Prompts, Time Limits, Creative Containers, and Magic

Here are five of my favorite writing prompts. They can help you to enrich your show or to find some major turning points in it. They can also simply be used as exercises to loosen you up right before you work on the script.

Have a timer handy so that you can answer each prompt within the recommended time limit. The time limits are short in order to prevent self-censorship and editing. Together, the prompts and time limits can stimulate deeply truthful answers, which are gold.

1. What’s the worst decision you ever made? (4-minute time limit.)
1b. Did anything good come of it? (2-minute time limit.)

2. What’s the best decision you ever made? (4-minute time limit.)

3. List five people who changed the course of your life in some way, for better or worse, short term or long term. Write about one of them and how they affected your life. (6-minute time limit.)

4. Write about something that’s gone. (5-minute time limit.)

5. Write about something that gives you joy. (5-minute time limit.)

Now that you’ve answered the prompts within the time limits, did you want more time for any of them because you didn’t finish giving your answer? Or did you finish but would now like to delve deeper into the nitty gritty? If so, set the same time limit that you had before, and continue answering that prompt.

If you still want more time after your second go, feel free to write for as long as you like. Take it away!

The point is to get yourself into the habit of writing truthfully on the spot without being precious about the process. If you hit the ground running (i.e., if your pen hits the page scribbling), something happens that allows truth, realization, and inspiration to flow.

This is preferable to writing gingerly around a topic until you finally get comfortable-ish. If you start with resistance, the entire job will be harder, and might not get done at all. You might end up writing about everything except the heart of the story.

Don’t get me wrong: I assume that you’re in a comfortable position with your favorite juice/coffee/tea/cocoa/etc. within arm’s reach, and that you’ve done some deep breathing to help yourself to “settle.” Any rituals you have that remind your psyche that it’s time to write/create are welcome.

But once you’ve sat down to write (or once you’ve stood up to improvise while recording it), the prompts and time limits are meant to jumpstart your creative process, regardless of your mood.

They’re simple questions (wink) and you only have to work on each one for four to six minutes. You can do one per creative session, or all of them in less than half an hour.

Easy.

I recommend answering a writing prompt whenever you get stuck while creating your show. You can find prompts in umpticatillion books and online. Always give yourself a short time limit just to get the stuff out of your head and onto the page or into the recorder.

It is never a waste of time. It may spark something that manifests magnificently in your show or in some other way down the line. You never know.

Hold onto your answers! Even if they don’t make their way into the show that you’re working on, they are the proof of your truest self in the moment that you created them, and they will be good to refer to for future projects. They can also be very grounding. I’ve looked at my answers to prompts from years ago and thought “Yes. That’s exactly how that felt. There’s a recurring theme that I’d like to explore more in another show.”

Keep all of your creating-a-show papers and recordings in one place. Twyla Tharp talks about putting it all in a box. Wherever you choose to put it, make it something that gives you comfort and perhaps even pride to look at. Something that reminds you, “I’m someone who creates. And in that box/bag/binder/tupperware/etc. is magic that only I could make.”

Full disclosure: I have a bag for my new show, and it does make me feel good when I look at it. But there are also a nice box and plain storage container in my office that hold a lot more stuff that I intend to use for…something…someday. I tend to feel guilty when I look at them.

So here’s my promise: before I publish next month’s blog post, I will rearrange the box and container in an attractive fashion and stick pretty labels onto them that remind me that there’s magic inside. I think that’ll go a long way toward changing my feelings about them.

I hope the prompts and time limits and containers will all help you in the creation of your show. Regardless, I hope you always remember that no matter how unglamorous, confusing, frustrating, or slow-going this creative work can be, you are nonetheless making magic.

Now, in a time when bigotry is on an even greater upswing than usual, one might begin to fear that there’s a dark magic afoot. There’s not. It’s just people who can—and in my opinion must—be stopped.

However, people have achieved great and terrible things via the stories they’ve told, and that may be a kind of magic, figuratively speaking. Of course that’s what I’m talking about.

I’m going to assume that your story is truthful. Here’s a tip: the more you’re willing to be vulnerable and make yourself the most flawed person in the play alongside your more likable traits, and thus make a connection with your audience’s vulnerability (and humanity), the more likely it is that you’re not telling a self-indulgent, narcissistic, I Wanna Be Popular story. In other words, it’s more likely that yours is a good magic.

Thank you for sharing it.

BONUS: John Steinbeck’s brief and superb advice on writing and how there’s magic in it:

Six Tips on Writing from John Steinbeck compiled by Maria Popova on Brainpickings.org

[Edited 02/02/17.-EL]


Thank you for reading my twentieth post! I love your comments! Please feel free to leave one below.

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