If you can’t think of something to write about, think of five things. It’s not just an exercise; it’s a slogan to live by.
You’re stuck, as a writer, if you can’t get past the first stage of deciding what to write about, or thinking where to start. Exploratory, tentative, risk-taking words have to get onto the paper or the screen first, before you can begin to work with them.
You have to be brave, no matter what. Still it helps, for writers of any age, to separate the work involved in generating topics from the very different kind of mental work involved in choosing a particular topic.
Here’s what can happen if you don’t brainstorm first. As one part of your mind thinks of ideas, another part tells you, brilliantly and impressively quickly, why they stink. A necessary and important but often bullying part of your mind treats each new idea as a clay pigeon thrown up into the sky of a video game, to be shot down.
In another kind of mood, more easily pleased, a writer can charge straight into the first idea, and never get the benefit of the second or third or fourth.
When I go back to look at kids’ topic brainstorms, I’m struck by how rarely a writer chooses the first idea, having come up with alternatives. The student who brainstormed the list above chose to write about the ducks, something more tender than he might have thought of first.
He spontaneously added a sketch, and he also returned to some of the other topics on that fascinating list, later in the year.
A good brainstorming topic list can grow as an expansion of an initial idea, which spreads out into a whole territory of possibilities. A good brainstorming list is democratic, potentially including many flavors of initiative, because all the writer’s different selves get to throw in their two cents. Brainstorming provides a gathering place for a non-argumentative, additive (rather than combative) conversation among many selves: the logical self, the intuitive self, the irreverent self, the worried self, the exuberant self. (Never leave out the exuberant self, even if she’s inclined to go off on a flyer. She has momentum, and that’s worth a million dollars.)
If you can’t think of one, think of five.
Our first writing work of the year, aiming at fluency, began with a very open prompt, and the admonition to ‟think of five.” Five moments from the summer that stand out in your mind. Five objects in the classroom that have caught your eye. Five things you notice every morning on your way to school, or every afternoon on your way home.
‟Only five?” some kids asked. ‟Can I write down seven?” A student who said that might not be showing off. Kids who thought naturally in the form of brainstorms found this easy, and they were asking if they could just keep going. Yes. Always yes.
For other kids it could be agony to think of even two ideas. A tremendously capable kid might harbor the most highly paid, tyrannical interior self-censor. Forget actual writing: for some kids, progress just meant brainstorming any kind of list.
Sometimes, while the students brainstormed, I’d make my own list, on the whiteboard where students could see it. That offered language and ideas for their minds to bounce off, and could model the democratic inclusion of many selves: my wandering-around-in-the-woods self, my family self, even my worn-out cranky self.
‟Don’t ask if it’s a good idea!” I’d say, in reaction to kids who wanted me to approve particular ideas. ‟It doesn’t matter! Write it down! Bad ideas lead to good ideas!”
When I moved away from my own list on the board, and wandered around the room, peeking over shoulders, I could feel the temperature of the group. Some days, any prompt could work. Some days, nothing would work very well. I had to be as loose as I was asking them to be—to let it happen however it happened; to trust the repetition of the experience over time.
Later on in the year, using the same engine of exploration, we’d try somewhat more demanding prompts: Five things that worry you, which led one girl to write an amazing piece about living with a challenging illness. Or five pieces of learning that you feel you handled well:
After a while, the prompt could be, “Think of five things you can probably write about for at least five minutes.” (That appears to have been the prompt for the work sample included first, above.)
In any case, after five minutes I’d move on to another important part of this brainstorming. With the kids still sitting at their desks or table places, we went around the circle of the room, sharing ideas.
First I said, ‟You don’t have to tell us the topic from your list that you think you’ll actually write about. Just say something.” That permission to put off a choice gave kids more room to get ideas from each other. I also wanted kids to be able to write about things that they wouldn’t announce to the group.
In one other piece of preparation for sharing, I’d ask rhetorically, ‟Are you saying your idea to show how clever you are? No. You’re saying it to be generous, to help each other. Writers help each other. They can and they need to.”
Most important of all, I’d also say, ‟If somebody shares a topic idea that rings a bell for you, write it on your own list, even if you already have five. Writers steal. They’re supposed to.” The collaborative energy among the poets I know well has been one of the joys of my life. I always wanted kids to have a chance to feel that chemistry.
As they shared ideas, I tried to withhold reaction, not always successfully. I did let myself respond to one common sign of potential difficulty. If a student listed going to camp for two weeks as a memorable summer ‟moment”, I’d advocate narrowing down, zooming in, diving in to the heart of what was interesting. We’d talk about what was meant, in this exercise, by ‟moment,” and why that could usually work better. Often, other members of the class could help that child who could only see the whole thing whole, and couldn’t, on his own, subdivide or refocus.
I’d give them a minute or so to add to their lists, once they’d heard each others’ ideas. Then they’d choose—bingo, fast—and we’d write, for just five minutes, which I would actually time on the clock.
That’s where I’ll stop, in this post. I’m planning to write next about the second “five” in this particular approach to writing fluency. If you’re stumped and blank as a new field of snow, at least try writing, without removing your pencil from the paper or your hands from the keyboard, for five minutes. Just five.
For now, though, I’ll repeat that other “five” mantra that has served so many of my students of every age, and my own writing self: If you can’t think of one, think of five. Don’t ever pretend you’re poor. You’re rich. You’re alive.