Timed Prompts

Most of us might be familiar with writing prompts where a bunch of words, a theme, a picture, etc, are used to help get creativity jump started when faced with a blank piece of paper. And you usually have quite some time to ponder, brainstorm, even research after initial ideas are written on paper. You might have a day, a week or a month or longer. For practical purposes, I am calling these “un-timed prompt.” These are often appealing because there is little to no time pressure. But what do you think about the imposing of short time limits when responding to a prompt: 60 minutes, 20 minutes, or even 5 minutes? Do you like them? Why or why not? These are rhetorical questions about “timed prompts” that I will try to answer, at least in part. You might be surprised to learn that they are very useful.

The 60-minute prompt
The first time I participated in timed prompts was of this kind. In what was called the “Sunday Flash” in the Poetry Wing of Francis Coppola’s Virtual Studio called American Zoetrope — a free writer’s place to learn and teach. (By the way, the “Sunday Flash” has nothing to do with Flash Fiction.) And once in a while, the challenge extends to a daily basis (as for the months of July and August 2011). The participant is to write a poem given a prompt given by some moderating the challenge. They are usually a simple word or phrase, but might be more involved. See some actual examples below. One has an hour (which flashes by) to write a poem, then posts it for light comments. Over the rest of the afternoon, one reads the other poems and comments on them (usually something light and encouraging, but hopefully helpful; it’s not the regular critique one might get in a formal review). This might be more of a social event, but it does manage to give you a rough draft — a starting point for a serious revision. I like the one-hour limit. I feel that’s enough time to get something substantial down (and possibly do some mild revision), but most certainly it should be enough time to spin some wheels, brainstorm, and hammer something out.

Some recent daily and Sunday flash prompts (some shortened for brevity)

8/15 Riot In the Heart
8/14 Shoot the Freak
8/13 Rebellion
8/12 Spills
8/11 Under the Microscopes
8/10 Prism
8/9 Irreparably Yours
8/8 Cry Me an Ocean
8/7 The Nothing At All
8/6 Fortitude
8/5 Inelegant Reply
8/4 Rapture
8/3 Cosmonaut
8/2 Spells
8/1 What I Have Left of Desire
7/31 How can I miss you if you won’t go away?
6/26 The ___________ is/are back.
6/19 It’s Father’s day and we all have one. He may be a good one or he may be a bad one. A tough guy or a wuss. He may be a presence in your life or an absence, here or gone. You may love him or hate him. Whatever he may mean you can write a poem.
6/12 (1) Write a poem, any style, that mentions something about medicine. Or (2) Write a piece using stream of consciousness like that of Samuel Beckett’s, a technique pioneered by Virginia Wolf and James Joyce. Think Ulysses.
6/5 Umbrageous (adjective) Affording or forming shade. Synonyms: shadowed, shady Usage: The chief beauty of trees consists in the deep shadow of their umbrageous boughs.
5/29 Write a poem using my favorite ubiquitous bird, “sparrows.”

The 20-minute prompt
I encountered these in a poetry workshop design to stimulate a watershed of drafts or ideas for a draft. At first, I pooh-poohed the idea. I complained to myself that that wasn’t enough time. I felt a lot of pressure and thought I’d embarrass myself with garbage. Indeed, I found myself needing 10-15 minutes to brainstorm and then write like hell to get something down. I didn’t think I would like this… but I was wrong. I’ve attended a workshop sponsored by Tennessee Mountain Writers called Jumpstart three times. And two of those times were with Bill Brown, an established voice in Nashville. With him, I produced 16 solid drafts in those 20-minute writing exercises (and I’m not counting the additional ideas for poem that started to nucleate there). Many of which went on to become published after revision. And some of those poems drew accolades from distinguished poets, like the National Book Award winner, Art Smith, when I shared them in a different type of conference — the Meacham’s Writers Worskshop offered free twice a year in Chattanooga, TN.

With this rate of productivity, how could I not favor the 20-minute prompt? I will say that the prompt was prefaced with a discussion of poetry published by established voices exemplifying what the workshop leader was getting at for his forthcoming prompt. That certainly helped us mine our experiences to see what could be unearthed. Apparently, the time pressure coaxed us to work more efficiently to make those associations between our experiences and what we read or heard how other poets handled it. I will say that for me, at the time, it didn’t seem to be a productive exercise, but the reality of it is that it was.

The 5-minute prompt
I laughed in mockery when I was asked to write a poem in what seemed to be an absurdly short amount of time, but I was surprised. The prompt has to be simple because of the virtually no brainstorming time available for processing too much information, but has to be specific enough to stimulate immediate associations. At a seminar (CreateHere in Chattanooga) a year or two ago, we were given a simple prompt. Use two specified words (in any form) in a poem. I probably spent more time complaining than writing, but I saw everyone really trying… so I did too. In five minutes I had scribbled several short lines, inserted transitional lines as they occurred to me, and used a lot of arrows and circled fragments to restructure what I had. Reading my writing and following the map of words was a real challenge. It was around 60 words. No, it wasn’t much of a poem, but it contained the heart of what became a 180-word, which is currently being considered for publication. The time pressure in this exercise was obviously the greatest among the three types discussed here, yet I was able to produced an extremely strong poem (after many revisions and much research).

Here is that same prompt. Try it.

Remember, you have five minutes to scribble something down. It might be the beginning of something, the kernel of a poem… whatever. Don’t expect it to be a finished (or even nearly finished), but do be surprised at the success of this technique. Now it might not work for you in solitude. Maybe it worked for me because there was group working hard putting silent pressure on me. I don’t know the “psychology” behind this kind of prompt, all I know is that it works and one can eventually get a very good poem from it.

Okay, here are the 2 words: HONEY and PICKLE


I swear that I will never complain about a timed prompt again; they have produced so many wonderful poems.

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