Assignment: Complaint Essay

I hate prompts. Loathe them entirely. The first Creative Writing class I ever took involved a prompt nearly every day it met. And, everyday, I would grind my teeth and set to work, scrawling some page-worth rubbish about a clown who lost her limb in a blender.

“If you were a clerk in a gas station,” the prompt begins, “write about what you would do to stay busy in your downtime.” Impossible, I want to shout. Instead I sit there, fidgeting absently and muttering under my breath about the futility of it all. My notebook is covered in more doodles and quips from a box of french fries than actual responses to the prompts.

There is something to be said for imagination, yes. But this? Perhaps, if you had requested I write a page on “What It’s Like to Fight Sleep During School” or “The Proper Reaction to Your Parents Informing You of Their Impending Adoption.” I could write somethings–because I’ve had some experience with both of those. Or even, “What Would It Be Like To Be the First Man  To Fly”–not because I am a man, or because no one has ever flown before, but because I could understand the newness, the terror of flying. I could write about the gut-churning awfulness that sinks in when you’ve had your  solid ground suddenly yanked out from under you… I could write of the way one’s perspective changes as they see things from new heights.

But I have never been a gas station attendant. I haven’t spent enough time in a gas station (beyond a “$20 on pump six, thanks” and a “That’s $1.49 for the muffin, hon”) to understand just what such a job really entails.

So stop it with the prompts, Ghosts of Charms Classes Past. Sure, hearing the senior read a dizzying piece about a chef and a meat cleaver and a lobster that recites Pythagorean’s theorem is a treat… but at what expense? I understand your argument–that if writers write only what they know, it gets dull, and fast. I get that. But writers should, ultimately, stick to what they understand–what they care about, empathize with–and, by taking that, broaden their literary horizons. If challenging yourself to write about things you don’t understand causes your work to slide back to a slough of regimented, soulless description that no one can connect to, which communicates no truth, then what is the point?

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6 thoughts on “Assignment: Complaint Essay

    • In short? Conversation. I realize much of the essay was directed more at the four-years-past CW class structure, but I am thoroughly convinces that it’s what makes for some of the most personable topic-writing. Nothing frustrated me more than when we were given a prompt, then issued a 15 Minute Silent Writing Time. Granted, some people require more silence to collect their thoughts, but how could a pause for discussion not be a boon to all writers involved? So long as it doesn’t stray into bouncy dogs and Batman and the like, a structured discussion of the topic could help broaden the writers’ minds enough that they find the one facet of the topic which catches the light just right, allowing them to write about it. Thinking back to Monday’s class, I can see evidence of both. When we brought up the Wedding Essay, the entire class broke out in a flurry of concerns and confusion. Even those who had written already were unsure as to the parameters of the assignment, and I doubt any of us had given the topic the though it merits before launching into a dissertation of it. That’s not to say the explanation of the assignment was lacking, but that we were still lost in our perhaps underdeveloped thoughts concerning the specific topic. When you assigned the Only You Can Write It Essay, our response was rather similar at first. But, because you read such an essay you had written, it allowed us time to bounce out thoughts off the example, and come to more finite terms with our ideas. That, combined with the brief discussion that followed, did more to help me pinpoint the angle I would choose than introspection alone ever could.

      • Wonderful advice! I will take it to heart and take a shot at applying it! What if the weekly assignments were bolstered with conversation BEFORE instead of just after (as after is, of course, absolutely vital)? Would you do away with the assignments altogether? Make them more conducive to helpful personal experience? Is something like “write the essay only you can write” crossing into the realm of unhelpfulness that you delineate above? Thanks for your input!

      • Thank you so much!! Both for actually hearing me out, and for endeavoring to apply my admittedly confusing advice. Also, for pterodactyls and the color neon and grape juice. The trouble with my propositions is this: It’d be idyllic if we could discuss even BEFORE the assigning of assignments.. making the prompts based off topics brought up in thoughtful discussion. *le sigh* il ne pourrait jamais être.
        As much as I resent prompts, it seems impossible to have a creative writing class–or, indeed, to grow/practice as a creative writer–without them. The reason I enjoy the concept of the “only you could write it” essay so much is because I think all essays should be, to a degree, like that. Instead, they seem to be spat from the cogs of a great, grinding, no-room-for-your-soul-here machine. But I don’t know. Maybe being able to take a prompt like “Write From the POV of a Freshly-Scrubbed Floor,” and somehow pouring your thoughts on other things (life, the universe, carnival rides) into it is what makes a writer truly golden.
        I don’t think I actually answered any of your questions with that… so. Yes, to conversations beforehand. When assigned, preferably. A bit of example (such as your polymath essay) would also be appreciated. No, I wouldn’t do away with the assignments altogether… mostly because I’ve yet to find a suitable replacement. In all honesty, both your in and out-of-class prompts are far from the machine-manufactured prompts, and I’m incredibly grateful for your selection of these–especially the “only you can write” essay. Thanks again!!

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