Whoever came up with the abhorrent idea that January first is invigorating? Post-holidays, I am not invigorated, I’m exhausted. Resolution is not in the air. Days are dark, dreamy. Nights feel right cozied up with family.
Mornings feel like a third cup of tea. Afternoons feel like work and busy-work and chores piled up, stacked, heaped, growing riper by the moment. Where, in all of this, is the muse? Hibernating. Hiding. Okay, but this is no reason to forego writing or painting or the other things I do. Or that you do.
Yeah, let’s talk about you for a minute. I figure I can’t be the only one already treading water, energetically speaking, 2015-style. I can’t change the effects of the season, but there is one way to force a cure for muselessness. As hokey as it seems, I am advocating that we all sign up for a prompt-a-thon.
Hang on. The sound of the word, “prompt”, feels somehow gouging, stifling, even to me. It’s what my second grade teacher used to give us: “Okay boys and girls, grab a character card from the character can and a setting picture from the settings folder!” Not thrilling.
If you are January-lulled, January-worn, January-blahhed, like me, thrill is not the point. The point is to work, and that means a job is good stuff on a deeper, thank-ourselves-for-it-later level. Besides, I’m not in second grade, so what prompts me and where I go with a prompt has nothing to do with pleasing someone else and everything to do with my own expectations. Allowing myself to answer a prompt (don’t get hung up, it’s just a word for a call to action, right?) can be totally appropriate to me and my art. It can’t help but be. And I am so abstract, live in such a globbish gack puddle of swirly thoughts, sometimes the only way to go forward is by merit of following a map. It’s taken some time, practice, and leaping over stubborn resistance for me to embrace this truth.
For those of you blazing the trail of a cherished project, good on you, keep going. For anyone who, like me, is doggedly determined to cope with this creep that calls itself January and emerge from its company with hard copy to show for it, grab your art and gear up to something productive day after day, until it’s so easy to make action happen, you forget to need something external to get it going.
As I prompt along, here are some ideas I have found usefully concrete yet conceptually flexible—and keep in mind that the finished product (picture, story, cake) can wind up many miles from the place the prompt first directs:
Note: Writers, consider keeping word counts under standard market bars—500-750 (micro), 750-1000 (flash):
Something to get you moving: Go outside. I know, it’s cold. But extremity forces response. Dig up a couple spoonfuls full of dirt, mud, snow, leaves, pebbles, sand, whatever it is you have that’s diggable. If you are afraid of dirt, make a collection of objects, rocks, feathers, dried leaves, a particularly curvaceous stick. Surrounded by concrete? Find an easement or pick crap up until you have a tiny little collection (not of actual crap and nothing harboring bodily fluids—gross!). An envelope is a great receptacle. Now take it inside to a well-lighted place. Pour the envelope onto some paper. List out what you have.
Go Sherlock on it. Use a magnifying glass. Write what you see, analyzing standout colors, features. Make up a story about any portion of your list, or all of it, or make your list your story. Or make it your sensory grounding for visual works: color, texture, materials. I like this because it gets you outside. Early or late. Moving. Touching nature or faux nature. With gloves if that’s safer, but still, it’s active. And also, lists.
Something to get you communicating: You’re on Facebook. Or Instagram or twitter. Ask your friends to throw you a noun. Pick five. People love to randomly contribute thought fodder. If you get tons, choose five from people you have considered deleting from your profile (extremity again) and make their words function in one story or visual image, perhaps channeling your pseudo-friendly ambivalence. This is also a great collection to make at school or work—in that case, consider a draft employing latent feelings about employment. Here’s one of my lists: Onion, iron, door, tiger, fluid. No friends, near-friends, or co-workers were injured or deleted in the acquisition of these words or in resulting stories.
Something to get you to do what you need to anyway: Clean out your fridge. Write a story about the experience as a character. Why do people clean out fridges? What’s in there, too much or too little? Where did it come from to begin with? What was it for? Where will it go? Visually, what image goes with this experience? What speaks to you—the clean, white coldness of the machine or the mucky, murky mess of leftovers? Are you remembering meals shared with a partner in love or silence, or are you feeling like a lonely, first-world waster? Hmm. Pull the strings you have unwittingly tied to food.
Something to bust you out of your rut: Go have your tarot read. Have an oracle reading. Get an astrological chart drawn up. Go on a guided meditational journey. Cast some damn bones. The ether wants to talk to you. Listen and report.
Something to grow your brain and keep you real: First, level up and read. We’re talking full on philosophy (summaries won’t do—go straight to Kant, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein) or philosophical poetics (Emerson, Thoreau (love), Rilke (love love)). You have Google, so limits don’t apply. Don’t usually read like this? Now is the moment. Set a timer to make it less impenetrable if you have to, but read up, drink in. Avoid futzing with strict meaning in favor of letting words fill your head and buzz around. Next, after a nice drink of water or cup of tea, brace for juxtapositional blammo. New task: Search local police reports, also accessible online. Choose the case of some poor doof. Choose the doof’s victim, if there is one. Round out the image. Finally, mentally introduce the high to the low. How do these realities coexist, the philosophical and the pathetic? Compose in that confused, juxtaposed state.
Something to scare your roommate or spouse: Go to a thrift store. Randomly buy the first toy you see. Go home. Stare at this thing. Touch it. Hang out with it. Whose was this? What happened to it? Who would want this as it is? Does it have any magical properties? I’m almost certain it does. The art practically falls out of your ears and onto the page or the canvas or both, at once.
Something so easy and self-indulgent you can’t not do it: Listen to music. For two hours straight. Your favorite stuff. From 1990. Or 2001. Or whenever you last listened to music only you chose. This stirs ideas, dreams, desires, pains, drunken revelations long gone. The only rule is that this music must be your essential noise: No friends’ opinions. No selection editing for partners or kids or self-respect. Two hours. More if you have the time. I like earphones, but you be your own guide there. Get lost in it. Get soaked in it. Put the songs you like on repeat and repeat the repeat. When you are fairly well vibrating in tune, write, art it up. Bake that cake.
Something to get you out into the world: Commit to submission. Not in a sleazy, Shades of Grey way, but in a professional, totally cool way. Go to New Pages or Poets & Writers (Duotrope is super useful to writers, but it costs 5 bucks a month) and find some journals that have themed issues coming up. Apply yourself to their themes. Right there, on the spot. Whether you groove with it or not matters not. Just take it at face value and go to work like it pays, which it doesn’t, but please don’t trip over that right now. Off the top of my head, let’s say you visit the newly from-hiatus-rising rawboned. The upcoming theme has you poking bears—what ridiculous levels of fun! Be literal, be political, be personal. Say something you really shouldn’t in ways you ordinarily wouldn’t and then, after careful revision and maybe sleeping on it a few nights and revising some more and formatting correctly (double spacing is non-negotiable), submit this bit of provocative brilliance. What can happen? Forward motion, hard copy, possibly more. Bonus: Check out the art of Pawel Kuczynski, which offers a succinct visual version of what poking the bear might look like.
Something to break the myopic grip of consumer-centric media: We all have tastes. We all have computers. We use our computers to cater to our tastes. It’s called a rut, folks. Climb up out of the cushiness of comfort zones by exposing yourself to new sights, new words, new forms. Respond to what you find, not through taste, but through genuine wonder: question, guess, speculate. Don’t balk and immediately return to seeking out new things to like. Be freaked out. Be grossed out. Be confused. That’s all okay. Stop deferring to the safety of your taste and open up a little. Then react. Tell the story of a first encounter with newness. Learn why a thing exists by explaining why, as if you knew. There are conversations to be had. Bonus: If you have not, try the art of John Frame or the art and writing of Bruno Schulz. Whoa. Oh, Leonora Carrington, anyone?
If you give prompt-a-thon a try, I’d love to hear about it (comment below, or drop me a message). Meanwhile, my pages are starting to look less lonely. Take that, January.