David Means on Writing Prompts and the Imagination


This week’s story, “The Exhaustion Prompts,” uses the idea of ​​writing prompts for its structure. When did you first start thinking about this approach?

Photograph courtesy of the author

The storyteller of the story and the second person voice developed as I was writing the story. The narrator fears that he will exhaust his material and lose his ability to create during the pandemic, in this strange period of confinement. It gave me a feeling of catharsis and freedom leaving this narrator to worry.

The story uses a second-person address, although it can sometimes feel like it’s written in the first person, perhaps because the narrator may be addressing himself in the stories. prompts. The “you” has a sister, Meg Allen, a character who has appeared in your fiction before, but as a reader it is possible to believe that she is the author of the story.

While the prompts are largely second person, sometimes drifting into third person, what I think you take away is the intimate nature of their content, which feels close to the narrator. And so, for some readers, it may feel close to me, the real person writing the story. All fiction is built on that feeling of intimacy, but maybe with this story, because it seems like the bones are exposed, are on the surface, it’s even more so.

In the story, the narrator mentions a writer whom he admires but says he decided not to name her. Do you want to do it here?

The narrator was probably thinking of the stories of Lorrie Moore in his book “Self-help. “I admire her work and her innovations nurtured other writers, including me, as she opened the door to new ways of writing. The same could be said of many influential short story writers: Alice Munro, William Trevor , Lydia Davis, Clarice Lispector the list could go on and on. The narrator is slightly sarcastic about the use of Moore’s fictional techniques by other writers, but I think it stems from his insecurity and of his fear of losing his ability to fully imagine new content.

In “The Depletion Prompts,” what might be a true memory – the memory of the boy hearing his parents’ voices rise through the heating duct as they discussed his sister’s disappearance – becomes an invented scene, when an image of two figures in a bed together is invoked. How important is this imaginative leap?

When you invite yourself as a writer, which this narrator seems to do, you start with what I consider a seed (I like that word better than “idea”, because it’s smaller), then you Take the plunge as soon as you start to write, make up – in the case of this story – an imaginary memory, and then explore the possibility of a story that could come from that memory.

Throughout the story, the narrator describes how the boys and men reacted to Meg. Have you decided to write a story about masculinity?

Not specifically, but I asked the narrator to let this aspect of his concern surface in the prompts he gave. Part of what prompts work is how the “male gaze” enters the consciousness of someone whose beloved sister is particularly vulnerable to predatory males.

What is the value of write prompts as a tool?

The prompts, as far as I know – and I have used them in teaching – are generally, paradoxically, very restrictive and yet strangely vague at the same time. Writing an entire life in three hundred words is a good example of one I used in a class. They are useful for young writers who are trying to find a way to write or who are learning aspects of writing with narrow bandwidth. But what is absurd about the incentives offered by this narrator is that they are so precise that they become the story. What a young writer needs to learn is how to invent incentives – again, I like to think of this as looking for seeds – that are unique and personal, those that stem from the writer’s own concerns. , then to trust the enormous, almost cosmic, capacity of the imagination to make things.


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