A couple nights ago, my Wife and I were working with our son to help him with a problem he’s having in school. In class they have a time where they have to practice their writing, but they do it in a stream of consciousness format, where they can write about whatever they want but they have to fill one full page about it.

In talking with him, he said he gets frustrated because in the moment he has a hard time coming up with an idea to write about, which gets him frustrated and ultimately in trouble for not doing his work.

As I listened to him tell my Wife about this problem, it occurred to me that we ALL face this issue as creatives, don’t we? Staring at the blank canvas, the blank page, and trying to find an idea to tackle that is worthy of ruining that pristine blank space.

It’s fun to imagine what we would do if we could do anything we wanted as creatives, but the reality is that having no constraints leads to a lack of creativity. The fact there are no boundaries to work within leaves most of us feeling overwhelmed with the sheer weight of unlimited possibilities.

We decided to help my son come up with some ideas that we printed off so that when it’s time for the writing session, he can pick something off the list and not have to worry about thinking of something out of the blue.

Yes. That’s right. We helped him create a list of his own writing prompts.

Now, as you can imagine, an 8 year old’s list of prompts is likely nothing like what you or I might dream up. There was a lot of “look around the room and see things that I like” sort of prompts. BUT, it’s actually a brilliant strategy.

One that applies to you and I easily.

Think about this. When we asked him to just tell us ideas, free flowing, for things that interest him that he may want to write about he started looking to things like his toys and other things around the house that reminded him of things he enjoys. Sure there were things on his list like hover boards, tanks, airplanes, and Legos. But they are simple one word prompts for him that remind him of something he has a connection to or a passion for.

Isn’t that really the goal of a writing prompt?

To serve as a simple jumping off point, a reminder, that will help you get started?

Maybe it’s not about writing.

For you, maybe you are grabbing your camera but feel like you just have no photographic vision at the moment. Nothing you’re working towards and no real idea of what to photograph.

A list of prompts tucked in your camera bag can be just as valuable. It may look a little different, then again it may not. The idea is simple.

Short, one or two word prompts

Here’s what I want you to try. It’s also what I am going to experiment with as well, remember we’re in this together!

Sit down and simply write down a list 10-15 things that you find interesting. It could be physical items, hobbies, moods, movies you love, music that moves you, books that you can’t get out of your head, or your favorite pair of shoes. The point is to keep this list short and simple. If you are listing a movie, just give the title. If it’s your favorite shoes, just jot down something like “my favorite Nike’s”.

Keeping the list short, with no detailed explanations next to each item, allows you to take one of those prompts later and expand on it in whatever direction your mind takes you in that moment.

For example, let’s use the favorite shoes idea. You may sit down to write and using that prompt the idea that comes to your mind today is about the day you got those shoes. The first day you spent in total comfort as you walked around the city, exploring, having lunch at that little diner on 33rd Street.

If you looked at that prompt a month from now it may stir an emotion of how you’ve had them for 12 years now and they are in their final days. The sole is separating and the last time you wore them was 2 months ago, but you just can’t let them go yet. It feels so hard to toss your trusty companion shoes in the garbage after you’ve been through so much. They are like an old friend, etc..

You see what I mean? That one small prompt can send your mind off in a number of directions at any given time.

That’s what makes it so incredibly valuable as a tool for whatever your creative pursuits are. It gives you just enough of a constraint, just a hint of a starting point, so you can springboard down the avenue of imagination. You’ll have a reason to get that blank page messy because you have that idea all set to go.

So take 10 minutes, make yourself a list. Keep it simple and short, just 10-15 different items. Most importantly keep that list wherever you create. In the notebook you write in, in your camera bag, on your easel, at your computer.

Keep it handy and look at it every time you feel like that blank page is overwhelming you. Let it serve as a launchpad to access that unlimited stream of thoughts and ideas that influence your creativity. Then enjoy the ride and get busy creating.


David (Usually Dave) Szweduik is a photographer, podcaster, and all around geek from the great state of Minnesota and can be found weekly on his podcast Adventures in Creativity. There you’ll find him having conversations fueled by curiosity around the amazing world of all things creativity.

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