Free write. Write with one color in mind. Write with one smell in mind. Write a four-line prose poem. Write a six-word short story. Write the worst short story ever. Write the worst poem ever. Write whatever comes into your brain for five minutes straight. Do not lift your pen. Do not stop. If you do not know what to write, write that: “I don’t know what to write” over and over until you do. Write what you had for breakfast. Write from the point of view of an animal. Write from the point of view of a wall socket. Write from the point of view of a piece of gum. An email. A sidewalk. A creek. Write from the point of view of someone you hate. Write a scene based off an argument you’ve been in. Now write it from the point of view of the other person. Write without naming characters. Write using only dialogue. Write a hundred word story using only fifty words. Write a letter from one character to another. Write using only metaphors. Write something using no metaphors. No imagery. No sensory details. Write something boring. Ah, can’t do it can you? Why? Because it’s funny? Write a poem from magazine cut-ups. Write a concrete poem in the shape of a squirrel. Write a short story designed to be read aloud. Write a story with only sounds. Write a story about the absence of sound. Write a survival guide. Write a story where the action only gets worse and worse and worse for your main character. Write a story, but don’t make it about you. Or your best friend. Or that guy who once cut in front of you in line at the Key Foods. Or write the story about the guy who once cut in front of you at Key Foods, but from his point of view. Was there an emergency? Let’s find out. Write a sonnet. Write the ten things you’d find in your garbage can. Write the ten things you’d find in Donald Trump’s garbage can. Write backwards. Write sideways. Write in circles. Write until your hand cramps. Good, now rewrite the whole thing from where the energy derives. Write. Write. Write whatever it takes to make this thing fun for you. Stop writing that thing. You don’t care about it. Write something fun.
“Yeah, but what do you do when you can’t write?”
All around the student union percolates incessantly with the busy sounds of humans living, the heady smell of coffee and grease hanging ponderously about. I laugh. Nearby, a group of college kids eat fat fingers of French fries and spoonfuls of ketchup while studying Kant or Wittgenstein or Derrida or maybe nothing at all. I look across the table where my student hangs on to whatever profound morsel I’m expected to drop. She’s not just any student though; she’s my favorite student. And yes, I said favorite. All teachers have favorite students. Mine usually fall in the category of students who start out the most resistant to my teaching. The ones who “hate” writing. And this student, Christina, was no different. Compelled by her mother to take my creative writing class two years ago, this high schooler on the verge of senior year now takes my every class, and we frequently meet outside of it to discuss books, her writing, the state of the world, etc. She keeps me on my toes and keeps my class honest. I can’t recycle material or lessons because she’s done them all. I’m constantly thinking up new ways to teach the thing I love. This writing thing.
Here she is though, Christina, facing a roiling world of fears as she stares at a blank screen. For the first time since her initial hesitancy upon entering my class two years ago, she’s struck with that soul-consuming terror at having nothing “good” to write. Or at least this is what she thinks. I was able to stave off that crumbling beast of doubt inside her for a long time, but her writing is so ridiculously good and she is so immensely talented, that the poison-toothed creature was bound to catch her sooner or later.
“So what do you do?” she asks.
She wants to know how I tame the beast. She wants the secret, the hidden key to writing passed down from every mentor to mentee. I feel comfortable in saying that I have no real desire to teach on the undergraduate and graduate level. I’m not adult enough. Or maybe I’m too adult and recognize that the only way to keep grounded in reality and in the present (for me anyway) is to be in a class of twelve or so fourth graders who want to write about space otters or a gaggle of teenage girls who are experiencing all the clichés of love for the first time. Are they still clichés if they’re experiencing them for the first time? This softens that jaded part of me that screams at every “tears like a river”/“my love is like a red rose” line that creeps into their stories. They keep me honest.
Just as Christina does now.
She’s been through the ringer with my writing exercises. I’ve given her books and stories and poems and essays to jog the jolly writing juices within. Now she wants more. She wants the big thing, the hidden thing, the thing that’ll get her writing so she’ll never have to look back.
“Christina,” I say. “You’ve got to stop this.”
She leans in.
“I can’t tell you to stop torturing yourself. God knows all writers do it. But what you’re trying to write, well, it’s boring you.”
She sits back.
“You aren’t having any fun at all.”
Christina isn’t like most teenagers. Well, okay, she isn’t like me as a teenager. Her first reaction isn’t to argue that the other person is wrong or that they don’t know what they’re talking about. She sits with it and let’s my words tumble over in her mind.
There are a lot of things wrong in the world. How are we supposed to face that if we’ve no joy to hold onto? This is why the first thing I teach is not metaphor or anaphora or character. It’s fun and how to have it in writing. As a creative writing teacher, I’m great at dishing out that advice and helping my students navigate the joy in their own writing. As a writer, I struggle to sit in my chair everyday and keep that advice at the forefront of my mind. Even here, in this micro-essay, I had to ask myself “where’s the fun?”. Writing about Christina is fun for me. Writing about why I love teaching is fun for me. Writing down a multitude of exercises that verge on the silly and strange is fun for me. If none of those are fun for you, then make up your own. Write a ghost story. Write in Pig Latin. Write without punctuation. It may sound like the most simplistic and obvious thing, but we all need the reminder sometimes. We all need someone to keep us honest. To tell us to make it fun.