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Finding a Subject: Fall Edition

posted: 10.28.11 by archived

I tell my students that finding a subject to write about is half the battle. The longer I teach the more I think we may not spend enough time at this crucial invention stage.  That’s the problem with procrastinating, I say, that you don’t give yourself time for your subconscious to get to work in collecting up some details so that you can to consider and assess various possibilities.

Instead of focusing on the writing process via thesis statement, outline, topic sentence, transitional device (terms that can make even my eyes glaze over), I try to talk about a thinking process that goes something like this:

Seeing. Start with getting out in the world and looking, as I did last summer in my wildflower post. I use the purely visual here as metaphor for the nontrivial tasks of noticing, listening, collecting up scraps. My students don’t find it easy to cultivate this attentiveness, with family and work obligations filling their schedules and cradled cellphone screens filling their fields of vision.

Naming. Once they manage to focus their attention, it’s another challenge to find the words to describe what they see.  I try an exercise. Look at this and describe what you see:


First attempts look something like this: “It’s a decent size store with things all over the walls and things stacked on top of each other in many different colors and sizes. “ So what’s wrong with that, I ask?

Generalizing. But we’re writing more than “mere” description.  The writer needs to find and recognize that spark that will ignite his curiosity: how did something come to be? Does it work the way it is? What does it reveal? How will or should it change? So I wonder how to teach my students to see the general in the particular, the idea behind the image.

In a recent Prof Hacker post, Ryan Cordell asks how much personal information to share with students. In trying to talk about the thinking process that precedes writing, what I end up sharing most often is the approach I’d take to fulfill my own assignments.

Take the photo essay assignment that I’m trying for the first time this semester. Here’s the essay I’d write (if I had time for writing anything more than comments on student work, and this blog post):

The germ: On my summer bike ride I was struck by a juxtaposition that made me smile, several cows drinking at a stream near the road and looming in the background a McMansion-in-progress.

The idea: In this image I see the decades-long conflict in my community as family farms are lost to the encroaching suburbs.

A few of the images: So I return with my iPhone to take some pictures.

The McMansion from another angle (no cows this time)

hay sign

and a cornfield recently taken over by sprawling, beige housing development


and a sign that insists, despite evidence to the contrary, that farming is still a way of life in our community


Other photos I consider: I might also snap shots of the CSA that supplied our vegetables this summer; one of the many flattened bits of roadkill I swerved to avoid; the migrant farmworkers filling crates with butternut squash; the golf courses laid on top of what had been farmland; the corn mazes and Xmas trees and pumpkins that supply our suburban demands for a touch of agricultural nostalgia.

The questions to research: What’s happening in my town in terms of building statistics, size of new homes built, acres of farmland lost? What’s the situation nationwide? How is one’s “right to farm” protected? What’s the environmental impact of rapid development? How does it affect the town’s tax base, our budget, our local politics?

I want my students to find the subjects that will drive that same sort of curiosity, so that their writing will be animated by the pleasure of discovery. Am I a hopeless romantic?

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Categories: Assignment Idea, Holly Pappas, Writing Process
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