My neighborhood prompt group met yesterday. Our first prompt was the word “blue,” inspired by the poem that is currently up at Redux, “A History of Blue,” by Sarah Brown Weitzman, which is a beautiful catalogue of varying types of the color blue:
…a period of Picasso’s, fountain
pen ink, first-place ribbons, husky’s eyes,
lagoons and lakes, a hint in skim milk…
When we shared what we had written, it turned out that our group came up with some great stuff, a wide range of approaches to the same, open-ended word. I’ve been toying with some characters I might place in a longer work, and writing short exercises like this has been illuminating in terms of discovering conflict and complexity in these women. As Fitzgerald said, “Action is character,” and a writer can sit and think about characters till the cows come home, but it’s dumping them into a moment of action that will show what these people are made of, will illuminate who they really are.
I found our second prompt more challenging: “Make all you can, save all you can, give all you can,” which is a quotation by John Wesley, and an “inspirational” quote from a teabag. So I dumped my characters into a dinner scene where someone’s father is pontificating about the decline of hard work in Americans today, blah, blah, blah.
As I was writing, I realized that this scene was about as boring as it would be in real life, despite my loving descriptions of the spaghetti everyone was eating. Feeling the pressure of the fifteen-minute writing deadline, I desperately saw that something needed to happen, either an event or a conflict beyond the dull conversation. So I dumped in a rather random complication, which led me to another complication—which led me to understanding something new, surprising and interesting about the relationships between these characters.
What I’m saying is, during the first draft stage of writing, the writer might think about that ever-present fifteen minute ticking clock. Fiction thrives on conflict, and if you don’t have one—and soon—you and your reader are going to feel as trapped as my characters did, listening to the droning father. The clock provided the pressure, yes, as did the presence of the group to whom I would later read my work, but the format—an innocent little exercise versus a “scene” or a “story” or, God forbid, a “novel”—provided the freedom to feel loose. And this time, I was rewarded—proving again why patience and faith are so important in the writing life.