Monday, June 29, 2009

Writing from a prompt: problems for left-brainers

I used to think I had little facility for creative writing. Eventually I realized that I could write, even creatively, but only on my own terms.

Even more recently, in recent discussions with those who teach creative writing, I've realized that much of my writing insecurity stemmed from the standard writing exercises I encountered in school--and that continue to this day. This is where the instructor places some sort of object in front of the room, or writes some sort of quote on the blackboard, which serves as a prompt for 15 minutes of open-ended, impromptu writing.

Staring at the closed metal box, or "the left hand of darkness," and listening to the pens of my classmates scribbling away, I'd sit there feeling empty, stupid, and thoroughly uncreative.

Only later, as I saw these frustrations repeat themselves in my own children, and considered the clustering of learning differences that characterize left-brainers in general, did I fully realize how antithetical the "write from a prompt" assignments are to what make our creative juices flow:

1. Unless the original inspiration comes from us (and not from a prompt chosen by someone else), we require structure, and the open-endedness of the typical writing prompts doesn't provide nearly enough.

2. Impromptu writing shows us at our very worst--both absolutely and in comparison with others. In order to produce anything that doesn't embarrass us (and that doesn't erect a barricade of psychological blocks that completely shuts us down), we require much more time than others do to plan, structure, and revise.

What, then, is a writing teacher to do? Perhaps all "writing from a prompt" exercises could be accompanied by the option to instead write about whatever currently interests you, and/or to revise your last in-class writing exercise.

Lacking such alternatives, too many left-brainers may conclude, as I did, that they have no aptitude for creative writing.


Beth said...

I don't think this issue is about left versus right brain at all. It comes down to a fundamental point about all kinds of creative work. Good writing begins with having something to say. Teaching kids to write to a prompt is teaching them to write empty garbage.

This is just one example of how so much of what goes on in school is fake. It's fake, and it's driven by evaluation instead of learning. (If the kids wrote about stuff they were interested in, how could we grade it?)

BTW, I just started doing some Singapore Math with my daughter. (We're using it to supplement over the summer.) No question, it's much more advanced, and much more about actual mathematical thinking, than anything she's done at either her public or private school.

kcab said...

Katharine, do you have any more thoughts about this (writing from a prompt)? I'm trying to think how to help my son reach some sort of peace with writing from a prompt exercises - he's only in 2nd grade and is going to be stuck with them for some time to come. (Right now, he is using all the available time to think, or eavesdrop on any reading groups nearby in the classroom, or who knows what.) He can write - does so for other types of writing exercises including poetry and the dreaded math 'explain' questions.

So far, about the only useful suggestion I was able to give his teacher is that he could use an extra piece of paper to write ideas/diagram while thinking. I'm also planning on using the Michael Clay Thompson LA curriculum with him over the summer, though more because I think he will enjoy it than because I think it will help him with writing from a prompt.

Haven't yet read your book, totally fair to tell me that you talk about this topic there.

Katharine Beals said...

kcab, the overarching advice I give for left-brainers and kids on the autistic spectrum alike (in both my book and in the autism courses I teach) is that these kids additional guidelines or suggestions for open-ended assignments--of which writing from a prompt is one big example. For homework assignments, parents can play this role; for in-class assignments, the teacher needs to be encouraged to do so. Perhaps he/she could provide you son with what's called a Word Bank, or list of suggested words, that he can be encouraged to use in his writing from the prompt. These words may or may not be obviously related to the prompt, but would serve to provide additional constraints, or narrow his "search space," so that it's easier for him to come up with something to say. As far as the overall value of writing from a prompt, my feeling is that this exercise is useful for some kids, but not all. Ideally, if your son isn't getting anything out of it, his teacher would be willing to give him an alternative writing exercise instead. Depending on the teacher, this might be worth pursuing.

Beth said...

In for a penny, in for a pound. The "writing prompt" exercise reminds me of yet another aspect of school that I don't like -- the way that glib patter is routinely privileged over thoughtful, reasoned opinion.

What would an actual creative writer do with these writing prompts? Probably commit a creative act of violence, get drunk, and flunk the class. Genuinely creative people are notorious for their bad school histories. At least that's my excuse!

kcab said...

Thanks, Katharine, I'll try that with him, probably by challenging him to use some number of his vocabulary words. His teacher could do that fairly easily at school since the words are up on the wall anyway. I hope it doesn't end up with him thinking for even longer, as he tries to make use of *all* of the words. It is clear that more structure helps him a lot in writing tasks, I think that's why poetry works well.

One of the issues with writing from a prompt is that it is part of the state assessments here so the kids end up having to do a lot of it in practice. Some of the practice sessions are mandated by the district, leaving the teacher no choice. Best to find a strategy to cope with it, preferably something that he can apply independently later on.

LOL, Beth. Yes, creativity that isn't otherwise used sometimes (often?) comes out in ways that are destructive to self or others. I see that in my household all .... the ... time. Think Calvin and Hobbes. :)