They don’t tell you much when you start adjunct teaching. They don’t tell you how to write a syllabus or structure a class. They don’t tell you what methods work and what methods don’t.
Fortunately, no one had to tell me to start my class period off with a writing prompt. As a longtime student of literature, I simply know that the only way to start a class is with a writing prompt.
From a teacher’s perspective, it’s a device that works wonders. First, it kills time during your class—that’s a whole ten or fifteen minutes you don’t have to be teaching, which trust me, is always a relief. Teaching is a non-stop sport that doesn’t allow for many breathers, so you take them when you can get them.
Second, it warms up the students’ minds and fingers, gets them thinking about words and ideas, helps them focus their thoughts so they might become comfortable with their own opinions. It’s astounding how scared college freshman are of their own opinions.
But there’s another wonderful benefit to writing prompts that I enjoy not just as a teacher but as a writer: writing for the sake of stringing beautiful words together.
With a blog or an essay or a story, there always has to be a point. You must give the reader what we in the biz call “universal meaning.” If your reader can’t relate to your writing, you can’t get an A.
With a writing prompt, you have ten minutes to write and you’re not allowed to stop writing. You don’t have time to worry about universal meaning. You don’t have time to think about the reader. You don’t have time to be critical or editorial.
You simply write. You create. And you see what comes of it.
Allow me to demonstrate.
Pick a subject: the broader, the better. Let’s do “St. Patrick’s Day” since it was yesterday. Set the timer and begin.
The bagpipes whine mournfully over the bright green hills. The drums are soft and subdued and yet I can’t help tap my toe and bounce my knee to the rhythm. The screech of the violin strings. The fast moving feet of the step-dancers. Their skirts flap back and forth as they kick their feet high in front of them. I learned to step-dance in England when I visited with my high school band. The daughter of my host family showed me on the back patio. Step, step, step, step, kick, ball change. We hopped back and forth across the length of the in-laid bricks, our hands at our side, our hair swinging from side to side across our shoulders.
DING! Time’s up.
Is it great writing? Not yet it's not. As soon as the timer dings, I can begin to craft it into great writing.
But what does it mean? Does it have to mean anything? To me, what's important is: does it spark something in your memory? You’re probably now thinking about St. Patrick’s Day yourself—what you do, what you remember, what you think about it. You might be thinking about YOUR trip to England or the time you learned a dance move. Set the timer. Write it down.
This is such an important part of writing, in my opinion. It’s casual and relaxed. It helps you generate material. It helps you find ideas you may not have thought of otherwise. Is it publishable writing? Not usually. It’s writing for the sake of writing. It’s writing that leads to better writing. It’s the starting point for what may be a great blog, a great essay, a great novel.
It’s practice. And every writer needs practice, no matter how long they’ve been writing.
And so I hereby declare the instatement of Writing Prompt Wednesday.
If you are a writer, or if you like to write (one and the same, if you ask me), won’t you join me? Let’s take a little breather from teaching the world how to think, how to feel, how to love. Instead, let’s sit in the quiet, the ticktickticktick from the timer the only sound, and string beautiful words together.
“He wanted to cry quietly but not for himself: for the words, so beautiful and sad, like music.” - James Joyce
What are some topics that would make good writing prompts? Leave me some suggestions below! Or write for ten minutes about St. Patrick’s Day and post your writing prompt results in the comments!