Fifth and sixth graders can’t go directly from running around and playing outside to writing quietly. That should have been obvious to anyone, but nevertheless, I tried and failed at it when teaching my summer creative writing class for the first time. However, that experience taught me a lot about the value of carefully scripting the time right before starting to write.
“Getting started” usually comes pretty high on students’ lists of writing struggles. Many of them say they’re fine once they get into the middle of the paper, but they struggle with getting to that stage. I’m sure a good share of these difficulties have to do with content issues–students often try to write before they have a real idea of the complexity of their topic–but my experiences teaching in the summer make me think there’s something more than just a lack of knowledge that drives this issue for most.
I’ve been blessed to have the opportunity to teach a class for the past five summers for Johns Hopkins CTY. It’s a great teaching gig with phenomenal, enthusiastic students in small classes, but during the first week of classes in my first summer, my students seemed to struggle to get anything down on the page. Content shouldn’t have been a real issue because most of the prompts asked students to write about something in their own lives that they should know well. Fifteen minutes into many of the writing exercises though, I’d see more than a few students with only one or two lines. Those that had gotten to writing immediately had by that time exhausted their resources and felt as if they had nothing more to say.
Given that these were gifted students, some of the trouble surely had to do with fear of judgment. The camp situation throws students who have always been the smartest kid in their class in with a bunch of other students who are also the smartest students. That potential threat to pre-teen egos cannot have been too pleasant for them to deal with.
These are the situations where most teachers are inclined to try and fix the students instead of changing the structure and situation to allow students to fix themselves. I fell into that trap here. My first approach was to give students the typical advice given to writers: turn off your internal editors, just write down whatever words come into your mind, even if they are completely unrelated, get the pen moving and don’t let it stop. That is good advice in general, and it had some effect, but some of my students still seemed paralyzed. Something else was missing.
Then I got lucky. I was trying to get students to write a description of a place during the afternoon portion of the class. They’d just come in, flushed and sweaty, from running around outside. Instead of having them write, I told them to place a pen and notebook opened to a blank page on their desk; then I told them to close their eyes. I asked them to take a series of deep breaths, to relax all their muscles, and to let their minds go blank. After a minute or so of letting them sit like this, I had them think about what it felt like to feel safe, and then when they could feel that to picture themselves in the room where they felt the most safe. I instructed them to search this room mentally, taking note of all the objects and sensations they’d felt while in the room.
After about three minutes in this relaxed state, I had them open up their eyes and try to get everything they saw on paper. Every student began writing frantically, even those who had been the most reticent in the past. Ten minutes later, they were still going strong. A half hour later, more than half the class was still writing.
Since that summer, I’ve returned to that day’s lessons several times in my own teaching and writing. I’ve not gone on to blog about it here yet because it was one afternoon with a group of exceptionally gifted students, and I wasn’t so sure there was a real lesson there. However, I was reading David Allen’s Getting Things Done over the summer, and I’ve started thinking about that exercise a bit differently.
Allen talks about getting to a state called “mind like water,” a phrase he borrows from Zen Buddhism to mean a mind that is at rest and uncluttered so that it might react immediately to a task with the precise amount of effort needed and then go back to a state of rest after the task if finished. The phrase traces back to the idea that a pebble dropped into still water causes ripples outward to accommodate the displacement of water and then goes back to being still. It strikes me that part of what made my students so successful that afternoon is that the quiet time got them to a state of rest where their mind was uncluttered and starting their visualization from that point helped them react when I asked them to write.
I can’t claim these ideas as unique to me. Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within proposes a series of writing exercises that are designed to get writers into a state where they are confident in their own voice and where they trust the process of writing to get them by major hurdles. Goldberg provides some of the typical advice: her first two rules are “Keep your hand moving” and “Don’t cross out,” but underlying those is a Zen-Buddhist philosophy that focuses on removing any unnecessary thoughts at the start of the writing process. Goldberg’s so committed to this state of mind that even before she gives her readers the rules for writing sessions, she talks about what kind of pen (one that is a fast enough to keep up with your hand) and what kind of paper (cheap spiral notebooks that are easy to fill) writers should use in order to follow her advice.
From a more academic standpoint, education programs at graduate schools are offering courses in contemplative pedagogy, which ” involves teaching methods designed to cultivate deepened awareness, concentration, and insight,” according to the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching, which hosts a contemplative pedagogy working group. The programs seem designed to use the benefits of mindfulness that comes from meditation as a way of creating a starting point for students to inquire about the world around them.
Those ideas might sound a bit far out for some, but reflecting on my summer class exercise, I realized it’s not all that different from my grade school teachers telling us all to put our thinking caps on before we went into a lesson. She wanted to, I assume, get our minds into a quieter, more contemplative place, and she wanted us to leave behind whatever we had been thinking of before. We didn’t go as far as sitting and taking deep breaths, but the clear separation was there.
And it’s that separation, a buffer zone between the life and the writing, that offers the best advice for getting started. It’s important to carefully structure the time before writing begins because writing demands such a commitment of attention and emotion. Writers who fail to get their thinking caps on before they start writing often will stop writing because other distractions exhaust their willpower and pull their attention away from making the connections that drive creativity.
Making a commitment to writing should often start with committing to letting the rest of the world go for a little while before the thoughts of what the essay will be about arise. Getting to that state doesn’t have to be accomplished by meditation. (A friend in grad school once told our class that he liked to dress up in costume to write, which seems like its own kind of commitment.) However, I do think it’s in writers’ best interests to develop a routine that lets them focus completely on their writing and to get into the habit of running through that routine every time they sit down to write.