How “Meta-Prompts” Elevate Your Creativity
Everyone talks about writer’s block as the enemy we need to defeat. I’ve never had a problem with writer’s block. I don’t believe in it. You can’t stop thinking. And if you can’t stop thinking, you can’t run out of material.
But writer’s loop is real. It’s when your brain gets stuck in a cycle of repeating ideas.
Your writing feels stale, tedious or redundant. It’s not that you have nothing to write about. It’s that you cycle through the same few concepts with little variation. You’re stuck in an endless loop of stories that say the same thing in different ways.
That’s not always a bad thing. Sometimes it takes a few tries before your thoughts crystallize into a coherent mess of words.
But when your own writing starts to feel repetitive and boring, you need to break out of the cycle and explore new ground.
What‘s a bored writer to do?
Some writers suggest you keep writing until you clear out all the junk. Push yourself until it hurts, and the new, insightful ideas emerge. That never worked for me, but it’s an option you can try.
Other folks like to use prompts. I’ve had occasional success with that, but most of the ones I come across don’t interest me.
Meta-prompts, by comparison, are less specific. They give you sufficient direction to redirect your thinking but allow you enough freedom to let your imagination flourish.
Keep this list handy for those days where your creative muscle needs extra flexing.
Explore your experiences
If you journal, you should have a record of recent experiences and thoughts. If not, spend ten minutes jotting down events, interactions and thoughts.
Each one of those experiences offers you source material for your writing. Pick out the most promising entry and dig in deeper.
What is the meaning behind this experience?
What does it teach you about yourself or life?
How can it serve as a useful lesson to others?
Would, Could, Should
Of all the techniques I share here, this one will intrigue you the most. Using these auxiliary verbs, you can go in several directions:
- Speculate on outcomes had circumstances differed
- Speculate on outcomes under hypothetical situations
- Give an alternate opinion on what you believe should happen or should have occurred under existing circumstances.
There are numerous possibilities; I can’t list them all here.
These examples should get you started. You can use your list of experiences as source material, or pick something from current events.
What would happen if I quit my job tomorrow?
What would have happened if I reported the incident?
What should have happened after the boss falsified the report?
What do you say you’re going to do, but keep putting off?
Everyone has stuff they should do but put off for a variety of reasons. Ask yourself what you’ve been putting off and then ask why.
The why yields insight into your fears, which can provide you with a plethora of writing material.
Action I keep putting off: A doctor visit for a chronic pain
Possible answer: Because I’m afraid of what they might find.
Possible answer: Because my health insurance sucks.
How we let fear impact our health
Medical care sucks even when you have insurance
Try something new. Experimenting outside your comfort zone stretches your creative boundaries. The experiment need not be complicated or time-consuming. It can be something as simple as changing your routine, trying an all natural deodorant or something as complicated as a thirty-day diet.
Live the life of an experimenter, and make it a part of your routine. Aim to try something new once a week. Write about the results. What did you learn from the experience? Would you do it again? Is it worth continuing the experiment? Would you recommend it to others? If so, under what conditions?
Take a controversial opinion
Do you have a controversial streak? It seems almost every topic stirs some amount of controversy today, but the hot button topics still draw the most eyeballs.
This technique may not be for everyone. You can expect your fair share of hate mail. Your position also needs to be on one of the extremes to gain traction. I’ve written several stories on controversial issues that have promoted compromise or expressed moderate viewpoints. They’ve all gone unnoticed.
To succeed in this arena, you need people who love and hate your position. Ambivalence, moderation and compromise fail to rouse emotions.
Find meaning in the mundane
This exercise forces you to derive meaning from simple actions and observations. Go to a coffee shop, park or wherever you find lots of people. Bring a notebook or laptop with you. Observe the people around you. Pay careful attention to the mundane things we usually ignore.
Is your subject wearing a wide-brimmed hat?
How is she gripping her coffee cup? Does she use two hands?
How engaged is he with his work? Does he keep flipping to social media?
Take notes. Pay attention to as many details as possible. Quantity matters more than quality at this stage.
Select one or two descriptions and actions and put them in a sentence. Next, add an abstract statement to give meaning to concrete actions.
Concrete + Abstract = Meaning
Here is an example.
A man wearing a Yankee baseball cap typed furiously on his laptop. His venti frappucino appeared untouched.
Concrete plus Abstract
A man wearing a leather jacket typed furiously on his laptop. His venti coffee appeared untouched. He held onto a tiny bit of hope that this apology letter would save his marriage.
This conclusion is fiction, of course. For all I know, the guy could have been typing a recipe for apple pie.
You can use this short fictional narrative to open a story. You can also relate it to a personal experience. I have also found that this exercise can jog old memories like it did in this story.
Combine two ideas and create something interesting
Combining two existing ideas can result in a brand new idea. Your two unrelated ideas might be boring by themselves, but when combined might intrigue your readers.
Let’s suppose you start with two uninspiring ideas.
Idea 1: Do a thirty-minute walk every day to ease anxiety and tension
Idea 2: My dog is my best friend
These were random ideas that popped into my head. To combine them, ask yourself where they intersect.
What is the connection between the two ideas? Where do they intersect?
Loneliness. Mental health. Companionship.
- How to cope with loneliness when you live alone.
- The old world solution to stress relief without drugs or therapy
There are a dozen other possibilities you could probably think of, but you only need one.
Summary of the six meta-prompts
- What have you experienced in the last twenty-four hours?
- Would. Could. Should
- What experiment can you try
- Take a controversial position
- Find meaning in the mundane
- Combine two unrelated ideas