I understand their frustration. We wouldn’t, for example, encourage our friends to watch a movie from the middle or begin a trilogy by reading the end of the first book. But for the purposes of creation, especially in writing, it is more than acceptable to skip the intro and start wherever your brain happens to be at that moment. Why can’t my students grasp this concept!? Following suit from the Summer Institute, I have planned a writer’s buffet for March, so I gave my students some time to work on an original piece during class this past week. Usually, I like when students ask questions of clarification before getting started, but this time you might have thought I spoke to them in a foreign tongue when letting them know what they were expected to do: work on any piece of writing they want to use for the writer’s buffet.
“Wait...so what are we doing?” Writing any original piece you’d like. Check your writer’s notebooks to get ideas from the daily prompts we’ve done.
“How do we start something like this?” Any way you want to.
“Well, what should I write about? How should I begin?” Anything at all. However you desire.
“I don’t get it...” Yeah, me either. I don’t get why you don’t get it.
Once I clarified a bit more, students glanced around the room and at each other, looking for inspiration, not daring to simply type on the screens or write on the papers in front of them. They needed to know how they would begin; they hoped for a fully fleshed-out plot for their original work before committing anything to the medium in front of them. They needed a start they would like and never betray by erasing it.
I work exclusively with junior-level honors students, and these students are always fabulous but sometimes most resistant to beginning at a point other than the beginning of their essays--or any writing, for that matter. They are structure-hungry and formulaic, want to know the right answer--despite there being very few ‘right’ answers in literature and analytic writing--and cannot deviate from the expected order of things, especially with how they approach their writing. This frustrates me not because I have to then help them find a way to begin (I truly do enjoy working with them) but because it reflects their lack of self-confidence and tentativeness with thinking outside the box with their writing.
So I trick them. I give them the formulaic-intro-promptings that they’re used to. Then they go at it, churning out writing that meets the criteria of the assignment. Then, during peer revision days, I encourage them to skip the beginning paragraph to see if the piece works well without it. More times than not (and only do I do this with creative pieces) students seem (more) pleased with their writing. I enjoy tricking them because, in the end, they usually benefit from it in that they begin to realize that they can take out entire chunks of their writing or begin in the middle and still be successful. And later, they’re more likely to take similar risks in their writing. Maybe eventually they will prevent their thought process from being interrupted by simply skipping the intro and writing it at the end of the entire process. Too often, I’ve had students tell me how much time they wasted trying to come up with how to start the essay, which leaves them feeling dejected and flustered by the writing process. I want them to enjoy writing, to enjoy conveying their ideas, to...just write already! Once they work past this initial (learned) habit, it can and I hope it does lead to happy endings to their writing processes.