Tuesday, July 2, 2013

And Then What Else Happened

I've been developing a series of writing rubrics. I won't say more about them, because I'm contractually obligated not to, except to say that they're the best writing rubrics ever. Maybe not the best--but they're pretty good, and I'm scribbling away on directions to help teachers use them fairly and consistently, fairness being an ideal in every circumstance and consistency being particularly ideal in scoring, though not necessarily in every other circumstance. More on this.

The next step will be to develop writing prompts. I've been researching those. Not to steal anybody's ideas, but it's interesting to see what people are doing with writing prompts these days. The sun rises and sets, the moon waxes and wanes, the clouds pass, the world turns, and things change. How we think about and teach writing changes.

In my research, I came across a blog post by a writer, C. Hope Clark, who HATES WRITING PROMPTS. You can read it all here. It's clear that Ms. Clark HATES WRITING PROMPTS for grown folk writers; the ones we use to teach writing to kids, the kinds of prompts I'm writing, are okay. Whew.

Ms. Clark's perspective interests me because I'm also a writer who earns a living by my writing and yet, I feel differently about writing prompts. Now. I used to feel otherwise. (I didn't HATE writing prompts, but I didn't see the point; I always felt as if I didn't have enough time to writing everything I wanted to write, so why would I spend time writing what I would never use?)

If I were consistent, I might still find writing prompts pointless, but through a tangled series of events, I ended up working with Deb Norton, a writing teacher who is big on prompts. My first response (on the inside) was along the lines of this is lame and pointless why don't I just write, but because I trusted my teacher, I wrote to the prompts and in so doing, found that what I wrote to the prompts sometimes surprised or even shocked me. Sometimes it gave me information I didn't usually have access to, information about my characters or even information about me. When I use a prompt at the beginning of my daily writing practice, I do so to warm up. Sometimes I use one in the middle to break myself out of a boring stretch, because it can be like picking up and shaking your brain like a snowglobe so you can see all the glittery sparkles.

The idea that real writers shouldn't use prompts because they don't need practice just doesn't make sense to me. Musicians practice, and then they perform. Elite athletes practice, and then they compete. Everyone who is good at anything practices and practices and practices--and no one stops practicing because he has achieved perfection. If anything, you practice more and you practice better. My daughters' orchestra teacher told parents that if their kids sounded good when they practiced, they weren't practicing; they were playing what they already knew.

When you're a writer, how can you get to what you don't know? I get there by writing. To write well, a writer must write A LOT, yes, but a writer must also get a flashlight and a pickax and a shovel and do some excavating in the subconscious depths. Sometimes we need to find a way to sneak past our analytical brain, that insufferable know-it-all gatekeeper, in order to mine the depths, to get to what is wild and authentic and kind of crazy or chaotic but real and true and beautiful or hideous and archetypal and universal. I don't know many writers who can get there on their own without some help. A prompt can be a gentle nudge asking your subconscious to bestir itself and answer the question of what else happened.

Asking for help doesn't mean a writer is weak or immature, any more than asking for help means that any other human is weak or immature. It just means we need help. To ask for help when we need it seems a lot more mature than refusing to ask for help because we think we should be perfect genius superheroes who know everything and can do everything and never need anyone ever--that there is the recipe for a crazy cocktail, in my opinion, and will guarantee swift onset of writer's block, because anxiety is the natural born enemy of creativity. You try telling yourself that you have to write something perfect and then sit down to write. Let me know how that works out for you.

In the immortal words of Bill Withers, we all need somebody to lean on.

Also, what you like is what you like. It's okay to not like what you don't like, and it's okay to like what you do like.

Whatever gets you writing is good. Whatever keeps you writing is good. For Hemingway, it was booze. The HuffPo published "The Drunks and Addicts of Literature." Not that I advocate heroin and absinthe; I write better when I get lots of exercise and enough sleep and have time every day to stare out the window and think deep thoughts. To each his own.

I was thinking the question might arise of why I sought a writing teacher when I write for a living and have been so doing for many, many years. The answer is that I needed help. Ask for help if you need it.

And help someone who needs help. In the immortal words of the Dalai Lama, "Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can't help them, at least don't hurt them."

By the way, Ms. Clark helps writers by publishing a newsletter: FundsforWriters. Read more here.

UPDATE: Still thinking about this. And another thing: for me and probably for a lot of writers, writing prompts aren't a method of generating ideas but of selecting ones for harvest. We have more ideas than we know what to do with. But as Deb the writing teacher extraordinaire says, sometimes writers get their gears stuck when all the ideas are clamoring, "Pick me! Pick me!" Then the restrictions and limitations of a prompt are helpful. Constraints seem to force creativity the way you can force daffodil bulbs.

ANOTHER UPDATE: More on writers and drinking in The New Yorker.

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