I don’t have much use for writing prompts. If there were any indication in a class summary that prompts would be a feature then I avoided those courses like the plague. Of course when you’re a writing student these things are sort of an inevitable side effect, like drowsiness or hives.
Or drowsy hives.
For many people prompts can be great! For me, they are more like a minefield of potential disaster. My brain is a boiling cauldron of stories yet to be written. The last thing the cauldron needs is extra ingredients. As an example, I once got a prompt to use the phrase “At the corner of A Street and B Street” and then go from there.
I got 100 pages into a screenplay.
My plot bunnies are sharp-fanged and blood-soaked. They leap from the shadows at the barest provocation. A writing prompt is basically attaching a steak to a fishing pole and dangling it over their den when I’m already being mauled. Unnecessary.
So when in my first year of grad school one of my professors started giving us a prompt, I felt a tad uneasy. Luckily the guidelines were stringent. We were writing a letter in which we describe the classroom. Cue a sigh of relief that came too soon. After we’d gotten a ways into our descriptions the professor added, “Now you’re writing this letter to your sister.”
First thought: Susan survived?
Let me lend you guys some context.
I’m an only child so when I was little I pretended I had a lot of brothers and sisters. Then it occurred to me that I needed a reasonable explanation to give people about why my supposed siblings were never seen. So I decided they all must be dead.
I committed to this narrative. I have a vivid memory of standing alone in my room, staring into my sock drawer thinking, “These were Susan’s socks. She’s gone now.” It’s not clear but I think Susan’s demise was supposed to be due to her falling over a cliff.
There was also an incident at Disneyland where I described to the train conductor in detail about how my little brother had been killed by a train. He told my mother how sorry he was for her loss. Mom then had to explain how there was no brother and no train. They don’t really include how to tell strangers that your child invented deaths for her imaginary siblings in parenting books, do they? Terrible oversight.
This also resulted in me sitting in a writing class decades later, suddenly writing an incredibly sinister letter to my presumed dead sister about how glad I was she wasn’t dead after all. Maybe the sinister tone wasn’t necessary but, look, the circumstances had just gotten really weird. In this prompt I was describing the room to just some anonymous person but then, twist! Actually I’m writing my sister, who I’ve thought dead since childhood but I’ve now somehow tracked down so I could write about my classroom to her?
Also, all my siblings died in “accidents”.
And Susan’s been in hiding? Yeah, in this scenario there really is no way for me to write to my sister without it being at least a touch sinister.
It didn’t help that my reaction was to basically write, “I’m so pleased you survived!”
But don’t worry. It gets worse.
The professor then adds another layer to the prompt and tells us our sister has cancer or some presumably lethal disease.
“Well, I guess you almost survived me.”
Christ on a crutch but this got dark fast. Now this letter isn’t just sinister but actively cruel and mocking. Like my imaginary siblings hadn’t suffered enough, now one of them had been resurrected just in time to suffer a little more by being reminded of all their dead family and how they’d nearly died in childhood only to be stricken with a deadly disease. Oh, and the person writing this letter? Presumably the sibling who’d arranged for all the deaths and was now gloating about how the one that got away isn’t getting away for much longer.
And I took all her socks!
In the end I’m left sitting in class, staring at a letter from some horrifying sociopath and wondering what the hell just happened inside my head. What a strange confluence of events.
In conclusion, sometimes grad school is weirder than you were expecting. And sometimes it’s not the writing prompt’s fault that your brain is a bucket sloshing to the brim with strange.
It may also be a really good thing that I’m an only child.
…. as far as you know.