The Inciting Cause

Joseph Interpreting Dreams to Butler and Baker in Prison with Him. (Cropped).
Alexander Ivanov, 1827; Russian Federation.

One of the best investments I’ve ever made in supporting my reading and writing pursuits is a subscription to the online Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary. In addition to the Unabridged Dictionary, the subscription includes the Collegiate Dictionary, Collegiate Thesaurus, and Medical Dictionary. A product feature I use a lot is the system’s audible pronunciation of words. I find it nearly impossible to read past words that I cannot pronounce. I am fortunate that my friend and teacher, Avi Gold, a talented philologist who has helped me pronounce many foreign words, lives right behind me. He has assisted me with pronunciation problems on numerous occasions.

Since it’s digital, I find the online Webster’s easier and faster to use than one of the many printed dictionaries stashed in rooms around the house. [On a related note, a built-in electronic dictionary is one of the persuasive reasons I do most of my reading on my Kindle.]

In this blog, I want to discuss writing prompts. The online Webster’s begins its definition of the word “prompt” by stating that the word can be used as a transitive verb, an adjective, an adverb, or a noun. I didn’t realize how versatile the word is! Three uses are given for “prompt” as a verb. The third one says: “to serve as the inciting cause of (an act or thought) : urge, suggest.” The last two words are synonyms. [“Prompt.” Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed June 7. 2022.]

A person may be familiar with the word “prompt” in its several definitions and yet not be aware of “writing prompts,” that is, suggestions that writers can consider as inspirations for their writing. I have a book that provides a poetry prompt for every day of the year. Here is its prompt for January 6: “Stone Soup. Write a poem that begins with the image of a stone, then add at least five of these words to it: kamikaze, landslide, spill, bridge, vaccine, read, red, hollow, mismatch, tilt, freeway, pillow, harmonica, fairy shrimp. For extra credit, have the poem end with a soup image.” [Silano, Martha; Agodon, Kelli. The Daily Poet: Day-By-Day Prompts For Your Writing Practice (p. 10). Two Sylvias Press. Kindle Edition.]

I used the book’s January 6 prompt to write a poem titled, no surprise here, “Stone Soup.” The Magnolia Review, an online journal, published the poem in The Magnolia Review Volume 4, Issue 2 July 2018. Below is a picture of the poem as it appeared subsequently in God’s Memory, published by Kelsay Books in 2021. By reviewing the prompt and its image below together, it’s easy to see the effect of the former on the latter.

“Stone Soup,” from God’s Memory: Poems by Gershon Ben-Avraham. Kelsay Books, 2021, p.30.

I don’t ordinarily use lists prepared by others to generate writing ideas. Instead, I rely heavily on my reading to do so. Elsewhere I have mentioned the Chabad practice (Chabad is the Jewish Hasidic group I follow) of reading a portion of Psalms each day. Often, a phrase, even a word, will give rise to the idea of a poem. Let me list a few poetic “prompts” from today’s reading, the 9th of Sivan, or June 8, 2022, Psalms 49-54. These are from The Book of Psalms, translated by the Jewish Publication Society, the new translation, not the one from 1917. I will list only one prompt from each Psalm.

Ps. 49: “Do not be afraid when a man becomes rich.”
Ps. 50: “I know every bird of the mountains.”
Ps. 51: “with sin my mother conceived me.”
Ps 52: “a sharpened razor that works treacherously.”
Ps 53: “there is none who does good, not even one.”
Ps 54: “ruthless men seek my life.”

These are examples from one day’s reading of one translation. The book of Psalms is read in whole every month. I use a different translation each month. When I’ve gone through all my translations, I start over.

Another Chabad practice is to read each day one section of the portion of the Five Books of Moses (the Pentateuch) scheduled for reading in the synagogue on the upcoming Sabbath or Festival. All five books are read each year. Many rich prompts lie around the edges of familiar Bible stories. Consider, for example, the Binding of Isaac. As recorded in the Bible, the story does not tell us what Isaac thought or felt as his father tied him up, laid him on the wood atop the sacrificial altar, and reached for the knife to slay him. Nor does it tell us what was going through Abraham’s mind. Earlier this year, when we read about Joseph interpreting the dreams of a wine steward and a baker, two of his fellow prisoners, I wondered how the baker felt upon hearing Joseph’s interpretation of his dream. I was prompted to write a story about it titled “All’s Over, Then.” Phil Slattery just published the tale in the online literary journal he edits, The Chamber Magazine. If you like, you can read the story here. It’s flash fiction, under 1000 words.

Much of my reading is of religious texts. But not all of it. I heartily encourage writers to mine the books, stories, and poems they read for writing prompts. I believe you will be wonderfully surprised at the bounty of your enterprise.

All the best,

Author: Gershon Ben-Avraham

Gershon Ben-Avraham is an American-Israeli writer. He lives in Beersheba, Israel, on the edge of the Negev Desert. He and his wife share their lives with a gentle blue-merle long-haired collie. Ben-Avraham earned an MA in Philosophy (Aesthetics) from Temple University. His short story, “Yoineh Bodek,” (Image) received “Special Mention” in the Pushcart Prize XLlV: Best of the Small Presses 2020 Edition. Kelsay Books published his chapbook “God’s Memory” in 2021. חב"ד‎

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.