Monday, April 4, 2011

What Makes a Good Writing Prompt - Interview with Writer and Poet Amy Grier

Image: Amy Grier and a wax Patrick Stuart at 
Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum, Las Vegas, NV
Writing prompts have been on my mind. I find a good prompt to be a good tool, and that is part of the reason I am creating my own archive of general writing prompts on this blog. During April, many poets post lists of daily prompts to help keep writers on their "poem a day" schedule. I had a conversation with writer and poet Amy Grier on the subject, and gleaned some great ideas, and new insight, into what makes prompts effective for any kind of writing.

Amy possesses an eclectic background that informs her many styles and platforms of writing, from plays and memoirs to poems and textbooks. She has two MA's, one in Literature and Writing from Rivier College, and another in East Asian Studies from Washington University. Her BS is in Music Education from Clarion University. Her most recent publication was the poem "The Feeling of Autumn" in Poetry East, No. 60, 2010. She has also had a short story published in Dream International Quarterly, has produced content for a series of textbooks for teaching English to Chinese middle school students, and is a certified professional resume writer (among much else). She enjoys blogging, and is planning a revamp of her successful site "Living Poetry."

Bryce: "What do you think makes for a good writing prompt?"

Amy: "A good writing prompt must spark imagination, emotion, and intellect. The prompt should make you go “Oh!” and immediately deliver an imaginative focus. It needs to prod you to start thinking organically and naturally, not something that feels like homework. Not every prompt will do that for everybody, but a good prompt should attempt it."

Bryce: "What sorts of prompts can spark that kind of engagement? What needs to be present or be avoided?"

Amy: "Prompts must be specific, not vague. A prompt that is too vague won't help you go someplace that allows you to explore where you are psychologically in this moment.  For example, the prompt "write a poem with a profession as the title" is not as helpful as the prompt "write a poem about your first experience with nursing." This immediately sparks ideas. Some people will think of breastfeeding, others about their own time as a nurse, while some people will think about their first surgery and a specific nurse that was there. This creates the opportunity to prod imagination, draw on emotion, and engage the intellect. The word "nursing" is both comfortable and threatening. The intellect might generate thoughts of caretaking, being elderly, parenthood, illness, medical procedures, and more. The word “Nursing” activates your brain in all these ways."

Bryce:  "Tell me a little more about engaging the intellect."

Amy: "Always use a word or words in the prompt with power, a word that has many associations. The prompt "write a poem about an experience you have had with a needle" might seem to border on vague, but the word "needle" is very powerful.  It generates thoughts of sewing, drug use, vaccinations, even needles of minerals in gemstones. The mind will consider the definition of "needle" as well as the historical and cultural implications. You can get an untold number of poems from that prompt, or short stories, material for a novel, or whatever."

Bryce: "Can you leave us with a few specific examples of poetry prompts that you like?"

Amy: "Write a poem with a line in a foreign language. Write a poem that starts and ends with a line of dialog. Write a poem about a nightmare you had as a child. Include a cartoon character’s catch phrase in your poem. A common prompt is to take your favorite poem and use its last line as your first line. This sounds lazy, but it can work, because it gives you a concrete place to start. It gives you something to build around. Ultimately, if that line is dropped when you edit the poem, that’s fine.

Bryce: "Thanks!"

Did you like this little interview?  Useful?  I would be happy to do an interview, guest writer, or other type of blog swap on a topic of mutual interest, just drop me a note in the comment line.

Pax, Bryce

1 comment:

Amy said...

I just wanna say that I loves me some Patrick Stewart.