Scenes from the Past: A Creativity Prompt

Scenes from the Past: A Creativity Prompt

In my post last week, I shared with you how to get inspiration and training by copying the masters of your art form and translating what you learn to your own unique style. If you missed that, click here for Great Artists Steal or How to Learn from the Masters.

This week, I promised you a new creative “prompt” or idea to jumpstart your own inspiration and creativity.

What the Heck is a Prompt?

A prompt is an idea or jumping off point for creating new work. Its purpose is to get the creative juices flowing and open you to new directions that may prove very fertile. A prompt may inspire, challenge, delight or motivate, or all of the above.

Many artists share that their best work often comes from prompts given by others.

Using prompts is a great way to:

  1. Move past artist’s block and get started creating anything.
  2. Get inspired.
  3. Expand your creative possibilities.
  4. Discover new tools.
  5. Create new work that may surprise you.

A New Idea for You Today

Master of Disguises book coverI have been reading poet Charles Simic’s recent book, Master of Disguises. Simic is a Pulitzer-Prize winner and former U.S. Poet Laureate. Despite that, I don’t really love his writing, though I can appreciate its artistry. It’s just not my style. In fact, it’s about as far from my style as you can get. And that’s one reason he can be a good source for me to learn from, a good master to copy.

Here’s the prompt I created for myself from reading one of his poems. First the poem that inspired it.

Scenes of the Old Life

Washing hung from the fire escapes.
Boys threw cats from rooftops. 
War veterans hopped on crutches,
Pitching pennies and smoking reefers.

Writers destined to remain obscure
Wrote late into the night
Using a pencil and the kind of notebook
Their children took to school in the morning.

Outside a club advertising exotic dancing girls,

A man in a crumpled white suit
Staggered with a knife in his heart,
One dark eyebrow raised in surprise.

In winter, rain fell as if it meant to fall forever.

We kept the gas oven lit to warm ourselves,

While mother cried and cried chopping onions

And my one goldfish swam in a pickle jar.
—Charles Simic

Your Assignment, Should You Choose to Accept It

Copy Charles Simic’s poem “Scenes of the Old Life” formally as exactly as possible. Here’s how.

  1. Start simply by making a list of strong images that are memories from your childhood. Get a good sized list. Notice how Simic chooses images from his environment and then narrows down to one that is quite personal at the end of the poem.
  2. Choose the strongest of the scenes or images from your list, paring them down to ones that create a cohesive or similar mood throughout the poem, as Simic does.
  3. Make a poem that follows Simic’s form exactly. You may need to choose images/scenes that work best to do this.

To follow his form, your poem will:

  • Be made entirely of striking images/short scenes.
  • Express each image in a short pithy line or a few lines. If you want to completely follow his form, you might use the same number of lines for each of your images or scenes that he does. In Simic’s poem, the first line is one image, the second line another, and the last two lines of the first stanza are a third image. Are they all one scene? That’s for you to decide. The next stanza is clearly one scene.
  • Be a poem of 4 stanzas made of 4 lines each (called a quatrain).
  • Use simple, straight-forward syntax and language, be made of complete grammatical sentences.
  • Contain many “end-stopped” lines (though not all of them), meaning the line ends with a comma or period.
  • Mention the season at some point (as he mentions winter).

Once you’ve created a first draft, feel free to edit, revise or stray from the form in some ways to make the best poem you can.

Translate the Same Prompt to Other Media

modern dancer

photo by Olena Kotyk on Unsplash

If you are not a poet, you can start by making the same list of potent images from your childhood, including one set in a particular season. Then, make a painting, drawing, sculpture, musical piece or dance piece, based on a collection of those “scenes.”

You might make a rule for yourself that you have to use the same number of different scenes or images that he does. Or you might decide you are going to make a painting divided into four equal squares, each with a scene in it, as he has four stanzas in his poem.

If you feel stumped, start small. Give yourself the assignment to make a 1-minute dance piece or to do a 10-minute sketch based on one particularly striking scene. If you don’t make representational art, make something that conjures the images or feelings evoked by the list of scenes.

The idea is to stretch yourself and see what you learn and discover.

I’d love to hear how it goes for you.

 

 

P.S. Please share this post with friends who might be inspired to create new work, using the share buttons below!

P.P.S. To learn more about poet Charles Simic and read more of his poems online, click here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/charles-simic

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