What Helps Me Write

I’ve been thinking about how to invite the pre-service English teachers I work with to become working writers who are able to bring their own writing processes and products into their classrooms.  In the spirit of Will Richardson’s advice to teachers to become master learners in their classrooms, I’ve been thinking about the conditions, routines, habits, rituals, and environments that help me write. I’m wondering how sharing this with my students might help them develop their own processes or be more intentional about their writing.

I have a writer’s notebook that I carry with me everywhere.  I prefer thick unlined pages, a spiral binding, and a colorful exterior. These are the sketchbooks I buy in bulk. I want writing in my notebook to be a daily habit, but it rarely is. There is an ebb and flow to my notebook work.  Over the past couple of years, I’ve used it more as a journal and less as a writer’s notebook, and that’s fine too.

I read and reread books about writing that inspire me. Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind, Ralph Fletcher’s Breathing In, Breathing Out, Georgia Heard’s Writing Toward Home are my absolute favorites.

I have broadened my view of what writing is. Letters to parents, classroom newsletters, syllabi, presentations, blog posts… everything counts. Every piece of writing has the potential to become a mini-lesson in my classroom.

I keep a list of ideas to write about in the back of my notebook. I used to construct my list around Nancie Atwell’s lesson for writers’ territories. Now, I just keep a running list of prompts I like to visit and revisit. (Natalie Goldberg has some especially rich ideas in her chapter, “A List of Topics for Writing Practice,” in Writing Down the Bones—prompts that can inspire multiple different pieces of writing.)

I write with my students. When I give my students time to write in class, I open my notebook and write with them.  I try to do the assignments I give them (a great way to discover when an assignment feels too much like busy work! If I don’t want to do it, surely my students don’t either.)

I write in different places. It’s very hard for me to turn a blind eye to the housework that needs to be done or to the distractions of books or Internet if I’m at home. But I will escape to my front porch and write there. My favorite places to write are coffee shops, parks, and kids’ sporting events.

I like a bit of structure in my writing life. Too much freedom can prevent me from doing anything. The very loose structure of a prompt like “I remember…” or a particular form for poetry really helps me work.

I like to sign up for different writing challenges. I’ve completed NaNoWriMo six years in a row. I’m doing a daily writer’s notebook challenge right now. In June, I tried a 30-day blogging challenge of posting something on my blog 5 times a week.

I read a lot. This is probably the most helpful thing. I have many more ideas for blog posts than I have time or energy to write—largely in response to things I read. I also read with mentor texts in mind. I like short pieces of writing that make me want to write. Sandra Cisneros’s House on Mango Street is excellent for this purpose, as is poetry by Billy Collins, Gary Soto, and William Stafford.

I need a daily schedule and/or a daily word count. I find it very easy to be distracted by “reactive work” (answering emails, catching up on grading) and never get to my “creative work.” Blocking out a certain time to write and/or requiring myself to produce a certain number of words each day keeps me on track.

One thought on “What Helps Me Write

  1. This year, I took on a photography project (365project.org) to work on my writing (I need the visual stimulus I think). I am over six months in, and I have loaded one photo and one narrative a day — not always very good, but it has helped me tremendously with reflective writing and expression. And, I’m learning a new skill! I love this blog entry! I hope you don’t mind that I share. 🙂

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