Prompts, part 2: A different approach

You might want to read Prompts, part 1: Useful? Or just a cute trick? before you wade into today’s post. I’ve been told that part 1 was cranky; part 2 is, well, crankier.

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To repeat from last Thursday’s post: A prompt—in the context of writing—is a short sentence or phrase used to help a writer get started when a writer is stuck and can’t write. A prompt supplies an idea to work with, just to grease the brain-wheels so it’s possible to get words onto a blank page or screen. The theory is that once the words start coming, the words will keep coming.

For this trick to work, quantity is necessary: the writer needs choice in order to find a prompt that beckons, resonates, piques the interest. If you have fifty prompts to choose from, chances are that one of them will grab you enough to start you writing something. Hence the popularity of long lists of prompts online and in books.

On the other hand, if you happen to be a student in an English class and the teacher puts only five prompts on the blackboard, it’s very possible that none of them will grab you. Five options aren’t a lot of options. Frustration with writing is sure to follow—exactly what the teacher was probably trying to avoid by offering prompts in the first place.

Now I’m going to come clean: I do not like the idea of anyone supplying prompts for someone else. It’s akin to handing a friend a load of nicely cut firewood when you should have taught your friend how to cut logs since she’s going to have to make more than one fire if she’s going to keep warm in the future.

understand that in an environment in which writing has become so accessible that almost anyone can try to be a writer, there will be writing aids under every rock and all a would-be writer has to do is turn over the right rock to get some help. But I don’t like it.

In fairness, I need to make a distinction between kinds of writers: professional and nonprofessional. Nonprofessional writers may make use of any old thing they like in order to enjoy writing—prompts, software, games, even the appalling National Novel Writing Month (better known, adorably, as NaNoWriMo).

But professional writers had better think twice before engaging in reductive practices.

What exactly is a professional writer? I’m afraid that by current definition payment and publishing are the two main qualifications. My definition, however, is this: a professional writer is someone who takes the work seriously, gives it time and attention, and continues to do these things regardless of payment and publishing.

Back to prompts, so I can tie all this together: Professional writers do of course get stuck and need pushes out of the dead air of doldrums and into the fresh air of invention. But I’d be willing to bet money that there aren’t very many professional writers who use websites or books full of prompts to find that fresh air.

What professional writers do is think. Or dream. Or daydream. Or back off and allow ideas to arrive in their own good time. Or they jot down ideas. Or read books, take walks, ride bikes, play music, or do nothing. They also complain, wail, moan, see therapists, drink, cry, decide to stop writing, decide to become brain surgeons, and drive their friends loony. Some stop writing altogether.

But the ones who begin writing again and who regard writing as an imperative, whether they love or hate it, eventually sit down at the blank page or screen and do some work.

What, after all, is so daunting about a blank page or screen? Why is the blank page or screen so panic-inducing?

A blank screen or page does not represent emptiness; it represents potential. View it as a calm, quiet field in which to let your fantasies meander. Constant stimulation is not necessarily productive; being empty and even bored is not necessarily unproductive. In fact, research shows that boredom contributes to creativity; see “Bored at Work? That’s Not a Bad Thing” in Slate via Inc.

Instead of following the herd to the long lists of prompts that other people have invented for you, consider making your own extremely personal list of prompts. And let us stop calling them prompts, a term that carries the unpleasant aura both of nudging and being on time.

Let us call them ideas, because that is what they are: ideas you are perfectly capable of finding for yourself and turning into writing.

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Prompts, part 1: Useful? Or just a cute trick?

Two linked issues in this and the next post: First, do writers actually need prompts or are prompts just another cute trick for lazy wannabes? And second, if a writer does need a prompt, where should it come from and how is it found?

PART 1 today; PART 2 on Monday.

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PART 1: DO WRITERS REALLY NEED PROMPTS?

As far as I can figure out, “prompt” is a fairly new word in writing terms. It refers to short sentences or phrases that are used to prod writers into writing. Like these:

  • Write about your first day of school. 
  • Who do you like better—your mother or your father? 
  • What’s the best vacation you’ve ever had?
  • Write about an accident you saw or had.

The notion is that you sit down with one of these prompts, of which there are thousands and thousands already floating around online and in books, and you “get your creative juices flowing” by using the prompt as a starting point. That way you don’t actually have to face a blank page or screen, heaven forbid, and you don’t have to think too hard about what you should write because the prompt gives you a topic.

Professional writers write because they have something they need or want to write about; historically the reason for writing is having something to say. It is not the reverse: that is, wanting to be a Writer and therefore looking for the ignition that will lift you off the launch pad.

To put it slightly differently, somewhere along the way the order of importance got reversed for a lot of people: first they decided to be Writers, and then they wondered what they should write about.

When no subject matter presents itself quickly or easily, some would-be writers imitate the writers they admire. Some latch onto the familiar—family recipes, World War II, illness, divorce—regardless of whether they have anything interesting to say. Some try classes in journaling, short stories, novels.

The popularity of the idea of being a writer plus the extreme change in writing technology (the ease of writing on a computer; the proliferation of writing software) plus the availability of writing classes and writing workshops plus the accessibility of self-publishing has turned what once was a rigorous life-choice into something anyone can do. Or try to do.

All of this may have contributed to the birth of the prompt. The connection is clear, isn’t it? If you’re dabbling in writing, by definition you don’t have a piece of work you feel compelled to pursue. So you may need a jump-start: a list of prompts that someone else came up with.

And that’s why I ask the question: Do writers actually need prompts?

Last November I gave a talk at the New York Society Library, about being stuck or having “writer’s block.” It was based in part on a TBUHB post called “Letter to Girl Group: coming unglued and getting unstuck.”  In that talk I succumbed to the temptation to offer stuck writers a list of possible writing topics. Prompts, in effect. I called them “jolts,” since the goal was to shake up a stuck writer and jolt her into writing again—the way a wallop of electricity can jolt a stopped heart into action. Here are a few of them:

  • Write a dialogue between your parents. Not a dialogue you’ve actually heard—a dialogue you hope never to hear.
  • Write a short-short story about your favorite painting. The story behind the painting? Or the story that happens in front of the painting?
  • Write a biting political satire.
  • Invent three short poems about three times of the day. Make them work together.

In retrospect I’m sorry about this. Instead of giving a list of jolts, what I should have done was ask the members of the audience to look inward and come up with three or four very personal prompts. That leads us to Part 2, on Monday.

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SIDEBAR: True writer’s block, which is rare, cannot be cured with prompts; it’s a different, deeper, more intractable problem than the much more common predicament of being stuck. But any writer who’s not blocked but is stuck might have a chance to get going again with prompts; it’s worth a try. Please read Part 2 for a new and different approach to finding the right prompt.

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Writers & habits

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There’s a wonderfully interesting article by Rachel Toor in The Chronicle of Higher Education, called “The Habits of Highly Productive Writers.” The subhead is this: “There are no tricks to make writing easier, just practices you can develop to get it done.”

Ms. Toor discusses twelve habits, and you’ll want to read what she says about them; this post will make a lot more sense to you if you do. She asserts that highly productive writers…

  • reject the notion of “writer’s block” the way others shun gluten
  • don’t overtalk their projects
  • believe in themselves and their work
  • know that a lot of important stuff happens when they’re not “working”
  • are passionate about their projects
  • know what they’re good at
  • read a lot, and widely
  • know how to finish a draft
  • work on more than one thing at once
  • leave off at a point where it will be easy to start again
  • don’t let themselves off the hook
  • know there are no shortcuts, magic bullets, special exercises, or incantations

There are two tricky issues about this piece. The first is that we don’t really know what Ms. Toor means by “highly productive.” Quantity? Quality? Both? I’d be happier if I knew how she defines the term. I know some writers whom I’d consider highly productive, but they don’t think they’re productive enough. “Highly productive” is a highly subjective assessment.

The second tricky bit is that if you’re a reasonably productive writer (by your own standards) you already know and practice (or know and differ with) these habits, so in a way the article is irrelevant to you. If you’re not a productive writer (by your own standards), it may be relevant but you’re likely to be hiding under the bed sobbing by the time you finish reading the piece.

Actually, there’s a third issue: Is this article about highly productive writers or highly productive academic writers? Since Toor is writing for The Chronicle of Higher Education but uses examples from both worlds—academic and nonacademic—I’m a little confused. Again, “highly productive” could mean two very different things, according to what you’re writing and who it’s for.

It’s the nature of articles like this that they reiterate what we already know (if we fit the profile) or tell us what we might want to know (if we aspire to the profile). When the points are as nicely set out as they are in this article, it’s also a pleasure to see one’s life (or aspirations) described so cogently.

Still, I have a few quibbles with a few of the specifics. For instance: Highly productive writers work on more than one thing at once. Not necessarily. Many h.p. writers can’t spread their thinking over two projects at once; they give all their attention to one project and bash away at it until it’s finished. It’s like being a serial monogamist.

Another instance: Highly productive writers read a lot, and widely. Maybe they all should, but not all of them do. Mystery writers sometimes fall into that narrow-reading category, devouring books in their genre and ignoring almost everything else. A lot of productive fiction writers don’t read nonfiction, and vice versa. Plenty of productive writers have so much going on in their own heads that they can’t stuff anything else in there and hardly read at all.

And then there’s Toor’s remark in the Highly productive writers don’t let themselves off the hook section: “When they start to have feelings of self-doubt—I can’t do this, it’s too hard, I’ll never write another good sentence—they tell themselves to stop feeling sorry for themselves and just do the work.”

Where did that notion come from? I guess there are a few h.p. writers who say that to themselves—there must be. It’s true that h.p. writers ultimately don’t let themselves off the hook, but in the timespan between the self-doubt and the return to work there’s frequently a lot of panic, depression, anxiety, wailing, phone calls, shrink visits, temper tantrums, and worse.

I love that Rachel Toor took on this juicy topic, and it was great fun to read and think about her conclusions. But the problem I always have with definitive statements is that I worry about the exceptions to the definitions. Definitions of normative behavior scare me, especially where writers and all other artists are concerned.

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Once more, from Shelter Island

MONDAY: Settling in. Converting the dining table to a work table. Thinking, OMG, if Mike and David saw this mess they’d groan. But what they don’t know won’t upset them. IMG_0963When they return on Friday, all will be perfectly restored to normal. Meanwhile, I have to spread out so I can plunge into my novel. Which I do, and work for several hours without even getting up to stretch.

Working on the novel always begins with rereading and revising; that’s how I get into the work. It’s the best way to slide in, starting at a place I’ve been before and writing forward into new revisions and new ideas. It’s comfortable for a while, and then it gets harder and harder (in a good way) as I make changes and rethink sections that weren’t finished. Half the time I have no idea what I’m doing; half the time it’s perfectly clear to me what needs attention.

What I worry about most is unevenness: is this part as well written as that part? Does this part make as much sense as that part? And I worry about length too—this is a long manuscript, over 650 pages right now. It’s gone as high as 700+ and then back down to the 600s and who knows where it’s headed today. But I’ve given myself permission to write as much as I want, for now. Cutting comes later.

It’s a springlike day, and after working hard all morning and into the early afternoon, a person needs a walk.

TUESDAY: Cold, damp, rainy, a good day to stay inside. IMG_0968Perfect. No temptations. Nonstop writing, except for a break to do Qi Gong—via DVD—for forty minutes. Dress, wash dishes, do laundry, back to work. Write until brain feels like a stuffed turkey and vision blurs. But whole sections of Chapters 15, 16, 17 are starting to make more sense. 

IMG_0964When I began this novel over four years ago, I was too close to the material. The writing had passion and that was good, but being so close to the story made it difficult to fictionalize—too much loyalty to the truth, not enough vision of the work as a novel. That’s changed consistently, as time passes. A relief.

WEDNESDAY: Wake up and can’t move. Yesterday’s Qi Gong was a big mistake. Or rather, it was good for the brain, but a bitch for the low back and recovering sprained wrist. At moments like this—when you’re alone, in retreat, no one available—you can easily slip into panic. Hobbling around in pain is scary.

IMG_0970Manage to make coffee; that helps. Writing helps. By 11:30 all is well, literally, and I can worry about something else: only forty-eight hours to go until it’s time to end the retreat, clean the house, and be ready (meaning dressed decently) for my returning friends. What I am trying to remind myself is that the end of the retreat is not the end of writing. Sounds silly, though it’s quite real—looking forward to the retreat made me feel as if this week implied some sort of deadline. As if I had to reread and revise all the way to the end of the manuscript in one week. Crazy. Ridiculous.

If any student of mine told me that little fairytale, I’d talk her down from it and remind her that she’d been working on her novel for years and she’ll be working on it for many more months. So much easier to do it for someone else than for oneself. Don’t be a dope, Lorrie, I now tell myself. You’ll be working again on Sunday and Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday. Stop this nonsense. Get back to the pages.

Cloudy and threatening again, but another walk is needed.

Update on reading progress: zero. No Hadrian, no Cost, no W.S. Merwin poems, no New Yorkers. Nada.

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Wild Iris Books, Gainesville, FL

The Spotty Dog Books & Ale, Hudson, NY

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Thanks for…

Needless to say, one is thankful for friends and family, shelter and good food, health and solvency, ideas to think about and projects to work on. But this is a blog about writing and reading, so a very particular list emerges. Here are a few of the gifts I’ve appreciated this year.

libraries & librarians

My own beloved New York Society Library heads this category, along with every librarian, events producer, acquisitions person, cataloguer, circulation desker, conservator, systems specialist, development honcho, bookkeeper, and maintenance person at the NYSL. And anyone at the NYSL whom I might inadvertently have left out.

independent bookstores

Heroes, all. Champions of life, literature, joy, and freedom. GO, INDIES! (Note all the links to indies at the bottom of my posts; see IndieBound for much more info on independent bookstores.)IMG_0579

the authors guild

Of which I have been a member since 1988, and—I regret to say—am still paying the same amount of annual dues because you pay according to what you earn from your writing. However, I’m always delighted to write the (small) check because the Authors Guild has done so much good work and continues to do so.

the authors who took a stand against the gorilla

This year nothing surprised me more than the birth of Authors United, the movement started by Douglas Preston and joined by so many writers of note and less note, to speak out during the Amazon/Hachette battle.

my laptops

A special thank-you for my writing tools: My laptops (one MacBookPro and one MacAir) are my intimates. Image 1It may sound a little crazy, but I feel a very powerful bond with each of them—as if we’re in this thing together. Anthropomorphizing pieces of hardware isn’t always wise, because they break down in nonhuman ways that can only be cured by an expert (for whom I’m thankful too: Laurie Duncan of MacSamurai). On the other hand, when I’m nose to nose with either laptop, I usually feel as if I’m having conversation with another person. It’s a good feeling.

the writing retreat that starts tomorrow

Endless gratitude to my beloved friends architect Michael Rubin and landscape architect David Kamp for lending their Shelter Island home to a writer who badly needs a little time to herself, to think and write and calm down. The next blog post will be written on the island, from a blue-painted table with a long view of yard and meadow.

and the girl group, which has ended…for now

Yes, after four amazing years, the Girl Group is over. It’s been a wonderful ride, a rich and rewarding experience, but it’s time for the (current) writers to try life without the group. Well, without this group, anyway. Maybe they’ll surprise me and start a different group, though it’s my hope that each writer will work on her own for a while. This photo shows our (now former) lair: the corner table at the Pembroke Room in the Lowell Hotel, where the GG has been meeting from the get-go. It looks very ladylike, but the GGs are not. Many’s the time an un-tea-room-like word has rung out, turning the heads of actual ladies eating petits fours and cucumber sandwiches.

more time for writing, as of now

I worked double-hard for the past twelve months, banked some dough, and it appears that maybe I’m going to have a writing sabbatical, barring disaster. All plans these days are bracketed by “maybe” and “barring disaster.” But I’m hopeful for the new year, and I trust you are too, for your new year and new projects.

Whether you’re spending this national day of observance with family, friends, or—as I have chosen—alone, The Book Under Her Bed wishes you a happy day.

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Hooray for Books!, Alexandria, VA

Northshire Bookstore, Manchester Center, VT

A Room of One’s Own, Madison, WI

 

 

 

Returning to center

Friday night, on the Seventy-second Street crosstown bus, I had an epiphany. Or rather: after reading W.S. Merwin’s poem “The Blackboard” on the crosstown bus (on page 48 of the October 20, 2014 edition of the New Yorker), I came to my senses.

“The Blackboard” is an exquisite poem, which I’m surely not allowed to reproduce in full without permission. But I think the “fair use” doctrine will allow a few lines:

The question itself has not changed

but only the depths of memory

through which it rises and now in a late

dream of childhood my father is a blackboard…

For several weeks I’ve been preoccupied with publishing news stories about the enormous advances recently given to debut novels: Matthew Thomas’s We Are Not Ourselves (one million dollars, reputedly; Simon & Schuster), Stephanie Clifford’s Everybody Rise (a seven-figure amount; St. Martin’s Press), Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites (a million; Little, Brown), to name a few.

News about this phenomenon keeps cropping up in the publishing newsletters as well as in newspapers. Every time I see one of these reports I think, What’s going on here? How can these money-strapped publishers be sinking so much dough into completely unpredictable ventures? What’s happening to advances for mid-list novels that might be just as good (or bad) as this slew of newbies? Haven’t the Big Five publishers learned anything at all from past experience?

Past experience should show them that investing that much money in books that may or may not earn out their advances is risky in the extreme. But they don’t seem to learn anything from past experience—hope apparently springs eternal, for no good business reason.

The common wisdom is that the more a publishing house sinks into the advance, the more marketing support the book will get. But that doesn’t guarantee sales. Sometimes that strategy works, sometimes it doesn’t. And meanwhile, what happens to the rest of the books that house is publishing? None of it makes sense. I’ve been trying and trying to figure it out, and I’m not alone.

The Merwin poem has nothing, nothing, to do with the state of publishing. I did not have that Friday-night epiphany because the poem told me something about the madness of the publishers.

My Merwin-induced moment of clarity and insight was about a different kind of business entirely. It was about this: the job of serious writers is to write serious work, beautiful work, intelligent work, and to hell with the business of publishing. Not exactly news, I admit, but a jolt I needed badly.

There are plenty of reporters reporting on the state of publishing. No one needs me to do that, blog or no blog. don’t need me to do that either. Granted, it’s fascinating, in a horrible sort of way, to follow the marketplace, but how can I possibly do that better than people who are full-time employees paid to know everything about the topic? I can’t, and I shouldn’t try. I shouldn’t think about it. Or worry about it. Or get preoccupied by it.

What they do is report; what I do is write.

The sheer quality and brilliance of Merwin’s poem—and frankly, it could have been another fine poet’s poem that did the trick—snapped me out of my silliness and slung me back to where I belong: at my desk, working on my novel, working on my short stories, working on the posts I love writing.

There’s nothing on this earth I can do to influence the publishing business, of course, and the only thing that happens when I—or you or other writers—get off track is that I do less good work and spend more idiot time in a place I don’t belong.

I have plenty of writer friends who are savvy about the marketplace and discuss it endlessly. They strategize, plan, decipher, figure, calculate—and that has its place. At the proper time. Right now I’m returning to center.

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Village Square Booksellers, Bellows Falls, VT

Reading Rock Books,  Dickson, TN

Powell’s Books, Portland, OR