Back in the mid ’90s, a decade that now brings to mind the strange odors of hair gel (Jason Priestly, people!) and cigarettes (I used to smoke a lot) and overripe mulberries (a messy tree outside my home office), I used to write this really silly column for my college newspaper called “The Last Word,” wherein I started with a random word and tried to cobble out some semblance of a humorous essay. Under the panic of deadline, I swilled too much coffee and puffed on those ol’ ciggies and riffed with my hysterically witty roommate, and we had ourselves a time coming up with those 1,000-word ditties. These were by no means perfect or high art, but sometimes they were a little funny; at least a line or two usually was a keeper. At the very least, I amused myself in writing them.
In other words, writing was fun!
Which makes me think of part of BULL DURHAM:
Man, that’s a funny movie.
Anyhoo, all of this was pre-creative writing workshop, and I know now (dur) that what I was doing with that random-word business is called a “prompt.” Who knew?! Not me!
The writer Alice LaPlante, in her excellent book Method and Madness: The Making of a Story, calls prompts “constraints,” which I rather like. The idea is that in constraining yourself to focus on one small thing, you counter-intuitively can tap a deep well of creativity. I’m a fan of such constraints in my own teaching. Writers get out of their heads, stop overthinking, and just run. I’ve seen some of students’ best work come from these.
The point, I think, is that I thought I’d revive my old chum The Random Word Prompt here at U-Leaves. (Worst hip-hop name ever.) Which brings me (finally!) to the word: Plant.
Plants are on my mind as they are every spring here in the Deep South, a time when yards shrug off their winter grays and erupt with color and scents. However, this spring, despite the horticultural wonders, has been much more solemn. My previous post was about tornadoes, and I wrote it before the horrible day on April 27 when dozens of tornadoes tore through Alabama, killing hundreds of people and destroying countless homes and businesses. It was a terrifying, sad day for so many people. Our friends and teachers lost their homes, and many others lost much worse. As the daunting recovery moves forward, I continue to donate and volunteer, but I also find myself with the impulse to put something in the ground and watch it grow. Such an act won’t directly help someone, but planting gets me out of my head, away from my tendency to brood and worry and despair. Instead, I dig hole in the earth, add soil, insert plant, water, and stand back. Woo-woo or hokey as it may sound, I want to bring something to life in the midst of loss.
Of course, plant also has a sense of stubbornness, defiance or forcefulness, even of colonization. As in, I’ve planted my butt in this beanbag chair with my Funyuns and grape Nehi, and I’m not budging, or, Hey Moon: We’re going to plant our flag on your face! It also can denote sneakiness: I planted some contraband on his person.
I guess I’ve been thinking about planting in terms of writing, too, which might be a nice way to wrap up this shaggy dog of a post. I recently figured out something important about the novel that I started — first planted? — four years ago. The realization is a major plot decision, something I couldn’t have predicted in the early drafts. And yet, as I discovered it, it seemed to have been there all along, just waiting to — dare I say — bloom.
Plant a seed of an idea, nurture it, and let it grow. Plant your butt in the chair. Plant your words and sentences on the blank page and call it yours.
Dig in. We haven’t got forever.