For the past thirty-five years, I’ve been studying exactly what makes a great writing prompt. I pride myself in being able to sit down with a student, have them tell me what’s happening in their life (or where they’re stuck in their writing), and ten minutes later, hand them a powerful, effective, personalized, targeted list of writing prompts to help them excavate deeper material or get unstuck. For me, it’s always a fun challenge to think about exactly what wording might best unlock the gush of words that can emerge in response to a powerful prompt.
Good writing prompts should always be evocative. Rather than something flat and boring, like, “Tell me about two characters that meet in a bar,” the best prompts jar a writer into something new. A well-worded prompt should feel almost like a burr in your side. It should make you feel provoked, edgy, spurred to respond.
A good prompt can lead you to remember something you haven’t thought about in a month, a year, even fifty years. When my students do freewriting in response to a prompt, and it’s their turn to read, they often report how thrilled they are to have uncovered a memory or story that they’d forgotten—sometimes for decades. Whether it’s a joyful memory or a painful one doesn’t really matter. They’re grateful to be getting part of their lives back. A strong prompt is a great antidote to a failing or faulty memory.
The best prompts are targeted and specific, rather than generic. Consider how much more powerful it is to respond to the prompt, “My father’s hands,” than it is to write from the much more non-specific suggestion, “Tell me about your father.” The first prompt evokes an instant visceral response and an image; the second is too broad and generic to give you an immediate starting place. There are too many options.
I’ve written hundreds of pieces about my mother from writing prompts. This short piece came from one of my all-time favorite prompts. Every time I give it to a new group of students, the writing is powerful, vivid, and evocative.
“Tell me about your mother’s legs.”
Whether you loved your mother, hated your mother, loved and hated your mother, didn’t know your mother, had three mothers, have a living mother or a dead mother, a young mother or an old one, this prompt brings you into the immediacy of a tangible part of her and inevitably spurs great writing. I find that the written responses, even though they’re ostensibly about her legs, almost always reveal so much more of the dynamics of the mother-daughter relationship than a more generic or direct prompt like, “Tell me about your mother.” Or “What was the hardest thing about your relationship with your mother?” That leads to too much debate and uncertainty. Your mother’s legs? That leads to a clear and definite image.
Here’s one of my many responses to this prompt over the years
My mother’s legs
My mother’s legs quiver as they dangle down off the doctor’s table. Her legs have stayed shapely and thin, not swollen with fluid like so many 86-year-old legs. But they are not still; they dance of their own accord, her muscles twitching to their own erratic beat. “Look at my hands,” she says, holding them out in front of her, as they tremble. “I can’t write anymore,” she says. “I can’t read my handwriting.”
“That must be really hard, Mom,” I say, and I think how I, the writer would feel if I couldn’t write. If I couldn’t type. If I couldn’t button my shirts or hold a cup of coffee without it spilling down my shirt. Dr. Eisendorf looks at Temme with a warm smile and takes hold of her hands, more for simple human contact than any diagnostic reason.
“And see these spots,” she says, bemoaning the brown and purple blotches that discolor her once-firm toned arms. “Why do I have these spots?”
My heart breaks for her. She brings up the spots at every appointment, each time as if we’ve never discussed them before. And I don’t blame her. I’d hate to be covered with spots like that. And I have a hundredth of the vanity my mother has.
At 18, my mother was the Campus Queen of City College of New York. Being a beautiful woman has always mattered to her. Her looks opened doors for her. Her looks were her passport to the world. And now she is shrunken and diminished, her skin mottled with bruises that do not heal. “It’s the Coumadin, Mom,” I tell her. “It’s the Coumadin and the Prednisone.”
“And why do I take those meds?” she asks Dr. Eisendorf.
I like Bruce Eisendorf. No, I love Bruce Eisendorf. He is a kind compassionate man, a doctor who takes the time to listen to my mother’s complaints at every visit, even though it’s the same complaints repeatedly, often more than once in the same visit. “You’re taking Prednisone because last year you had PMR and you were having a hard time moving. We’re trying to get you off that, but it’s going to take some time. And you’re on Coumadin so you don’t have a stroke.”
My mother extends her hands and together, the three of us all watch them shake. “See, my hands, look how they’re shaking. I think it’s got to be a reaction to one of my meds.”
Bruce shakes his head, noncommittal. With someone Temme’s age, with all her multiple problems, it’s hard to figure out why her hands are shaking.
And then Bruce takes a sharp probe and begins to touch the bottom of her feet and the inside of her famous, Davis legs. He’s testing for neuropathy, wanting to see how much feeling she has in the bottom of her feet, in her legs.
My mother’s legs have been walking legs for years. My mother’s legs did water aerobics and tai chi and took long walks on the New Jersey Boardwalk. Now my mother’s legs are unsteady when she gets up, and her shortness of breath keeps her from walking far.
My mother’s legs took her to Japan and Russia and Israel. They took her to the Mediterranean Sea and the Riviera. They took her to Tahiti. Now my mother’s legs rise slowly from the couch and tremble behind her red metal walker. My mother’s legs can barely get her to the dining room at Sunshine Villa and back to her room. But they’re still beautiful and well-shaped. Thin and firm in all the right places.
P.S. This is one of many perfectly good pieces of writing that did not make the final cut into the book. I wanted to hold on to it—but it didn’t serve the arc of my story. It wasn’t necessary and I had to cut 50,000 words out of my book. What I’ve noticed is that ruthless cutting gets easier the more experienced I am as a writer. The more I write, the easier it gets to let things go. Every word loses its preciousness. I trust that more words will come. I’m willing to sacrifice beauty and hard work for the sake of the whole.
The Burning Light of Two Stars is available in paperback, eBook, and audiobook wherever books are sold. There are links here to buy signed copies, bulk copies, and to support independent bookstores with your purchase. You can also read the first five chapters for free.
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