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.

  5. Dr. Rich,

    I really enjoyed reading your insight about the writing prompts issue. As I was growing up, writing prompts was always something I always struggled with. I am someone who needs to have solid guidelines and I need to know what the grader expects.

    Writing prompts also put a lot of pressure on students to make sure they incorporate certain things into their writing. This can be difficult because what if a student is unsure how to properly incorporate these things and it can affect their grade, even if they worked really hard to do the right thing.

    Ever since I was in elementary school, I always panicked when having to take a test. I get super nervous and cannot think straight. I always overthink my answers and doubt myself. So for me, writing prompts were never fun or exciting for me. I feel there should be less writing prompts in schools and take some pressure off of the students.

  6. Dr. Rich,
    I am continuously humbled by the way your excerpts flow. It's as if you are not only speaking directly to me but, through me as well. I immediately connected to this text when you stated that "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". I am one of those students who refuse to be placed in a suffocating box and strive to be as creative as the left side of my brain will allow me to be. I too write poetry and write of my own free will disregarding any sort of "rules" that may exist. It is a way of expression and is unfortunately something that school systems have been disregarding for a long time. These academic systems should want to allow their students complex minds to run wild with individuality. Being forced to succumb to so many rules only limits the use of such brilliant minds. Relying on writing prompts may truly end up putting an abundance of pressure on a student body thus affecting their grades. Embrace all that is unique, only then would school officials begin to witness a shift form the cellphones to the pencils.

  7. Dr. Rich,
    I completely agree with the problem students can encounter with writing prompts. I'm constantly writing whatever I think my teacher will like or wants me to say. I've tried being creative once before and my ideas were shut down and I was told to redo the paper. Most teachers want plot summary, not something creative and original. By doing this, they don't allow their students to grow and explore their mind. They can never truly find out their potential. For our first paper when you said to be original without giving a plot summary and to write about whatever we wanted I was nervous. I didn't know how to focus in on just one what I thought to be minor point and make a 4-5 page paper about it. I was surprised when I started writing it that it was a lot easier than I pictured. I appreciate the fact that you allow your students that much freedom in their writing. I liked how you pointed out that prompts are similar to "training wheels." Some people are too afraid to go out on their own so they need to be guided in what to do.


  8. I agree that writing prompts can be negative. I feel they stifle a students ability to be think freely and develop problem solving skills. In my experience, writing with a prompt is more difficult that just being told simply to write. I enjoy the freedom in producing work that I have 100% expressive control over. It gives me a sense of ownership and pushes me to produce work that is worthwhile because of my pride. When a step by step outline is given, as a student, I tend to robotically produce a paper for a grade which doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re learning. I find so much difficulty with that and academic prompts, so one can only imagine the difficulty I face when presented with poetry prompts. Poetry is what I use as an emotional and creative outlet. Most of my poems come from an experience or place of pain & emotion. Often times prompts only request surface analysis of shit I don’t care about in a moment where I feel like being expressive. I can understand how it may assist with perfecting your craft because prompts can be practice.

  9. Writing prompts are so embedded into English writing that it is almost a wonder why people choose to write this day. Just like any parts of life, people, including myself, enjoy expressing themselves to the best of their abilities and see just how far their creative rocket can soar to. But instead we are trained to write things based on what other people want us to write. This idea of being prisoned to a certain type of writing, prompting, or even formatting drives people away. And they run to something that feels freer than the writing we do in school. Without the rebels, like the creative writers, there would be no affection towards writing and it would be something taken away just like Art.

  10. Hello Dr. Rich

    What spoke to me the most about this post was the topic about the prompts and giving students free reign when writing. I feel that now, students are so used to having outlines and very strict guidelines to follow, they don't know how to use free reign when given the opportunity to free write. I know I'm like that myself. As a student I was conditioned to write a certain way and follow guidelines and experienced somewhat of a culture shock when I came to this class and there was no specific guideline to follow. You let us students use our creative capabilities to work magic on paper.

    Since I am a creative writer and would like to teach a class in creative writing in the future, I enjoy prompts. They cure me from my writers block whenever I have it and it always keeps the brain moving for more ideas. I believe that younger students should participate in more prompts where they can think freely instead of following very anal guidelines.

  11. Dear Dr. Rich,
    When I thought about writing prompts I would always a love and hate relationship with them. On one hand, a prompt will help guide me when it comes to writing a paper; I won’t have to wonder what I should do or what will satisfy the professor. It can make writing easier yet at the same time it can make it harder. If I don’t have the freedom to write what I want or choose the topic myself then it can be harder to write. I will feel caged by the prompt which will make trying to write more pages harder since it’s not something I genuinely care about. Thinking back to all the paper I have written in the past, I believe that those which offered more freedom were the easiest to write. I had a 15 page paper for one class, which sounded very overwhelming, yet we were able to choose any topic that we felt passionate about and I loved it. I wrote so much to the point where before I realized t, I had almost finished the whole paper. Being able to choose what you want to write about is a great freedom, and while it may be hard to think of an idea with so much freedom, in the end it feels greater to have come up with an idea on your own.
    Stephen Corrales

  12. Dear Dr. Rich,
    When the concept of writing prompts entered the picture, I always considered it a weird abstract form of telling a story that usually involves a very scandalous motif to it especially when you yourself compare it to pornography. But then I realize it isn't much about a strange feeling or emotion, but more about the passion about the subject matter that goes into it and better exploit our own thoughts and feelings on a topic that is very different from an inspirational piece. Thank you

  13. Knowing what college is really about now, they had us writing almost three prompts every year for the state test. They would encourage us to write a certain amount of pages on a picture or a topic and it was dissatisfying every time. When were kids having to answer to those writing prompts, it is true you are at the point, writing for the teacher. To impress them even though you could care less about answering it to begin with. One thing that I enjoy in your class if you don't give out writing prompts, nor did any of my teachers since I have been college, but you gave suggestions. We currently have a listen of around eight different ways to analyze Shakespeare. It gives us freedom to really think and find a way to write for ourselves, and at least enjoy something when writing these papers for a few hours.

  14. Hey Dr. Rich

    I agree completely with this post. Writing prompts, though they can provide a direction for students, really is just a way to please professors, and does stifle creativity. One of the things that I love about this senior seminar class was that I could write whatever I wanted to. Having the chance to break out from a typical essay and write something that I was inspired by, rather then a prompt or a typical assignment, was really liberating. It also took me out of my comfort zone, but it was rewarding to see just how amazing the rewards were for taking a risk that big. I also felt the same way in our poetry class last semester. Getting the chance to write about how I was feeling, or getting inspired by something I saw or experienced in the past (as opposed to getting a prompt of what to write) gave me the freedom of expression that most high school and college classes never gave me. It gave me a chance to look inwards, and really grow as a writer. Knowing that failure was a part of the process, rather then a sign of being a poor writer, really helped me look past the letter grades and improve myself in ways I never imagined.

    - John P.

  15. Dr. Rich,

    I used to love writing prompts. But I used to hate that I loved them. I hated that I was the only one who took to them with arms wide open. I felt that I could write about anything generic of specific and make it something worth reading. As for other students, they would do the assignment to avoid a 0 in the grade book. It frustrated me to see that other people did not like writing as much as I did.

    As I grew, I found that some people did enjoy writing, but not about the required topics. As I have said in other responses to your blog, I don't find myself better than anyone in any way, but I don't believe I'm a typical person by any means. I didn't mind being given limitations because my mind was so boundless in thoughts that it posed as a challenge to me to stay on task with the specifications of the writing prompts. Other students liked it for the sake of not having to think at all. Now, I look back and like that the education system strays from writing prompts. Although I personally did not mind them, I see the difference in my writing when I have free range of my ideas and topics. I can fill the pages easier, but I find that the quality and raw sense of who I am shines through without the specifics of a writing prompt.