Practicing What I’ve Preached

Inspiration has been severely lacking this week.

And yet, here I am, pushing through the pain, forcing myself to type words even though I have no idea yet where this particular post should go. In short, today I’m truly practicing what I’ve preached for the past few months.

In a previous post, I talked about the importance of freewriting, and made the following promise:

Next year, instead of giving prompts, I’m going to instruct my students to write about whatever they choose. I’m going to tell them that they will be expected to start writing as soon as the bell rings, and they are not to stop until I stop them. They’ll complain at first, of course, and they’ll groan and say they can’t imagine why I’m torturing them in this way.

But I refuse to give up on freewriting.

In past years of teaching, I had a prompt on the board or screen as soon as the students walked in the door. They were meant to take the prompt in whatever direction they chose; I was less concerned with whether or not they answered the question, and more with simply getting them to dedicate a few moments of each day to pour out their thoughts in writing. Students could answer the freewriting prompt thoroughly, or they could touch upon the answer briefly and let the question remind them of something else on their minds: “Would I want Romeo as a friend? Well, no, but I wouldn’t mind taking a break from my best friend, Julia…I don’t know what’s up with her lately…” I had also envisioned freewriting as a great way of getting the students to start class on their own, without my constant reminders.

Unfortunately, this method backfired in just about every possible way. When the prompts went up, the students became obsessed with answering the question at hand. If they didn’t know the answer, they stalled and panicked. If they did know the answer, they wrote only as much as they needed in order to make the response clear.

I have, throughout the years, worked with three different co-teachers in special education classrooms, and even they did not understand the thinking behind the freewriting.

“Answer the question,” they would shout, as they walked from desk to desk.

“No, no,” I would say. “It’s freewriting. It’s okay if the student doesn’t answer the question.”

“Oh, really?” they would say. “Then why have a question at all?” I’d have to admit that they had a point.

Worst of all, the students were not becoming any more self-sufficient in their writing; if anything, the opposite was true. If I was late putting the prompt on the screen (which happens occasionally when you share a room with another teacher) the students would talk to each other and forget to take their notebooks out. Once the question of the day was ready, I’d have to shout at them to get on task, and remind them constantly to be quiet and write. This wasted a good five or ten minutes each day, very little of which was actually spent writing.

It’s still a bit early in the new school year to make any major pronouncements, but the changes I’ve made to the freewriting process do appear positive. I no longer worry about coming up with a prompt. My students now know to start writing as soon as the bell rings. They know to write about anything: their day, their family, their hopes and dreams, etc. Occasionally, I’ll cut in and ask the students to think about something more specific, but I only do this about halfway through the allotted freewriting time, and more often than not I don’t do it at all.

At first, the kids were a bit put off by the concept of writing without a specified topic. “What are we supposed to write about?” they would ask, gazing around the room as if looking for a prompt hidden somewhere.

“Write about whatever you want,” I would say. “Discover as you go along.”

Some kids produce almost two pages of writing per session. Others need to be reminded to keep going, even after they’ve reached what they think is a natural stopping place.

But in the end, they all do it. And I’m wondering why I didn’t think of doing it this way ages ago.

Yes, it’s always more fun to write when you are driven by that one great idea, when you’re seized by that burning feeling of wanting to tell a story because you have a story to tell. Those are the best moments; those are the times when your writing self feels most alive.

But like most things, that feeling comes and goes. If we hope to create writers–or become writers ourselves–we must both learn and teach the importance of writing even if you don’t believe they have anything to say.

Either that, or you could sit and wait for that great idea. But if I did that, I’d probably sit down to write about once a month.

Someone told me a while ago (and for the life of me, I can’t remember who) that a strong marriage is about making sure that you both don’t fall out of love at the same time. That way, one person can carry the other through a tough time, and the other can soon do the same in return. I have come to think of writing in much the same way. If you want to be a writer, you must be willing to fight through the times when you fall out of love with writing. You must produce enough content to carry you through the times when the burning cools, and passion fades away.

So here I am, in a bit of a slump, wondering if perhaps I rushed into this writing marriage a little too quickly. But I made the promise to stick it out to the end, and I’m writing now because I have to write something. I’m doing what I would expect my students to do.

It’s not easy, but please note that I’m doing it.

Writer and educator Sara Goas is a graduate of Lycoming College, and she specializes in creating content for the web. Her site has more examples of her work.


4 thoughts on “Practicing What I’ve Preached

  1. This was a great read and I know exactly how you feel. Sometimes you do have to force yourself to write in order to stay productive. Just because what you produce isn’t always the greatest example of the written word doesn’t mean you should stop. When you look back over what you’ve written, there may be a word or a phrase or a sentence that stands out as something to build something better around, allowing yourself to inspire yourself.

    Thanks for sharing and good luck with your students.

  2. I fought the lack of inspiration for years. I was never able to write stories because I didn’t feel that I had original stories to tell. The odd thing is, I knew that wasn’t true. But I never knew how to start.

    I could easily write pages and pages about my own life, about what was going on with love, with hobbies, with children. But nothing that was publishable (bearing in mind that I enjoy being a private-ish person).

    Then one day, I realized that I needed a very simple framework to get started. It came in the form of a sentence structure: Subject, Verb, Object. Woman eats apple. Girl crosses street. Man buys toupee. Then…why? And a story is born.

    Now, I’m able to use almost anything as my jumping-off point, for fiction at least. Thank goodness. It only took 20 years for me to come up with my method!

  3. Structure is a good thing. One of the lyrics I’m most proud of is to the song Hold up the Wall, not because it’s an extraordinary story but because it’s an acrostic–each line starts with subsequent letters of the alphabet. Out of all my songs this one is the song with the easiest lyrics to remember!

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