Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Whatever Works, Works: Start Your Own Prompt Group

I’ve been involved in a writing prompt group for several years, and it’s something I highly recommend, especially for writers who feel busy and stressed out.  While everyone comes to any group with their own reasons and agenda and desires, personally I decided to start this group because I was weary of the critique process (not that I’m opposed to my work being critiqued, but that I was doing a lot of experimenting and I didn’t necessarily want to hear right then why my stories were/weren’t working; I just wanted to keep going).  I was also feeling overwhelmed with reading too many manuscripts with that critical voice in my head, “What’s wrong? What else is wrong? Now what’s wrong?”  And—haha—don’t get me wrong: that is part of my job as a writing teacher, and I do love teaching…but that voice was infiltrating into my own work during this experimental phase I was passing through.

So. I decided that a monthly prompt group would help me experiment and remind me that writing was fun.  Our set-up is pretty simple:  we meet for two hours, once a month, from 10-noon, at a not-too-busy coffee shop.  The first half hour is chit-chat, eating amazing quiche, catching up, late arrivals, settling in, sharing reading recommendations, etc.

The first prompt is from me, usually a very open-ended word (i.e. basement), and we all write for 15 minutes.  The second prompt is either a word or a thing that another member brings in and then we write for another 15 minutes.  Then we read aloud—or not.  No one is required to read.  And here is what is SO RELAXING about this prompt group: there is NO critiquing!  We admire, we coo, we like, we laugh, we cry, we share stories, we point out excellent sentences and details, we make observations and connections, we support.  The most that is allowed is a kind, “Maybe if you wanted to explore this further, you could think about a deeper focus on the father.”

We go home feeling refreshed…yes, writing IS fun!

What I love most about the prompt group is that there are no rules beyond those I’ve stated above.  In our group, people have:
--written poems
--written total fiction
--written the deep, dark truth
--written humor
--written two separate pieces
--written one connected piece
--written about recurring characters
--written an ongoing story that extends from meeting to meeting
--written crap (I take full responsibility for this one!)
--written something stunning (we have all done this!)
--written pieces that ended up later in longer pieces
--written pieces that have been published
--written sections of a novel
--written (and discovered) things they would share nowhere else

I think we can accomplish all this in half an hour (yes, 30 minutes of writing!) because there’s a certain unique energy created when you’re sitting at a table with 5 other people scribbling/clicking away—and there’s also a certain pressure.  You look up and there they are, scribbling/clicking…time for you to get busy.  If it’s crap, you don’t have to read it.  But, seriously, most times you really will find something.  You learn to trust that you will.

Sign me up, you’re saying!  I want a prompt group!

Lucky for us, it is about the easiest thing in the world to create one.  Here are the steps I went through:

--I picked a day/time/place that worked for me and my schedule.

--I found one friend who would commit to trying the plan with me.

--I advertised the meeting on my neighborhood list-serve: no experience necessary, just a desire to explore your creative side through writing. If you don’t have a list-serve, reach out on Facebook or to friends and friends of friends or people in your classes or old friends or Craig’s list or a notice on a coffee shop bulletin board.  Remember, no experience necessary!  And you don’t have to know these people in advance. One of the great pleasures of this group for me has been getting to meet a set of people I might not have crossed paths with but who I now would miss desperately if they moved away.

--Set up your parameters/rules before the first meeting. (Maybe you want 3 prompts; maybe you want to write for 20 minutes instead of 15…whatever, though you’re welcome to copy our formula.)



--Keep everyone organized with an email notification about upcoming meetings.  I recommend trying to stick to a regular schedule as much as possible (i.e. the second Wednesday).

Where to find prompts?  There are a lot of resources out there, but as noted, I like very open-ended prompts, so I often find myself using words from The Sun magazine’s “Readers Write” section.  Googling “writing prompts” just brought me more than 10 million results…surely one or two of those sources will be good for you!

In the beginning, we kept our group open, and we were willing to let anyone show up and give us a try.  Now, we’ve settled into our core and we aren’t accepting new participants at the moment—but this is something for you and your group to determine.  For us, we have 9 or so people on the roster, which ensures that about 5-6 will show up for a meeting, which is the number that works well for us and our format.  But that’s the lovely thing about prompt groups: Whatever works, works.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.