Process Note: I got the idea for this piece from Elsie’s review of The Creativity Project, which included some thought-provoking words about writing prompts. Thanks for the inspiration!
Quickwrites are the heart of every writing class I teach. We typically quickwrite 2-4 times in a class period. Quickwrites are a kind of freewriting, but they’re not freewriting as I originally practiced it as a student or young composition teacher.
As a student, freewriting meant opening my notebook and staring at the blank page with absolutely nothing—nothing—in my brain wanting to be written.
“Just write ‘I don’t know what to write’ over and over again until you think of something,” my writing teacher told us. “Eventually you’ll think of something to write about.”
But I almost never did.
For an entire semester, nearly every freewrite I composed was about how much I hated freewriting.
As a young composition teacher, I was convinced freewriting was something my students had to do. In fact, I believed that freewriting was so essential to good composition teaching practices that I didn’t think I could be a good teacher without it. As I walked to class each day, I’d try to think of a topic. What could I write about? Coffee? Horses? The weather? Maybe what I was reading?
Half the time, I still wrote about how much I hated freewriting. I’m sure my students got tired of listening to me read pieces about how much freewriting sucked and wondered why I kept asking them to freewrite when I clearly struggled with it. Some of them did take to freewriting, and we all looked forward to hearing their pieces written on the fly each week.
I believed that good writing teachers were also writers, so I dutifully carried my notebook to the coffee shop on the weekend and cracked it open to do some more freewriting.
Maybe if I just kept doing it, it would somehow click?
I filled my notebooks with short pieces of writing about how much I hated freewriting. There were a few lines of “I don’t know what to write, I don’t know what to write, I don’t know what to write” on every page.
These weren’t notebooks I ever returned to. There was nothing to mine for future pieces of writing. Nothing with much energy. Nothing I was much interested in.
It wasn’t until I attended a UNH Literacy Institute course taught by Louise Wrobleski that I discovered how I truly work as a writer.
I need a trigger. I need a door that I can open and walk through.
Wrobleski started class every day with a short poem, which she printed and distributed to the class. I’d read plenty of poetry before but never written from it, yet every poem she shared had a line, a phrase, an image that made me itch to write.
We wrote frequently from different prompts, questions, images, poems, passages from literature. We sketched. I filled pages over the first week of that course and never once wrote about how much I hate freewriting or needed a few lines of “I don’t know what to write” to warm up. I wrote as fast as my hands could move, in a white heat of inspiration, to prompt after prompt. When she called time, I still had more to write.
It seemed like magic, but it was only quickwrites.
For some writers, freewriting fulfills its promise: it frees writing. But as Penny Kittle says, for most of us, unlimited choice is no choice at all.
The things we need to write about are usually not sitting there on the surface of our brains, just waiting to burst out onto the blank page if only someone would set a timer and ask us to open our notebooks. For most of us, the things worth writing are buried a little deeper. They need some digging to get to. They need an invitation.
Quickwrites are that invitation. They give writers a line to follow into a piece. They give us a way in.
Quickwrites are not writing prompts. If you do a search for writing prompts, you might find stuff like “If you were a sprinkle, what kind of dessert would you go on?” or “Would you rather have three arms or three legs?” (Two prompts I found this morning on a list of suggested prompts for elementary teachers.) I am sure it’s tempting to assign such questions as journal writing for students because they seem fun, playful, creative. But how many of us want to write about what kind of dessert we would go in if we were a sprinkle? How many of us really care to spin out the possibilities of three arms vs three legs? It might intrigue one or two students in a classroom, but everyone else will write a few dutiful sentences and then shut their notebooks, glad to be done.
Writing prompts shut doors, limit choice, close minds, prevent surprise.
A good quickwrite provides multiple doors in—but also multiple doors out. Even if we all start with the same two words (Natalie Goldberg’s “I remember,” for instance), no two of us will remember the same things or write similar pieces. We will end up in very different places.
A good quickwrite invites play and surprise. It reveals something you didn’t know you knew before you started writing.
A good quickwrite is a trigger, a spark.
My students and I write most often off of other texts these days. Anything short is a possibility: picture books, poems, spoken word, infographics, flash nonfiction, photographs. We like Natalie Goldberg’s list of writing ideas from Writing Down the Bones. We can’t get enough of Georgia Heard’s quickwrites (which often turn into longwrites) in Writing Toward Home.
What are some of your favorite quickwrites?