Hunger Mountain - Vermont College Journal of the arts

On Material: Writing Prompts

A Craft Short


Christy Bailey

Writing Prompts for Revelation
and Transformation

Prompts can be more than just a warm-up to the real writing; they can lead us to material in surprising ways. A dominant left brain can lead to over-thinking, playing it safe, and self-judging—all of which can block the creative right brain. Prompts help us loosen up and let go of control.

Robert Olen Butler says that good writing doesn’t come from thinking, but from the unconscious. The prompt is a way to access the unconscious, to connect us to our right brain instead of waiting for it to connect with us.

For a stream-of-consciousness free write, choose general and open-ended prompts. Write whatever comes to mind, even if it seems nonsensical or inappropriate. Write for three to five minutes without pausing to plan, revise, correct, or judge. Not every prompt will produce usable material, but each one has the potential to reveal details, images, ideas, and themes that could transform our writing.

3 Prompts To Try This Week:

1. Select a random household object (e.g., toy soldier, silver dollar, dice, souvenir shot glass, empty film canister, buttons, box of matches) from a shelf, drawer, or pre-assembled grab bag. Free write about the object you select.

2. Draw a word from a deck of vocabulary flash cards. If you don’t own flash cards, create a set by writing places, animals, colors, fruits, or even verbs onto index cards. Each day pick one and do a free write in response to the word.

3. Open a book of poetry to any page. Use the first line of the poem on that page to start a free write.


Butler, Robert Olen, and Janet Burroway. From Where You Dream:The Process of Writing Fiction. New York: Grove, 2005.

Massey, Irving. The Neural Imagination: Aesthetic and Neuroscientific Approach to the Arts. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2009.


Christy Bailey  honed her left brain skills at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School and exercised her right brain at VCFA. She integrates both sides of her brain as a freelance writer, editor, and educator in Denver.

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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Melissa Cronin January 11, 2012 at 7:13 pm

Thanks Christy! I recall your lecture on prompts from the July VCFA residency and how my left brain kept intruding into my right brain. I suppose I need to do more writing to prompts in order to clear the cobwebs from my over-critical brain.


Christy January 11, 2012 at 9:13 pm

My left brain is constantly trying to intrude, so I get it. The trick, I find, is to keep writing without pause. If you get stuck or start getting too critical of yourself, write a silly word over and over again until your right brain kicks in. If you have to, write “I don’t know what to say” as part of your stream of consciousness. Eventually the thought will lead you somewhere.


Christy January 11, 2012 at 9:17 pm

You might want to try different kinds of prompts – instead of just reading a word, try sensory input. Take a whiff of something in your house – bleach, whiskey, perfume, fruit juice, spices, and see if that helps you access the subconscious. Or try a tactile prompt – cotton balls, Q-tips, towels, sandpaper, a wool or cashmere sweater. See where that takes you.

Jodi Paloni January 11, 2012 at 7:26 pm

Thanks for this, Christy. It’s a great reminder about the need to write from the place of the unconscious. I have a small shelf above my desk filled with my favorite collectibles from childhood and nature. When I get stuck, I select something that attracts me and I’m off and running. I also think that the kinesthetic act of picking up an object, drawing a card, or turning the page of a book activates brain neurons in new ways that serve the craft. Happy Writing!


Christy January 11, 2012 at 9:20 pm

Yes! I love that you do this. As I mentioned to Melissa, you may want to try other sensory inputs. Perhaps smell or sound. My friend Pamela and I heard a truck backing up one day and used it as a prompt. Sirens, running water, dog barks, the sound of a delivery truck roaming the neighborhood, wind whipping around outside – any of these could serve as a writing prompt.


jodi January 24, 2012 at 2:44 pm

Great advice. Thanks for broadening my perspective.

Annie January 11, 2012 at 7:48 pm

I tend to freeze when I hear “prompt.” I like your idea of prompt as play–as a point of departure to discover new detail in our work and to break free of the dreaded over- thinking.


Christy January 11, 2012 at 9:34 pm

I used to freeze when I heard the word, too. Still do, sometimes. I put pressure on myself to do it “right.” I just keep reminding myself there is no right or wrong. Using prompts is a way to listen to the subconscious, without the filter of what should be. If you let it, the subconscious may reveal a plethora of memories, images, ideas, connections, and more. And yes! Have fun with it.


jen January 12, 2012 at 6:41 am

Thanks, Christy. Interesting possibilities with (2). I recently learned a new word that defined a concept I was just vaguely aware of. Now that I it has a “name” I’m obsessed with the concept. As if the “grab bag” word has changed my thought patterns?


Christy January 12, 2012 at 9:12 am

Flash cards can be especially interesting when they have a word and a photo. Your response could be to the word, the photo/illustration, or the pairing of the word and photo. I’d love to hear from you after you try it.

I love the idea that your thought patterns could be altered by the naming of something. I don’t think we realize how many things can impact our thought patterns. Perhaps a mosaic essay is forming in your head? Would love to know the word, if you’re willing to share.


Jenna/The Word Cellar January 12, 2012 at 2:02 pm

I do think that naming something fundamentally and dramatically alters our way of thinking, as well as our understanding of and relationship to that thing. In fact, I’m rather obsessed with this concept. I wonder…is there a name for this interest/preoccupation?

Pamela January 12, 2012 at 7:16 am

Christy, I’m so glad you picked this topic for your graduating lecture. I was also one who froze at the mention of the word, “prompt.” You changed my thinking. I loved the time we spent together and doing prompts with you every day. Reading what we wrote aloud to each other was an eye-opener!


Christy January 12, 2012 at 9:06 am

I have to admit, I was a little wary of sharing the raw material that comes from a prompt. But sharing was so valuable! I saw how one word or object or sound could lead two different people down two totally different, yet equally fascinating paths. I saw the impact of experiences and belief structures in our responses to the prompts. In those stream-of-consciousness free writes, I saw a unique voice emerge for each of us. I now honor my voice more. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


Jannett Matusiak January 12, 2012 at 10:06 am

Thanks for the great reminder about taping into the unconscious when writing. It’s amazing what can happen if you allow for the dream space.


Christy January 12, 2012 at 10:50 am

Yes Jannett! Sounds like you’ve read Robert Olen Butler?


Jenna/The Word Cellar January 12, 2012 at 1:59 pm

Oh, prompts. You know my love-hate relationship with them. But I’m turning into a true believer that they can be so very useful for unsticking the writing brain. And who can resist the opportunity to write something “nonsensical or inappropriate”?


Christy January 12, 2012 at 2:58 pm

Dr. Seuss rode the nonsensical all the way to fame and glory. “Nonsense…wakes up the brain cells,” he said.


Robyn Richey Piz January 12, 2012 at 5:25 pm

Thanks for the ideas Christy. Having just done an exercise using an old television commercial as a prompt, I’m more open to using them. And having read your insightful, humorous blog, I have to believe if you use prompts, then they’re useful. I’m a great fan of your writing and your inspiring story.


Jen January 13, 2012 at 4:06 pm

Some of my best essays have come from writing prompts — including one of the prompts you suggested at your lecture last summer. Thanks for this. I’m inspired to peruse my house for a random object now… :)


Christy January 17, 2012 at 8:09 am

I didn’t think about the relationship between found objects as a prompt and found objects in the mosaic essay…maybe found objects can help us write a mosaic? Or even create one as art. Hmm..


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