How Guided-Prompt Writing Groups Saved My Life

It was a dark and stormy number of years. I'm actually horrible in tracking the actual passage of time, but it felt like there was a forever period where I did not write a thing. For me, that feels like a vulture is perched on a tree, licking his lips, looking down at me, a wanna-be corpse on the side of the road. If I'm not writing, I may as well not live.

However, one day, I saw an ad in the local weekly promoting a free event at our big independent bookstore, a guided-prompt writing session. Bring your notebook. I felt a faint ping in the base of my spine. “I should go,” I thought and waited a year and a half before I actually did.

In a guided-prompt writing group, the leader throws out a suggestion, and then we write about that or whatever we'd like for a specified amount of time, often ten to twenty minutes.Then there's an option to read your work aloud to the group. There is no feedback. The group just listens. Perhaps they say thank you.

When I first heard this description as I sat on a folding chair at the bookstore, I inwardly scoffed. I have an MA in creative writing. I taught introductory creative writing at that university. What could this process possibly teach me?

The short answer: a ton. First, I realized that it was a powerful experience, especially after this long drought, to say my words aloud to a group of people who actively listened. It was a huge relief to know that I would hear no judgement of this collection of words that I had just plucked out of thin air. The thank yous felt like a balm to my soul who, in retrospect, should never have been subjected to two years of intensive workshop method. That process is just not me.

Since that day, I've been actively involved in guided-prompt writing groups, as a participant and as a leader. (You can find me at the table twice a month for the Mountain Spirit Writing Group in Felton, California.) Now, when I introduce this process to others, I tell them that this group will strengthen your writing muscles. It will heighten your focus. It will help you learn to tell the editor side of yourself to go take a vacation while the writer in you rolls up her sleeves. You will learn how much you can accomplish in fifteen minutes. You can take that out of this room and start your own writing practice, starting with that small unit of time, and watch your work grow and flourish. I say you may be surprised. I tell them that even though I am the one throwing out the prompts, I often am still shocked by what comes out when I set my pen on the page. I tell them it's a great way to discover what are your themes, what keeps coming up as things important to you.

In addition, guided-prompt writing groups gave me steps to write. In one session, the leader first had us write mind maps, sometimes also called “clusters” or “balloons,” scattered words in circles all across the page with lines connecting them. She encouraged us to think about an experience using all our senses, seeing it both from an up close and personal viewpoint and as an outsider further away. We didn't read those mind maps out loud, but we then wrote for a period of time in a linear fashion, using that mind map as our guide. When we read those words out loud, it was evident that the stories came from a deeper place when we included that step. It's a process that I have incorporated into my writing practice, the way I approach any new scene.

Guided-prompt writing groups led me back back to fiction. In another group, the leader asked us to write about a challenging situation. After we read those accounts, she asked us to write about the same situation but, this time, find ways to change it. I added some new characters, included dialogue that contradicted my memory. It was fun. It was exhilarating. And, after that night, I returned to fiction. I was so happy to be back.