We’re at the Turner Gallery in Margate, in one of the anterooms with a panoramic view of the sea. The wind is blowing the tide over the seawall. There’s a group of about twenty people sitting in a semi-circle around Yann, our life model. Someone opens one of the huge doors and for a second the room is infiltrated by the buzz of the gallery on a Saturday. But it is enough to disturb a thin layer of dust. Yann sneezes. There’s a flurry of pens on paper. Welcome to the world of live writing prompts.
Prompt Arts’ Life Writing sessions are a twist on the traditional life drawing class. We provide a series of prompts (a prompt is essentially a spark or an idea) and your job is to respond in words. We usually have two life models who carry out an action or a series of actions; in the past this has included yoga, cooking or painting, but really it could be anything. We also provide soundscapes – we have developed a whole library of them, as well as smells or artefacts with which to interact. Pretty much anything that invokes one or more of the five senses is worthy of being called a prompt.
We encourage participants to move around, to touch or sometimes communicate with the prompts, but their job is essentially to respond. How is up to them: prose, poetry, haiku – it doesn't even have to be in English. Often the most interesting responses are from those who have sat and observed for five minutes before picking up their pen. We've experimented by prompting people further with enigmatic questions such as: “Why today?” and “Where next?” but mostly you are just left to write.
The atmosphere in the room is a curious one. It often resembles an exam, which was always a little counter-intuitive for me as I used to worry that our participants were not having a good time such was the level of studied concentration. I soon found there was no need to worry as many people reported back that it was great fun to just write for an hour and come away with 8 or 9 pages.
There is an optional reading at the end and the basic deal is that anything you leave in the room we can keep and post on our website magazine (with full credit). Or we have the shredder – it’s a beautifully cathartic experience to have spent ten or fifteen minutes writing something and then consign it to the shredder. I love hearing the rotors whir in response to A4 paper!
The important thing is that the sessions exist in the moment. We have done several sessions in conjunction with Mindfulness festivals, which does seem a good fit. For just over an hour your job is to observe, and any detail that comes your way is legitimate – be it a whiff of the aftershave of the person sitting next to you or a squawk of the seagull outside. You are creating your own prompts.
For the last couple of years we have been creating them too. We started off producing matrices for schools to use in creative writing classes – the sort where you come up with a list of job titles or a list of objects and then roll a dice to make combinations. It was producing them for adults that was really fun. A character who was profoundly deaf and had just split up with their partner was enough of an idea that you could respond in 30 minutes or so. A prompt and a time limit was a diverting challenge. Of course there were the paradoxes – Anne Boleyn hanging from the undercarriage of an aeroplane was the example we always give – the result of an unlucky roll of the dice. Impossible? Not necessarily…
We realised the whole world, if dissected in the right way, could be formulated at the top of a page as a writing prompt. So we assembled a simulation (which exists in its rudimentary form on our website) – a series of prompts gleaned from the world around us – newspaper stories, answer phone messages, astrology predictions - we became giddy at the enormity of the task! But at heart it was an attempt to have the first thought, to have something to show anyone who ever claimed they couldn't think of anything to write about.
And so now we have two books, available through our website here, designed to show you how to create your own prompts. There are exercises to take on the road with you, to complete in cafés or in bars or on aeroplanes - anywhere you have 20 minutes and a space to write. We like to call them creative crosswords – ultimately they get people writing.
Prompt Arts creates and develops writing prompts, resources and events who make accessible systems and platforms for people of all skill levels to develop and share work. It is the brainchild of Sean Bruno and Nicholas Christiaan. Sean Bruno is an actor, writer and teacher with several years experience in creating and leading bespoke writing, devising and performance workshops. In 2011 he co-founded the Centre for Solo Performance as a place to support and aid performers who are interested in developing their own one-person shows. His book Creating Solo Performance (co-authored with Dr. Luke Dixon) has been called by The Stage “A welcome addition to an actor’s bookshelves” (18 Sept 2014). Check out their website or follow them on Twitter.