So last week, when this woman wanted to know whether I am “an assignment writer, or a prompt writer,” I must admit that a part of me had an instinct to make sure I was wearing all my clothes. Not literally, but I paused to check in: do I have everything I need to answer this question? Am I prepared, in basic ways? This question, like so many comments coming my way these days, are out of the blue, unscripted, and spontaneous. A far cry from the internal quiet pattern of drafting, writing and editing.
I answered her the best way I could at the time. I replied with a question. “What are you?” I asked. I turned to a tool that is really helping me right now: listening. I listened, less to attune myself to her, as in whatever you say, is my answer too, but more to catch my breath, and get a fuller picture.. Listening can offer a reprieve, a gap, a breath. It gave her a way to continue talking, and gave me a way to communicate without uttering a word. Listening is a way to summon up an inner editor, or create space between stimulus and response.
In her world view, a prompt writer is a writer who writes because they are inspired or triggered by an external stimulus or challenge. An assignment writer, on the other hand, is motivated by time, or an external deadline. They are motivated by someone or something is expecting something of them.
As I listened, I found that I could focus on my breath more, and notice how I was feeling, and actually pay attention to this woman. It turns out, she is decidedly a prompt writer, which is why she liked my book, but her husband was an assignment writer, and she went on to list everyone in her family as one or the other. And I listened more, marveling at the idea of dividing the world into prompts and assignments.
I noticed that I was beginning to wall myself off, and was hiding behind her answer. Right then and there, I challenged myself to join the conversation—not in the form of my book, but as me, sitting there in the moment. A squeaky sound came out of my body, and I realized it was my voice. It’s funny what can happen to the voice when you silence it for too long. “I’m a prompt writer,” I said, with more confidence than I felt.
Thinking it over now, I realized how true this is of me. Assignments, deadlines and other imposed structures often make me bristle. It’s like my inner teenager takes the keyboard and balks, “You’re not in charge of me!”
I prefer to get caught up in the serendipitous inspiration of a prompt, or breeze, or song, or other distraction. I write better when I’m inspired by something outside of myself. These can come in the form of formal prompts, surprising smells or views, and more often than not, from something someone says to me. This has always been my habit.
I left that evening’s event thinking about the relationship between prompts, assignments, inspiration and how they build to create a habit or practice. My habit is being a prompt writer, but that tends to go out the window when I need to meet a deadline. This is also how my weekly letter became a biweekly letter this month (sorry!).
Perhaps prompts and assignments appear as you need them, both for your preference and lifestyle, like different articles of clothing. When life gets particularly demanding or chaotic, and you’re pulled in too many directions, a prompt may not help you meet the deadline like an assignment will.
Are you an assignment writer or a prompt writer? How do you propel your own work? You can imagine a prompt along the lines of the kinds of prompts I offer in class, or really anything you observe, or read and an assignment being related to time, or someone else expecting something of you.
I look forward to hearing from you.