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?