How a Writing Prompt Turns into a Story
Anja Niedringhaus, a German AP photojournalist, was shot to death while covering the elections in Afghanistan, on April 4th, 2014. Also injured in the attack was Kathy Gannon, a 60 year old Canadian reporter based in Islamabad. They were in the back seat of a car, waiting for the rain to stop before taking pictures of ballots being prepared for voting the following day.
I heard the announcement on my nightly BBC worldwide radio broadcast, then again on NPR. Not many international stories make the American news but two experienced female reporters, gunned down in public, received a fair bit of attention. Later, on Facebook, a Pakistani friend who lives down the street posted that she knew the surviving journalist–six degrees of separation. I wondered about women who take dangerous assignments when most people (like me) stay safe at home.
I understand one motivator that powers such daring, compassionate hearts. It’s a lifestyle. As a “third culture kid,” raised overseas, in Iran, Indonesia, and France by a British mother and a Canadian father, I lived in cultures that were not my own, and was immersed in religions and languages that were not shared by my parents either. In vibrant expatriate communities, new people and continuous travel is the norm, and exploring differences is always interesting, always compelling.
When the San Luis Obispo Nightwriters announced their contest theme of “déjà-vu,” I used it as a writing prompt in one of my writing workshops. Writing prompts stir up all kinds of thoughts and images. This one brought up memories of Iran, saying good-bye to the corners of my bedroom while tanks rumbled outside. It evoked images of Iraq and the “Arab Spring” sweeping the Middle East. I’d seen revolutions before. And I remembered my sorrow over the fate of those journalists, who recorded injustice and truths, and were shot for their troubles, while the world is indifferent to their efforts.
I polished the déjà-vu prompt into a perfect story. Well, I thought I did. I listened, astonished, as my writing group argued over it’s meaning. “It’s a stream of consciousness,” one person said. Huh? I had not realized that it was, and I didn’t like that approach. “Are there magical elements?” “No, it’s an out of body experience.” “Well, I think the protagonist is going crazy.” They even debated the ending, which I thought was clever, and obvious. My first pass was a jumble of ideas. I re-wrote the piece several times until everyone understood what I was trying to say, the way I wanted it to be understood. It was an unpleasant process, like bludgeoning my ego into submission. Eventually, the prompt transformed into a story, and I hoped that the judges would have a broad interpretation of “deja-vu.” As luck would have it, enough of them did, and it won second prize.
I love the magic of writing prompts. Prompts generate ideas for stories by locating, and defining, whispers of thought. Fun, but the next steps are hard. It take ruthless editing and tough love to incorporate the comments from my writer’s workgroup, but it makes me tap into the heart of my story.