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Why I like writing from prompts

11 May 2010

Someone recently asked me why I like writing from prompts when I could be writing from my own ideas. It made me think hard about the purpose of prompts and how they fit into my writing practice. I have come up with five distinct reasons I like writing from prompts:

  1. Permission to write a bad poem. When I write a poem from my own ideas, I want it to be–need it to be–a good poem. If it’s not, I feel like I’ve failed my idea. When I write a poem from a prompt, I don’t feel that urgency to make it a perfect poem. The prompt is a starting point for free-writing, and if the resulting words are a great poem, I’m thrilled. If they’re a jumble of thoughts that make no sense, that’s fine. Usually they’re something in between the two: a coherent, if messy, combination of words that I call a poem. I may or may not go back to it later to make it a “keeper,” but I feel satisfied with what the prompt has given me to work with.
  2. Small, attainable goals. Each time I choose to write from a prompt, I am setting myself a small, attainable goal: to write a poem stemming from that prompt. Ninety-nine percent of the time, I achieve that goal. What a great way to set myself up for success! I have plenty of colossal goals that I lug around in the back of my mind, work on from time to time, and lose interest in because they are so large in scope that there’s no way I feel like I can ever achieve them soon. And it’s true. Most of those goals are so broad and grand that I either won’t achieve them, or it will take me years to do so. While those kinds of goals aren’t all bad, having too many of them can be a downer. I’s good for writers to have short-term goals they know they can achieve on a regular basis. For me, prompts are those goals. Another good short-term goal is to challenge yourself to write a poem a day for a week, to finish one poem you’ve been fiddling with for ages, or to participate in one of Carolee Sherwood and Jill Crammond-Wickham‘s Poetry Gongs (multi-day writing challenges, often on a particular theme). Some of their old gongs can be found at the now-closed Read Write Poem, while their new gongs have yet to make their debut at Big Tent Poetry.
  3. Stimulates memory. I wasn’t quite sure how to label this reason. Writing from prompts makes me notice parts of myself and my life that I wouldn’t have recognized as a valid writing topic. For example, the prompt “boxes” at We Write Poems (which, coincidentally, was my own prompt!) pointed me to a box of old items (books, clothing, trinkets) waiting to be donated to a charity store. I doubt I would have discovered this very poem-able box if it weren’t for the prompt. When writing from my own ideas, I tend to write about the ideas themselves – philosophical concepts, thought processes, etc. – and I try to ground them in concrete circumstances. On the other hand, when I write from prompts, I begin with the concrete, and the ideas find their own way in. These poems tend to be more successful than my own “ideas” poems.
  4. Personal, not empty, verse. This is an important reason for me. The person who asked me why I like writing from prompts suggested that doing so results in empty verse–that is, impersonal poems that were written for the sake of being written. This could not be more untrue! When I write from prompts, I embed myself in what I write, converting the impersonal prompt into a personalized poem. Of course, writing from prompts does give me permission to write an empty poem if need be, but it doesn’t usually happen.
  5. Challenges my creativity. Writing from a prompt challenges my creativity because it requires me to think about something I did not choose. When I write from my own ideas, I can get stuck thinking in circles about my own ideas, but when I write from a prompt, I have the freedom to explore that prompt without my preconceived notions of what the poetic outcome will be. So prompts not only challenge my creativity, they also free it!

Most poets and writers I know mix prompt-writing into their regular writing routines without letting it become the only writing they do. This works best for me, because it lets me explore and expand on ideas that I wouldn’t have had on my own, and I still get time to work on my own stuff–currently a series of poems on the concept of beauty, as well as random individual poems that come to me from daily life experiences.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. 12 May 2010 10:13

    What a great post, Mallery. All those reasons are clearly articulated and valid. Reading them makes me think of my own reasons, although I am pretty sure you covered them for me, too.

    Thanks for sharing these with the poetry community!

  2. 12 May 2010 20:15

    Thanks, Deb! I’m curious, do you have any reasons of your own that I didn’t cover?

  3. 12 May 2010 21:14

    Good commentary Mallery. And boy, you really thought this one through! I wouldn’t discount any you’ve stated here, but I’d maybe state my first two, hottest reasons, are, one, being sociable because unexpected things seem to come out of that interaction for me (and it keeps me from just sitting in a mental closet), and two, as a learning process. Best prompt ever (one of Carolee’s) to paraphrase was “write in a fashion, not like you have before”, change something, anything, then change it again. Yet again, because of the interaction again, it really pressed me through to places I’d not thought to be.
    Thanks for posting this.

  4. 13 May 2010 15:23


    You found one that I forgot about–a learning process! That is definitely one of my reasons, but maybe it’s a less conscious reason and more something that I enjoy that comes from writing from prompts.

  5. Molly permalink
    14 May 2010 02:47

    I like to write from prompts because, very often, I will get to a poem that I’ve been trying to write for some time (sometimes even years) but haven’t been able to write just by thinking: “Okay, now I’m going to write that poem about X.” For example, for several years I’ve been thinking about the way that I, as many children do, used to spin around on the front lawn on summer evenings– just spinning and spinning and spinning. I knew there was a poem in it somewhere, but could never quite get it right, or even close. Last week I was writing from a prompt, a line from Emily Dickinson, a line I pulled out from a poem randomly (“How odd the Girl’s life looks” from “I’m ‘wife’ — I’ve finished that). Writing from that prompt got me to my spinning poem, even though I wasn’t thinking “spinning poem” when I started. Prompts get us down under our conscious thoughts, into the vein of ore (words, poems) underneath. I say hooray for prompts!

    • 16 May 2010 08:53

      Molly, I know exactly what you mean about trying to write that one poem in your head for years, then suddenly coming upon it without trying to! It’s like it waits until it’s ready to be written.

  6. 14 May 2010 04:38

    I was thinking about the prompts, too. What you’ve written fits my own ideas fairly well (maybe not the first point. I’d go in the opposite direction there).
    I am lazy and undisciplined. Prompts…prompt me to action. That alone would be enough. But more than that, the move me outside of myself.
    I am not a poet, but it is possible that I am learning how to be one.  Learning the habits of mind, teaching myself fresh ways of seeing from external suggestions.  The prompts force me to to leave my mental living room and range in public spaces for inspiration.
    I like the randomness of writing from prompts, the challenge to make meaning out of WHATever. My favorites are chaotic lists of words that I would never use by choice, and defintiely not together. Stepping outside my own vocabulary does make me think new (for me) thoughts. And threading my way into a seventh decade, new thoughts are a good thing.

    • angie permalink
      14 May 2010 10:28

      you are not a poet???

      I wanna be unpoet like you.

  7. djvorreyer permalink
    14 May 2010 09:13

    I agree that sometimes the prompt brings you the means to get out a poem that has struggled to find its way out. Many of my favorite poems have started from prompts and then taken on a life of their own. Although I wouldn’t want to always depend on prompts, they certainly are a way to light a spark.

  8. angie permalink
    14 May 2010 10:27

    great post. Mallery!

    I try to write a little bit of poetry every day, but I find that I really, really need a prompt of some sort –most often it is just a word or two– to get a poem started. (I love places like visuwords and oneword!) once jumped, though, I often find myself unable to stick completely to the laid-out letter of a fully-defined prompt. something in me has to rebel.

    there is probably some deep-seated psychological reason behind it all.

  9. 23 May 2010 20:40

    I’m new to this writing from prompts on the internet – I just started this past April. I liked your thoughts, and your first reason, permission to write a bad poem, reminds me of what a lot of people have said during NaNoWriMo. It may be bad writing, but it’s writing. We’re creating, and isn’t that a good thing. I hadn’t thought about the attainable goals aspect, but that really speaks to me. It’s a big part of why I’m writing so many poems now. I also want to reiterate the learning reason that others have mentioned. I’m learning a lot from the poems I’m writing and from the ones I’m reading that other poets have written. This community of people writing and sharing poems from prompts has been inspiring and supportive. I like writing from prompts, too!


  1. Sideshow: why I like writing from prompts | Big Tent Poetry

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