Again: Prompted to Write, I Take Pen in Hand…

Sometimes I can’t think of a thing to write about. Sometimes I have topics, but they seem labored or repetitive. I want something fresh, a break from the same old, same old.

Those times, I go looking for a prompt.

I like to give myself a choice.  So I pull up two prompts, thinking if one doesn’t speak to me, the other one will.  I take a slip of paper from my prompt jug, a mason jar into which, when I think of it, I throw compelling words and phrases–or even simple, ordinary words and phrases that mean something specific to me at the time I offer them. They rest in the jar; they steep and simmer in time, and when I pull them out, they have gathered bulk and meaning.

Today’s word is a simple one: “sun”.

And I grab a writer’s book of days, too, and I flip it open randomly.  Write, it challenges me, about a failure.

For a moment I just sit, staring out the window, watching the night sky darken into day, and I let the prompts settle. Then I pick up my pen and start jotting down thoughts.

I think about failure.

I think about things I tried to accomplish in my former job–and I recognize how many initiatives never grew to bear total, fully ripened fruit.  Maybe, I muse, 2/5 of them actually became practice. Half of those were then undone, but there were kernels of gold gleaming among those everyday stones. Forward: we did move forward for a time.

I think of parenting. There’s what we HAVE to do, what we think is IMPORTANT to do, and then there are those lofty heights to which we only aspire. Some of my parenting failures are difficult to hug close–and even harder to hold at arms’ length for objective examination…

Hmmm… examinations. Exams failed?  Drivers tests.  Typing tests.  Not too many bombed academic exams (although there was that geology class; THAT was a disaster!)

Sins of omission–failing to be there. Failing to be a support in a time of illness, failing to read the signs of need and desperation; failure to attend… Failure, indeed, to take the time to understand.

I am not liking, entirely, the sad roads the examination of failure is leading me down.

So I think of the sun, too, and how it’s been both nemesis and joy. How as a pale-skinned red-haired child, I sought a tan–and that, too, was a quest that ended, over and over, in total failure.

Hey. My prompts have just snicked slickly into one another; they slid together and snapped so firmly I can’t make out the join lines. I will write this week about being a milky-skinned child in a Coppertone time, and I’ll note my ultimate failure, except for that one glorious, tennis-playing summer of beigeness, to achieve anything remotely resembling a tan. I’ll explore that in my writing, those days of baby oil and aluminum foil, the days when “tanning” and “skin cancer” were seldom ever part of the same sentence.  The days when I was a pale, wan person living in a boisterous land of large, bronzed beings.

Prompts are sturdy little needles.  Left to sit on a table, they’re not so very useful.  They do not magically worm into our consciousnesses, disappearing into the pulsing gray mass and secretly fomenting inspiration until an idea springs forth, full and healthy. Instead, we need to pick that prompting needle up and work it.

We poke: listing. Here are all the things I think about when I take in the word ‘failure.’ The prompt pries the words out, nuggets of thought, and I sort them.  They’re all raw and dirty, but I see glints, in some, below that crusty surface.  I write those glimmers down.

Some glow red. They’re too hot to touch, too recent or too painfully wide open. But I write those down, too. Maybe I can’t approach them right now, today, but their intensity tells me they’re important themes to revisit when my right perspective has been gained.

I think of people, legends, of stories from my life, of beloved failures, of the fact that sometimes, failing is also succeeding.

I think of that famous job interview question: Tell us about a time you failed. What did you learn from it?

The concept and the memories churn, and then that second prompt slides in front of me and mental doors slide open.

“What we have here,” I think, “is a failure to tan.”

What we have here, I know, is a memory stash picked out with those prompt-y little needles; memories pebble out, all those silly sunburned summers and the peeling and the blisters and the longing to be bronzed. I sit at the end of my 61st summer, a summer when I remembered after long, vain spaces, just how much fun it is to don a bathing suit and jump into the pool–white legs, flabby thighs, be damned. I need to explore what tanning meant to me, what its achievement symbolized. Why was a tan the holy grail for, yea, those many years?

Other nuggets were picked loose in this exercise. They await me. A day will come when one of them slides neatly into conjunction with another prompt–one overtly chosen or one that comes like a gift. So I may go to my prompt jar or my writer’s book of days–or do both, like today, at once,–to forge the kind of connections today’s explorations wrought.

In WordPress, I can go to the Daily Post, which not only offers me a prompt, but a place to share the result. (  It’s a way to meet new writers and gain new followers and marvel at the way one prompt can have 642 different interpretations.

Or–I may pull up to a stoplight and see a lanky girl with magenta dreadlocks ambling down the sidewalk holding a puppy, and unassisted by my searching, that life-prompt begins to needle around in my thoughts.

It could be a street sign advertising Wonder Bread.
Or it might be a cautionary word from my boss.
It could be a moment of hearty celebration for a richly deserving friend.

Life itself can often supply the prompt if I am awake, aware, receptive.


Sought or encountered, a prompt pries richness loose, fishes it out of the muck. I wash it off, rub it down good, examine it. What does THIS mean? How do I feel, today, when I think of THIS?

Is this important?

What do I believe about this?

I pick up my pen. I slide my keyboard over. I write tentatively through the dross. I write until the tiny nugget of inspiration catches on, nudged out into awareness by that prompt.

I write until that nugget begins to glow and dance.

Happy blogging, my friends!