On Motivation and Writing Prompts

October 2020: Some quickly assembled and incomplete thoughts on the use of writing prompts and the vocation of art-making, inspired by this conversation on Micro.blog.

Prompts don’t “force” us to be creative: they give us an excuse to practice, to play with our tools, and, if we’re lucky, to make discoveries we might not otherwise have made.

Art is a craft, and all crafts use tools to shape things. We must practice to remain fluent with our tools, and to stay familiar with the raw materials from which we shape our art. So a prompt for a writer is no different from, say, a fingering exercise for a musician.

It is pointless to use a writing prompt, of course, if we assume that to be “creative” is to know ahead of time what we will say, as if we have “something to say” and we are simply trying to say it. But making art is also a process of discovery, of exploration. A prompt is always only a beginning, never an ending, of that exploration. Suppose you decide, Maybe I’ll drive up Highway 99 today. That’s the prompt. If you think you already know what you’ll see on your drive, you’ll probably stay home. And if you have to go to the grocery store, you will need no further prompt than a bare cupboard.

We should be careful not to confuse vocation with compulsion. An artist is, simply, someone who shows up every day to make art. To show up every day requires a sort of compulsion, of course, but something more than compulsion must keep us in the chair once we sit down, and something more than compulsion must keep us working even when we’d rather be doing something else. That “something more” is vocation.

If you’re hoping your obsession will be an engine that moves you constantly to action, if you’re waiting for your obsession to somehow propel you into making art, you may be waiting your whole life. Because there is always some other competing obsession, something else we’d rather be doing.

Without a vocation, we may find ourselves buffeted by our obsessions and preoccupations as they each clamor for our attention. Our whims will drive us away from our desks as easily as they drove us to them. And that’s fine! But we should keep in mind that if we don’t choose our concerns, our concerns may very well choose us, with decidedly mixed results.

As Annie Dillard says, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” If you are someone who “simply must” spend each day doing something, then you will look for any excuse to do that something. And a writing prompt is just one small excuse among many.

Added from the conversation: I generally see a prompt as something for when you’re already sitting down with your guitar or pen or camera or paint, and you’re asking yourself, “What will I work on today?” A prompt may be: running major scales in DADGAD tuning, or using only shades of yellow, or avoiding all words with the letter E, or limiting yourself to a 50mm lens set at ƒ/2.8. Or, of course, “staircase.”

Prompts are just suggestions to challenge ourselves, and to keep us working even when we’re not feeling “inspired” to work. Inspiration, in my experience, may get our ass in the chair, but it won’t carry us very far after that, especially if we’re expecting it to do all the work.

If you go months or years without picking up your guitar, then maybe you’re just a guy with a guitar in his apartment. And that’s okay! But if you want to be a guitar player, you gotta sit down with it even when you don’t feel like it. Same with writing: you have to do it as often and regularly as you can. Having a writing prompt gives you a place to start.