Write about what makes you different–Sandra Cisneros
In the previous chapter, I discussed approaching writing as both a capability within grasp and as an activity that clarifies thinking. Now we need to expand on the latter idea and consider what we want to think about and, consequently, put into writing. Essentially, this is about the first steps of the writing process: invention, planning (or prewriting), and drafting.
Schools tend to neglect this essential step in the process. Why? Because it is not easy to teach someone to create (in fact, many will argue that traditional American schools purge creativity from their students, preferring conformity). Many also find invention (and by extension, creativity) difficult to learn. The adult in us frequently limits what we write, especially when it comes to writing fiction. As Mark Twain famously mused, “The only difference between reality and fiction is that fiction needs to be credible.” In other words, we and our human minds are so trained to distinguish between what lies within our perceptions of reality, that the “made-up stuff” still needs to fit within our parameters of possibility. When we were children, many of us found it easy to create stories, even if they made no logical sense to adults, because we were not limited by plausibility.
Academic writing solves this problem quite neatly. In academic writing, teachers generally assign topics with tight restrictions: “Discuss the role of technology in The Great Gatsby,” or “Examine master-pet relationships in Of Mice and Men.” The teachers (and, more accurately, Fitzgerald and Steinbeck) have given their students the material about which they must write. They have probably also set a word count or a page minimum for the students.
I remember writing about such topics in 10th grade and checking my word count after every paragraph or, sometimes, after every sentence. I was less concerned about quality than quantity. Consequently, my writing was bland and free of risky assertions. I carried this trait into 11th grade where my
teacher both gave us more choice in our topics and expected more concision, a more engaging style, and essays in which writers took risks. He asked to write comparisons of places and to come to meaningful conclusions. Or to describe an activity that we enjoyed and consider how the activity revealed ourselves. We wrote to produce meaning. We were supposed to write and take some risks with our theses. I was not good at this; in fact, I was stuck in the three-point thesis and five-paragraph structure. Consequently, my sagacious teacher wrote end comments like, “Well-organized essay; I wish you had taken more risks.”
Real writers—academic, longform, novelists, poets—usually have assignments and expectation more like those of my 11th grade teacher (and most teachers afterward). So how do we decide? If writing is full of decisions, then the first concerns what we try to communicate.
Here, I will turn to the words of two other writers.
Grendel author John Gardner: “A writer’s material is what he cares about” (Ferguson, et al.).
American novelist Sloan Wilson: “A writer’s job is sticking his neck out” (Trimble 25).
If we follow Gardner’s advice, then we find things (people, objects, processes, ideas, etc.) that we find interesting—and about which we would like to learn more. I am interested in baseball. I played baseball from my early youth into my twenties. I have no desire, though, to write about the sport’s basic rules; that would bore me since I am intimately familiar with those rules. I would probably also bore most of my readers unless I made my language colorful and added humorous or profoundly original commentary. I am not quite interested enough to accept that challenge.
I am interested in baseball at prior to and at the turn of the twentieth century. The game and its players generally were not respected citizens. They did not earn a lot of money. Many had personal demons that manifested in both comic and tragic incidents. Pitcher Rube Waddell, alone, would make a fascinating subject for a biography. He was a Hall of Fame pitcher who set a single-season strikeout record that lasted for over 60 years. He also missed games because he had a sudden desire to fish or shoot marbles or, during one spring training, wrestle alligators. His second marriage was to a woman he had known for less than a week. He once received a suspension for bounding into the stands and fighting a fan (O’Brien). I believe I could find more about Waddell and other eccentric players to write an essay, maybe even a book.
But how does this relate to the problems of academic writers, to students under the restrictions of specific disciplines? Let’s revisit The Great Gatsby. Maybe the instructor generously asks students to research and write about any topic related to the novel. I could choose to write about polo in America, as Tom Buchanan was, to his dismay, often introduced as “the polo player” and had a “string of ponies” that he brought from the Midwest to New York. I could choose to write about gambling (Meyer Wolfsheim) or 1920s New York mafia figures (Wolfsheim and Beansy Rosenthal, a.k.a. Arnold Rothstein). I could write about cars and driving in the early 1920s. I might write about the Battle of Argonne, in which Gatsby fought. I might write about life as a southern debutante to fully understand Daisy’s and Jordan’s “golden childhoods.” Or I might write about women in sports, a relatively new phenomenon represented by Jordan as a professional golfer. My point is, the broader the possibilities, the more likely it is for a writer to find something of interest.
“I don’t know what to write about,” many a student has bemoaned.
“What are you interested in?” I have replied.
“I don’t know.”
“There must be something you like.”
“I like horses.”
“There. That’s good.”
“What am I supposed to write about horses?”
My goodness, there are a lot of things to write about horses. I could compare different breeds. I could discuss horse racing and its role in the middle colonies and in early American history. I could write about common ailments that horses suffer and how to treat them. I could write about dressage. And the list goes on.
For students struggling to find interesting and specific topics, I suggest an activity espoused by Peter Elbow and somewhat built from freewriting. He calls it “looping.” (If you want to fully learn about his ideas on this process, I strongly recommend Writing with Power.) I will describe some basics.
First, practice extended freewrites—maybe as long as half an hour. These are best done with pen and paper, not on computer where backspace can erase your thoughts. Your writing might be more focused if the teacher has given the topic (perhaps your teacher has asked you to argue whether the weird sisters, Lady Macbeth, or Macbeth, are most culpable in the murder of Duncan; you may not know where to place the blame until you have written a freewrite). Or you might be trying to land on a topic of your own choosing (here, I would think about what I have read or seen in terms of current events or in terms of leisure viewing and reading, depending on the purpose of the essay). You might find that 80% or more of what you write is unusable. That is okay. Think of that portion as a cleansing of the mind. Perhaps you are simply disposing of everyday worries and frustrations in that portion. When you get beyond that, though, you will find sentences, phrases, even words, that become starting points (personally, I like listing ideas and letting natural interests guide me to deeper thoughts and analysis). Upon completion, I suggest leaving the writing to sit for ten minutes or so and let your brain have a break. Come back to what you have written and look for nuggets that interest you enough to research, consider
more deeply, and ultimately, share with readers. Circle those parts and prepare to revisit them.
Next, try to write about each circled part for another ten minutes or more—but with specific goals. “Loop” back to original ideas and write about them from different angles (or “directed freewriting” in his terminology). Elbow offers 13 ways of revisiting your possible topics. My goal here, though, is not to delve into the intensive advice that Elbow offers. I tend to suggest a simpler, more practical (and less time-consuming) way of finding that all elusive topic. When students have finished freewriting and identified possible topics, they can benefit from writing about their “first thoughts” on those topics and performing “narrative thinking” on paper (61-2, 68).
In writing “first thoughts,” I believe in a “barrage” approach. I want to throw everything I am thinking about that topic onto the page. I want to put it all out there: general ideas, specific ideas, questions that will lead to research, doubts, certainties, facts, opinions—all of it. These can help guide me to a specific topic and can help frame my research question(s). The key is to let go of structures and grammatical correctness (and political correctness, for that matter) and cohesion and to simply bombard the page with ideas that, right now, are only for your eyes.
In writing for “narrative thinking,” I want to explore the path I took
towards my thoughts on a topic. Why is this important? As a writer, you are sharing your ideas with someone else, and often these ideas are more complicated than you realize. I have had many students skip steps when they write rhetorical analyses and arguments in which they are trying to convince readers to accept their thoughts and opinions. I will discuss those forms of writing in separate chapters; for now, we just need to consider what it means to “skip steps.” Think about algebra and your teacher admonishing you to “show your work.” In academic writing, we need to be explicit in leading readers towards our conclusions. They must read and understand our syllogisms and chains of logic and inductive and deductive processes. When a writer skips steps, they fail to include some of their thinking and cause readers to feel confused.
For example, if I am arguing that we need to prevent the extinction of polar
bears, I need to explain why my reasons matter and what my facts mean. I need to go beyond stating that their survival affects the planet. I need to go beyond just telling my reader that the polar bears are experience climate change. I need to ensure that the reader understands the importance of these ideas. When I perform narrative thinking, I can see the steps that led me to my conclusion and guide my writing so that readers experience the same thought pattern.
Maybe, though, looping is not for you. You have tried it, and it has not worked. You don’t feel like any of your ideas matter or maybe you do not feel like you have interests that can fill up four to five pages (or whatever your teacher or editor has required). Take a step back from writing and gather information from other sources. Watch a TED Talk or go to Intelligence Squared and watch a debate (and skim the topics that have been debated on the site). Read a newspaper (or its online version). Look for op-ed pieces. Find an online database of articles—all college libraries give students access to many databases with millions of articles on a panoply of topics. You might even find a database that contains journals that concern your specific interests. Or read a nonfiction novel by Erik Larson or Nathaniel Philbrook or David Grann or anyone whose shorter work you have enjoyed. Peruse the bestsellers lists for ideas that seem interesting.
Speaking of lists, writers can start their journey by simply listing ideas, people, activities, and events, that matter to them. Then ask two questions about each item: What do I not know about this? What might an audience find interesting? We will discuss audiences later, but for now, consider your audience to be a neutral, educated group with a somewhat low attention span.
In the end, try to find an idea that is compelling to you, so compelling that you feel that you must share your ideas. Say, “This topic matters to me, so I want this to matter for my reader.”
This is where the second quote, Sloan’s idea about the “writer’s job” comes into play. Take a chance. Develop an opinion, a point of view, and write as an individual. Yes, you will do well to find sources and experts who agree with this opinion. You, however, can present the idea in your unique words, with your unique explanations. If not, then you will bore your readers.
I know, for most of you, the teacher is your audience. That is unfortunate for ways that I explained in the previous chapter. It’s also unfortunate in
that your teacher is a captive audience. If the teacher has any professional ethics, she must read to the end (or if there is a maximum word count or page number, at least to the point where the writer exceeds it). Intriguing anecdotes and action verbs and an engaging voice, of course, help. But if your idea is not original, who cares? I read an essay in which the writer explained each position on a lacrosse team. Absolutely boring. If it were in a magazine or website, I would not have ventured beyond the first paragraph unless I loved lacrosse but knew next to nothing about it. The players were all abstractions. Their roles were perfunctory. Maybe the writer could have taken an angle in which he explained why a specific position is the most important. He could have described someone (and given a name to them) who played that position. He could have provided vivid details of that player’s actions on the field. Nope. Just sentence after sentence, paragraph after paragraph of being verbs and invisible players.
“Sticking your neck out” should entail envisioning a wider audience, one that includes people who may disagree with you or people ignorant of your topic. Write with passion. They should understand why you have an affinity for your subject. They should understand your line of thinking, even if you do not completely change their minds. At least give them something new to consider. I will be honest: this does not happen in one session of writing.
If you are going to stick your neck out, you need to have a strong plan. Remember, though, boxer Mike Tyson’s famous statement: “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Think of a blank screen as that which will punch you in the mouth. I remind you of this not to discourage
you, but to remind you that a blank page can be intimidating. There are many ways to plan, but you must overcome your fears. You should accept that “sticking your neck out” implies that there might be an axe overhead. Remember the words of legendary basketball coach John Wooden: “Too often, we care more about a stranger’s opinion of us than our own…What do you believe in, and are you willing to stand up for it despite what others may think or say?” (58). Get beyond that fear.
Your fear should be submitting something less than your best. You should feel proud to put your name on your work. That takes effort and patience and planning. (Therefore, try to avoid waiting until the day of a deadline to start a writing assignment.)
Here is the good news about writing and planning or prewriting: You can do it without sitting at a desk or computer terminal. Writer Roy Peter Clark:
Put simply, productive authors write stories in their heads. Blind poets and novelists such as Milton and Joyce did this, composing narrative passages through long nights only to be milked by transcribers in the morning. (201)
Clark also encourages us to replace the word procrastination with rehearsal (200). What does he mean? He means that anytime you are thinking about your topic, even if nothing is currently hitting the page (or the screen), you are in the process of writing.
For me, walking and running are part of my writing process. As I walk the neighborhood, I think about what I want to write for an article or chapter or sample essay for students. I usually have a lot of knowledge about the topic—either from experience or research—but while I am walking, I can sort out what is important and what I want to say. Sometimes I will type specific sentences into the “Notes” on my iPhone while walking. I have tried using voice recorders, but like many, I am prefer avoiding the sound of my voice.
Sometimes my prewriting occurs while I am driving. Even during a five-minute drive to the grocery store, I might find a new idea to include or a new way of explaining an existing idea. Of course, I wait until I am parked before adding to my notes.
The point is, we can work on our ideas even when away from “designated writing places” or outside of “designated writing times.” I occasionally find inspiration while I am trying to sleep. Many people do. Keep a notebook (or your iPhone) handy. Always have a pen nearby, and if you are reading, always have a pen in one hand.
What do I do with my notes? This is an essential part of planning: I have developed a keen ability to categorize ideas and facts. I recognize what ideas are similar and should be presented together or in proximity. I see ideas that lend themselves to emphatic juxtaposition. I do not keep these observations in my head. My process is thus: I write down ideas I want to include, almost like a freewrite, but I keep them separate, not so much as a vertical or horizontal list. I might put circles around one group of ideas that are associated with one another. I might draw boxes around other groups. Or stars next to still other groups. The point is, I am dividing my ideas into sections. From there, I can make a rudimentary outline (I will discuss these more when I write about “on demand writing”). I am not a fan of the formal outlines that my fourth-grade teacher taught me. They are good for learning how to group ideas, but they cut into my thinking and writing time if I follow the rules and requirements of the formal outline. Hence, my outline might consist merely of a few Roman numerals each followed by a word—and a thesis statement under the word “Introduction.”
I may follow this outline perfectly, but I see it more as a guide and feel free to adjust as I am drafting my paper or when I am revising and rewriting. Regardless, I try to avoid going to the computer without some form of a written plan. When I feel stuck or confused about what should be next, I can look at it and proceed in some viable direction.
For me, writing a draft resembles a more firmly directed freewrite. I try not to worry about wording and syntax (but I do). I try not to get frustrated if one section or one paragraph does not fit or flow with those around it (but I do). I try not to worry about my voice or my audience (but, alas, I do). I just soldier on the best I can knowing that my current words are not “the final word.”
If I have planned well, I will know the content I will be using from each piece (assuming I am doing a research project). In research, during planning, writers can benefit from creating an annotated bibliography (a topic I will address when we examine research more thoroughly). I usually do not do this because I have enough experience to where I can do this mentally, or simply write an authors’ names next to where they fit in my outline. I usually will have the research available, if I need a reminder of exact wording or if I need a page number. Never try to draft while reading research for the first time. If you are unfamiliar with it, then you will not know its value or where it might fit—if it fits at all. And if it does not contribute to your ideas, you might be tempted to insert something extraneous and distracting.
I try to have fun with drafting. I have plenty of iced tea available. I wear comfortable clothing, sometimes a ragged, loose-fitting sweatshirt that I have had for over twenty years. If I am doing well, I can sit and compose for an hour or two without much of a break. When I was younger, I would often endure longer sessions, primarily because I had procrastinated and was writing against a deadline. Now I feel more freedom to take a break and walk the dogs or eat a sandwich or to just meditate. Sometimes I challenge myself by writing a list of ten “one-dollar” words (they used to be 25 cents, but with inflation…) that I want to try to use (appropriately and without distraction, of course). Sometimes I type paragraphs that I know I will not use, just to take away some tension. For example, I might write in a pejorative tone towards an opposition audience: You must be the dumbest people on the planet if you really believe this. Your ideas are utter rubbish that should be expunged with utmost prejudice. If you do this, be sure to delete those ideas—never insult your readers. The point is, that drafting is an exercise in which you are sharpening your ideas much as you would strengthen your muscles.
Once you have written a draft, leave it for 18-24 hours. Then read it. Read it out loud and experience places that sound awkward. Let someone else read it. Ask the other reader to check for specifics that concern you: Do I stay on topic? Is my logic clear? Do I need more explanation of X? Should I move Y to a different part of the paper? Give them direction, otherwise you might receive a meaningless, “It looks good” or simply a handful of grammar corrections. The paper is not ready for that, yet. Currently, your goal is to ensure you have recorded strong ideas and arranged them effectively.
If this sounds like a lot of work, you are correct. Give yourself time to do it. Also, the more you practice, though, the less exhausting it will seem and the better writer you will become.
Clark, Roy Peter. Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer.
Little Brown and Company, 2006.
Elbow, Peter. Writing With Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing
Process. 1981. Oxford University Press, 1998.
Ferguson, et al. “John Gardner, The Art of Fiction No. 73,” The Paris Review,