I’m reading The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing & Life, by Marion Roach Smith, which I find charming in many ways. It is a slim volume by a popular writing teacher which has many good ideas for memoir writers.
In it, the author rants against the use of prompts, writing exercises, and morning pages. A waste of time, she says. You should always be writing with intent, she says. Too many people fill her classes who have journals full of things written to prompts and writing exercises and nothing else to show for their time. These activities fill their precious writing time and don’t allow the real writing to get done. So, don’t do them, she says. Period and forever.
I will admit that she has a point. Sort of.
If all you are doing is writing to prompts and filling pages of writing exercises, then yeah, there’s a problem happening there. (Unless that’s what you want to spend your precious writing time doing.)
But to me, the point of all these uber-activities is to get you to the page. To help you get to what it is you want to write. If it is just too overwhelming to think about diving into your novel and a quick free-write to a prompt gets you going, then that is fantastic. If you’re stuck on the page and can’t seem to get any words going, a writing exercise can break the mental log-jam. And if establishing a habit of morning pages leads you to identifying your heart’s desire, that is time well spent.
Just as with alcohol, you can learn to use writing prompts and exercises responsibly. Use them as a starting-point, as a way to hone your writing skills, or as a place to generate ideas. You can also use them as part of your WIP. Take the last line of the last scene you wrote and use it as a prompt. Use character-related prompts to jar loose that last bit of information you need for your character’s backstory.
There’s also the joy of using prompts for expressive writing and deep journaling. Using lines from poetry or inspirational quotes is a lovely practice for this. I’m sorry, I like doing this once in a while. My theory is that everything connects back to your writing eventually, so indulging in this kind of writing will eventually get you back to your WIP. And so what if it doesn’t? Writing something, anything, is time well spent.
Which leads me to a mini-rant, which is against writing experts who tell you exactly what to do. How to do it. When to do it. Why to do it. I realize that it is desirable and fashionable and to have a point of view. Something you stand for. Definitive recommendations.
But I’m a fan of polite recommendations. Let’s call them suggestions. I believe they can help you to find your way through the thicket. Stern instruction can lead you down the garden path of a writing style or manner that doesn’t work for you.
I’ve wasted weeks trying to slot my book idea into a meticulously crafted beat by beat outline according to an expert. Despite feeling uncomfortable with the process. Despite being desperate to start writing. I’ve listened to nay-sayers sneer at prompts, as if the pesky little sentences are so far beneath them as to be, well, kind of tacky, for simpletons, and I’ve avoided them because I wanted to be cool and sophisticated, too.
And is this not in some ways a microcosm for what’s ailing us in our culture today. Right? Amiright? Everybody thinking they have the answer. And there their answer is the only right answer. Pshaw. (A polite way of calling bullshit.)
Do what works for you. Read widely and garner inspiration and instruction where you can. Take what works for you and leave the rest. And in that spirit, I’m now going to go finish the book to see what tidbits of hers I can carry with me in my writing—and perhaps pass onto you.
Hit reply and tell me what you think of prompts and writing exercises. I’m all ears!
Things of Note
Here are my Medium articles for the week:
The Lost Carousel of Provence, by Juliet Blackwell. Not entirely sold on this one yet, the set-up seems a bit pat, but people I trust recommend it, so we’ll see!
The Memoir Project, by Marion Roach Smith. A slim volume but looks like it might be good for both memoirists and other breeds of writer. See above.
Dryer’s English, by Ben Dryer. Still working on this. It’s one to savor and remember. Who knew a book on grammar could be so funny?
Here’s my ko-fi, where you can buy me a cup of coffee or any kind of drink you’d like (so far it has been running toward wine). Thank you in advance for the treat!
Free Live Virtual Spring Retreat Recording—The virtual spring retreat had a much different energy to it than the winter one. It was a quiet, intimate gathering with lots of good writing. Here’s the link in case you want to listen and do follow some of the prompts.
France 2019—Come to south of France with me! Find all the details here. http://letsgowrite.com/the-way-of-the-artists-france-2019-workshop/ We already have a number of people committed, so sign up soon.
Novel-Writing Workshop—I’m also teaching at the Sitka center on the Oregon coast this June. This is a beautiful location conducive to learning and writing. Click here for more info.
And of course, don’t forget to join the Facebook group if you haven’t already. I post lots of good links and often we get some good conversation going.
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