Monday, January 8, 2007

On Writing: Inspiration

Some teachers try to make it easier for students to write by providing them with topics and with structures. While I think that sometimes students benefit from this kind of pedagogical support, I also believe that it’s important for students to face the blank page and to learn how to solve what we might call the problem of inspiration. I recently spoke with a tenth grade student named Matt who had come to see me because he was concerned that he was having trouble getting started with his cycle papers. He thought he might be suffering from “writer’s block.” I have a number of more or less standard recommendations that I make to students who have this concern.

One standard off-the-shelf solution to the problem of stuckness is to gather in immediate sensory data. One way to do this is to simply look around. In order to illustrate this point as I was talking with this student, I called his attention to a miniature pencil sharpener, shaped and painted as a globe, sitting on the windowsill of my office. As I considered the globe, its size and shape immediately got me thinking about questions of scale. We were sitting in a largish office with a high ceiling and large windows. That office was for the two of us at that moment pretty much the entire universe, or what we could see of it, and we ourselves figured centrally in that frame of reference. But over on there on the windowsill was a replica of our planet on which the island of Oahu itself is barely visible, and if we were to search for Honolulu, much less Punahou School or our own pitiful selves, we would find ourselves marginalized quite out of existence. The presence of the pencil sharpener in my line of vision was generating in me a line of philosophical reflection which might, should I choose to explore it in a piece of writing, result in a essay in which I might meditate on the dynamics of scale, the state of our planet, my place in the universe and what I might hope to accomplish here.

On the desk to my right as I looked around was a package of guitar strings which I had taken out because one of the students who frequently comes to my office to borrow my guitar had brought it back with a broken string, so I was waiting for a moment to replace the strings. Were I to begin with that stimulus, I might write about my history with the guitar as an instrument, or about this particular guitar, or about a particular group of students who often come to my office to borrow the guitar, or about why I have had to give up the guitar and am now learning to play piano, or about my piano teacher, or about the challenges of learning a new instrument.

When students say they have nothing to write about, I’m sure they believe that what they say is true. But I’m convinced that they are mistaken, or rather, that they have not trained themselves to see the opportunities. Worthy topics are everywhere we look. What is needed is that we stop for a moment, look around, gather in, and then follow the movement of the mind as it plays over the possibilities.

Another standard, re-usable move is a one we had just practiced earlier in the day in that student's class. I call it the “Three Minute Poem Exercise.” I ask the students to take out a piece of paper and a writing utensil, and then tell them they are going to have three minutes to draft a poem. It can be on any subject, in any form, structured or unstructured, rhyming or nonrhyming. The only requirements are that it be composed in the present moment. I tell the students that ideally they should just get the pen moving and see what shows up on the paper. Reminding them of William Stafford’s definition of a poem as a “reckless enounter with whatever comes along, I tell them, “Write first, think later.” Then I count down “5-4-3-2-1 Go.”

Interestingly, I almost never have students who have trouble getting started. If I see someone not writing, I just go over and say “Just get the pen moving, don’t worry about it.” When the three minutes are over, I tell the students to stop. Then I give them the instructions for the second, more interesting part of the exercise. “This time, I’m going to ask you to write another poem. But the second poem should be as different from the first poem as you can make it. If the first poem rhymed, the second one shouldn’t. If the first poem was a happy poem about flowers, the second poem should be a tragic poem about the invasion of spiders from the planet Xenon. If the first poem used lots of simple words, the second poem should have as many complicated vocabulary words as you can funnel into it. Ideally, when I look at your two poems it should look as if two entirely different writers had produced them, or as if your inner schizophrenic had come out to play. Ready? 5-4-3-2-1 Go.”

When the students finish writing their two poems, I give them a few minutes to make any minor editorial corrections they wish to make on either poem, and then I ask them to put a check mark next to the poem that they like better or that they find relatively more satisfying, for whatever reason. Between classes, I type up a selection of the poems written in class and we use that typescript as a point of departure for a series of discussions about what poetry is, how we go about reading it, and how we go about evaluating it.

Several things interest me about this exercise. First of all, I am always surprised at the range and inventiveness of what gets written during those six minutes. Second of all, I am always impressed that no one complains of having “nothing to write about.” Third of all—and this is something I make a point of mentioning to the students and which is the real point of going into this longwinded explanation about the exercise in the first place—is that the basic concept of the three-minute exercise is a useful strategic solution for writer’s block. When faced with a blank piece of paper, an alternative to gathering ideas from the environment is to gather or harvest ideas from the apparently limitless recesses of the subconscious mind.

A third inspirational strategy is to simply open a book and copy down a line. I just now reached for a copy of Cal, by Bernard McLaverty, which is sitting on my desk. The first line that caught my eye as I opened the book at random reads “Cal switched on the light and tiptoed into the darkness of the front room.” If I were to write that line at the top of the page, and then challenge myself to continue the narrative from there, I would have the beginnings of something that could turn into a short story, or perhaps a poem, or, if I were to substitute my own name for Cal's, a personal narrative based on memory. The sentence I select serves as a story starter. At some point, I might choose to go back and drop the words that I used to get myself started. They serve as a scaffolding, as a structure from which to begin building. Once the building can stand on its own, the scaffolding can be taken away.

There are of course numberless possibilities of this sort. Many of them can be found in writer’s handbooks or creative writing course descriptions. Many others simply await invention. Anyone wishing to write can simply invent the rules of a game and then play it. I could, for example, take the letters of the words of my name, Richard Bruce Schauble, and make as many words as I could from those letters, and then attempt to write a paragraph using at least two of those words in each sentence. (“There was a rush of wings as the birds settled into the shrubs at the rear of the house. Their chirping sounded cruel and hard to his ears as he stood on the porch, watching the sun settle into the trees at the edge of the river.”)

I think it's important that we ask students to think metacognitively, to be aware of the problem they're facing—in this case, writer's block—and think about what solutions they might already know about, or be able to invent on their own. When Matt comes to say he doesn't know what to write about, I try to turn the conversation back to "What do you do when you don't know what to write about?" And then we work from there.

1 comment:

David Hodges said...

These are terrific exercises, Bruce. What daunts us about the empty page, I think, is the notion that only big ideas are worthy of setting words in motion. Getting language on the page, any language, breaks the spell.