Writing prompts are little imagination-jogs (aka kicks in the literary pants) meant to get a writer, well, actually writing. They’re most often employed to overcome that notorious phenomenon known as writer’s block, the wall of trepidation the blank page seems to generate. Other writers use them when a piece’s momentum faltered, a feeling akin to being too tired to crest a hill just before reaching the summit.
However, while reading In the Shadow of the American Dream, the journals of writer/artist David Wojnarowicz, I had an idea for a different type of prompt. (Different for me. I’m sure it’s been done and I’m simply ignorant of it.)
In his journals, Wojnarowicz occasionally does a very writerly thing: he spots a random person on the street and makes up a story about them. Here’s an example:
Kid on Market Street
He reminded me of one of those wolf children they find in remote jungles or forests of India and bring snarling and spitting to one of Mother Theresa’s orphanages where he will refuse to eat, walk on curled knuckles, and sleep in a dark corner on a small rug as opposed to the downy mattress, tortured by halogen lights and media crews. He will die within the year.
First, I have to admit I was curious about the kind of person who inspired such revelry. (Of course, Wojnarowicz was living in late 70s downtown Manhattan, long before the city became a sterilized playground for the rich; he probably daily waded through a menagerie of such people.) But then the short story gave me an idea for a writing prompt. Not to pick out an interesting person and construct a similar imagined history, but instead to start writing a story, a poem, a novel, whatever, that would end with the sentence, “He/she will die within the year.” Sort of a reverse prompt, an terminus rather than a launch.
In my own writing, I sometimes find it helpful to know where I’m going before I start; it more readily coaxes out those tentative first lines. Sort of like the physical act of running. If someone told me to Run,” I’d have a hard time — unsure of the reason, dubious what all the commotion was about — going very far before stopping. But if I’m told “Run to X,” I might keep up the pace, at least for a longer stretch, with a known end, a goal to run towards. The reverse prompt is the writing equivalent of the latter.
Maybe later I’ll post some of my reverse-prompt inspired work.