By: Caitlin and Tyle, Edited by Jessica
The hardest part of writing is often just getting started. Brainstorming, whether for critical essays or creative work, is a crucial first step; but it can often be difficult. While college instills in us a need to focus on organization, clarity, and argument (in prose), it doesn’t give us the tools to come up with ideas in the first place. Sometimes it is forgotten that a strong idea can help organization, clarity and argument of a work. In fact, the last time many of us were taught how to brainstorm was in elementary school. After that, it’s assumed we do it intuitively. While brainstorming may be intuitive for some of us some of the time, other times we can find ourselves reaching writer’s block. That’s when bringing it back to the elementary can be useful.
Now, you might be skeptical of the usefulness of a method taught to elementary school students. But as college students, we can often get too caught up in trying to decide on a unique, nuanced, and defensible thesis and this can hinder us from reaching new and interesting ideas. We could do well to take a hint from younger students and focus first on our feelings and then our complex thoughts. This shift in focus can help to ensure our voice comes through in our writing: instead of writing a boring essay about a common idea, we write from our own unique perspective on a text. This method is also less daunting than creating a thesis right away. Unlike a thesis, which may not automatically come to us, we all have some sort of instinctual reaction when we read something, even if it’s just that we find the text stupid or the argument ridiculous. These sorts of emotional responses to a text can help give us a lens through which to look back at the text and craft an argument. Focusing can give us fuel to make an argument, thereby helping us effectively brainstorm and overcome writer’s block.
The overarching idea of first asking, “how do you feel?” before asking, “what’s your argument?” can be put into practice through a few exercises. We focus on three main ways to execute this method – conversation, the popcorn game, and the cranium graph game – but there are surely other possibilities.
In the first method, a tutor (or anyone) has a conversation with the writer, asking him/her a series of questions designed to evoke the writer’s emotions and instincts. These can include:
“What made you angry in this text?”
“Is there anything in this text/argument that you’re cynical about?”
“What confused you?”
This conversation works particularly well in a peer-tutoring situation. Unlike when we students talk to our professor and sometimes feel the pressure to only express well-thought out and well-articulated ideas, we can feel more comfortable around fellow students to just express our initial reactions and feelings to a text.
The next two methods, the popcorn and the cranium graph games, we put into practice with our Tutoring Theory class here at Whitman. We presented our class with excerpts from this article about the recent changes made to the SAT. The excerpts we chose indicated the following changes: the essay will now be optional, there will be no penalty for wrong answers, there will be policies to help low-income students with preparing for the SATs and applying to college, students will have to justify their answers on the test, and each test will include a founding document such as the Declaration of Independence. The article also quoted the head of the College Board explaining the changes are part of an effort to align the SAT more with what students learn in high school (Lewin).
After reading this, the class played the popcorn game. This game works well in a large group but it only really requires two participants. Before playing, participants read a text (or a portion of a text). Directly after reading it, so it’s fresh in their mind, everyone is invited to shout out one-word responses to the text. The shout outs should be immediate, gut reactions as opposed to crafted or thought out. There’s no order (everyone chimes in randomly like kernels popping) and no limit to the amount of times each person can speak. Occurring right after reading the text and with a minimal level of structure, this exercise helps writers to focus on their instinctual reactions to a text. This is an especially helpful tool if someone in the group writes down the responses. That way, the writer or writers writing on the text can look back on their instinctual reactions and draw on them to craft an argument that really reflects their view. Even without writing them down, the exercise can loosen you up to think of ideas. Some of the words people in our class shouted out were “well-intentioned,” “hopeful,” “unfair,” “useless,” “propaganda” and “cynical”. Each person’s response helped to fuel another response, either from that same person or from someone else. Sometimes people disagreed with another response, and sometimes they built off of it.
After this, we played the cranium graph game. The title can come across as a bit deceiving as to imagine only a floating head. Rather, the visual (as seen below) incorporates multiple elements: the mind, the heart and sensory details. The mind can be best categorized as ‘I think’ statements, the heart as ‘I feel’ statements and the sensory as ‘I smell’, ‘I see’, ‘I taste’, ‘I hear’ statements. Now, we know that human emotional/thought processes are much more complicated than this, and the grown-up inside of us may first see this as an exercise in reduction or simplification. More correctly, the cranium game is a practice in expansion, with an organizational quality that allows for distinction, differentiation, but also a chance to draw connections by weaving across different domains. Through this brainstorming technique, it can be witnessed how emotions influence thoughts, how thoughts solidify emotions, how sensory details can interweave or spring out of texts, or rather how this trinity of thought, emotion and sensory work can feed, fuel and craft an idea.
To better elucidate this structure, we will utilize examples that were made evident in our class which highlight each category. When students replied with sensorial reactions to the SAT article, they were asked to approach the article in an abstract manner. The image of the olive branch came up, and this image alone is fodder for crafting an idea or even a thesis that navigates issues of justice. To further investigate the olive branch one could bring in an emotional statement such as ‘cynical’. From this a metaphor and an argument is created; like the olive branch the SAT stands strong in its sincerity and just approaches to testing students, but is actually a money-driven enterprise. Thoughts can be brought in directly from the text, secondary sources or our own opinions to solidify or advance the idea.
Now that we’ve seen how this method works in practice, it’s important to note that it doesn’t work in all situations and it doesn’t work for everyone. For people who tend to write about their feelings and opinions and have more difficulty finding evidence and making an academic, well-supported argument, these exercises might be counterproductive. It’s important to remember that a crucial part of using this method is transforming your feelings and sensory reactions into thoughts and arguments. As our class showed with the “olive branch”, it’s possible – and easier than you might think – to transform what seem to be random reactions and metaphors into a thesis or examples to support your thesis.
While it is often easy to blur feelings and thoughts, or mistake feelings for an argument, the cranium diagram is useful because it clearly distinguishes between thoughts, sensory reactions, and feelings. It can also be helpful to think of thoughts as things the author says/argues and feelings as your reaction to the text. “This author is annoying” is really a personal opinion, which you can put in the form of a feeling (“I find this author annoying”) and then search for a thought, which would focus on why the author is annoying – what did the author do/argue that annoyed you? Even if the distinctions and transitions from feelings to arguments might be difficult to make, especially for some people, the process of focusing on feelings can be useful even if just to break through writer’s block. Even if none of the words you say in the popcorn game directly translate into an argument or evidence for an argument, they loosen you up and may allow you to come up with ideas and an argument later on that you may not have reached if you were still stuck trying to find a perfect argument right away.
Overall, this method can work in college for creative writing and critical writing. You can use it on your own, with a friend or classmate or multiple other people, or with a peer tutor. Really, you just need to put yourself in a situation where you feel comfortable following your instincts and expressing your immediate reactions rather than feeling pressured to think of an argument right off the bat. Most importantly, this method shows that we can apply what we learned in elementary school to college. Using this method doesn’t lessen your sophistication as a writer. It just serves as a reminder that sometimes – often because you are a good and experienced writer – you should go with your instincts.
Lewin, Tamar. “A New SAT Seeks to Realign with Schoolwork.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company. 5 March 2014. Web. 7 Mar 2014.