Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Taking Writing by Storm

For a few years, I had the opportunity to teach college-level English and writing classes, and one of my favorite classes to teach was creative writing. It was an elective class required for English and Writing majors as well as English minors. I had pre-law students, engineers, and history majors mixed in with the others, students who by no means considered themselves to be writers.

The first day of class was always exciting. To walk into that room of intimidated and bug-eyed students who had been forced to take a college level creative writing class and convince them that they could have a good time was always a highlight of my year. Breaking through the barriers they had set up in their minds was my favorite challenge. They were not all talented, and they didn't all leave my class as burgeoning writers. But they left with capability and an appreciation.

Over my next several posts, I want to share a few tips and ideas that might help you break through the barriers your child might have set up in his mind, to help him become capable and appreciative.

Taking Writing by Storm: the Brainstorm
The brainstorm stage is the first step to writing, but many students get stuck before they've even begun. Staring at that blank sheet of paper is absolute torture and makes writing a paper or a story that much more miserable. But brainstorming can take several different forms. Choosing the right form for your child, or experimenting with all of them, could be the first step in knocking down the walls of resistance.

1. The list of ideas. This is the traditional take on the brainstorm, but here's what I always recommended to my students. Write down anything that comes to mind, even if it's off-topic or a bad idea. There is no such thing as a bad idea on a brainstorm. Even bad ideas can inspire good ideas. Set a timer, turn off the inner-censors, and storm. Let your mind belch ideas on paper. Don't worry about organization or connections or anything besides just ideas at this point. Don't worry about parallelism: the ideas can be adjectives, nouns, verbs, or adverbs; they can be complete thoughts or fragments; and they might even be doodles in the margins.

2. The sketch. Some of us think best in pictures, not lists of words. Another great brainstorm tactic, especially for a story brainstorm, is to draw a picture. Let your child sketch what he sees in his mind about his story. He may be able to develop the character only after he's drawn that character. He may be able to describe the setting only after he's sketched it. Let him doodle and draw and sketch as part of his brainstorm process. Then, after the drawings are complete, let him make his list of words from the drawing he has created. Keep in mind, your child doesn't have to be an artist for this to work; he only has to be a visual learner.

3. The cloud. If you see that your child has only five words on his brainstorm, you might see if your child thinks best in the form of relationships. In other words, sketch five clouds and put one of his words in each cloud. Then, have him brainstorm for each word. He may be able to fill out his brainstorm by thinking of ideas related to those five keywords. Or, the process of writing something—anything—might lead him to a totally different and unrelated but absolutely brilliant idea.

4. The narration. Do you have an auditory learner? Or a child who just loves to talk? Try narrating the brainstorm. This could take a number of forms. Your child could do the talking while you write down his ideas; your child could do the talking and then pause to write down his own ideas; or you could get your child a mini-recorder to talk into, then have him listen and write down what he said. Have him talk to the character. Have him talk as the character. Have him talk to the character's best friend. Have him ask questions to the general of the army on which he is doing his report, and then write down those questions as leads for his research. And you don't have to sit silent. Ask your own questions to lead him and inspire more conversation. A few things to be careful about here: don't do the storming for him, don't feed him ideas, don't tell him what he's "thinking." Remember that you are giving him cues only. Think of the prompter during a play, whispering key lines and first words to get the stunned actor back into the script.

5. The rant. Many of us think better when we are writing complete sentences in paragraph form. I think this is why so many students are tempted to write the brainstorm after they've written the first draft: they just can't think in lists. So let your child write, similar to a brainstorm, but in a flow of thought rather than a list. The ideas don't have to make sense, don't have to be in the right order, and don't have to be complete sentences. Don't worry about grammar or mechanics. Just write. It might even start with, "I have absolutely nothing to write about. I hate writing. I hate writing this paper," which is why I called this "the rant." The only rule is that your child cannot stop writing until he's reached a certain length or a certain time limit. There is something about writing itself that sometimes frees up the ideas. Even if it starts as a rant, at the end of five minutes or a full page (front and back) he's probably thought of something. Then, take that "something" and repeat the process, using the "something" as his cue.

There are so many methods or mix of methods we could discuss, but I hope that I've provided a few "cues" for you to use. Brainstorming, is in essence, whatever it takes to get your ideas flowing. And if you can help your child discover what way works best for him, you haven't just taught him how to write; you've helped him learn how to think.

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