Woman sitting cozy on her bed in a sweater and socks, with her tablet, a mug of milk, and cookies.

Writing from Prompts

A half dozen Christmases ago, my daughter Melissa gave me a book called 642 Things to Write About. At the time, I had never used writing prompts, except once during a dark November when I was seriously stuck and in danger of falling far short of my NaNoWriMo word count. The prompt I used then was one from @NaNoWordSprints. 26,000+ Twitter followers and I were prompted to write a scene in which we got our main characters out of a sticky situation. I went with it, but I expected the scene I wrote from the prompt to help me reach a word count and nothing more. I didn’t expect the words to actually make it into my finished novel. That didn’t feel good, but I was desperate.

I was never a fan of using writing prompts. I’m not sure why. I guess using them seemed fake to me. Canned. Like a science term paper—writing a bunch of words I wasn’t really feeling, about a topic which had been pre-selected for me, because I had to. And it seemed wasteful of my writing time. Like I was carelessly tossing away words I would never use—words that had no personal meaning behind them and that would never amount to anything.

To my surprise, though, the @NaNoWordSprints writing prompt did help. I wrote for the allotted 10-15 minutes, and I ended up with a fun and pivotal scene that set my novel in a new direction. Voila! By writing about getting my main character out of a sticky situation, my main character and I and my plot—we were all unstuck. Because the pressure was off, I just wrote, and I had fun with it. Because I was having fun with it, my creativity was unleashed. It’s crazy to think that as many as 26,000 other people had also written scenes from that prompt, each of them unique.

With that one positive experience in mind, I read through the prompts in the book my daughter gave me. I began to see the value in using writing prompts, not only to spark my imagination, but to unearth stories which were already buried inside me, waiting to be told.

The first time I opened the book, this prompt jumped out at me, on the very first page: “A house plant is dying. Tell it why it needs to live.” I was surprised to realize I had a story for this prompt. The prompt sparked two memories: a memory about the dozens of houseplants my father entrusted to me (a serial plant murderess) after my green-thumbed mother died, and a memory about the one plant my father kept—a stubborn zebra plant with which he had a love/hate relationship.

I’d never thought of either of these two experiences as anything to write about. But thanks to my daughter’s thoughtful gift, I wrote about them from that prompt. As I wrote, I realized there were stories in these experiences, stories which I might never have written, stories about motherhood and grief and the difficulty of letting go. Over several years and many revisions, that prompt eventually became an essay which will be published in Persimmon Tree magazine in 2022.

The lesson here, I suppose, is to take inspiration wherever you find it, or wherever you can get it, or sometimes, wherever you might least imagine it to be.

WRITER TIP: Writing prompts don’t have to be textual, they can be visual as well, or both, like the 10 years worth of writing prompts Luke Neff, an Oregon high school teacher, posted on his Tumblr blog: WritingPrompts.tumblr.com. You can get your own copy of 642 Things to Write About (as well as many other great craft and prompt books) at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto.

Me and My Big Ideas

Before I started writing regularly, I used to be afraid I would run out of words. It’s weird, I know, but that fear is one of the things that kept me from writing for many years. I wasn’t confident I had enough ideas, enough interesting things to say, let alone many interesting things to say.

To be honest, my fears were not unwarranted. It was hard to get started. I couldn’t think of anything to write about. Most of the “stories” I wrote ended up being descriptions of places or character sketches, filled with exposition, flashbacks, and cliché dream sequences. My stories did not have actual plots. I started carrying a tiny notebook with me everywhere I went so I could write down things I observed out in the world or ideas that came to me. The notebook did come in handy—it was gradually filled with grocery shopping lists and reminders about dental appointments.

Once I sat down to write, getting the words to come out was difficult. I became more and more convinced that, during the years I hadn’t been writing, my writing muscles and my coming-up-with-ideas-for-things-to-write-about muscles had not only atrophied, but had withered away to nothing. But reader, I kept carrying that little notebook around, and I kept sitting down at my computer and typing words and writing truly awful stories, and gradually, my writing began to improve.

As for coming up with ideas for stories, there are several things that have helped me become confident that I will never run out of ideas. Here are the three things that have helped me the most, and I hope they help you too:

1. Life Is a Bowl of Cherries … and a Cornucopia of Story Ideas

First, I had the realization that I have lived over 20,000 days on this planet, and on every single one of those days, I’ve done something or something has happened to me or I’ve witnessed something happen to someone else. I’ve experienced some things. Although the best fiction isn’t based on a rote recitation of our own life experiences, even the tiniest little experience can become the germ of an idea for a story.

Here are some of the mundane things that have sparked story ideas for me as I’ve gone about living my life: getting an invitation to a family reunion in the mail; a weird fortune I got in a fortune cookie; reading an interesting article online about dogs; an encounter with a valet at a hotel; a dream about my grandmother; meeting someone interesting at a local concert in the park on my lunch hour; trying a new recipe that didn’t turn out very well; an ex-boyfriend commenting on my weight. When I’m stuck, I think of a little thing from the past or something that sparked my interest during the day, then imagine and extrapolate from there.

2. There’s Magic in The Mash-Up

My second idea came from Stephen King’s On Writing. I like to call it The Mash-Up. In his craft book On Writing, King describes the way he came up with the idea for his novel Carrie by combining two completely unrelated ideas: adolescent cruelty and telekinesis. He got those ideas from two places: a teenaged memory about a school locker room and an article he read in LIFE magazine on telekinesis. (The Guardian published an excerpt of King’s account of coming up with the idea for Carrie, so you can read about it in “Stephen King: How I Wrote Carrie,” but I recommend reading the entire book too.) What isn’t mentioned in the excerpt is that King goes on to say he often comes up with ideas for his stories by mashing up two unrelated ideas. I now do the same. One of my favorite stories I’ve written grew out of a mash-up of two ideas: one was a piece of trivia I heard about the human voice and the other was a weird music phenomenon I read about in a science magazine.

3. The Idea Factory

The thing that has helped me the most with building the confidence that I am a creative person who can come up with ideas for stories is … coming up with ideas for stories. This is something I learned from author Jill Alexander Essbaum. I took her advice and started incorporating writing exercises into my morning routine. Creativity begets creativity, my friends. And practice makes perfect.

But there is one particular exercise Essbaum turned me onto that has helped me the most: I write the beginning of a new short story each and every morning. That means I have to come up for an idea for a new short story every morning, on the fly. And it’s nuts, but I always do! Some of them turn out to be total crap, of course. Okay, many of them turn out to be total crap that I never finish. But there is the occasional gem that I eventually turn into something. There are enough gems that I am never at a loss for a gem to polish. And most importantly, I now know that I can come up with an idea for a new short story any damned time I want for the rest of my life.

Speaking of big ideas, author Will Durant created his own mash-up from two of Aristotle’s quotes.

Aristotle wrote this:

“As it is not one swallow or a fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy.”

And this:

“[T]hese virtues are formed in man by his doing the right actions.”

What Durant wrote in his book The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World’s Greatest Philosophers was this:

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

Writing, thinking, being creative, coming up with story ideas—these things are like muscles. If we don’t use them, we do not lose them. They may get flabby, but they don’t go away. They are always there for us to begin using again. If you keep thinking and keep writing and keep trying, you will work those creativity muscles, and they, in turn, will begin to work for you.

WRITER TIP: Writers are observers of the world around them. What other people see, writers not only see, but continue to ponder. They try to make sense of the world around them, and they try to do so through the written word. That is the art of creative writing. Carry a notebook with you wherever you go, and write down not only ideas that come to you, but the things you see and hear that you find interesting or curious. In fact, keep a notebook on your bedside table for those late-night ideas that are bound to come just as you’re dozing off to sleep. You’ll be amazed at how fast ideas begin to come.