Writing prompts: useful or not?

Some people swear by writing prompts: exercises designed to give the writing process a bit of a kickstart when you’re stuck. Personally, I find them a little prescriptive. I prefer to fly by the seat of my pants. I might have an inkling of an idea, so I set it down on paper. Then I write another sentence. Then another. I push though the hesitancy and stiltedness until the idea starts to take on a life of its own. This doesn’t happen all the time, but it happens enough that I don’t tend to seek out manufactured writing prompts.

Sometimes, however, writing prompts can present themselves without you going searching for them.

Last week I downloaded a wallpaper to use on my phone. Here it is:

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I adore this picture. I love the colours, the mood it invokes, the mystery. I can almost smell the leaves and the wet ground; feel the fog on my face and hair. It’s my kind of landscape; I’m a forest/fog/gloom/mysterious pathways person. A sunny beach scene would leave me cold.

The more I looked at this picture, the more I felt that familiar itch. I wanted to sit down and write. I wanted to find out where that path led. What was over that rise? (That’s what I love most about writing, by the way. It’s a journey of discovery.  I had no idea, when I started, what would be over that rise.)

Here are the first few lines of what I wrote:

I walk with fire on either side of me.

Out of the fire skeletons grope and reach, their black bones smudged pencil sketches on the mist.

I press my hands deeper into my pockets, breaking a seam, the crack tiny and violent.

The path before me is divided by a river of granite, brutalised and shattered by an angry earth.

It is autumn. The world is hurt.

I kick through the fire, the damp embers etched with blackened veins. The leaves cling wetly to my boots, splitting like skin too long underwater.

Up ahead the path rises to nudge through the mist. I know that once I cross the rise, I will see what I have been trying to avoid for four and a half years. So I stand still in the fire and press deeper and the next snap is like a wee bone breaking.

I was surprised at where the story went next – but not really. Two things have been on my mind lately. One is my cat, who is suffering through a dull week inside with one of those ghastly collars on to prevent him licking his stitches (the legacy of a violent bite on the bum by the next door cat, Jasper – about whom, incidentally, I wrote a poem a while back. You can read it here. I was in a better mood with him then…)

The second thing on my mind is one of the babies I lost through miscarriage over ten years ago. I still think about that baby, and its heartbeat, so precious and breathtaking during an early ultrasound scan (I have a living being inside my body), and what might have been. Lately, I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I’m not sure why.

These two things have found their way into my story, which I will share with you in full in my next post tomorrow.

For now, I would encourage you to not necessarily to seek out writing prompts online or in a book (although many people find this useful, and all power to them), but to simply keep your eyes and ears open to the world, and if a picture or an object or a thought resonates with you, then grasp that writing opportunity. It can bear rich fruit.

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