It happens to us all — we get stuck sometimes. It often means we can’t move, we can’t progress, we can’t even look at the page.
It’s one thing when it’s us, but what to do when it’s your student? being stuck is often associated with the ‘I don’t know what to write’ statement, which is also related to the ‘I’m no good at writing’ statement. Quite often, these two statements are related to a lack of confidence in ‘what I’m writing about is no good,’ or a perfectionist response such as ‘I’ll never be able to do that.’
There is good reason to fear these two responses: they are anxiety laden, often drawn from the standards set in the classroom by the idea that what we write is modelled on what we read. Our first attempts — and by ‘our’ I mean practically every writer living on this planet, now or in the past — our first attempts at writing anything are crap. Yes, a practised writer, who is a highly skilled writer because they have many thousands of hours of practice under their belt, will likely produce something that is less crap than a novice, but I feel quite confident that in all likelihood they will agree that all first attempts are crap.
So, let’s just settle on that to begin with. But writing some crap is better than not writing at all, right? Because that story, poem, play, screenplay … isn’t going to get written without some words going on the page. And the truth is, if you’ve got a whole bunch of crap on the page that you can recognise as crap, then you have a chance of making it into a garden capable of growing good fruit.
So, you’re facing down a student who says, ‘I just can’t do it.’ And it’s not because they are incapable, it’s because they are stuck. And you, being the sensitive teacher you are, recognise it for what it is. So what can you do?
I’m going to offer you a two-step solution.
Before Step One — make sure you have read the post Learning to Free Write: Magic at Work, or revised our discussions on Free-writing from the Creative Writing PD Masterclass, or read the Free Writing exercises in Story Craft (pages 250-251). These writing techniques are the foundation for overcoming ‘stuckness’ (note how I’ve nominalised the verb to form a noun: it’s not a real word, but it expresses a real understanding, yes?).
Step One — explain to your student that ‘stuckness’ is normal and it happens to many writers.
And then introduce your student to (or remind them of) the free-writing techniques I’ve suggested above, or previous lessons you have delivered to your students in free-writing (if you’ve attended a Masterclass with me, you surely have done this on several occasions).
Before asking them to write, ask the student to empty their mind with some deep breathing.
One very good way to do this is to take 9 deep, slow breaths, focusing only on the passage of air through your nose into your lungs, pause and focus on the air from your lungs out through your nose (or mouth). Imagine, if you could actually see air moving, what it might look like as it enters through your nose, passes down the windpipe into your lungs. Imagine what the exchange of fresh air for used air might look like, and what the passage of it being expelled looks like. Focus on the feelings of the diaphragm being drawn downwards, and pushing back up, pumping the air in and out. Nine breaths, totally focused. You might count out the times for intake, pause and output (say, 4 seconds, 2 seconds, six seconds) — the out breath should be a little slower than the in breath, but as you go you might slow the whole thing down a touch.
Then, using pen and paper, ask the student to look at something (out the window, through the door, front of room, side, another person …) and write the first word that comes to mind. Then change gaze and write a second word. Change gaze again and write a phrase or sentence … IMPORTANT — the words written do not have to have any meaning or connection with the gaze. Gibberish is fine, complete nonsense is fine. Make no judgement about what’s on the page: it is neither good nor bad in terms of its quality.
What is good, is that the student has made a mark on the page. Continue the gaze > write > gaze > write … until a time is up, or the writing session is up. The fact that the writing the student did is ‘not on topic’ is not important. Make them aware of it. They have written words triggered by a sense of observation. What those words are deserve no criticism. But the student deserves congratulations for the creatively courageous act that got them moving.
NOTE: Repeat this over several days to establish the ‘safe space’ for the student to take the next step. It doesn’t matter what the student writes, it matters that they have written over several sessions. This is how you can build up their momentum.
Step Two — Ask the student to focus on a story idea. This may be something they are already working on, or it may be a prompt you are asking them to respond to. Either way, ask them to think about the character involved in the story and focus their thoughts on the things that might interest them about the character. Ask them to carry the image of this character around with them as they go about the rest of their day (how does this character do in maths, for example, or in the phys. ed. tasks …). Encourage the student to listen to the sounds, the voices; observe the surroundings, the weather; imagine the conversations or actions — all of which involve the character.
In the next writing class, ask them to retrieve some of their imaginings from those experiences and jot down images, notes of dialogue, impressions of actions and reactions involving that specific character. Encourage the student to enter the character’s universe in their imagination and spend time getting a feel for what happens in this place and time. Then jot down the impressions.
Again, this is not a time for judgement or criticism. Have the student take a walk with their character and have a discussion — you will find this exercise on pages 255-6 of Story Craft. It is one of the most powerful and potent ways to develop a knowledge about someone to write about, and what to say about them.
Repetition, repetition, repetition, discussion about repetition …
Repeat these practices over a few sessions and you will notice how the student develops a confidence in their capacity to write what they are seeing, feeling and imagining. They will learn how to suspend judgement and be immersed in the practice of writing. Each time they go to write, they will feel themselves moving forward, and their output will increase with the flow. Not only that, but they will also learn how to develop a critical eye without self-criticism, and you will be growing a critically creative and creatively critical student consciousness.