Writing Prompts and Other Surprises

It’s a simple equation: (Wish To Write + Ideas) * X = Writers Block. X may equal procrastination, perfectionism, fear, distractions, or that shadow that’s been growing in the corner of the room for the past hour and from which you’re now pretty sure you can hear breathing and muttering. At any rate, you need help (or at least your writing does; you yourself may be beyond rescuing).

To which I say: good luck, try writing prompts. They’re these handy little open-ended phrases created by other people with the sole purpose of getting you started. I recently Googled “writing prompts” and came up with this list of 60 (which is two month’s worth of one a day, as they helpfully point out).

Lord help me, they’re terrifying. They work. Because I would rather write ANYTHING than come up with a response to, for example, #25, “If I knew then what I know now.” I do not jest when I say this: upon reading this prompt, I immediately started to second guess everything I ever learned and descended into utter “what is the meaning of life” existential madness. (Sample brainloop: Do I REALLY know more now than I did then? Or do I just ASSUME or HOPE that’s the case because present-me needs to feel superior to past-me? What is the “now” versus “then” they refer to, anyway? What is time? Where is that video of Henri the Cat?)

Compared to that, I’ll happily focus on writing topics that don’t induce use of the Caps Lock key any day.

But some of these prompts did resonate with…something, inside me. They may yet emerge once I’ve had time to think them over. #45, “I open the last book on earth.” Immediately, I remember the power of Fahrenheit 451‘s conclusion. People become books – ” ‘Walk carefully. Guard your health. If anything should happen to Harris, you are the Book of Ecclesiastes. See how important you’ve become in the last minute!’ ” (Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451).

I find depths of insight in Bradbury (more on him later), and this scene in particular has shaped my view of societies, cultures, and the accumulated learning that is the best excuse for civilization. Knowledge emerges in unusual ways, sparked by odd chemistries and catalysis and chimerisms. The rational world provides a framework, but something else flutters around its bars, just out of sight. As a writer, allowing this mental ecosystem to emerge and evolve is one of the most difficult tasks – it is far too easy to go in with pruning shears and over-critical judgement, as it were, and accidentally exterminate a few evolutionary lines – and then spend the next several days staring at a blank page, wondering why everything is so scorched-earth quiet.

Hence my newfound respect for the writing prompt. I envision it as the equivalent of a night vision camera, allowing me to capture elusive species in their undisturbed state inside my head. It surprises them as much as me – and I find surprise is a wonderful antidote to self-criticism, because you can’t argue with it. You can analyze it, yes. But you know you were surprised. And since it is notoriously hard to tame – unlike that thing in the corner – your best bet is to leave the windows open and hope a surprise flies in. Or try writing prompts. Because if I knew then what I know now…you get the idea.

For a wonderful exploration of the element of surprise, look up Terry Pratchett’s Thief of Time. And as always, please share surprises or writing prompts in the comments!


Why Write? Morbid Remoras.

“Particles of raw inspiration sleet through the universe all the time. Every once in a while one of them hits a receptive mind…”

Terry Pratchett, Wyrd Sisters

At the age of six, I was obsessed with Julia Child and Agatha Christie. Six is also when I discovered reading, which pretty much takes care of the rest of this section.


At nineteen, my job involved filing back issues of Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, a cheerful publication from the CDC that contains statistics on ways to die. (The fact that there are, in fact, statistics indicates that it is not just one individual who has died this way, but quite a lot of people.) This – combined with concurrent classes on economy, policy, and design – focused my attention on ways to improve society through systemic change.

The obvious outcome of all this is – I now write. Because the thing is, people don’t typically like systemic change. People do like novel ideas, as long as they’re safely locked in a page (or Kindle, or PDF). And that’s fine. Most broad measures of systemic change are terrible. They’re the product of people like me who don’t actually live (or die) any of the stuff we like to talk about and analyze and take apart (Heaven forbid putting it back together again, we’ve already lost most of the screws and our betta fish ate the instruction manual).

The takeaway of the above paragraph is this: systemic change isn’t very good for effecting systemic change. Ideas are much, much better. They’re subtle. They’re like the cultural equivalent of remoras, those fish that attach to sharks and won’t come off. Certain ideas never really seem to die; they fade in and out of view, hovering at the edge of the zeitgeist for a few millennia or so, and when you’re least expecting it they come bursting out of the woodwork. Voila, my friends, there you have the Copernican theory of the solar system, or some other such inevitable-in-retrospect idea. Likewise, a good idea attaches to a person’s mind. Over the course of that person’s life, the idea will meet many other people and ideas and may produce some unlikely hybrids – but if conditions are just right, and enough idea-remoras of the same type are present, the ideas will have the sort of frenzy you usually see on something narrated by David Attenborough and, in a matter of months or a few years, produce what an army of squabbling politicians, PR gurus, and scientists couldn’t do for decades.

My job, as a writer, is simply to nurture particularly helpful remoras by placing them in a context where they can meet the right people. Sort of like dating coach for brains. And fish.

Ah, metaphors. At any rate, now you know the raison d’être. Feel free to share any remoras on books, systemic change, or nature documentaries in the comments!


First Draft

Death is on my mind.

Not in a Goth (or even Goethe) sort of way. I have no patience for the makeup and Faust should have better researched his bargaining tactics. But I try to pay attention to living, because it’s a limited commodity. My life, yours – one day they’re going to irretrievably change, or end, or evolve beyond anything other humans will recognize. This is a demonstrable fact, and probability backs me.

However. On one side of that event, we have the great questions of Theology, Philosophy, Cosmology, and whatever theoretical physicists are up to these days. On the other, we have… this. Talking (thinking) at one another through a box, connected by electricity (because try doing anything when the power goes out).

Of course, we’re connected by much more. Language, the aforementioned Death, a strong likelihood of shared culture and mental constructs. And possibly by thoughts we discover together, ideas we string up like popcorn at Christmas. I’d like someone to share that knowledge with, because there’s a fine line between exploring the Universe and falling off it’s edge. You are, presumably, looking for something entertaining to help fill your time. So here’s the deal: spend some of your lifetime reading these thoughts, and I’ll give you my perspective. It’s at least somewhat unique, because no one else will ever again look out at the Universe from my eyes, my skull, my brain. Between your life and my mind, we’ll create new understandings of what our senses tell us – or at least travel through time together for a while.

You see, I lied. I’ve always had a soft spot for Faust. I prefer the version where he’s redeemed. I don’t think knowledge is a death note, and whether you find God or the Devil in the details (see here), I’m eager to learn from the vast array of experiences other humans have recorded or expressed during their time – so please join me in exploring them here.