Writing Prompts – Inspiration or Cop-out?

By H. Adam Ruffalo
Assistant Editor, FewerThan500

All writing develops from an inspiration. Inspiration can take many forms – a dream, a scene witnessed in public, a memory, and even writing prompts. Some writers are opposed to using writing prompts and claim the author has not used his or her own imagination to arrive at a unique, individualistic work. In his article The Last Writing Prompt You Will Ever Need, Jeff Goins expresses his dislike for writing prompts: “I don’t do writing prompts. They’re a pointless waste of time and energy. Why? Because prompts are for people who don’t know what to write. They’re a distraction — a way to trick yourself into writing when you don’t know what to say. And frankly, you can do better than that.” Mr. Goins, don’t hold back. Please tell us how you really feel.

A purist like Alfonso Colasuonno claims that all motivation and creativity must come from within. “Creative writers delve into their head to produce their stories. To write based on a prompt, in my experience, does not produce good writing. Rather, the writing that usually results from these prompts tends to be stale.” You can read more from Mr. Colasuonno on this topic here. I find it interesting to note The Literary Game website is on indefinite hiatus. Hmm…

Well, balderdash I say! Let inspiration come in any form if it means I can break through my writer’s block and actually get something down on the blank page that stares back at me, mocking me. I have sat in a café for hours watching others in order to hone my skills at building a character’s backstory. I have watched episode after episode of “The Twilight Zone” to improve my ability to blend science fiction, eeriness, and surprise endings. I have also created my own character but placed her in the setting of a novel written by one of my favorite authors, Stephen King. Without a doubt, my best inspiration has always come from writing prompts.

May-HarrisBurdickSince I am only a small-time writer who has only self-published her work, I felt my point would be more valid if I could find proof of some well-known, widely read, influential authors who have written to prompts. This jogged a memory of a truly unique book that I was introduced to in graduate school, “The Mysteries of Harris Burdick.” Chris Van Allsburg, the book’s author and illustrator, is probably best known for his Christmas tale “The Polar Express,” but “The Mysteries of Harris Burdick” is far different. It has 14 different story titles followed by a one- to two-sentence caption for a full-page pencil and charcoal drawing depicting an unusual scene. This was my first introduction to writing prompts.

Many years later, I discovered a different version entitled “The Chronicles of Harris Burdick;” this version has a short story written for each title, caption and drawing. Thirteen of the tales are not penned by Van Allsburg but by such renowned authors as Tabitha and Stephen King, children’s writers Louis Sachar, Lois Lowry, and Kate DiCamillo, cartoonist Jules Feiffer and “Wicked” author Gregory Maguire, to name a few. Would these 14 authors have written to the prompts in “Harris Burdick” if they didn’t believe in the worthwhile exercise of writing to a prompt?

After recently purchasing my own copy of “The Chronicles of Harris Burdick,” I feel stronger than ever that writing prompts are not a cop-out for an uninspired writer, rather they can be used as an inspiration, a challenge and a way to vary one’s writing style and themes. I encourage all writers to glance through the pages of either version of “Harris Burdick” and try, just try, not to be inspired.

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One Response to Writing Prompts – Inspiration or Cop-out?

  1. Kerry White says:

    There’s no reason to scoff at writing prompts as a tool to encourage or stimulate writing. If it doesn’t work for Goins, that’s fine. He’s a self promoting blogger and I’m not even sure he does creative writing anyway to a great extent. He can go his way and we can go another.

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