A Kind of Writing Prompt
I want to refer to Brevity one more time, or anyway Brevity’s blog, where on Halloween Dinty Moore posted a short animated film made via the web site Xtranormal, titled “What Is Creative about Creative Nonfiction?” The film depicts, in one fraught conversation, one of the ongoing discussions in the genre, which concerns the question of whether or not a creative nonfiction writer is at liberty to “make things up” in his or her work. Conversations on this subject are, in reality, rarely so blatant or so polarized as is Moore’s Xtranormal dramatization of it – but then, sometimes they are.
At the moment, I’m interested in the question raised in the dialogue film less than I am in Xtranormal itself. Web sites like Twitter and Facebook and Tumblr interest me for all kinds of reasons, as they do many others, but one is that in different ways they facilitate the creativity of their users. They function essentially as very-short-form writing prompts – Twitter especially. Some of us respond to these prompts more memorably than others do, and of course they produce more social interaction than they do masterpieces of limited size, but the basic premise is, in the case of Twitter and of Facebook’s status updates, that you have this little space to take up with some words, and you’re invited to do what you can with it. It’s like what a blank sheet of paper does, only much smaller, electronic, and with a potentially more immediate, built-in audience, plus advertising.
Xtranormal is significantly different, in that you’re encouraged to write at greater length than, say, Twitter, but moreso because whatever you come up with is translated into a short animated film, in which one or two people speak the words you’ve written in a bizarre monotone that sounds like a mash-up of the voices of Hal-9000, Data, and the NPR announcer who comes on at the end of every show and lists the program’s underwriters. I have, as it happens, been amused to tears by a computerized person’s intonation of the sentence, “What kind of sandwich would that make it?”
An Xtranormal video is about as similar to a polished short story as a diary entry is to a polished essay, but I have not attempted to write more than 5,000 words of fiction in my life, and after watching the short film at Brevity I made four of my own Xtranormal films yesterday, and the only thing preventing me from making more of them today is that I have a job and I must do the things I have to do in order to keep it. I mention this not to celebrate a personal creative triumph – an activity that doesn’t suit me any more than it does the fact that I threw away so much of yesterday on this very unproductive thing – but for what it’s worth I’ve taken to this strange writing format as I never would have expected myself to do, and this is the kind of thing, I suspect, that can lead some people to more substantial creative production, even if it has led me merely to throw away another Sunday typing things into a web site.
To make all this relevant to something else, today is the first day of NaNoWriMo. That combination of letters, as you probably know, represents the practice of writing an entire novel in one month, which apparently a lot of people are trying to do this November. It’s another prompt to creativity, one that is much more demanding than any I have considered participating in. My hat goes off to everyone who is willing to be a part of this practice, and I wish them all luck. But it’s worth recognizing that there are other ways to strike those fleeting creative sparks than to set massive goals for oneself, to be accomplished in a very limited span of time, and one of them is to make animated people say strange things on the Internet.
Robert Long Foreman is The Missouri Review’s Social Media Editor.