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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. This is exactly what happens to me, well it is harder ’cause I’m not a native english speaker and I write in english because I like it and I’m studying it… The problem for me to write is that at Uni. i have to write a story with 180 words in 1hour and a half… and of course I have a task given… so I know I can do it but in the moment I don’t know how to organize my ideas….any tips? apart from that one? which really good by the way!

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  2. That’s a great idea! I don’t have a prompt box, but more like sheets of paper full of ‘free-writing’ notes, with highlighted lines wherever I see something that piques my interest. The box is a much simpler idea though, I’ll try this one now.

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  3. This is such a good idea! I’ve been taking small notes when I’m inspired on my phone but I never thought to take it a step further and make it into a daily challenge, Thanks for the inspiration!

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  4. I found the practice of taking a picture from my collection and forming a post around it helps me get the writing juices flowing. Not always though, the picture has to have a deep meaning to it, something that stimulates my emotions.

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  5. In response to your question; I simply only write when I feel inspired. I never force my brain, as it too needs a break, like the rest of the body. When the inspiration flows, (like many people do) I carry a little note book and jot thoughts down, so I can bring them all together when composing. Well, that’s my way and how I got published. Different things work for different people, I guess. I operate on the principle, that if something is meant to be, it will be. We endeavour, but not over-endeavour. 🙂

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  6. This is a really great idea, and I’ll will most likely try it out very soon! I have a page that I write story and drawing ideas on when they come to me so when I’m stuck I go there. I might also open up to a page in a book and take a sentence out of context and develop it. 🙂

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  7. A poet friend often starts with poems she likes and writes what she calls randoms from them–picking a line at random and starting with a word from it, letting the word take her in whatever direction it will. I assume she skips and” and “but” and “the.”

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  8. This came at just the right time for me. Three weeks into the year I also have a goal to write more often – whether it’s in my journal, notebook, on my blog, for work, etc. And while there is a plethora of ideas on the web or in books, they don’t always help because they are not my own or related to what I like to write about. This approach suits me! Thanks! Happy Writing. 🙂

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  9. It only takes 21 days to form a habit. I use a similar system for my creativity. I allow myself 15 minutes a day and so far I’m well into my 4th year. Well done for keeping going. It’s a practice that’s well worth it.

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  10. It IS a good idea…I have recordings and journals….more often than not I don’t get around to using them BUT, just having them makes me feel more comfortable AND just having gotten them down somewhere helps!

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