Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Prompts, Proctors, Pornography

Image result for dark fantasy writing prompts

                   Think not to confuse me with poems or love beginning
                               Without a sign or sound...

                                            ~Mary Oliver, "Being Country Bred"

             A Google search for “poetry prompts” directs us to 33 million links, just over the broader “writing prompts” which yields 29 million. And Amazon offers 951 hits for book-length collections of poetry prompts; 6,000 for writing prompts in general.  In short, there is a whole industry based on the assumption that we must have someone’s hand clasped over our writing hand to guide it, much like that hand guided us while we learned the now-disappearing art of cursive writing. 

            Sappho, William Blake, Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, Emily Dickinson, and Virginia Woolf did not need to look outside of themselves for someone to offer them prompts for writing. Nor did Rilke, Shakespeare, or Ice-T. Prompts are the invention of teachers who need to control variables so as to be able to grade students comparatively on the bell curve.  

Image result for bell curve grade
            A grade book and quarterly report card cannot wait for the messy process of inspiration and students straying into topics that are not easily accessible.  A lesson plan must be clear, consecutive, easily assessable if the teacher is to be rehired for tenure. And must be completed so that the students can turn to preparing for placement tests. A teacher can proctor how various students adhere to a prompt such as this:

Write a fourteen-line poem about your  mother in the form of a weather report set on a winter’s day.  For inspiration, listen to a weather report on television or through YouTube. Include the color red and the following words: “major, rabbit, kill, apple."

With a threat of grade hovering over them, students will dutifully mark out fourteen lines, watch reports, and tick off the color red and the required words as they contrive them into place.  Or students will balk.  I’m with the students who balk.  As student Germain Palacios said of writing prompts, “that regimental approach to writing often stifled my true voice and creativity.”
Yes.  I know the allure of prompts. I have written hundreds of poems in response to them—doing so saw me through recovery from bunion surgery, it secured a place for me in community publications, I saw my name in the lights of anthologies and literary journals, I kept a promise to someone who invited me to submit.  Like the smartphone, social networks, YouTube, and Netflix, prompts relieved me of the responsibility for focusing myself—prompts did that hard work for me. And I met all the requirements, no matter how intricate or distancing.
Prompts are as addicting as substances: numbing the discomforts of feeling and growth; tempting us with immediate gratification; fostering people-pleasing; making others responsible for us; distracting us from our higher, intuitive and risk-taking selves; eventually making our creative lives unmanageable without them.
 But the poems I have written to external promptings have never been my best poems.  Without knowing the genesis of all the individual poems, my friend Carole and I, when reading through each other’s poetry manuscripts, consistently choose for deletion the prompt poems.  Something doesn’t ring “authentic.”

In his collection of essays Poetry and Ambition, Donald Hall calls the poems marching off the assembly lines of academia “MacPoems.”  Generated in, from, and for the academic classroom and Poe Biz—publication, teaching positions, reading circuit—these poems are externally prompted for external approval and acceptance.  They are, too often, more about politics than poetry.

My students—hard-wired to write in response to prompts, to teacher-please, to supply their grade-junking needs—ask for me to tell them “what I want.”  Always apprehensive about making them my clones, of doing for them what they must do for themselves, I listened, instead, to what they said about themselves.  I got into the habit of noticing for them all the possible directions their own poetry might take:  “That’s a poem idea,” “Write about that.”  I became an idea mill, for the sake of being an idea mill. I became an idea mill for my own work—displacing the more important authentic need to listen to myself, express, explore, follow-through.  I saw “prompts” in everything.  It silenced me.

Pornography is isolating/wresting one aspect of someone or something to use for our momentary pleasure.  Writing to a prompt, I wrest my writing capacity from all other aspects of myself—my angst, questioning, fecund chaos, wonder, patience, possibility—to have the momentary pleasure of saying “I wrote a poem,” or, worse, “my poem will be published.”
 As opposed to inspiration—“in,” as from within; “spira,” as from one’s own breath, own internal promptings—external prompts invite us to exploit ourselves—as in ‘attempt to capture,’ ‘military expedition,’ ‘overworking,’ ‘using’—in the service of amassing, hoarding, piling up more poems or grades.  Relying on outer prompts instead of inner promptings are living a reactive as opposed to proactive life, of buying gifts by bridal registry instead of loving attention, shopping for the sake of shopping, writing to say I’m writing, Astro Turf instead of leaves of grass, shadow instead of substance.



  1. Hi Dr. Rich,

    The thing that stuck out to me the most in this post is when you stated "Relying on outer prompts instead of inner promptings are living a reactive as opposed to proactive life, of buying gifts by bridal registry instead of loving attention..." This line stuck out to me for two reasons: it's intriguing and Valentine's day.

    This statement is intriguing because it opens the door to exploring the idea that it is very possible that modern society sculpts and influences every decision we make. I question myself, why do I do what I do? How did I get to where I am? Of course, I pushed myself and made myself get to where I am, but why? Why did I chose this life? Influences. Prompts. That is why. Where would I be had I never been influenced?

    Here is my problem with Valentine's Day...

    Since I am in a serious and secure relationship of almost 3 years with no end in sight, it seems SILLY to me to indulge in Valentine's day expectations. Why do heart shaped chocolate boxes filled with assorted treats or flowers and teddy bears represent love? Chris grabbing my hand when we walk through a crowd makes me feel more love and a flower ever could. Don't get me wrong, flowers are beautiful and can make for a meaningful gesture, but Chris loving me to his fullest extent and taking care of me and our relationship everyday is just better. Why is there a day specified for this care? Shouldn't we all care for one another EVERYDAY instead of when we are PROMPTED to?

  2. Hi Dr. Rich,

    I found this post to be insightful in that it illuminated and named some of the issues I have towards writing prompts, too. While some seek to draw out something "real" and authentic, their circumscribed nature makes them inherently unable to be genuine. Yes, some writing prompts may provide direction but they simply cannot "land the helicopter", if you will.

    Personally, I don't think I've ever felt overly attached to something I've written in response to a prompt. The very word reminds me of early morning classes, a direction written starkly on the white board--write about....for 10 minutes, and my hand drudging through the motions. Prompts are too often chores in disguise.

    What I've always appreciated about your classes is that you do not try to force my hand. My poetry is always mine, what I write about always my choice. For some students, that much freedom after having none for so long is too much. But, for me, it feels like what I've been waiting for. Sometimes it's scary to write about something no one is asking me to but isn't life scary? Not knowing where you're going or what you're "supposed" to do? Not forcing prompts down are throats, to me, allows us all to live our poems, live our writing, instead of just drudging through the motions.


  3. Dr. Rich,

    I have always compared writing prompts to training wheels; in other words, writing prompts are designed to help students generate ideas to write about. I do not believe all writing prompts are bad because some students really need to be prompted when it comes to writing, especially if they are not particularly strong writers. When working in the classroom, I have seen some students struggle to write, sometimes telling me: “I don't know what else to write about,” or “I’m all out of ideas.” Writing has always come easily to me, so I have the ability to write on and on about anything and everything that comes out of my mind; I do not need external sources to prompt me. Unfortunately, not all writers have this skill; not all writers can just write freely or creatively. In this case, having prompts helps; having these “training wheels” hopefully allows those kinds of writers to generate more ideas or else they begin to give up on writing.

    However, I do believe that when overused, prompts can at some point steal writers of their inspiration. Once writers have mastered the art of writing, these prompts or “training wheels” no longer have much value; if anything, prompts tend to force us to write in a way that pleases the teacher. Prompts force us to write in the “right” way, just to meet certain expectations. They essentially take away our ability to write authentically and to take risks, especially when our grades are at stake. When prompted with such prompts, our writing becomes dull; we sound as if we are programmed to write just for the sake of the assignment.

    Ultimately, prompts have their time and place. Sometimes, prompts are necessary, but more times than not, they are much too overused. Writing to meet the needs of the prompt is valued more than creative and free writing, which is problematic, especially in schools. Students should be able to write for prompts when the time is right, but then they should also be able to write freely, to write creatively. In many instances, however, writers are not given the chance to explore various kinds of writing beyond prompted writing.

    Nada Amer

    1. Dr. Rich,

      It has taken me a few years to get comfortable with the idea of writing whatever I like without being given any specific direction or being prompted in any way. I blame the educational system for this. At first it was unsettling to think I was being given such power that I could write anything I wanted. I hadn't realized over the years that writing prompts were robbing me of my creative abilities but it is absolutely true- I have found that I struggle now to write without being given any direction. This upsets me because I remember a time where I could write without as Nada has said above using "training wheels".

      I do find certain writing prompts help kick start my ideas when I absolutely cannot think of anything to write about, but thats usually where it ends. Not too many memorable writings have been produced through writing prompts- it's usually my own inner workings that create the most organic writings that I am proud of.

      I was very happy to see that you let us have full control over what we write and I noticed It has become much easier for me to quickly write without having to be prompted in a certain direction. Journaling everyday has definitely helped me get away from using artificial inspiration in order to write. At first I thought a book about writing prompts would be beneficial, however I have left that book to the side allowing my writing to flow naturally.

      As you mentioned today everything is prompted, bridal registries, apps which tell others what they would like for Christmas (Elfster), certain holidays like Valentines Day as Amanda mentioned, which prompt grand gestures of love. Its all very mechanical, impersonal, and showy- a lot like writing only for the sole purpose of a good grade.

      Life has become instant, we want everything right away- we are not willing to risk getting doubles of gifts, or having to use our own ideas to come up with something beautiful. We are a fast society, with all the tools at our fingertips, we should step back, allow our own writings to form not relying so much on outside sources and quick google searches to guide our writing.

      Jessica Jardonoff

  4. Dr. Rich,

    I totally see the problem with writing prompts, I think that they are over used in school. I think that a lot of students rely on them because thats what they are used too. But having students rely on writing prompts it doesn't let them think on there own. Writing prompts don't let the students explore there own thoughts, some students might not even know where there minds can go. So I think that writing prompts do not benefit students in the long run.

    Even though writing prompts do help students generate ideas, this is only because they have what they need to write about. They have the clues that can generate those ideas easily. But at some point these students need to start thinking of idea on there own without the help of the prompt. This is because prompts teach students that they will basically have everything given to them when it comes to writing and coming up with ideas and they are lost when you don't give them direction when you let them think on there own about writing topics. So yes sometimes its good to use writing prompts when you need a little push, but do not rely on them.