Friday, 1 May 2009

ECHOES - Working with prompts

When I first started writing fiction, I was taught to write to prompts. My tutor would produce a series of them, words with no apparent connection juxtaposed, half a line of poetry, a colour, snippets from anywhere. I found it extraordinary how often I could pick a line for no apparent reason, just follow the connections, and if I wrote fast enough, a story would emerge.
One of the instructions would always be to pick the prompt that 'spoke' to you in some way. A quick glance over the list, and something would begin to resonate. Some sort of heat would rise off the page, or the screen. A vibration in my head. I can't explain it better than that.

Last night, a group of us who work online at The Fiction Workhouse used twenty prompts produced by a non-writing member of the team, to write a story in an hour. The deal is that you have to look at the prompts, start writing, incorporate every single one (you can change them grammatically, use a cental image rather than the whole line) in order, into your story. And within 60 minutes, your work must be written, checked and posted.

Four writers, yesterday. Same prompts.
Story 1) A boisterously voiced piece, first person, a traveller up in court for being among other things, drunk and disorderly. Hilarious. Very free and daft.
Story 2) Set somewhere in Africa, a couple returning from their jobs as servants back to their village for a wedding. Acutely observed.
Story 3) A lyrical exploration of a strange character who hears the ground singing, following the loss of his father in a mining acident.
Story 4) In bedtime stories, a grandfather tells his grandson of the war, and his experiences on a submarine. The last story he tells reveals something dark.

The point is, each writer had different things going on in their heads, and identical prompts took them to totally different stories. Its an amazing thing to do.
Conversation afterwards revealed that two writers had ideas already, and used the prompts to spill out a brewing story. The other two created new stuff, entirely.

Whatever way you use prompts, they can work wonders.
But one more thing. Further natter reveals that some writers (including me) use prompts to unblock half-written stories. I was reminded of the title story from my collection, Words form a Glass Bubble, which got stuck in the production line, and languished on my hard drive for months. Then I picked up a list of old prompts, thinking to just play, write a flash, something different. The story was not even in my head.
But something about the first prompt brought the story to mind. All it was was this:
"Me, who's never travelled" (or something like it -) and I opened the file, typed that line and I was off. An hour later, the draft was finished. Incorporating all the prompts in that list, in order.

They are still there. I know which they are, the reader wouldn't notice them because they became an integral part of the flow.

Why did they work? What was it about those particular prompts that opened me up creatively, melded with the story, became part of it?
I think it has something to do with echoes. Hence the title of this post. Think sonar. Think of words sending their sounds and meanings deep into our psyches. So that the initial bounce-back excites, stirs. And if you continue to send those sounds and meanings, the bounce back will set up a resonance that takes you out of yourself, into the world you are creating. Unconsciously. Your own mind sets up the vibrations, picks up rhythms, and lets loose connections that surprise and astound.

Not all prompts hold that magic. Although you can (and I do) write to amything. Words, images, sounds, scents. They can all work some magic.
But the right words, at the right time, when you are unconsciously looking for something, and some of its essence is hidden in their echoes, is indescribably good.

Is that why lines of poetry are good? Even phrases, but those created by amazing wordsmiths, the tips of icebergs, with layer upon layer of resonance beneath the words? I don't know.
All I know is this: words work. Words that echo. Echo somewhere inside, in your psyche. And for that reason, when you find them, keep them close.



SueG said...

Absolutely (and easily forgotten when the crisis of being stuck strikes...).

Lauri Kubuitsile said...

I too love writing prompts. When I was a school girl I had a teacher who liked giving us photos that we had to write a story about. I loved those days. Words echo, as you've said, and bounce around knocking off other words like dominoes but photos too are great prompts. You know this I guess since you used a photo for your contest.

Douglas Bruton said...

20 prompts in the one piece and in order and all done in an hour - first time it was like sky-diving or bungee-jumping... the heart racing and not knowing what the imagination was doing... like being possessed by the prompts and sticking them together to make some sort of sense.

It is a fantastic exercise. Frees up the thinking. And, just sometimes, a pretty shiny thing ends up on the page.

Scary, but so fabulous as a game to play.


Vanessa Gebbie said...

Triffic, innit?

Elizabeth said...

Great post V; really articulates the joy and value of free writing. And makes me miss the WorkHouse soooo much. All that energy and creativity! Elizabeth x

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Sue - you are so right. How often have I been stuck and turned to a seemingly unrelated prompt, and bingo!

Lauri - I respnd so well to photos. I guess it depends on the day, the mood... words and photos!

D - you make it sound like we were sky-diving, not writing..!