July 9th, 2012
We have all stared at a blank notebook page or computer screen for hours, waiting for divine inspiration to hit. Or even worse, avoided even sitting down to write. In this week’s Blogstitute post, Jeff encourages all of us — teachers, students, wannabe writers — to put “ass in chair” and get those first awkward, rambling words on the page.
How do you help your students — or yourself — get over the fear of writing? Share your thoughts in the comments section — three lucky commenters will win a package of five Stenhouse books at the end of the Blogstitute.
A writer in motion stays in motion
When I started writing my latest book, 10 Things Every Writer Needs to Know (Stenhouse, 2011), I came up with the title first. Then I went back and worked for four years on figuring out what the ten essential “things” were, and how I could create a space in my classroom where these writing behaviors would flourish and become a part of my students forever. To this end, I mined my experience as a teacher and a writer, and those of others through casual conversation and reading what writers say about their process.
The list changed several times, but I knew, somehow, some way, one truth had to make its way into this book. The big truth is that most writers doubt themselves and only get anything done by just diving in and beginning to write.
Seems rather obvious, I know. Most wisdom is.
From Donald Murray saying the secret is simply putting “ass in chair” to every other writer’s advice about having the courage to begin to Peter Elbow’s insistence that we have to be okay with writing some garbage to get to the good stuff, the only secret is to eke out or feverishly spill those first words on the page. This is the only way to leap past doubt, slam some clay on the potter’s wheel, and make something.
We can and will keep shaping it, but the only way to shape is to first have something to shape. However “wrong” it looks, keep writing. Even this blog entry became something to conquer. I was putting it off. It was due last week. I knew it was, but I let the busyness of life be my excuse. In reality, it wasn’t going to be completed until I started it. So, here I am still learning about the first of the ten things every writer needs to know: “A writer in motion stays in motion.”
So how do I bring this idea of motion to my writing process classroom? While I can certainly share my experiences as a writer—procrastinating, doubting, waiting for inspiration—the only real way I can teach my students is to have them experience, from the inside out, what it feels like to leap over the void of doubt, to actually experience the magic of more words coming the moment they start scratching a few down on the page or typing them on the keyboard.
Many writers and writing teachers share the value of timed writings to get themselves or their students in motion. My students’ favorite comes from longtime educator and researcher Leif Fearn. This is the first writing activity my students actually begged me to do, and, as it turns out, this writing experience is the best way to show kids—through experience—that they can conquer the blank page or screen.
Fearn’s power-writing activity is built around a simple process.
- Students are presented with two words—any two words—and are asked to choose one they will use once when they write.
- Once students choose a word, the teacher tells the students, “Write as much as you can, as fast as you can, as well as you can, in one minute.”
- Students write for one minute. At the end of the minute, the teacher says, “Lift your pencil in the air, count the number of words that you have written, draw a line under what you wrote, and record the number of words under the line.”
- On a table or chart that students can see, the teacher records the number of words the students have written as a class. “How many of you wrote 0–10 words?” (Continue with 11–20, 21–30, and so on.)
- Repeat this process for two more rounds, having students choose from two new words each time.
In this way, power writing not only develops fluency, it also helps students see that once they start writing, more words really do come. And something about the challenge or the competition with themselves makes the students actually want to write more.
Though I know that thinking in our classrooms takes time, setting a limit can also help students see their unlimited potential. This isn’t the only writing activity that works; it’s just one that warms students up and keeps them going when doubt creeps in.
If you’re interested in more information on motion or power writing, see the free preview chapter from my book. Even more important, instead of reading this blog, ask yourself if there’s something you are being called to write. Sit down, open up a Word doc or your notebook, and, for goodness’ sake, write.
Entry Filed under: Blogstitute