Saturday, March 30, 2013

Stories Where Prompt Means Fast

More than once--many times more than once--you've been invited to address writing groups where some variation of an unfortunate theme plays out.  Before you're introduced, the chairperson of the group gives an assignment for the next meeting.
The first time you heard the assignment, you cringed.  After the most recent incident, you have vowed to ask before accepting the invitation.

What follows is a conflation of the events of which you write:

The chairperson asks for three volunteers, the first one to place the first prompt.  "Somewhere in the first paragraph,"  the volunteer says.  "The word--"  a dramatic pause.  "--drizzle."  A collective groan from the audience.

The chairperson now calls for the second volunteer, who says, "Fifteenth line.  The word 'exfoliate.'  Will accept 'exfoliation.'"  Another collective groan.

You have also groaned, twice, but have kept the groans inward.

Now the chairperson summons the third volunteer.  "Any time after word five hundred, the words 'omelette whisk.'"

You have already begun looking for the door, thinking of excuses, wondering which invented illness would be most appropriate because this is a group of highly intelligent persons, a fact you've appreciated from visiting with them.

Do you go on as planned, speaking about a vital subject such as point of view or perhaps verb tenses or the more annoying one of adverbs?  Or do you discuss your feelings about prompts?

In fact, you've done both, giving your anti-prompt speech, wondering if it will do any good, suspecting it won't.  You've also tried ignoring a discussion of prompts, although doing so can lead to you being invited to stay to hear the collective results of the last assignment.  You've done that, too, with the result of experiencing any number of cringes.

A prompt is in effect a play on the role of the prompter, slightly off stage in live performances, whose job it is to supply in sotto voce the line some unfortunate actor has forgotten or buried.  So far as writers are concerned, prompts are exercises, geared to free the inner writer, set the creative system working, produce some writing in seeming spontaneity.

You've encountered some devoted, intelligent writers who regularly play off of prompts, and some of the results, writing that incorporates prompts in some form or another (At least six hundred words on your first ice cream soda), all with the goal of getting the writer to do what most writers do on a regular basis, which is write.  You've heard writing to prompts equated with the musician's daily practice in order to keep the chops at maximum ability.

Your dear chum, Barnaby Conrad, had devised a type of prompt that to your knowledge has actually done what most other prompts fall short of doing--producing a publishable work.  Conrad's prompt was the essence of simplicity in its description, "Write a five-hundred-word sentence."  You were there when Fanny Flagg nodded to herself after hearing the assignment, then set about composing a five-hundred-word sentence that ultimately became Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle-Stop Cafe.  A year later, someone turned his Conradian sentence into a mystery novel.  A number of individuals who've written such sentences praise the exercise for the unsuspected benefit of being forced to follow a narrative line.

Your own opinion of the prompts (Write at least three hundred words without using the letter d.  Describe a time when you thought a dog was going to bite you and did not.) centers around the fact of them not producing useful dramatic material, instead producing demonstrations of the author's wit, cleverness, and vocabulary.  All these qualities are there to be found in most successful stories, but you believe these qualities come from the interaction between characters rather than a demonstration of the author's glibness and facility.  A clever exercise is not necessarily a drama any more than skillful brush strokes do not necessarily lead to a moving and satisfying painting.

Stories are made by getting words down, rearranging them, sometimes removing some, other times introducing yet others until a particular chemistry forms, much in the way of a master chef, putting together a perfect blend of ingredients to form a basic sauce such as a bechemel or hollandaise.  Mere cooks or beginners can approach the same sauce by duplicating the ingredients, but somewhere along the way, the reductions and last-minute additions are things the amateur would fuss over or lose control of.

Beginning and emerging writers often reveal their status by wishing not only to make an appearance in their story but to do so in a way that calls attention to their cleverness.  You often enjoy cleverness in writing, but the cleverness you enjoy is not the kind that calls attention to itself, rather it permits the reader to see it and to savor it.

In addition to being an extremely gifted new writer, Karen Russell is clever, her reach for out-of-the-ordinary narrators and themes adding several dimensions of depth and insight to her work.  Her cleverness leads her way past the edge in terms of her flirtations with failure.  You were a bit put off by a few of the stories in her recent collection, but only up to the point of recognizing how she gravitates to playing the risk card.  Watching her emerging career jump start its way along the road, you see her using risk and reach rather than mere cleverness.  The result is a growing sense of confidence emerging even from those stories--the one in particular about the tattooed man--that seem to lapse into cleverness.

This is only one example.  Fitzgerald leaned heavily on cleverness in This Side of Paradise.  You were young enough when you first read it to want to show how clever you were because that was the way to be published, wasn't it?

No, it was not.  Not for you.  Not for the time when you were coming forth with stories you thought to send out.

Prompts are not for you, either.  For you, embarking on a new story, stalking it, dogging it until you've reached the point where you cannot hope to understand what it's about much less where it will go is the best prompt of all.

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