A student just came in the Writing Center requesting help for her first English Composition assignment. She was a whirlwind of bookbags, notebooks, textbooks, class handouts and assignment guidelines. She said she hadn’t written a thing since high school 15 years ago, and needed help with her Narrative Essay assignment. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, where to begin, or what to write,” she said as she logged on the computer. After showing me her assignment, she pulled her chair up to the computer, readied her fingers on the keyboard like a sprinter about to take off at the sound of a gunshot, and said, “I need you to help me. How should I start?”
My eyes widened, terrified – for her and myself. As a practicing writer, the sight of a blank computer screen sends me into a panic, kind of like Indiana Jones’ terrifying aversion to snakes. My own heart started racing, and I slowly backed away and took a long breath. “Whoa!” I said as I turned away from her blank computer screen. I wondered how she could possibly think she could create a piece of writing with no preparation. She sat before a blank computer screen, an act alone that would cause an anxiety attack for most professional writers. “Let’s think about this for a minute,” I suggested, motioning her away from the computer.
Just as bodybuilders can’t begin weightlifting by trying to lift a 500-pound barbel, writers – beginner or professional – can’t expect to pump out a 4 or 5 page Narrative Essay with full story arc, rising tension, climax, dénouement, all while utilizing all five senses, by sitting down in front of a blank screen with no preparation.
~ First Thoughts ~
Most writing instructors employ the “process” model of writing, which means drafting, revising, re-writing, revising, and so on, culminating in a final draft. But before you can even begin the drafting process, you’ll need to take some time to warm up, do a writing stretch. Take at least ten minutes and fully commit yourself to writing your first thoughts. If you have twenty or thirty minutes to write – great. If not, write as long as you can, but no matter how much time you commit, time yourself. Don’t allow yourself to get distracted during your writing time. Turn off your phone. Let the texts go unanswered. I like to write with a fine-tipped pen and yellow legal pad. If you love the sound of the computer keyboard, use your computer, but turn off the monitor so you don’t feel the urge to edit as you write.
The following writing “muscle” exercises come from Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, by Natalie Goldberg:
- Keep your hand moving. (Don’t pause to reread the line you have just written. That’s stalling and trying to get control of what you’re saying.)
- Don’t cross out. (That’s editing as you write.)
- Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar. (Don’t even care about staying within the margins and lines on the page.)
- Lose control.
- Don’t think. Don’t get logical.
- Go for the jugular. (If something comes up in your writing that is scary or naked, dive right into it. It probably has lots of energy.)
In her book, Goldberg says that “First thoughts have tremendous energy.” Unfortunately, we tend to think too much and censor our writing, and as a result, quelling our creativity. Don’t question the rules, just stick to them. When your time is up, see what you have written. You may find the seed of a story or an idea worth pursuing. Soon you’ll find your mind brimming with creative possibilities as you let your writing run loose and uncensored. Your once-weak writing muscles will grow stronger and stronger, and writing will become something you approach with confidence instead of dread. You might even begin to look forward to writing.
Maybe. I’m not making any promises.