Writing Prompt: The Peter Principle

HERE’S A SECRET. Peter Elbow, author and professor of writing, is a crazy genius. dvd_jacket_301The spine of my worn, torn copy of his WRITING WITH POWER is cracked at Chapter 9, “Metaphors for Priming the Pump,” from frequent consultation. In that chapter, Elbow lists wild ways to help you get at a topic.

These include (but are not limited to!), “Questions to help you write a self-evaluation,” “Questions to help you write about a place,” and “Suggestions to help you write about a problem or dilemma.”

Writing prompt

Just to give you an example, let’s hop to “Suggestions to help you write about a problem or dilemma,” and see what we can make happen.

  1. To start I’m going to name a dilemma. (If you’re playing along, go ahead and jot down a problem facing either you or your character.)
  2. Dilemma: My unshaded front yard receives unwavering Florida sun. I dislike too much sun. Therefore, I dislike—and neglect—my yard.
  3. Now, I’m going to consult Elbow’s write-about-a-problem list. (If you’re still playing, consider these suggestions to apply to your stated problem.)
    1. The problem is that God is angry. At whom? Why? What did that person do to make God angry?
    2. Assume the problem is a problem of numbers. Try performing the following operations on it: addition, subtraction, division, multiplication, percentages, moving a decimal place.
    3. Assume the problem is sabotage.
  4. I’ve picked an approach: Assume the problem is sabotage. (Because, of course!)
  5. I’m going to write my little heart out about my too-hot-to-bear yard, as if it were an issue of sabotage, and see where it takes me. (Still playing? Pick a suggestion, apply it to your dilemma, and write your little heart out with me!)

The sun beats down on my tiny plot of green. Only it’s not green. It’s brown. Baked. Rimmed with twigs and sticks that used to be shrubs—and punctuated by a few upright posts that once were magnolia trees. Clearly, my yard has been sabotaged. I believe someone comes every night and pours acid into the soil. But why? What have I done to deserve this? I’m such a good neighbor! I pick up bits of paper left behind by the recycling guys. I pat all the dogs and coo at the babies. I even pay my HOA bill on time.

Still, it’s obvious. I have an enemy. And a clever one. One who knows that all I want is green and quiet and shade to meet me when I walk out my front door. One who wants me to be miserable for some reason. One who wants me to put my house on the market and move out . . . so they can move in?

Yes, that’s it! One of my neighbors covets my little sun-baked house and yard. But who could it be? Lorraine, three doors down? I’ve noticed her squinting proprietarily at my place when she walks to the mailbox. Her son recently lost his apartment. Could Lorraine have her eye on my house for Matthew?

Or maybe it’s Kevin. A) Kevin hates cats—and I feed the ferals in our ‘hood. B) Kevin’s own house is lopsided. (And who knows what else is wrong with it.) Maybe Kevin wants to walk away from his crooked little abode and set up housekeeping in mine, which, while unfortunate in its orientation to the sun, does at least sit evenly on its haunches.

Oh! No! I’ve got it! It’s Angela!! I wouldn’t buy Girl Scout cookies from her bratty little Missy, and this is payback! Plus, my kitchen is twice the size of hers, so if she forces me out, she’ll have room to set up her own cookie-baking operation (or meth lab; I have my suspicions about Angela) and give the Scouts a run for their money!

* * *

So. How did that go for you?

For my part, while I have yet to resolve my desert-yard problem, I did have a lot of fun. And I could imagine continuing forward from here with A) a mystery about a woman who is actually the target of neighborhood sabotage, or B) a drama about a woman drifting into clinical paranoia, or C) a psychological thriller about a woman who is both clinically paranoid AND the target of sabotage!

The larger point, however, is that I wrote something quite different than I usually would have (if I’d written at all!) because I was dragged so far from my typical literary course by Elbow’s suggestion my brain had to leap a hundred hurdles-worth of synapses just to begin.

For that, and so much more, I am grateful to Peter Elbow, whose own struggles with writing resulted in him finding around-the-back hacks to get (more! fresher!) words on the page every time.

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