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Getting Started with a Prompt Box

Seed a prompt box and say goodbye to writer’s block.

The other thing I discovered: If I had a topic to begin with, it was easier to get started.

— Natalie Goldberg, Long Quiet Highway

Sometimes with writing, getting started is the hardest part. You feel this energy inside you, this impulse to write, to spill words and sentences and paragraphs onto a page. Electric with excitement for the brilliance in your mind, for the genius you will share, you sit down to write.

And… nothing.

You stare at your blank screen. Your white sheet of paper. You think, “What was that idea I had in the shower? The beginning I thought of as I fell asleep last night?” You stand up and pace. You think. You sit down again.

And? Nothing.

Most writers know this feeling. I certainly did. Then I remembered my prompt box.

How I write

Writing Station

Writing Station

I abandoned my writing practice in the second half of 2014. I was too drained to come up with ideas, and I filled that time slot with other things. I missed writing, though, and so on January 1, 2015, I resolved to begin practicing again. To start small and write ten minutes per day.

Each morning, I place my cheap composition book (the kind with the black and white marbled cover), a uni-ball Signo 207 pen (blue), my iPhone (4), and a metal Chinese tea tin (filled with folded slips of paper) on the smooth surface of my breakfast table. I set my phone’s timer for ten minutes, press start, touch my pen’s tip to a fresh sheet of paper, and I write. I don’t lift my pen from the paper except in the spaces between words, and I scribble until I hear the chirping of my phone’s crickets.

Sometimes when I sit down to write, I jitter with anticipation: my head is filled with thoughts and I can’t wait to clear them out. To stick them to paper so they’ll quit moving around in my brain. Other times times my mind is blank, and I don’t know how I’ll begin. At those times, I pop open the Chinese tea tin — my prompt box — without concern for how I’ll start. It is written right there on paper for me.

The Prompt Box

A prompt box is a vessel — a felt hat, a cedar cigar box, a copper cookie tin — that you fill with favorite words, vivid verbs, and phrases that stimulate you. Prompts in my box include ink, thunderstorms, and my dream about being a whale.

Prompt Box

To make a prompt box, you will need a container and 20-30 slips of paper. To seed your box, make a list of 20 things you love: moss, mountains, bacon, brioche. The word “dastardly.” Write each of your words or phrases on a slip of paper, fold the paper, and drop it into your container. That’s it. It’s really that easy.

A prompt box is continually being subtracted from, but also added to. When you’ve used a prompt, remove it from your box. Then, when you are out in the world, whether hiking, exploring antique shops, eavesdropping on conversations in a coffee shop, or watching an acorn roll across the sidewalk, make notes of images, words, or statements that strike you. Record a voice memo on your phone or scribble a phrase in a notebook you carry with you. When you return home, add those mementos to your prompt box.

With a prompt box, you will always have a place to begin.

~

So far this year, 21 days into 2015, I have managed to stick to my resolution. I have written at least ten minutes a day, sometimes with an idea already in my mind before I start the clock, but more often by the grace of my prompt box. When I feel blank, I scrape the metal lid off the tin and it clatters on the table; I stir the slips of paper with my fingers, pull one out, unfold it, and wonder with a thrill, what will I write about today?

How do you begin when you are feeling blank or blocked? Share your tips with us!

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  1. When I want to write, but don’t know what to I usually smoke a cigarette by myself and listen to my thoughts carefully. I know it’s an unhealthy habit, and I’m not inviting anyone to follow my example, but it works for me.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have a notebook (in the glove compartment of my car, under my pillow, next to my PC, on the coffee table in the living room) full of key words/writing topics/ideas and everything that cross my brain in certain moments. Now, I know how to call those notebooks 🙂

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  3. Great idea! I have to confess that I googled “prompt box” to see if there was a site that would provide one for me 🙂 I think I may create my own, but will also include things that gross me out.

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  4. Your post brought me an instant inspiration, so instant in fact that I had to stop reading at the word ” Moss” long enough to write my post! 🙂 Your prompt box is a great idea though! I’ve often made the mistake of making a list of topics instead of a list( or box) of inspirational words of phrases. Big difference! I shall give this a try 🙂

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  5. Really like the idea of a prompt box. I keep notebooks and write in them whatever crosses my mind and when I run out of ideas, I skim through them and am often surprised by what I find.

    I also have a question: Do you mind, if I steal your “about being a whale”? It looks so sparkly creative and I’d love to make a story out of it.

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  6. The Ginja thoroughly enjoys entertaining this idea. Too often she struggles with the subject matter of writing and is rarely satisfied with what she ends up writing. Gracious thanks, from her soul to yours, namaste.

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  7. Love this idea. Thought you might be interested in this : http://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/gallery/2015/jan/17/how-to-draw-anything-moose-allain – another approach, and what looks like a lovely book. I’m trying to do a similar reactivation of my drawing practice as well as my writing – on the subject of which I’m wondering if WordPress could start a regular drawing challenge (we already have such good writing and photography weekly challenges and I really like responding to these but often want to post a drawing with writing, in the way Urban Sketchers blog – http://www.urbansketchers.org/?m=1) Don’t know the best way to suggest this to the WordPress editors. Any chance you could pass this on?

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  8. I think that’s a great idea, free writing can do a lot of good in helping clear out the clutter that is our brains!

    I carry around a little notebook with me and whenever I get an idea or see something cool I want to write about I put it in the book, and then when I get home I check my blog planner to work out when I’d like to write about it. Some things I write about straight away so they’re fresh in my mind, like book reviews, but other things I generally plan in so I’m doing at least 3 posts a week.

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  9. Good Idea, but if post is written in other language which is not native one then it will be more struggle !

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  10. Even though I write “non-fiction”, there’s always a creative element to it to (I hope) add interest for the reader. I really like this idea for helping to inspire that element of my writing. Typically I like to write down ideas for good subject matter, but without something to add relatability and context to that idea it’s just flat, lifeless and uninspiring, so I’ll certainly try employing this sort of technique for inspiring the other side of my posts that have to bring things to life and into the real world.

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  11. Thank you for this fabulous suggestion! I am definitely going to begin creating a prompt box for myself. And start writing ten minutes a day – especially since I’m taking two writing classes this semester.

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  12. A member of my writing practice group got a lot of paint chips, wrote prompts on the backs, put them into a plastic zip-lock bag, and brought them to practice on Saturday mornings. The chips did double duty: If a writer wasn’t inspired by what was written on the back, he could turn it over and use the name of the paint as the prompt.

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  13. Love this idea! I’m doing something similar, where I set a timer for 30 minutes and work on a story I’m writing. It’s been working well so far, but I think I ought to make up a prompt box to help me when I get stuck…

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  14. Why is it always in the shower? I now keep my phone in the bathroom for just such creative sparks. I was tired of trying to remember ideas until I was done because it seemed like the minute a towel hit my skin, it dried up my creative thoughts as well. You have some great ideas for creativity here. Thanks for sharing.

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  15. This is a strategy that we use in my Creative Writing class and it really helps push through the frustration when lacking inspiration. Even if there’s only one little idea I like after four full pages, at least I was writing.

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  16. This is a fun way to get srated. I tend to use photos as prompts if Im’ stuck or feeling lazy…ones I find online, ones in magazines, pictures that I have taken over the years. I also enjoy using pianitngs and other art work. Characters’s names get me started. I have an adoration of names and as soon as I write one down I get started. The visuals are especially good for fiction but also can stimulate my brain for non-fiction. But memory leads me to many creative non-fiction ideas. A scent, a place, an object, a moment shared with someone special or provocative. There is always something to write about, even your “blankness” or uneasy boredom. Write on!

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