Saturday, January 23, 2016

Prompt: Overheard words

Here’s an old standby: the eavesdropping prompt.

When I start to feel as though I’m writing the same poem over and over, I like to blow the dust off this prompt and see if it can point me in a new direction—whether in voice or form or topic.

There are two ways to do this exercise. My preference is to go to a crowded place, like a restaurant or a hotel lobby or a playground, and park myself right in the middle of it to listen to the voices around me. This works best with people who are dissimilar from me in some marked way; maybe they’re children, or they’re men, or they’re crazy rich. When I hear a fascinating sentence, I pluck it out of the air and park it in my notebook, and then I see what comes from it.

The other way to do this is to sit at home and turn on the TV or radio and again listen for an intriguing line. I wrote a poem once that came from a bit of local news fluff; it was a story about a museum (I don’t remember the particulars), and the reporter began the feature by saying, “It’s not your typical museum.” The result was a poem of mine called “The Museum of Things You Can’t Fix,” and my museum included lost spelling bees and failed relationships and blown job interviews. I would not have written the poem had I not stumbled over that line.

They’re infrequent, these moments when the television or a crowded room can pull me out of myself and into new creative possibilities. But the point of this prompt is to get my own voice out of my head. New cadences and different word choices, when assigned to a poem, become a challenge—sort of like building an outfit from your closet around a weird pair of shoes that aren’t your own. So good luck with those cowboy boots or clown shoes or Dutch clogs or goldfish heels. The task before you? Make it work.


  1. Yes! I love seeing where prompts like these can take my writing. I sometimes use a similar prompt when attending conferences/readings/meetings - especially ones that are not writing-related and/or have the potential to otherwise bore me. I'll jot down words and phrases that grab my attention and see where they take me when taken out of context. Sometimes I miss a thing or two about what's being said, which is a danger to this kind of out-of-context note-taking, but who doesn't like a bit of danger in their prompt?

    1. This is a particularly fruitful prompt for me. I turn to it frequently when I'm out of ideas. :)