As first a student of writing and later a teacher of writing at a variety of grade levels, I have long recognized the value of writing prompts. In the beginning, I don’t believe any of my teachers used the word prompts. I initially received assignments and then maybe ideas for assignments. But sometimes those assignments or ideas were broken down into parts, steps, or processes, and somewhere along the way, in one of the many venues through which I was educated, I learned about and began to practice using invention strategies, which I now define with the more shorthand term prompts. Merriam Webster defines the noun prompt as “something that prompts: reminder.” I like this definition because it hints at the idea of memory or remembering, which I believe is a component of most good writing.
For a brief time in the Fall of 2012, I offered weekly “Impromptu” sessions at Oakland University’s student union building as an adjunct creative writing faculty member. Merriam Webster defines the noun impromptu as “made, done or formed on or as if on the spur of the moment,” and “composed or uttered without previous preparation.” I used the word impromptu to describe the sessions because, in part, I wanted to emphasize that writing is often done well or most honestly when we approach it obliquely – at least for those of us who like to procrastinate or suffer from the kind of avoidance that makes us cringe to hear ourselves say: “Well, now I’m going to sit down and write for three hours.” If we approach the act of writing sometimes as a little game we can play or a mere short-term commitment, often the act itself feels less foreboding.
I also like the word impromptu also because of the 1991 movie of the same name about musician Frederick Chopin and writer Georges Sand.
While writing prompts are helpful for individuals who write and like to have external ideas and forms available to shake up their thinking, writing prompts are also helpful for individuals who are trying to solve problems – not only complex analytical problems but also emotional and traumatic problems stemming from life events. Diary and journal writing has long been viewed as potentially helpful for individuals who aim to “get their frustrations out on the page,” but writing prompts also help individuals search inside themselves and find moments that are worth recalling, capturing, narrating, and reflecting upon as they are recorded on that page.
When I wrote my memoir about living and dying with cancer, I used several writing prompts along the way, especially on the days I felt most despairing about my circumstances and my state of mind. Some of the prompts were old standbys that I’d used for years, some of them were formal and published in books, and some of them came to me in an impromptu manner.
I share the prompt below with the idea that it can serve as an exercise for writers of all kinds – those seeking to create for the sake of creating and those seeking to make sense of experiences or exorcise demons.
The Tree Prompt
After my parents died somewhat unexpectedly, a few months apart, while I was pregnant with my second child, I struggled to make sense of things. A psychologist I was working with did a few sessions with me in which we worked on prompts, a practice that was fitting for me because of my life as a writer. The first prompt we did was about trees. I still have the entry in a journal. I found the exercise particularly comforting because like most people, I’d had significant trees that I remembered from my childhood, many of which had associations to my parents.
I’ve adapted and augmented that writing prompt I did myself so long ago, giving it a few layers. The result isn’t terribly complex, but the steps will help you find a topic by seeding your brain with a few preliminary questions to get you started.
- Take a large index card (or any other piece of paper that gives you some space). Write numbers 1-5 in descending order on the left side, leaving three lines open for each number.
- Examine the course of your life and think of any trees with which you have some sort of connection – the tree from a familiar yard, the tree on a path you travelled frequently by foot or by car, the unkempt apple tree down the street that everyone in your neighborhood stole apples from on Halloween to smash against some unfortunate stranger’s parked car.
- In as few words as possible, write down a brief way of noting each tree, just as little as you need to identify it in your brain. You don’t have to know what kind of tree it is – you just need to know how you relate to it and why it’s important to you. My few-word phrases are short – tree at the end of Sunderland house driveway, tree by the Sunderland house mailbox, trees in Rod Anderson’s yard, tree hanging over the steps at the Dalton cottage. Take about five minutes to complete this step.
- Next to each tree phrase you’ve listed, write one descriptive word. For example, I used the word “spreading” to describe one of my trees and “network” to describe another. Take about five minutes to complete this step.
- For the next step, write one emotionally charged word that is somehow related to the tree. Words I came up with for my trees were “guardian,” “empathetic,” “concealment,” and “refuge.” Take about five minutes to complete this step.
- Now you must make a decision. Which tree is speaking to you the most? Which do you want to write about? What you say about the tree is going to be wide open, so you should pick the tree that you think has the most to say to you.
- After a few minutes, start writing. As you prepare to settle in and write for about fifteen minutes, think about the following questions:
- Why did you pick this tree out of the five?
- You don’t have to describe the tree, but many people do enjoy describing living things in nature, so you are certainly welcome to spend some of your time describing the tree as you remember it. If you don’t remember anything about its appearance, don’t worry.
- Is there a person you associate with this tree in any way?
- Is this tree a friend or foe? Since this tree has come up in this writing exercise, it may be of great comfort to you or it may be associated with a negative experience in your life. You may choose to write about either the positive or the negative. Or both.
- Assume this tree knows everything there is to know about you. If it had one thing to say to you, one thing it could share, what would that one thing be?
Take fifteen minutes to write. Set a timer. Try to write without stopping; back in the 1980s, when Peter Elbow was the guru we educators turned to for help, this type of writing was called the “focused freewrite.” But if you need to stop because your fingers are tired or because you can’t bear to write one more second or because you have to go to the bathroom, I grant you leave to take a brief, brief break. But make sure to get your fifteen minutes in, and consider expanding that fifteen minutes to twenty, but no more.
What you have will not be a finished piece of writing, but you have produced something – an idea or a turn of phrase that you may want to keep writing about.
To add to this piece, consider these possibilities:
- If you think you can figure out what kind of tree you selected, consider looking up the basic facts about this type of tree on Wikipedia. It can be really rewarding to name trees and learn about them, but not all people are wired to label or identify things.
- Taking a field trip to the tree or one similar can be fun, and seeing the tree up close obviously allows for more descriptive opportunities.
- If you are writing about yourself in a memoir or essay type of piece, fill in detail about how this tree came to you for this exercise.
- If you write fiction, consider having one of your characters be focused on the tree, for whatever reason.