By: Hannah Marshall
“A prompt delivers a nice, packaged “triggering subject” from which to write…”
I used to hate prompts, their artificial sentiments bullying their way into my writing. Before I enrolled in the Converse College MFA in Creative Writing, I almost never used a prompt to jumpstart my writing. I believed in order for my writing to be pure, it needed to emerge organically. I wanted to freely write poems from my life experience, the words falling from the ether and onto the page. But you know what? Even back then, I used a prompt for pretty much every poem I wrote. I just didn’t know it.
The Magic of the Naturally Occurring Prompt
I used to always spend the beginning of my writing time reading a book of poetry, whatever was on my list at the time. I’d read maybe one poem, maybe ten or twenty, and then I’d have the sudden urge to write a poem of my own. These poems were responses to what I’d read, and though I didn’t have a written prompt, it was the words on the page that prompted me. I’d read something like these lines from “The Mother’s Apple” by Li Young Lee: “The blossoms give themselves to the wind. / Who will I be given to?” and I’d need to speak into the subject myself.
Sometimes, I’d be out in the world, doing life: walking by Lake Mendota, shopping for groceries at the local co-op, or changing my infant’s diaper, and I’d have that URGE to write a poem. These prompts were situational, brought on by events, but they were still prompts. Perhaps I’d see a Norway maple so yellow I could taste its brightness. Write it down! Or my baby would look at me in a way that I’d never been looked at by anyone before, her helplessness, her complete trust. Write about it!
The thing is, these situations take time and space to develop. I don’t have epiphanic moments every day, not even every week. And I don’t always get sparked to write when I’m reading someone else’s poems. I like to be in conversation with other poets, but sometimes it comes out in more subtle ways than, I must write about this same topic right away!
When the Magic of the Muse Is Not Enough
When I started writing more frequently during my time as an MFA student, I realized these occasional “natural prompts” were not numerous enough to sustain the number of poems I needed to be writing. I knew I needed to get over my illogical disdain of the writing prompt.
Sometimes, writers have dry spells. For me, however, I’ve discovered “dry spells” are simply times when I’m not being externally stimulated to write. These times, more than ever, I need prompts.
Benefits of Using Prompts to Write
Prompts are a way to artificially stimulate the writing process. And it’s okay that it’s artificial! I don’t need to know where I’m going when I start a poem, but I do need an inciting idea. Prompts provide that for me. I’ve found this quote from Richard Hugo’s book The Triggering Town to be very true in my own writing: “A poem can be said to have two subjects, the initiating or triggering subject, which starts the poem or ‘causes’ the poem to be written, and the real or generated subject, which the poem comes to say or mean, and which is generated or discovered in the poem during the writing.” A prompt delivers a nice, packaged “triggering subject” from which to write towards a “generated subject.” When the poem is finished, it’s impossible to distinguish between a poem I wrote from an artificial prompt and one I wrote from a natural prompt, because in both cases the prompt gave me a triggering subject. Once I got going, the generated subject revealed itself and might have little or no clear relation to the triggering subject. Thus, in edits, the lines about the triggering subject are often deleted, and the prompt disappears altogether.
Where to Find Good Writing Prompts
Now, post-graduation, I have not given up the practice of using prompts for my poems. I have books full of prompts, which I would recommend to any poet needing help: The Practice of Poetry, edited by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell is pretty much 100% prompts and writing exercises. The Poet’s Companion, by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux, has excellent writing advice as well as great chapter-end prompts. Poets & Writers posts prompts for fiction, nonfiction, and poetry on their website weekly. The latter recommendations are especially good for days when you really want to immerse yourself in a prompt and maybe learn something along the way!
This time of the year is my favorite for writing prompts. Two years ago, I began participating in NaPoWriMo—National Poetry Writing Month—which happens, of course, in April, National Poetry Month. The “official” NaPoWriMo website posts a prompt each day for the entire month. I write a poem each day all through April, and I find that the constant production is great for my poetic muscles. It also forces me to move out of my usual subjects and write about unexpected things. I turn to researched poems about historical and biblical figures, or to bits of interesting scientific or medical news. I discover new tools available on the internet to spark interesting triggering subjects. My poems become more experimental because, since I’m writing a poem every day, I don’t feel pressured to have each one be good.
I have embarked on my third year of writing a poem each day for the month of April, and I’ve been looking forward to this since February. It’s now become a ritual of spring for me, a time of growth that coincides with the waking of the natural world. And I’m a prompt lover now, fully converted to the practice of using whatever works to write myself toward the next good poem.
Hannah Marshall lives in south-central Illinois, where she works as the advising editor for the literary journal The Scriblerus. Her poems have appeared in Poetry Daily, New Ohio Review, The Madison Review, Anglican Theological Review, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Converse College.
Feature Photo by Tyler Nix.