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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. I seem to be hooked to the keyboard. I have my reasons though. Instead of a prompt box, I have a prompt text file listing words, phrases, and ideas. As I find new prompts while I read blog posts, visit social media sites, and poke around forums, I copy and paste them into the text file.

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  2. Oh my goodness! Thank you for this post. I thought I was the only one who bubbled up with the desire to write and then, when I actually sat down to do it…would come up empty. 10 minutes a day of writing is how I am going to reboot. Start the timer… now!

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  3. Fab!
    I, instead of a Chinese tea tin, keep my prompts in an antique cup of coffee. Never really thought of writing about this childhood habit. But now, and after reading your beautiful post, I must consider that.

    Thanks for sharing with us 🙂

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  4. I love the idea of the Prompt Box. I use Google Keep to jot down ideas for blog posts. It’s on my phone and on my computer. But I still don’t always get the ideas flowing as I’d like. I also have a notebook I keep at work and when I have a free moment, I start writing.

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  5. I am starting back to blogging, I find that that recently I am blogging about my new baby and the fun of being a working mom with a brand new 6 month old little one. Life is bustling, I hardly have time for laundry or cleaning, but I love to write and often find myself wondering what to tell my readers about today.

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  6. Just like some other people here, I used to make notes on my mobile phone. And also I wrote key phrases in my private blog… However, when it had been a while after I had done those notes, it sometimes wasn’t easy to understand what I meant. That is why I try to read it from time to time and write an explanation for myself.
    — N.

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  7. This is a wonderful blog entry, it has helped me a lot as I feel the same way you do on a daily basis when it comes to writing a new post. I have several ideas floating around in my mind and then when it comes to a blank screen or notebook page, I’ve got nothing. Anyway, I’ll be taking this advice and starting my own prompt box. Thank you for sharing these words of encouragement.

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  8. That’s a brilliant idea, I often find myself suffering from writersblock. This is a great way to beat that and personalise it any way I wish, might add photos or piece of dialougue I’ve heard throughout my day. Can’t wait to make one now!

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  9. Great idea. In my case, my prompt box is my note app on my phone. I am not big on paper and always have my phone with me. When I read a blip from Facebook, or see something on the news that moves me, I add a note to my note app. I just started this a bout a week ago since I too have a target of writing a blog post daily.

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  10. Loved the advise for the prompt box!! Will try to do so in my way, i have been trying to take quick notes of ideas or images in my mind for later… Not very effective but still working on it!

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  11. Good idea. I’m thinking of reverting to old tech pen and paper because every time I sit down at the computer I get distracted into ‘I’ll just do this first …’

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