!%#@*! Writing Prompts

Writing prompts. Every memoir teacher uses them, pretty much. But secretly, I hate most of the writing prompts I’ve seen.

Before I go into my rant (and dilemma), let me give you some examples.

The first of this curious form of written English I encountered was in James Birren’s book, Telling the Stories of Life through Guided Autobiography Groups. Birren is the Czar of Writing Prompts. He gives a whole page of them for each topic, calling them Sensitizing Questions. Here are the first three from Theme 7: Your Experiences with and Ideas about Death:

  1. What did you feel about death as a child? Did you lose an animal that was like a member of the family? What did you think when your pet died?
  2. How was death talked about and treated in your family? Did it frighten you?
  3. How were family funerals and memorial services held? When did you go to your first funeral? What did you think about it, and how did you react?

Now for the writing prompts from books aimed directly at the memoir writer, as opposed to the writing instructor. From Linda Spence’s Legacy: a Step-By-Step Guide to Writing Personal History, topic: Adolescence:

Imagine your teenage self standing in front of your school. Walk through the door-what do you hear, what and whom do you see? What is the first general feeling you have? As you look back at the room(s) where you sat, what specific memories come back? What stories can you tell about how you were encouraged or discouraged by your teachers?

From Bob Greene‘s To Our Children’s Children: Preserving Family Histories for Generations to Come, topic: High School:

  1. Who were your friends? What did you like about them?
  2. What teachers do you remember? Why? Do you rememer any rumors you ever heard about a teacher? Were they true?
  3. What was your favorite song in high school?

Okay, now to the rant. Most of these writing prompts leave me cold. They make me feel methodical and earnest but not particularly bright. I’m like a student who wants to ask for clarification of the assignment. “What do you mean by ‘favorite,’ exactly? How do I know ‘how did I feel’ about something that happened 40 years ago? When you say ‘as a child’ do you mean when I was 5, or 9, or 13?” That’s not a state of mind that gets the words flowing. But maybe that’s just me. Given the proliferation of books on memoir consisting mostly of writing prompts, surely they’re an important tool for memoirists?

In my memoir classes I’ve swung back and forth between the extremes, from no-prompts (just a topic expressed as a story title) to full-prompts (distributing pages out of Birren, with attribution, of course.)

Whether I give few or many prompts doesn’t seem to make a difference in what my students produce. My writers write about what they’re motivated to write, period. Sometimes I think writing prompts work in reverse, awakening willful inner children who say, “oh yeah? You want me to write about X? I won’t. Here’s Y. So there.” Their writing is brave and funny and true, so who am I to say the prompt didn’t work.

Now, my dilemma. I am working with the concepts around understanding wisdom developed by Jeffrey Webster of Langara College, in Vancouver, B.C. He is interested in measuring the construct of wisdom and I am developing writing prompts based upon his work.

Kind of an odd task for a person who isn’t sure she believes in writing prompts to begin with. In a future post, I’ll share the prompts I’m developing. For now, I’d like to know…

How do you feel about writing prompts? Do you find them useful? Have you ever worked from a book of prompts, such as those listed here? Comment!

-Sarah White

About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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4 Responses to !%#@*! Writing Prompts

  1. Hi Sarah,

    Firstly respect for developing writing prompts around the concept of wisdom!! That in itself deserves a medal.

    I like writing prompts like this: a line from a book, something someone says in a movie, a random thought that pops into my head when I am unlocking my front door. In other words – organic prompts – prompts that come from my soul, my experience.

    Rather like a painter creates something new from something personally felt.

    I have tried those question/answer type prompts and they don’t work for me either. Always left feeling like I’m forcing the issue.

    All the best with your quest for wisdom. Reading your blog, I am sure you will come up with some great ideas.

    Claire x


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