Monday, January 9, 2012

On Creativity and Boundaries

Do you remember back in  elementary school when your teacher would write writing prompts on the board for a class exercise? They would usually say something like, "Describe a time your family went on vacation," or "What would your house be like if you lived on the moon?" I always enjoyed these prompts, but back then, when I was bubbling over with the creative ramblings of an imaginative pre-pubescent, I also felt like writing prompts stifled my creativity. I wanted to write about kittens who could talk (heck, I still want to write about that), or about girls like me having wild adventures. (Two real stories that I uncovered from my young writing days include one about a squirrel named Dolly who leads a quiet life in her tree, going to the squirrel market and having tea with her squirrel friends, and one about a middle school girl who finds out that the guy she likes is an alien -- of course, most middle school boys are kind of like aliens at that stage.)

Anyway, the point should be clear: writing prompts were unwelcome constraints on my imaginative output.

Alas, that is no longer the case -- especially when it comes to writing songs. Over the last couple of years, I've had severe writer's block when it comes to subject matter.

Desmond, my cat, tries to help, but he doesn't understand that nothing rhymes with "orange."

In fact, some of my best writing in recent years has been from concrete inspiration -- mostly assignments -- kind of like writing prompts. For example, the song "Ophelia" from Girl on a String is about the play, Hamlet, and was written as part of a class requirement to respond in creative ways to the readings. In another class, on Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, I came up with a list of "rules" about Dylan's writing style from his folk period, and wrote a few songs trying to adhere strictly to those rules. Another time, I attended a Beth Moore Bible study on the Psalms of Ascent and was inspired to write songs based on those psalms. I only got as far as two of them, but it was still a useful exercise. The point is, in recent years, my creativity has come unlocked whenever I have been forced to fit into some kind of pre-determined mode.

So this is where you come in, reader. I need some writing prompts for songs. The well is mostly dry these days (probably because it's being sucked dry by my dissertation writing). So, I'd like you to provide those storm clouds of inspiration. Give me a writing prompt (or several) and if I end up using it, I'll post the song in a video here. Try to be somewhat specific. ("write a love song" won't help; "write a love song about the travails of a cat person and a dog person trying to make a relationship work" is more helpful -- though it might make a silly song.)

I can't wait to see what you all come up with, and thanks for the help!



  1. Thinking back to when we were kids, what would you tell your 10 year old self on Horseshoe Trail?

  2. That's a good one, Amy. I'm going to have to think about that one, a bit.

  3. I'm sure I've talked about this before. Recently I was given a prompt to make two lists that characterize me--one of just physical traits, another of personality traits--then make those lists with traits that don't charictarize me, or traits of "not me". It was a telling and helpful excercise.