Using Art as Writing Prompts

A museum visit can be a great writing expedition.

Posted Jun 27, 2016

There are many ways to approach art as a prompt. You can describe what you see. You can write from your life, whatever is triggered by the topic or the art. Or you can write fiction.

On a visit to San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art with a group of writers, I found inspiration in every gallery. Not from the facts about the art or artist, but rather from my response to the art.

When we moved into a gallery of Andy Warhol’s paintings, I recalled the line that everyone has 15 minutes of fame. So, if you use a Warhol painting as a prompt, you might want to write about your 15 minutes of fame. Other prompts came to mind:

What would your life be like if you suddenly became famous? If you write fiction, imagine what it would be like if one of your characters suddenly became famous. How they would cope?

In this freewrite at the museum, Elizabeth Shreeve, an author of children’s books speaks through the voice of one of her characters:

If I were famous, I would handle the crowd. Give me control, give me power, give me everything I deserve!

Admiration and lots of compliments. Money, too. And houses everywhere. On the beach in Hawaii and a big rolling ranch in Wyoming with chestnut horses galloping all over the place.

Famous, world famous! Take my picture, tell me more. How great, how amazing. I deserve it all. Big pictures of my face hanging on the wall, with backgrounds in radiant colors.

Dwell on me, pour out your praise. What then? Is there an empty time, when the people go to sleep? Wake them up! I need another dose. More clapping, please. Feed my ego, keep me high. Louder, brighter, faster, shinier, richer, denser, more emphatic. Not a little famous — the most! Why else be alive? What’s the use of being part of a crowd, a miserable mortal, one of six billion? Give it to me, the most special and amazing, the most deserving and remarkable, the most famous and fabulous, the immortally splendiferous princess of the world.

I can see her bossy royal character, as if in an animated film, bursting with a child’s enthusiasm — famous and fabulous, more clapping, please. But the adult writer lets us know what she really thinks of all this. Louder, brighter, faster, shinier, richer, denser, more emphatic. We’re over the top. Although her children’s books deal with emotionally complex subjects, if she adapts this freewrite for a young audience, she may change phrases like “Feed my ego, keep me high” and eliminate repetition. But if she’d tried to wordsmith it as she did this freewrite, she would have squelched the energy, inspiration and freedom to explore.

In another gallery, Frank Stella’s colorful, three-dimensional works prompted me to write about a time I felt giddy. Alexander Calder’s mobiles were art in motion. They prompted me to write about being in balance, taking a chance.

You get the idea. You can describe what you see literally or take it to a metaphoric level and write about the idea the piece symbolizes or the emotion it triggers in you.

Writing exercise:

Look at a painting or piece of sculpture in a museum, art gallery or park, your home — anywhere you find it. If you don’t have access to the actual works of art, use a photo of a painting in a book or on a postcard. Let a prompt float up, then grab a pen (some museums insist on pencils in the galleries) and write for 10 minutes. This exercise is fun to do with a friend. If you’re in a museum, take turns choosing different pieces of art and giving each other writing prompts.

© 2016 by Laura Deutsch