Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Power of the Prompt

Professor John Calderazzo looked over his graduate nonfiction workshop class after the first week and gave us an assignment; “Write 1000 words on a moment that changed your life.” Lots of things had changed my life, I thought. Most, it seemed, were slow lessons learned the hard way, beaten into my intransigent skull by life’s insistent mallet. But, a moment? I had to think for a while. As I did, the brilliance of this assignment emerged, and left me wondering what makes for a great prompt.

First, and foremost, prompts focus the mind. Strip away the periphery for a brief period and aim at some particular core. This one merely sought a life changing moment. No ambiguity there. Second, while the target may be clear, the path toward it remains open ended, eliciting a full creative response as options come to mind. Third, a great prompt should lead into an arena laden with emotive or sensory memories. John's prompt is a classic in this regard. If the writer recalls a truly “life changing moment” how could she not write of it with passion and verve. In a classroom, the prompt must also strike some universal, something likely to be meaningful to each individual with their own unique life trajectories. Last, and singularly notable in this particular challenge, the assignment drove the students into some of their most intimate places, which John then shared as he critiqued and provided feedback on their writing. The bonds that emerged then grounded his critiques of each person’s work for the rest of the semester.

My life changing moment, just an instant really, became the shot I fired as a hunter that put my name and my “trophy” into the world record book and so filled me with remorse that I cleaned my rifle one last time and quit hunting on the spot. The full essay is forthcoming in the August (Fall) issue of Pilgrimage. Absolutely worth the wait.


  1. Jerry,
    I found this blog via the Frankfurt High newsletter. We were in the same senior class. After college and Army I went to work as a newspaper reporter and have stayed in communication since then. I work full time as a PIO and on the side teach college communications classes. Since quitting daily journalism in the mid-70s, I have been free-lance writing, most about art but also canoe trips, surf fishing, and travel. I'm based on the East Coast but get to Tucson now and then.
    Tell me more about your life and times.
    Ed Higgins

  2. The moments that changed my life. Those are the moments that seem to be the easiest to write about, for me at least. The most recent is one of the most powerful, that leads me to the next moment and the next moment. I won't go into it here, but now the moments seem to be coming faster than I can write them down. Thanks for the prompt idea and the jolt I needed to get back to writing what is closest to my heart; the influence I've received from others who have changed my life, one moment at a time.

  3. If a piece about prompts prompts you, then I have done my job. I think the wisdom of years helps us to better "see" each moment as they happen. Keep writing, if only in a journal to keep your moments for later. They are yours and yours alone. Congratulations on your openness to others.