Sunday, September 6, 2015


In a recent email directed to you from a potential enrollee in a  course you have offered in fiction writing for publication, you were asked for "one or two examples of the writing prompts you provide for your students.  

Although that particular question is to you the equivalent of being present in a restaurant where one guest is a loud speaker with a particularly obnoxious voice, you replied with what you intended to be respectful courtesy.

Because you have a significant grasp on numerous elements of your personality, you can see where an observer would question the relationship between what you mean by respectful courtesy and sarcasm.  "One of my prompts,"  you responded, "involves asking the student to name at least two novels written by other writers that are similar to the one the student is currently working on."

Another prompt would be to supply a one-sentence description of the student's current project.  You supplied two examples.  "A moody Danish prince is driven to seek revenge for the murder of his father."  "A thirteen-year-old-boy, running away from an abusive father, joins forces with a runaway slave."

You were relieved when your responses were not considered sarcasm or even the lesser degree of that attitude known as ironic.  Nevertheless, the potential enrollee wanted what she wanted, which was not your answers to her questions but what she believed your answers should be:  "I think you misunderstand me," she wrote.  "I mean specific exercises that will get us writing at least two hundred fifty words, which is about a page."

This time, you were tempted to essay an irony bordering on sarcasm, but reason prevailed and so you, still in the spirit of respectful courtesy.  "Hi,"  you said, which by your accounts is at the very least irony.  Written and email notes addressing a person with "Hi," or to be more formal, "Hello, Shelly Lowenkopf," or "Hello, Professor Lowenkopf," strike you as going overboard to be politically correct, non-confrontive, and indicative of a peer relationship that may not exist.  "Hi.  Sorry for the misunderstanding.  Seems we have different takes about the nature of a prompt.  I do not give the kinds of prompts you mean.  If you're interested, I'll be pleased to tell you why."

She was not interested.  Or, rather, her interest had the effect of a tin can tied to the bumper of a car or a boyhood prank in which you would pry off the hubcap of a friend's car, put several rocks or small bolts into the hubcap, then replace it.  The result was an irritating rattle whenever the car was in motion.  "I thought this was to be a fiction writing class.  How can there be a writing class when there are no prompts?  The class description said you were a professional."

This will not have been the only time you've had a similar experience.  In fact, it has been quite common, the experiences giving you ample cause to understand that this person, no matter what you said, would not sign up for the class.  She'd made up her mind on the basis of your earlier confession that "I do not giver the kinds of prompt you mean."  You have, in fact, given several other similar responses, including your reasons.  Reasonable and non-confrontational as they were, you reasons were met with even greater arguments ad hominem.  

You've read any number of prompts given by instructors in writing classes or suggested in books purporting to instruct the reader in the basics of how to visualize and present plausible results.  None of them were, in your opinion, likely to produce material that could be incorporated into a novel or short story.  None of them could lead the writer toward the construction of a workable design for a dramatic narrative, nor could any of them accomplish anything more than nudging the writer toward creation of a character that could carry a story.

If a student needs a prompt, let him or her turn to a specific character in a particular story.  Let him or her force that character to act or to withhold a previously committed act. Let him or her confront the reality of some long-held belief or dream, brought to fruition with the distinct awareness that the belief or dream is not what it was thought to be, either quite less in substance or considerably more in magnitude.

Let the student who needs a prompt learn to listen to characters--all of them.  Characters are a cantankerous or naive or suspicious or unprepared group who believe themselves ready.

Characters often do not wish to do what the writer asks them to do.  They have listened to the characters in books and short stories and plays and films the writer has seen and reacted to but not listened to.  The writer's own characters know things the writer does not like to admit.  Not yet.

Hi.  Do you have any prompts for beginning writers?

Hi, yourself.  The only prompt I have for a beginning writer is to find a character who wants something so badly that she will do something out of desperation.

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