The PowerPoint link above is primarily for the Chattanooga Writers’ Guild attendees to my program on October 12, 2021, but others can use it too. The contents below, to which is referred to in the presentation has been greatly revised from the previous 2011 version present before today.
The Infinitely-timed or Un-timed prompt: I usually like to have quite some time to ponder, brainstorm, even research initial ideas even if/when they’re written on paper. I might take a day, a week 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 (until we wait till the last minute if we happen to be doing the writing for a particular venue, project, prompt group, etc. However, these are usually done in solitude.
The 60-minute prompt: The first time I participated in timed prompts, they were of this kind. I see them called “Sunday Flashes” (the Friends of Linnet’s Wings Facebook page, the not-now-very-active Poetry Wing of Francis Coppola’s Virtual Studio called American Zoetrope (2021), Visual Verse: An Anthology of Art and Words, to mention three. In an hour, one can write a solid draft of a short poem or even a 500 flash fiction piece, but at least a skeleton for some bigger pieces.
The 20-minute prompt: This kind of prompt works well in a poetry workshop environment designed to stimulate a watershed of first drafts. At first, of course there’s not much time but at least the pressure can be mitigated with a good discussion with examples of work by established voices before the prompt is given to provide starting points otherwise I would find myself needing a good portion of that time to brainstorm and then write like hell to get something down. In these times, the cellphone/computer might allow a quick “research” into one of my ideas. At first, I didn’t think I would like this short time but I was wrong. What’s often amazing is that as soon as I start writing, it almost never seems that there’s enough time to finish the thought. As with this prompt, and those below, they are usually done in a group. There is a “group effect,” I think, that is often very positive/productive. Perhaps we extract “energy” from that. We writers, who normally are alone when we write, get to be with others of our kind. “Birds of a feather, flock together” and have fun.
The 10-minute prompt: Originated out of necessity in a small group setting that allowed time to write to a prompt that can quickly trigger the imagination. For this reason, since “pictures speak a thousand words,” images often make good prompts. One should have one to two minutes to study the prompt and write for the rest of the time. Apparently, the time pressure coaxes me to work more efficiently to make those associations between the image, or something giving me an image (any sensory stimulus), and my experiences. Many great drafts have been produced like this, and subsequently published after revision, and even won prizes (“Standing Up” (Nadwah: Poetry in Translation won the 2020 Dwarf Star Award.)
The 5-minute prompt: I laughed in mockery when I was asked to write a something in that absurdly short time, but I was surprised. The prompt has to be simple because there would be virtually no brainstorming time available for processing too much information, but has to be specific enough to stimulate immediate associations. After I got over it (which ate up precious time), I wrote 60 words to a prompt requiring me to use two “random” words (they were honey and pickle). Reading what I scribbled was a challenge. I circled word/phrases, used lined arrows, and numbered them to sequence them into something intelligent (like what I’d sometimes do for the longer-timed prompts). Though I didn’t write much then, I did have the heart of a poem, which evolved into a 180-word piece, “Bread & Butter Pickles,” that found a very nice market a few years later (Conclave: A Journal of Character, 2012).
Conclusion: During those timed prompts on’t expect it to be a finished (or even nearly finished), but do be surprised at the success of these shorter timed prompts and can eventually morph into very good story or poem.
I swear that I will never complain about a timed prompt again; they have produced so many wonderful poems and prose pieces.