Back at creation's dawn when I was in school, a slew of teachers and professors insisted a writing prompt was a thing that lived in fairly tight borders. This was particularly so in my assorted English and writing classes, where we were instructed that such a prompt occurs solely in the form of a short question designed to spur authorial effort about a specific topic for a given writing task. Nowadays, I believe that's called "teaching to the test." Regardless whether theirs was a sound definition for a writing prompt, it surely served my teachers and professors well when reading and grading writing assignments so narrowly prompted. If nothing else, it was a time-saver for my eternally overburdened educators. Say, just for a random hypothetical example because certainly this could never have actually happened, I was asked to write a thoughtful exploration in response to the prompt, "Why can a woman's patience endure?" Say, also, my plainly brilliant responsive submission focused instead on something infinitesimally (if at all) off-topic. For example, perhaps on whether a drunken myopic chimpanzee could maneuver a clown car skillfully enough on Manchester's streets to pass the same road test that resulted in my idiot friend Rudolfo's obtaining a driver's license before I got mine from the geniuses at the New Hampshire DMV. It didn't take Professor Sally Shakespeare too long to slap a big red F on my answer, not much reading required.
As I would have hypothetically explained at some length to my disgruntled parents, this big red F was in no way my fault. It was the fault of Professor Shakespeare's writing prompt being obliged to toil under harshly restrictive definitional parameters.
(You see, Rudolfo and I had the same road test administrator. She was a surly woman named Helga. From her indecipherable command of English, Helga was very likely imported into New Hampshire late one stormy Cold War night from some profoundly slipshod village called Nastygrad, deep behind the Iron Curtain. In any event, Helga's patience was clearly as unreasonably skimpy in my case as it was unflaggingly generous in that grinning fool Rudolfo's.)
(Hypothetically, mind you.)
Am I digressing? I can never tell.
So what is a writing prompt? With due deference to Professor Shakespeare, a writing prompt is anything that incites a writer to write. It can be anything at all, from a whispered welcome on Wednesday to a shrieked midnight curse to the impossibly small "My Little Pony" tee shirt on that improbably fat guy with the wheelbarrow and shovel over there in the bulk candy aisle at Whole Foods. A writing prompt can be a song, or a cloud, or the ragged murder of crows winging slowly west over your roof at dusk. It can be the first sentence from your favorite book, or the last one from a book you hate. It can be a lyric from some terrible song you heard at the drug store, or an epitaph. It can be the strange smell you recall seeping from beneath the door of that apartment next door that wasn't supposed to have anybody living in it. It can be a simple photograph, like this one:
Yeah, I know. How much fun can you have with that? It practically writes itself.
Once you've got your writing prompt, what do you do with it? Well, that's not unlike staring at a weight at your favorite gym -- the answer depends on what kind of a workout you've got in mind. Maybe you're in the mood for something light and brisk, or quick and dirty. Then you'd use your writing prompt to spur a short burst of authorial glory, such as a pithy tweet. Perhaps you're in the mood for a more robust challenge, where your writing prompt is the spark you seek to fire up a short story, or a one-act play, of a few thousand words. Or you might be hankering for some real heavy lifting, where the very same writing prompt launches you on the long and winding road that's end is a novel 100,000 words long. A writing prompt is what you make it. The choice of what to do with it is yours alone.
Sure, the deceptively plain "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." were the dozen simple words that vivified one of the greatest and most enduring works of English fiction, Charles Dickens' 1859 novel, A Tale of Two Cities. But that phrase could serve also to inspire a one-act tragicomedy about a Kardashian wedding at the foot of a feisty volcano, or a philosophical rumination on the Boston Red Sox winning the 2004 World Series to kill a curse 86 years old that was only trying to mind its own business.
And what about this similarly-inspired tweet? "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. My life will be sucky unless and until verily I learn to distinguish between those two."
So much delicious angst in only 140 characters, birthed by a classic turn of phrase. Thanks be to Dickens.
Do you see? Viewed correctly, anything can be a writing prompt. Now it's your turn. Not to cramp your style in the hunt for writing prompts particularly inspiring to you, I've assembled below a modest array of prompts to get you started. See where they take you, or where they don't. Have fun.
Gazalapalooza's Writing Prompts Volume 1, Number 1:
He told me there's one thing you've got to learn, and that's not to be afraid of it.
"It's not so simple as she'd have you believe," she said, "separating fact from friction."
I thought about marrying for love, but marrying for help paying my student loans seemed wiser.
There, painted on the stone in ancient red so faded it was hardly visible in the dusk, was the face again.
He was very wrong, thinking there would be a next time.
When's the last time you made a bank teller blush like that, with just a wink?
She bit her lower lip a little harder than she had intended, and tasted raw anticipation.
Getting my kids to school on time is like organizing a lunar landing for feral cats.
Eye contact is more dangerous on some nights than others.
I keep a diamond ring in my glove box for exactly these situations.
She shook her head and looked at her watch again, but the second hand was still ticking backwards.
Sometimes, the person you'd take a bullet for ends up being the one behind the gun.
If there's not a play or an essay or a novel or two in this collection of prompts, then you're not writing freely enough. Take your time, breathe deeply, and whatever you do, don't wait for your muse to show up. Let the prompt be your muse. That will make her jealous, and there's not a lot more inspirational to an author than a jealous muse in a huff.
Uh-oh. I think I just came up with another writing prompt...