A Writer’s Secret Weapon

“I don’t know what to write about.”

As a teacher and writer with “so many ideas and so little time,” I find this common student response troubling. But when I pause to reflect on why students might be uninspired or why they have difficulty finding ideas, I realize that, in some cases, it’s because they haven’t been taught how–or worse, many of them have actually been force-fed ideas, forms, sentences, everything, in the past.

While professional writers do sometimes write on demand (job interviews, article deadlines) or to a specific prompt (“Hey you, cover the rally downtown today…”), writing seems to emerge from a place far more natural and common…from experience.

Writers experience moments and write into those moments.

In her beautiful and strange poem “A Valentine for Ernest Mann,” Naomi Shihab Nye urges us to “reinvent our lives” to find ideas. I have read this poem hundreds of times, but it wasn’t until recently that I began to read it as a charge to teachers: teaching writers means showing writers how to reinvent their lives.

As teachers with curriculums to follow, standards to cover, and limited time, we have to work really hard to communicate this essential principle of writing to our students and to make it visible in our classrooms.

We have to help students find their moments and write into them.

by dotmatchbox used under Creative Commons lic
by dotmatchbox used under Creative Commons lic

To do this, we need to share two things:

1. The writer’s secret weapon

2. The writer’s secret question

The writer’s secret weapon is simple: pay attention.

One way to model this tool is to keep a moments notebook–a section of your notebook devoted to listing moments worth writing about–moments you want to remember, moments that caught you off guard, moments that seemed, somehow, special or different.

Here’s a page from mine:

  • Listening to my husband retell the story of the first time he smelled honeysuckle

  • Listening to my student recite e.e. cumming’s “i carry your heart” at the Poetry Out Loud Regional Contest

  • Listening to the weeping of a girl at her mother’s funeral

  • A multicolored bird alighting on a frozen riverbed

  • Being told by the veterinarian that my beloved cat Tolstoy is obese

  • Sitting on the bleachers in the gym during the hunger assembly as a “middle class” person


Then it’s time to pose the secret question:

What kind of writing might bubble up from these experiences?

Looking at my list, I could write a personal essay about my cat Tolstoy, which would allow me to explore truths about pet-human relationships. I could also write an informative blog post about animal weight loss.

Or I might take the experience of hearing my student recite cummings’ poem and write an editorial in defense of using poetry recitation in the classroom.  I could take another route and flashback to the reading of this poem at my wedding…I might reflect on why my husband and I chose the poem, what it meant to hear it, and what it means now in the context of married life…

A few weeks ago I introduced the weapon and the question to my students. That morning students had attended a school-wide assembly on hunger. Students sat politely through the assembly–and some were very engaged–but most had forgotten about it by the start of first period. Sometimes students don’t see a moment when it is right there in front of them. In the beginning, when they are still learning to “pay attention,” we may have to coax them toward it.

I posed the following questions: What stuck with you from the hunger assembly this morning? What kind of writing might bubble up from this experience?

After about six minutes of writing, we shared out. Here are some of the possibilities that surfaced:

  • A novel with alternating narrators–a wealthy character, an impoverished character–whose paths cross

  • A prayer/meditation about nourishment

  • An infographic that examines hunger across the world

  • An editorial that raises awareness about hunger

  • A memoir about my grandfather who “started from nothing” and worked hard to provide for his family

I was so impressed with the diversity and creativity of their responses. Students were noticeably excited about the ideas they had generated. At that point, I knew I had landed on something worth repeating. So I did.

Here are some other “experiences” that my students have mused about over the past weeks. The question is always the same: What stuck with you? What kind of writing might emerge from this experience?

  • Two graphs that explore the link between Facebook relationship status and posts shared between the couple

  • School assembly lead by Weldon Bradshaw, liver-transplant recipient and author of My Dance with Grace

While it may seem obvious that writing grows out of experience, students who have grown up in an education system in which writing–topics, forms, everything–has been assigned will not understand this principle unless we explicitly teach it and model it ourselves.

– Allison

How do you help your students find ideas? Feel free to leave a comment or find us on Twitter @allisonmarchett @rebekahodell1


  1. “Writers experience moments and write into those moments.”

    Or, as I like to put it: Treat every moment of your life as preparation for a scene you’ll write in a future novel.

      1. Absolutely, go for it!

        As I am working on my second novel, I realize more and more just how much I dip into my own experiences as I write scenes. Not straight-forward dramatizations of real life, but rather fictional scenes that resonate with my own experiences in ways that probably only I myself am/can be aware of.

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