small child? We prompt our children before they learn to read or write? “What other things start with the letter ‘D’? Can you tell me a story about the things you see on the way to school?” We do this to reinforce education out of the classroom, to encourage a fondness for long-term learning.
America’s college freshman composition classroom of the 1960s and 70s allowed free, expressive writing, new journalism and discussions of the Vietnam War and Civil Rights movement. With the 80s came the culture war and the “all-prompt,” career-driven curriculum. The 90s brought out the debate between the “personal” and the “academic” writing to be taught and the urge to identify political inequalities and empower students to take action through their writing. The 00s brought new questions between genre lines and the decline of the printed newspaper and the emergence of blogs. Now we explore new media writing and multimodal works; a realm where graphic memoirs and screen prose are being pushed. All this, through prompts from our teachers and peers or society.
There are perceptions surrounding prompts. Some writers find simple joy in them; approach them as brainstorming teasers or challenges.
Consider The First Line Literary Magazine, a publication that requires that all submissions include the first line provided. This is a contest-driven magazine so their prompts possess qualities like a good game night with family and friends or the chess and word game apps you play on your smart phone. The difference, of course, is that the submissions are taken seriously, and in a sense, they have customized literature sent directly to them. Other writers take prompt writing even more seriously than entering contests and putting themselves to the test or to push to submit work. They may be searching for a solution to writer’s block. Maybe you try to attack something you want to write about with a different approach to see how it turns out. Take dialogue for instance. You might write a story in dialogue only or start a story with a dialogue prompt. This will help you to climb the hurdle of absentee scenes and discussions from a piece. What if you wrote only dialogue and then went back and created a narrative? What if you interviewed people about their thoughts on a specific topic and then crafted a poem from the responses?
Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town, for instance, uses the example of how a topic word of “town” can trigger the writing of poetry. He explains that a “triggering subject” can ignite the imagination to create new works.
Since 1982 San Jose State University’s English Department has sponsored the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, originated by Professor Scott Rice, which takes its inspiration from the repeatedly plagiarized opener, “It was a dark and stormy night.” The one-sentence prompt is self-described as “a whimsical literary competition that challenges entrants to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels.” People Magazine described it as Scott Rice’s literary gong show. So a prompt, poking fun of a literature has continued for 30 years, received much international press and collections of entries have been published by Penguin Books, five series, It Was a Dark and Stormy Night (1984).
In more recent years, we’ve seen established authors, deal out free idea prompts that they will never have time to work on. And readings where famous authors launch out prompts to pumped up crowds like a mascot shooting tee shirts to a stadium crowd or they post them on their fan websites. Their readers show up in costumes and wait in long lines for signed copies and the hope to ask, “Hey what did you think of my response to your prompt?” There are craft books where the author has given them out and promises to read the return responses. But do established authors use them too, or is there a perception that they themselves are the knowledge makers that delve out the prompts to the aspiring writers? Maybe there is a secret prompt club where highbrow authors share prompts. Sort of like a private Pictionary party where they laugh, drink brandy, smoke cigars and prompt the heck out of each other. You know the one, that party that you were not invited to but you pass by it in the cold. You see those authors through the window and they look so happy and warm at their prompt party. Yes, of course, you’ve searched: “highbrow authors prompt party,” and what did you find? An article from The Atlantic called “How Zombies and Superheroes Conquered Highbrow Fiction.” A cool result, but still no luck finding that highbrow party...I guess these things are invitation only.
Karen Holloway is a creative director, visual specialist and writer. Karen has a BS in Graphic Design from Drexel University and is in the Master of Writing Arts program at Rowan. Her current writing is focused on creative works. With more than 13 years as a design and communications professional, her work also includes design and strategic planning, branding, marketing, and publication. Karen works at Rowan University in University Publications and is graphic designer and New Media Editor for Glassworks Magazine.