ADMISSION: I AM A PROMPT SNOB noelle sterne

ADMISSION: I AM A PROMPT SNOB

Check out our 2018 Writing Contest


By Noelle Sterne

05/29/2018

I confess. I’m a prompt snob. Prompts—please! I’ve got enough barely legible notes, scratched outlines, half-finished pieces orphaned stories, and novel-named file folders to last me three lifetimes. Everywhere I look, everyone I encounter, every time I think, I’m flooded with ideas for articles, essays, stories, and novels. And I can hardly believe any writers who say they have no ideas for stories or articles.

Okay, prompts may have a place. Especially if you’re new, scared, blocked, or wrung out, prompts can loosen you, revive your creative juices, stretch your imagination. But I consider them unpleasant medications prescribed by self-styled writing medics who make you think they’re the only remedies for writing (or nonwriting) woes.

I think too that writers believe if they take their medicine like good children they’ll reap the magical results: “If I do this prompt, I’ll have the great beginning of a novel.” “If I do that prompt, I’ll be guaranteed publication.” “If I do the other prompt, my teacher/professor/mentor/partner/mother will finally see my genius.”

I confess. I’m a prompt snob. Prompts—please! I’ve got enough barely legible notes, scratched outlines, half-finished pieces orphaned stories, and novel-named file folders to last me three lifetimes. Click To Tweet

All-Pervasive Prompts

Every time you click on a writing site, it seems you bump into prompts: Prompt Boot Camp for Writing Reboots, Desolate Dystopian Prompts, Romance Writers’ Seethrough Prompts, Nine Months of Pregnant Prompts, Who Prompted the Murder Mystery Prompts. If these weren’t enough, whole books have come out on prompts (these are real): 642 Things to Write About, 1,000 Awesome Writing Prompts, 1200 Creative Writing Prompts. Whatever writing ill ails you, there’s a prompt for that.

Most prompts feed you all kinds of odd scenarios. Some prompts, admittedly, encourage your own feelings/opinions/memories (Cheaper Than Therapy: A Guided Journal; The 100-Day Prompt Journal). My objection, though, is that others’ prompts can become addictive and a crutch. Overdependence may prevent us from discovering and exploring our built-in resources, from delving into our own vast wells of creativity.

Our Life Prompts

Each of us has a thousand, million stories inside. I sometimes imagine my life as a dartboard, pie-divided into ages, events, relationships, memories, impressions, images, feelings. When I throw a dart, at whatever section the point sticks, I know I can write about it. I may have to sit for a while and reconnect with the memories and feelings, but they do emerge. And I take heart from the unapologetic confidence of Rossini, the Italian composer of wonderful operas and many other works: “Give me a laundry list and I will set it to music.”

If you’re a prompt addict and in danger of stifling your own stories, there is help. You too can become a prompt snob.

Past Experiences

Scratch any year, or month, of your life, and you’ll find proliferating material for your work. Yes, this is a version of “write what you know,” but it’s also tremendous fodder for stories. When you think about events of the past, it’s likely that now you have enough distance to write about them with that combination of dispassion and feeling necessary for good creation. Stuck in childhood snow coming home from a friend’s house? First love at summer camp? Teenage depression? Rage at early-job impossible boss? Jitters at moving in with your sworn soulmate?

Many years ago, I went weekend camping (don’t know whatever possessed me). On one of those weekends, I ventured beyond the campgrounds to an overgrown field and discovered an amazing profusion of wild berries. Much later, thinking about the marvel of that experience, I wrote a short story about it, “Picking Berries.”

Recent Encounters

On the elevator going to work, a stranger tells you his life story. In the café restroom, you meet a friend you haven’t seen for twenty years. At the proverbial stiff Thanksgiving dinner, you can’t believe your sister’s sudden supportive comments on your writing. Even last week, in the supermarket you help an elderly person find a can of tuna and receive a sorely needed compliment.

A while ago, in that same supermarket, I helped an elderly woman find a certain carton of sour cream. We got to talking . . . and she revealed many confidences. I realized that, beyond her unburdenings, which I’m sure helped her, her disclosures gave me wise messages. An essay resulted: “Role Model in the Supermarket.”

More Current Observations

Do you watch people and make mental notes (or photographs)? What gets your attention? The slump of shoulders, the slope of the nose, bulge of eyes, tremor of hands, imbalance of gait? The irregular prettiness, stiff carriage, the direction they’re headed? Remind you of anyone? You can jump off from every fascination into a story, essay, poem, or novel.

One afternoon in a local library, I watched several kids poring over books (the baby computers were down that day). Thinking about my own love of books, I wondered how many kids really have access to books. Later that day, complete with a basket of books over her arm, a little girl appeared to me: she loved giving away books from her home bookshelves, and they kept magically replenishing. I scrawled out a children’s book: Little Read Writing Word.

One more, to show you that your own prompts can come from anywhere. A friend sent me an issue of The Virtual Gourmet newsletter. This newsletter is great for its photographs of European chateaus, uplifting hills, and wine country (not to mention restaurant reviews). In that issue, one photo grabbed me even more than others.

The photograph is of Frank Sinatra in the kitchen of his palatial home in Palm Springs, California. In the background sits a stove with four of who-knows-how-many burners visible, the glass fronts of two huge ovens, and an expansive granite counter. In the center of the photo spreads an equally expansive butcher-block counter, and Sinatra is leaning against it. Above his head, to the left, hangs a giant metal bouquet of gourmet utensils (the photo is black and white, but they’ve got to be solid copper). Directly above his head hangs a second equally grand copper cluster.

What’s Sinatra doing? Staring straight at the camera, very glum, and holding a bland-looking, white-bread sandwich.

However, Sinatra may have felt at that moment, whatever he was thinking as he held his sandwich, we will never know. What motivated someone to photograph him, and him to allow it, we’ll also never know.

But thinking about him in that grand kitchen, turning his back on its gourmand glories, and eating a simple, bland-looking sandwich, showed me what we writers can learn from this image. And I wrote an essay on what we really need for writing: not all kinds of fancy, copper writing software but simple sandwiches of loose sheets and pens or Word docs.

You may see these suggestions, ironically, as prompts themselves. But with a difference—they come from you.

Trust Yourself

We’ve all got it all, right inside. We do our best writing, and therefore impact on readers and editors most, when what we write comes from our internal springs rather than other-directed external ideas. This advice doesn’t mean you have to confess everything. But it does encourage you to have faith and trust in your memories, inner clues, and leanings.

Listen and watch for what excites you. When you write from your limitless inner source, you’ll produce pieces that not only give you great satisfaction but keep prompting readers to read and reread your work.

© 2018 Noelle Sterne


Two Drops of Ink 2018 Writing Contest

Two drops of ink 2018 writing contest

We’re going to get this going in June; however, we will begin taking submissions now. That said, here are the rules once all the submissions are in (yes…you can end a sentence with a preposition). You pick the genre and submit your piece. We will accept submissions through mid-June, giving writers time to write and submit.

Two Drops of Ink 2018 Writing Contest 2018 writing contest: We’re going to get this going in June; however, we will begin taking submissions now. Click To Tweet

Here we go: 

  1. Send all submissions to twodropsofink@gmail.com (questions as well).
  2. Make sure you put “Writing Contest” in the subject line of your email.
  3. Check your grammar and syntax. I will tolerate some mistakes as this is normal for all writers; however, if your submission is filled with grammar errors, I will ask for a resubmission before the deadline. No submission is guaranteed to be published.
  4. Our regular contributors may participate (and are encouraged to do so), but cannot win the grand prize.
  5. To win, you must have the most likes on your post. Simple. It’s your job as the author to share and solicit votes.
  6. You cannot like your own post.
  7. We will run the contest (voting) through June and possibly into the first part of July (these contests can often be a bit fluid). However, we will also be publishing other submissions after all of the contest submissions are posted.
  8. The grand prize will be $100 to the “post with the most” – the most “Likes.”
  9. There will also be a badge for the winner to place on their blog or website.
  10. All submitting writers must like our Facebook page and follow the site through one of our many “follow” options. This will serve to help writers stay informed about the site’s activities and announcements.
  11. Participation will give your bio, sites, and links exposure whether or not you win.
  12. Have fun, invite friends to read, and share this post.

Good luck everyone!

Scott and Marilyn

9 comments

  1. I think the goal is always to ween yourself off of prompts over time. I do this with my students at school. I start them off with the crutches, but by the end they are riding bicycles into writing freedom. If I can get them to self generate their ideas it would be much easier fro them. But the key is to start with a prompt, and then get to so you can think up your own ideas. I like them sometimes because they challenge me to think and write about something I don’t know about etc… I like to push myself to write in an entirely different area for me. Makes me think.

  2. Thank you Nicole! I needed this reminder today, as I was deciding what to write about for my next post. You helped me realize that I did have lots of my own lists (dare I say prompts?) to draw from, and I found the perfect one, used it, and post is done!
    I loved your example of the pic of Frank Sinatra’s Kitchen inspiring an essay. And while I can’t debate the truth of your statement that all a writer needs is two sheets of paper or a word doc to write, I must insist that I NEED fancy notebooks and pens in order to write! Lol! That’s my excuse for buying pretty new notebooks and writing paraphernalia. 🙂 And full disclosure, I did also insist to my hubby that a kitchen remodel would make me a better cook. – Oh my!
    Neither, of course make me a better writer or a better cook, but they are good motivators.

  3. Thank you, all three! Maybe we should start a “Prompt Snob” club. So glad to hear you are accessing your own creativity. All power to Personal Prompts!

    • Hi. My name is Rachel and I’m a prompt snob. (hi, rachel) I’ve been clean for 37 months and 15 days. But I still get the urge to use a prompt when they pop up in my email or I go to That Writing Magazine Website and they offer 30 days of free writing prompts…

  4. I used to collect books of writing prompts, but after a few years realized I never got to them because I was too busy capturing all my own ideas! Your article made me realize I am a snob. Some of those prompt they try to stuff down your throat are just THEIR unfinished stories in disguise …

  5. Reading this made me realize that every day I’m given a prompt! It comes in the form of a question, which I ponder and post. Never thought of it this way before, but I do now. Thanks for this!

  6. YES! Thank you for putting that into words – I could not agree more!

    Some writing prompts I enjoy reading, because they are nifty ideas that I would not have had. I even enjoy reading some short response-stories that other writers put together based on said prompts. But for myself? I don’t think I have ever used a prompt, nor can I imagine doing so given how many lists of ideas, topics, story-lines, and characters I have both in my head and in notebooks (I seem to collect all those things, ha).

    The only exception is if you count exercises in books such as Ursula LeGuin’s “Steering The Craft” as prompts, but to me those are a completely different ball game.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.