This is strongly encouraged.¹
(Just in case you were wondering.)
¹ It’s fair to wonder why I would say something as seemingly counterintuitive as this. After all, I wrack my brain coming up with prompts and other assorted assignments that I think are useful exercises for folks such as yourselves.
The reason I encourage you to not follow the assignment (by A LOT) is that I believe creativity requires you to take risks. The risks of invention and imagination. As people like Seth Godin and J.K. Rowling (and other really successful creative people) have said in one way or another: innovation/imagination without the risk of failure isn’t really being innovative at all.
[Note Inside a Note: Please keep in mind that when I use the F-word — failure — I’m not talking about the Get-an-F-in-this-class kind of failure. I’m talking about the What-you-thought/hoped-would-work-doesn’t-actually-work kind of failure. You don’t really have to worry about the former, and the latter’s not quite as scary as it sounds because that kind of failure is never an end-stop. It’s always a step in a larger process of discovery.]
When I ask you to write a long poem that tells a story, I know for a fact you can do that. I know it will work. So should you. Ditto when I ask you to write a 750-word autobiographical essay that focuses on a specific object, rite of passage, and/or place that says something essential about you. Ditto any and all of the prompts (etc, etc) I ever give you.
Doing something that you know for a fact you can do isn’t necessarily easy, but it is pretty safe. And there’s usually not a whole lot of discovery involved.
But discovery’s the real goal around here.
Hence: you are strongly encouraged to not follow the assignment (by A LOT).
Now does that mean you should actually avoid the prompts like the plague? No, not exactly. Does it mean I’ll think less of you if you use the prompts? Not at all. They’re there to help you, to spark your imagination.
But it’s important to remember that they’re not an end goal; they’re a starting point.
Maybe another way to think of it is this: the goal isn’t so much to NOT follow the assignment, but simply following the assignment isn’t enough. The goal is always to transcend the assignment. By a lot.