What did you do over summer vacation? When this prompt was assigned to me on the first day of every year of middle school, I resisted the urge to pen fictional tales of walking across hot coals in Hawaii (while juggling coconuts!). Instead, I confessed to picking Oregon strawberries in order to earn money for school clothes.
If this middle school classic was the last writing prompt you used, then 1) I hope the sting of vacation shaming faded as quickly as an Oregon tan, and 2) I have great news for you as you plan your writing year. Daily prompts have done some growing up. They are kindling that ignite a hearty writing practice…and maybe a passion project.
Here are eight benefits of a prompt practice, along with examples to stir up your writing.
1. Bypass blank-page pressure.
Don’t overthink which words get to grace your screen or the fresh page of a notebook. Prompts give you a nudge, a direction, and the freedom to let ideas flow from the get-go. Your mantra: I am not scribing a treatise on the historical impact of the plague. I am accepting the invitation to let the words lead me. Have fun.
You thought you entered a drawing to win a Saturn car, but it turns out you won the chance to be the first earthling to communicate with beings discovered on one of Saturn’s moons! Draft your message.
2. Open the door to truth-telling.
Where did that come from? Prepare for this question to flash across your mind frequently after you start using prompts as a warm-up exercise. Whether you’re a heart-on-your-sleeve sage or a stuff-it-down denier, an unhindered mind caught up in a seemingly unrelated topic can drum up images, memories, and beliefs that speak your truth. Spoiler alert: You’ll uncover a few secrets that just might be the basis for your book-length memoir.
A friend approaches and says, “I can’t believe I found this! It will change everything for you.” He motions for you to open the box in his hands. What’s inside, and how does it inspire you?
3. Enlarge your capacity for empathy.
Prompts can provide clarity-sparking scenarios to help you develop your empathy muscles. Strengthening your emotional intelligence will later allow you to add dimension, soul, and believable idiosyncrasies to your least-likeable characters, whether in memoir, fiction, or nonfiction. It will also make you a better human.
You awaken to discover that you have turned into your nemesis and are heading to the hospital to visit their elderly parent. Write a scene from the day.
4. Engage a new vocabulary.
When you say yes to a creative invitation to write as an anthropologist, rodeo clown, or surfer, you’ll shake up your default dictionary. Your brain synapses get a pass to forge new trails and leap over tired language. If I inform you that you’re a child wearing your father’s galoshes and you are plodding through puddles in the rain, you don’t need Rosetta Stone training in kid-speak. Your mind will start spouting words, real or invented. Slosh, squish, ooey, shlop shlop, gulp.
Writing through a new lens inspires an expanded lexicon.
You are a botanist. A plant peep. Today you encounter a specimen that nobody has ever noted in journals. Describe in what ways this is the most amazing creation you’ve ever seen. Draw it. Label it. Give it a name.
5. Stumble onto a meditation practice.
Your response to a prompt is not tethered or obligated to anything that happens before or after it, eliminating the burden to weave a story thread or lay a foundation for future arguments. Take a breath. Engage with the topic and your heart response in the moment. Savor a gentle scooch toward center.
This developed ability to be present to the page and to the still, small voice will serve all of your work. All of your life.
Describe the hands of a loved one.
6. Receive permission to enter the page just as you are.
The invitation list to the party on the page is all-inclusive. There’s no need to prequalify, prove your platform, or gussy up in order to hunker down and respond to a prompt.
Roll out of bed and reach for a fave rollerball pen. Go for a morning jog and then grab your daily journal. Clear your head of day-job minutia with a timed writing exercise before you leave the parking lot and drive home. However you fit writing into your life, the page with a prompt offers a come-as-you-are sanctuary.
Using scents and sounds as your cues, write about a place where you once lived.
7. Charm and disarm your inner critic.
A simple prompt is an ideal excuse to send your hovering task-master on a break. Give your inner critic a name and something to do: “Helga, you work so hard. Some might even call you relentless. This one itty, bitty writing exercise is beneath your pay grade. Make yourself a triple-decker BLT and catch up on Netflix.”
Do this every day before your prompt practice. Soon you will arrange breaks from your inner critic with ease and without separation anxiety.
Name your inner critic and write a character profile on them.
8. Play with possibility.
Writers understand do-overs better than anyone. We call them drafts. Take a recess from rules. Rewrite a scene of missed opportunity. Rescript a conversation that went sideways. Revisit a middle school exercise that haunts you. Why not?
What did you do over the holiday vacation? (Permission granted to lie about fire-walking for this fire starter!)
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Get started: Accept the challenge to use prompts for 30 days in a row. Gather your writing group for a special session to co-create a collection of silly and serious prompts. Buy a book of prompts so you have a year’s worth at your fingertips. Open a favorite magazine, novel, or volume of poetry, and use the first phrase you read as your prompt for the day. What will you write next?
Hope Lyda is a writing coach, spiritual director, and author whose books have sold more than 1 million copies. Her new book of prompts is My Unedited Writing Year: 365 Invitations to Free Your Creativity and the Writer Within. Visit her at mywritedirection.com.