it’s braining rains (response paper #7)

maps!The ocean is a huge thing full of the crap we call fish. Every once in a while, a lucky fisherperson drops a line into the middle of that crap and pulls out a sushi-grade tuna. Your job this week has been to brainstorm an ocean full of crappy ideas, drop in the line of reflection, and hopefully snag just one tuna to write about for response paper #7.

Why the talk of tuna? First of all, why nottalk about tuna, haterz? Second of all, this week’s response paper is quite different from everything we’ve done so far, and getting students to understand that difference has required me to develop some extreme metaphors.

How is this week’s writing different? It is, shall we say, “real-er” than what we’ve done in weeks past. The past 6 papers, to one extent or another, have been written by me, your well-meaning teacher, before you even knew they existed. I brainstormed topics, I considered who your audience would be, and I even imagined an effective structure you might follow in outlining your paper. Essentially, you, the hardworking students, have only been writing half the paper each week. What a bunch of lazy bums! I have half a mind to fire you and hire new students! How would you like that, huh, punks?


This kind of two-person process has its advantages and drawbacks. For one thing, it lets me, the teacher, custom tailor writing assignments to specifically address certain issues I want you to focus on and practice. On the down-side, it makes you think that all writing is about pleasing a teacher by writing when, how, about what, and to whom they tell you. That is messed up, I admit it, but somewhat necessary. I have to show that you have mastered (or at least attempted) certain isolated skills that you’ll be tested on eventually. My teaching will be judged, in part, on those test scores and if the scores are bad, I better be able to show that at least I taught what I was supposed to.

But we’ve done enough of that for now. Real writers write when they have an audience and a purpose. While deadlines, paychecks, and grades can all help light the urgent fire of burning inspiration under the writer, the fact remains that no good writing can be produced without the writer having something of personal interest to say, to someone specific, for some specific reason.

Thus, the REAL writing process–the process of figuring out what you want to write, and to whom, begins with trying to figure out what your brain is thinking about, or, in other words, brainstorming. We did three specific ‘storms this week. If you missed any class, you can do these in the comfort of your own home, as follows:

  • The “linear, left-brained” brainstorm: This is just a list, usually moving from top to bottom of the page, of anything and everything that comes to mind. In class, we spent 8 minutes listing, and I challenged students to come up with 50-100 items in that time. Usually, what ends up on the list are words and short phrases (often in “code” which only the writer understands, which is fine) , and usually one item on the list leads to the next, in what we call a “linear” organization. This “linear-ness” is what makes this more of a left-brained activity, although, admittedly, both sides of the brain are involved in any brain-storm.
  • The “non-linear, right-brained map”: For those of you right-brainiacs out there, next we tried another method: a map. This is the thing you often see in English class where you draw bubbles and connect the bubbles with lines to show relationships between ideas. Ideas can and usually do show up with multiple connections to other ideas, and, just like a popular or useful website that has a vast array of links to other sites, the most useful and popular ideas in your head will also be heavily “linked.” This is a way of getting those links to show up on paper, and thus discover what you might want to write about. In class, I encouraged students to expand ideas with bubbles that included not just other generic “ideas,” but specific examples and details about those examples to illustrate the big ideas. Often, a chain of bubbles that appears to have fizzled out gets invigorated by a specific example that suddenly creates connections with many other ideas around the “map,” and hey, presto, you figure out a theme you want to write about.
  • The “audience+purpose” map: This is the big one–the brainstorm to end all brainstorms. I mentioned above, and I’ll reiterate it here, that the most important thing to figure out before you write (more important than “topic”? yes, actually, I think so) is who you are going to write to, and why. This question deserves its own ‘storm, so we made another bubble map. For another magical 8 minutes, students made bubbly-maps of all the various audiences and sub-audiences (audience: kids; sub-audience: kids who like to pick their noses) they would like to write to. Connected to audience bubbles, students attached “purpose” bubbles with reasons why this particular group should be interested to read what they are writing–to say how this audience would benefit specifically. For example, if I want kids who pick their noses to read what I write, reasons they should read it might include the following: I don’t want them to think they’re the only ones who pick; I want them to know they can control their nose-picking if they want to; I want them to understand that nose-picking is a choice; I want them to take responsibility for their choices and take control of their lives; etc. You can see that these “why” bubbles can extend forever, and the more you extend them, the more focused and unique your ideas for writing become. That’s why I think this is the most important of the ‘storms. Don’t skip it!

After each of those brainstorms, we did some analysis of what we had written by circling anything we found surprising, or ideas we had more questions about, and connecting multiple “circled” ideas into chains if they related in any way. If you have three interesting ideas on a paper that all have some sort of connection, it looks to me like you’ve got yourself a topic for writing.

Okay, now you’ve brainstormed and you’re ready to write.

It’s Thursday today and you’re probably sitting in the computer lab getting ready to write a draft. Once you have a basic idea about your topic, your audience, and your purpose, you can begin.

The draft you write today is experimental. The main goal is to get the whole thing on paper–some kind of introduction, some main points that contribute to some overall subject, and some sort of conclusion. You might throw out all the writing tomorrow but keep some of the ideas, or you might keep most of the writing and tweak the overall focus. The point is, you will never, in a million years, print out and hand in what you write today. That’s a good thing–that means you’re FREE to write however you please, as long as you get the thing down on paper.

Over the next few days, you can take today’s experimental draft and work it into a real first draft for me to review next week. So today, be free, try to figure out exactly who you’re talking to, what you want to tell them, and in what “voice.”

Finally, here’s the actual writing assignment:

Write a 1-2 page essay, letter, story, rant, whatever, on any topic of your choice, to any audience of your choice. Focus the writing on one particular audience, topic, and purpose. Organize the piece to enhance the message. (All papers should include some sort of introduction, organized body paragraphs, and conclusion). Choose the writing “voice” appropriate to your audience. Make sentences flow and use correct grammar and spelling to the best of your ability.

That’s it. Don’t know what to write about? Look into your brain, figure out who you want to say it to, then just start! Whatever you come up with today will be raw materials for you to shape into something tomorrow and over the weekend.

Remember, there’s a whole sea of crappy ideas out there, but somewhere, swimming among all those half-baked, turd-like notions, is one delicious response-paper tuna.



2 responses to “it’s braining rains (response paper #7)

  1. haha matt you cant fire me……ever!

  2. Matt you are so great! i miss being in your class so much! I’ve learned so much these past two years, it’s crazy incredible! haha so you’re planning to teach 12th grade english next year right?? well you should consider it at least… you know, the best teachers are those that are passionate about teaching. And you are! People learn best from a passionate person selling what they have to offer because it gets the learner excited too. I’ve gained alot of knowledge and even some wisdom from what you teach and how you teach. Thank you for being passionate! 🙂

    Elizabeth A. Brown

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