The Amend Corner

Writing’s big challenge may be finding a topic

Posted 9/3/19

If you are a regular reader of this column, you know there are times when writing and my brain don’t want to work together.

This is one of those times.

I suppose I could give up and send …

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The Amend Corner

Writing’s big challenge may be finding a topic

Posted

If you are a regular reader of this column, you know there are times when writing and my brain don’t want to work together.

This is one of those times.

I suppose I could give up and send an email to the editor confessing to my incompetence — temporary, I hope — at generating ideas to entertain, educate and influence my audience. Occasionally, I have done that over the years, but I always feel guilty about it because I think like a teacher.

Even though I spent one-third of the 20th century teaching in one classroom or another, that ended two decades ago. So you might think it’s strange that I still think like a teacher, but I do. My wife even claims that I wake her up sometimes because I’m lecturing in my sleep. She doesn’t know what I’m lecturing about and I have no idea, either. But I’ll take her word for it because she never lies to me. What I do know is that around this time every year, I find myself lying awake in the wee hours of the morning formulating lesson plans, assignments and creative ways of handling uncooperative students. That is somewhat disturbing because I’m wide awake and well aware of my retired status. Spending time planning for something I not only know I don’t have to do and never will do again says something about my mental condition, although I’m not sure what.

I think a primary reason for this fixation on teaching comes from the transition I made back in 1999. After spending all those years teaching kids to write in English classes, I almost immediately began a career in writing. Not only that, my job meant writing about school activities or something to do with government, the other area that I taught. Given that, it’s no wonder that I still think like a teacher.

That career has diminished over the past seven years until it has reached its present level which involves turning out this column periodically; I intend to continue to do so until somebody in authority tells me to stop.

But let me return to my present difficulty and its relationship to thinking like a teacher. As you might imagine, I have no idea how many composition assignments I made in the various English classes I taught during 33 years on the job. Some involved writing on specific assigned topics, but most of them allowed students some degree of latitude in choosing what they wanted to write. After all, I told them, deciding what to write about is an important part of the writing process. In fact, it’s arguably the most important part, because you can’t write even a word unless you know what you’re going to say.

Because choosing a topic is so important, it’s often the hardest part of the whole  process; consequently, whenever I made a writing assignment, one or more students would complain that they didn’t know what to write about. I would usually reply by asking questions that might awaken some thread of thought that might blossom into a few paragraphs of prose. Sometimes that would do the trick, although it might take half a dozen questions before the student’s face would light up in response to one of them. Another time, I might point out three or four ideas within the assignment in the hope that one of them would awaken a student’s thought process.

But there was always a student — or maybe several students — who resisted all my attempts to help them decide what to write about and, kids being kids, some of them decided that if they couldn’t think of a topic, they shouldn’t have to write the paper. Well, I never had any sympathy for students like that. They had to come to terms with the fact that: 1) they had to write the paper and 2) I wasn’t going to tell them what to write about, because then the finished papers would be mine and not theirs.That led to a few bad papers, but sometimes a student would surprise himself and turn in a good paper, maybe even a gem.

OK, now the proverbial shoe is on the other foot and I’m the one with the assignment who has to find a topic. That’s when the teacher in me awakens and tells me I have do the assignment, and the grumpy old man in me lectures me about doing the hard part.

Well, that’s my paper for this issue. It isn’t a gem, but it should give you some insight into the writing process. Now I can start thinking about my next submission, which will come in a couple of weeks. In that time I should be able to come up with a good topic.

Over the years, I have occasionally been asked if I was ever going to write a book. I’ve always said no. I’m not creative enough to write a novel, my life hasn’t been exciting enough to write a good memoir and I don’t want to do the research necessary to write non-fiction.

Besides, I just can’t think of a topic.

The Amend Corner

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