Writing on the Spot-Prompting Waves of Anxiety

I never appreciated the value of writing prompts. They struck me as devices other writers used when they couldn’t come up with original ideas. After last weekend, I’ve changed my mind.

On June 1, I attended a fiction writing workshop presented by Ken Cormier, writer-in-residence at the West Hartford (Connecticut) Public Library. Ken’s pre-workshop instructions were to bring a pen and pad and leave the laptop at home. We would be writing on the spot, using prompts. Nothing brings terror to me like being asked to write on demand. What sort of rubbish would spew from my pen? Though I am a pantser, when I come up with an idea for a story, I do a lot of pre-writing in my head and then I prepare a basic outline of milestone events before I sit down to write. I would not have the luxury of this type of preparation this time. I was at sea without a life preserver.

Ken read to us a hilarious flash fiction piece about a crazy, drunken grandmother at Christmas, which set the stage for his first prompt. He instructed us to write about an episode involving one of our relatives. We were given 15 minutes. Sticking with the grandmother idea, I wrote about my Nana, who was deaf, and her attempts to carry on a telephone conversation with her sister, Theresa, who was also deaf. The words just flowed. I wouldn’t call it brilliant but it was the best work I’ve done in weeks.

The second exercise was interesting. He asked us to write a basic character sketch (name, age, address, occupation, most important person, and that person’s relationship with the character). Then we handed our character sketch to the person on our left and they had to write a story based on it. Again, we had 15 minutes to do it. The results were fantastic. Every writer in the room wove a vivid narrative that made each character come alive. I was amazed to see what a talented group of writers could do without the time to think.

I left the workshop feeling energized. I had been suffering through a serious creative block the past few weeks, for a variety of reasons. These writing prompts unblocked me.

To read more on writing prompts, check out these sites:
Writer’s Digest resource

Creative Writing Prompts

The Teacher’s Corner

Good essay on the value of writing prompts

Poets & Writers page

Do you use writing prompts? Do you find them helpful?


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12 responses to “Writing on the Spot-Prompting Waves of Anxiety

  1. stopping by here to catch up on your blog! Yours is one of the few blogs I am subscribed to — always enjoy it. (My blog is mostly neglected now – oh oh! lawdy! :D)

    • Kat,
      Thanks for your comment. I’m going through major writer’s block these days, but strangely enough, it hasn’t effected my blogging. I think it has a lot to do with the divorce. I can’t get my mind into that deep state of concentration. Thanks.

      • I’m sorry to hear of the divorce – *hugs*

        I keep looking at my blog, s haking my head, and then walking away *lawd*

      • Thanks, Kat. A lot of writers (me included) feel compelled to blog regularly and spend a lot of time searching for topics, researching and writing their posts. I’ve been able to maintain at least weekly blog posts, but my fiction writing is starting to suffer. I am determined to get back to it and at least finish revising one of my three WIPs. Thanks again for your comment.

  2. I always anticipate the dread of writing on the spot at workshops, but like you, find it IS in fact helpful, almost every time.

    • Julie,
      Thanks for your comment. Writing on the spot terrifies me, but those prompts really helped. I was going through a major period of writer’s block. How is your WIP going?

  3. I have also just turned to prompts to help get my writing back into gear. The workshop sounds wonderful and I love the helpful links at the end as well.

  4. Recently hosted ‘Prompt Night- No Limo Required,’ for my critique group. Several people were terrified of writing fast and then reading out loud. They clearly felt like I was pushing them out a window– and I was. The most fearful group member turned out to be the most enthusiastic convert to using prompts that night, and now lives for the next free-write session. He was so blocked, trying to write a whole book from scratch, and now he has a flow!

  5. Yes, that’s exactly how I felt. It really unblocked me. It just shows we hav to be open-minded about new techniques and ways of doing things. Thanks.

  6. Hey Chris! I just stumbled onto this post (after reading your post about Wally Lamb), and it really struck home. Like you and many of the other commenters, I tend toward complele paralysis when it comes to on-demand writing, although there have been times over the years, at workshops and such, that I simply couldn’t avoid it. There have also been a number of times where the prompt itself really spoke to me. I’ve joined a critique group here in Charlotte, and in preparation for the first session, I went through a bunch of miscellaneous writing files. My first reaction to a couple of pieces was “Holy crap! Did I really write that?” because they were pretty good. Certainly not complete, but most definitely great starts with lots of possibility. And, yup, you guessed it–most of the best were from prompts. Also, I attended a POV workshop a couple of weeks ago in which we were presented a single prompt and then instructed to write from three points of view. At each change in POV, we simply continued on with our “stories.” That exercise, as well as one of the random files I found, helped me with a major breakthrough on a story that I had begun four years ago, but was completely stymied as to where it was going. I don’t know that I’ve converted to the point of expending time and energy on just any prompt. I’ll definitely still be selective. That said, probably the biggest take away for me is that writing anything is better than writing nothing!

    • Kerry, it s good to hear from you again. I’ve always resisted writing prompts, but at exercise really helped me to see the value in them. The POV workshop sounded interesting. When I get stuck I often write a new scene from another character’s POV, just to get inside that character’s head. It helps make the characters more well-rounded. Hope you are enjoying Charlotte and your new critique group.

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