I have worked from prompts for many years. This goes back to my professor Mike Lannon assigning Peter Elbow’s Writing Without Teachers when I was an undergraduate and continued through my time leading a writing group where we used Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and with Others (with a foreword by Elbow, of course). Now there are dozens of sites supplying prompts, and, of course, there’s an app for that. Prompts are a staple because they work. They get students working without a lot of forethought–and in my experience–without the normal buildup of anxiety and self;editing.
I use them all the time in the classroom. If I am on my game, I have students do at least one each class, sometimes more than one. Some are creative and free-form. Some are in response to a reading, where I am asking students to think a little more deeply about a certain point. Some are in the midst of working on a larger assignment–perhaps peer review where I want them to pause and write in response to an interesting point someone just made. “Emma is wondering how much detail is needed to describe this setting. Take five minutes, pen to paper, and list some of the details of your setting. Big ones and small ones.”
These invariably work–not for all, of course, but for many–for the simplest reason: they keep students writing. They keep pen to paper. They provide forward motion, which is critical. But they also give students time to pause and dive in, even for a few minutes, to more detail and thoughts.
As I start to blog again, I’ve set up my own system of prompts. I am going to create an in-basket of photos, ephemera, and other objects, and choose one each day (I hope), and write about it. I am a bit of a packrat, so I do not lack for things. Photos, ticket stubs, note cards, receipts from taxi rides, hotel keys, cards from my wife and boys, keys to long-forgotten locks, buttons, my first and second passports, matchbox cars, a plaster statuette of Socrates I bought in Athens in 1980. It’s endless really.
The picture here is likely the first one of me. That’s my parents, Norma and Charlie, Sr. From left to right, that’s my late sister Mary Lynn, who would have been four, me at about six months, my brother Dan, three, and my oldest brother Charlie, Jr., who would have been six. This is perhaps when we were still outside Philadelphia, though it could have been back in Boston. I will try to confirm with one of my brothers. The thing that jumps out at me first are my parents’ big smiles. My mom especially seems lost in the moment, me on her lap, all of us together. Was she as happy as this picture suggests? I forever marvel at my mom having four kids in six years. But there’s my father looking just as happy, leaning to make sure we are all in the picture. Who was taking the picture? And who seemed to be off to the side, catching the attention of all four kids? (My mom and dad are looking straight at the camera, but the four of us are all looking to our right, stage left.) I think of my grandparents perhaps, or an uncle or aunt. Maybe we had just moved back to Boston, and the families were all gathered, and this was a welcoming picture. It looks like a family arriving, not leaving. Coming back to Boston would be a mixed journey for us as a family, but for this moment, we were a family, and we were happy. The picture tells us so.