Thursday, June 21, 2012

Showing Up by Mandy Houk

“If I waited till I felt like writing, I’d never write at all.” – Anne Tyler

When I first signed up to teach a high school creative writing class, my number one priority was to get the kids to write on a regular basis. That might sound obvious, but I had learned over the years that, even for those who profess a love of writing, a daily appointment with pen and paper is not a given.

Today, four years later, I’m still teaching, and even though the collection of students changes every August, I have the same approach—along with the same challenges.

My approach is to require twenty minutes of “free writing” per day, five days per week. I provide each student with a composition book (a sentimental throw-back to my own early elementary days, when my love for writing was born), and I try my best to make clear in the first class session what “free writing” means. It takes a bit more explanation than one might expect. I get questions like, “Can we write poetry?” followed immediately by, “Do we have to write poetry?” Also, “I can’t spell—do I have to spell things right?” Or, most often, “What if I don’t have anything to say?!” This question, which comes up every year, is almost always uttered in a shaky voice, from a student whose eyes are wild with panic.

I try to reassure them that the key word in the phrase free writing is free. All I ask is that they show up physically, with pen and comp book; and that they show up mentally, with open minds and imaginations. They can write about what they had for supper, or how stressed they are about exams. They can write about a conversation they overheard—in fact, I encourage that one. Eavesdropping is a writer’s lifeline. My hope, of course, is that the muse will strike at about minute 15 or 16: the student will stop checking the clock and stop musing about what they want for dessert, and will take off on an inspired tangent in which a grandmother decides to poison her neighbor with toxic pound cake only to do herself in when, out of habit, she licks the beaters.

What the students don’t know, and what cannot simply be told to them, is that this kind of inspiration really will happen (heck, I came up with the poison pound cake just now—and I like it, so it’s getting kind of tricky to stay focused on this article). What they also do not know, and what I simply will not tell them, is that, for every quirky little story (like one student’s bit about the food-gang wars that go on when he shuts the fridge and the light goes out), there will be eight or ten ramblings about homework and the weather and little brothers and chores.

The students moan and whine for the first several weeks of class, sure that I’m either insane or sadistic to place such a burden on their delicate young shoulders. I’ve even received emails from parents, hinting or outright stating that writing should be organic and natural and not forced, and such a regimented approach can’t possibly be the best way to teach.

I don’t win over every student (or parent). There is usually one student who is still moaning at the end of the year. And that’s okay. Because there are others whose writing habits are changed forever by the simple act of regularly showing up to write. In my first year of teaching alone, I had two students that did not take my class by choice—they just needed the credit. At the end of the year, one of those students had discovered a love for poetry and filled his pages with truly beautiful stuff. The other student had started writing compulsively, even on the weekends when it was not required. I ran into her just a few weeks ago at a restaurant in town (three full years after she graduated), and one of the first things she said was, “I’m still writing! I just keep buying composition books and filling them up!”

What these kids have learned is this: writing is organic and natural and can’t be forced. But inspiration is not going to chase you around and tackle you. And it’s also not going to wait until you’ve got access to a pen and paper or a laptop before it pounces (how many times have you thought of something brilliant when you’re in the shower or the car or somewhere else impossible, and later, incredibly, you can’t recall what it was?). Inspiration is elusive and tricky and unpredictable, and if you’re going to be a writer, you have to outsmart it: show up. Show up at a desk or a coffee shop or your own kitchen table, equipped with a blank piece of paper and usually an equally blank mind. Sometimes only drivel will result. But other times, inspiration will fly unwittingly into the trap you’ve set, and there you’ll be—ready and waiting.

About the Writer:  Mandy Brown Houk is a freelance writer and editor, and she teaches at a small private high school in Old Colorado City. She's written for several magazines and anthologies, and has completed two novels--only one of which is worthy of the light of day. Mandy's work is represented by Sally LaVenture at Warner Literary Group. Her web site is


  1. Beautiful post, Mandy. And so true for all of us :-)

  2. Your students have no idea how blessed they are to have you. :-)

  3. You nailed it. I write morning pages every day, even if I have nothing to say just to be able to say that I wrote today.


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