What It Is: Playing With Creative Prompts


January 27, 2014 by Paula Reed Nancarrow

Rain makes corn, corn makes whiskey
Whiskey makes my baby, feel a little frisky
Back roads are boggin’ up, my buddies pile up in my truck
We hunt our hunnies down, we take ’em into town
Start washin’ all our worries down the drain –
Rain is a good thing.

What I like about Luke Bryan’s “Rain is a Good Thing,” which I ended my last post with, is the playful exuberance of the song.

That’s really what “frisky” is about, whether applied to pets or to people.  An attitude of playfulness. It’s an essential element of self-expression. Your sex life benefits from it. Your creative life benefits from it too.

And prompts are meant to be played with.

Lynda BaWhat It is_0rry’s What It Is offers one nice framework for doing so. I’ve been using the book for about a year, after having heard her interviewed on the creative process on Wisconsin Public Radio’s To the Best of Our Knowledge.

The book is more like a graphic memoir than a traditional writing manual – but once I began working with it, I grew to love how that format reminded me of where my imagination lived. What It Is  involves brainstorming around words which elicit stories through images. In the book she provides you with several pages of such words – if you copy those pages, you can cut them out, cut them up, and put them in a bag to work with.

Barry asks you to do some relaxation exercises to begin with, then to list the first ten things that come into your head in association with a particular word.

If you are working on a story for a slam, the word or phrase has usually been provided for you. Here we need to come up with a story that incorporates the word “frisky,” in any or all of its denotations or connotations, as a thematic element.

As you can see from my list for “frisky,” there’s not much on it that that looks especially creative or interesting:

1.  Getting frisked
2. Playful – Interplay (what the heck is that, anyway? I keep seeing it on Twitter profiles)
3. Playful about sex.
4. Young horses are said to be frisky.
5. Kittens eat Friskies.
6. That day I pushed Paul into the snow. Beaten paths are for beaten men. 
7. I don’t know.
8. Keep the pen moving.
9. Frisky puppies.
10. Some Republican doctor named Frisk in the Tennessee legislature when we lived there.

But frisky puppies got me thinking about our own, and there’s a germ of a story in that post, and then there was the time I courted a man by pushing him into a snowbank. A man I eventually married. That seemed to have potential. So I picked that one to explore further.

The next step in the process is to set a timer for three minutes, and answer a series of questions about the experience as quickly as you can.

Where are you?
What time of day does it seem to be?
What season does it seem to be?

About how old are you in this image?
Why are you there?
What are you doing?
Is there anyone else in this image?
Is there anyone who just left or who may be coming?
What is the temperature like in this image?
What does the air smell like?
What are some of the sounds in this image?
What are some of the objects in this image? 

There is another step that involves placing yourself inside the image, and asking a series of questions about what is above and below and beside you.  Then you freewrite for seven minutes using two timers, one set at 7 minutes and one set at four.  The idea is that it is less scary to explore an image that has strong associations for you if you know you don’t have to do it very long.

There’s a lot more to Lynda Barry’s technique, and I highly recommend reading the book in its entirety.

She also has an amazing tumblr, which I imagine is the next best thing to being in class with her. But you still might want to experiment with my brief summary, and see where it takes you.

Or you might want to see, inspiration-wise, what associations another quotation prompts.

This one from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, is full of evocative imagery.

hellerThey were frisky, eager and exuberant, and they had all been friends in the States. They were plainly unthinkable. They were noisy, overconfident, empty-headed kids of twenty-one. They had gone to college and were engaged to pretty clean girls whose pictures were already standing on the rough cement mantelpiece of Orr’s fireplace. They had ridden in speedboats and played tennis. They had been horseback riding. One had been to bed with an older woman. They knew the same people in different parts of the country and had gone to school with each other’s cousins. They had listened to the World Series and really cared who won football games. They were obtuse; their morale was good. They were glad the war had lasted long enough for them to find out what combat was really like.  

Interestingly, though playful exuberance is what is being described in this paragraph, the feeling it leaves the reader with is anything but.

Perhaps you have an experience that begins with youthful friskiness, and ends quite differently.

Write about that.

7 thoughts on “What It Is: Playing With Creative Prompts

  1. ogo73 says:

    Just finished reading this book and loved it!


  2. […] matter how useful Lynda Barry’s techniques are, I expected a lot of clichés to come out of my brainstorming.  But even so, there were […]


  3. Marci says:

    I’ve been reading Lynda Barry since her earliest stuff in the late 70’s or early 80’s – she is an amazing artist, teacher and guide. Her techniques to unleash the inner creative you are highly effective, and I am soooooo jealous of her students! It almost makes me want to go back to school again. Thanks for posting! :o)


  4. […] During the week I picked one of those images – my father’s “teepee of love,” a ritual unique to our family because he invented it – to explore further. Dutifully I asked myself the questions Linda Barry uses to explore an image in the moment – the ones you can find in her book, or summarized in my previous post. […]


  5. […] experience to it, and the resulting interpretation is unique. For my personal stories, with the exploratory exercise I use from Lynda Barry’s What It Is, I can get most of the details from my head, though I sometimes […]


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