It Turns Out I Need Prewriting, too

I’ve never been one for a lot of prewriting. I tend to get started writing and revise and edit as I go. As an educator, I want to introduce my students to strategies that will help them get focused on writing and build their ideas, but as a writer, I don’t always find value in those strategies. I don’t always use them myself.

In a writing leadership class I am taking this summer, we are trying all kinds of things to get the writing going. I’m surprised to find that some of them are actually helpful! It’s making me rethink my ideas about prewriting (that it’s really for beginning writers, that it’s for people who don’t have a place to start).

Our memoir activity started with making a short list. A very short list: four or five people who we think of as leaders in our lives. From the short list, we chose one person on which we would be writing. When I chose the person who hired me in my first teaching position, I began thinking about what made her a leader to me and ideas on what to write began sprouting in my brain.

We followed with more lists. These lists, however, were in boxes. First box: words to describe this person (Candy was comforting, thoughtful, intelligent); Second box: Places that stick out to you with this person (Candy and I spent our time together mainly at Cypress-Woods High School where we taught); Third box: events or items associated with that person (Candy was always sharing articles with her fellow teachers and making connections to the classroom); Fourth box: feelings associated with that person (gratitude, joy, honor). While my original concept of what I would write remained the same, this four-box prewriting gave me a wealth of words and pinpoints with which I could embellish my first idea.

Next we made a cluster map. I controlled my initial instinct to roll my eyes because who hasn’t done this before? I want to try something new! It was new. The instructor said to start with a word from your four boxes – any word that stuck out to you at the moment. We built the cluster maps as you would normally with one idea connected to other ideas and on and on, but we were encouraged to follow tangents if we were taken that way and to let our minds and maps wander. I began with the word “interview” and went immediately to conversation, learning to read, laughing and through a few other connections, started asking myself questions: What if I were being interviewed by Candy today?

And I stopped. I was filled with ideas and questions about what she would think of me now and how my life and profession had changed so much since I first spoke with Candy those many years ago. My appreciation for Candy and her role in my life blossomed.

Our next activity was a guided visualization where I found myself in our clean, brand new high school, smelling the fresh paint and new construction; observing the pristine, pre-vandalized desks; experiencing the sterile newness of a classroom never used. I made the leap to how new and fresh I felt as a teacher and an adult in a brand new part of my life. I started with only a few things as the classroom did (some ideas and some vague knowledge of teacher life) and built up through the year experience that left me with boxes and boxes to pack and take home on the last day.

When we finally got a chance to start writing, I felt like I had gone deep into our assignment and come up with something much stronger than I had in the beginning when I probably would have just written some thoughts down about how great and funny Candy was and how she always brought frozen éclairs to meetings. The prewriting, while not something I needed to get my ideas down on paper, was something I needed in order to refine and strengthen my work.

When I use these methods in the classroom, I intend to remind students (and myself) of this experience and to let them know that while every writer writes differently, trying new things or going back to try strategies you’ve used before can have a surprising impact on your work.

As soon as I get the go ahead, I'll post what I wrote on Candy here!

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