Where Do Ideas Come From?

For well over a decade I have been giving creative writing workshops to elementary and secondary students. One of the questions most often asked by students and teachers alike is: where do you get your ideas?

Ideas can be as strong as a blast of March wind propelling you down the street or as ephemeral as magnolia petals falling to earth in the spring, but they stem from the same source – your personal passions. If you want your students to have a positive attitude towards writing, to actually look forward to writing, you must give them the opportunity to write about the things that they care about, the things that excite and fascinate them, and in some cases, the things that they abhor or fear. Passion has two sides, and tapping into personal passion is where art starts.

Student Passion Lists

On a piece of paper, have each student write two lists: one of people, places, and things they love; the other of things they can’t stand. Have them list between ten to twenty items. The rules: they cannot list any one single person at school on either list.

For example:
A student’s love list may include – Nana Smith, apple pie, my blue fuzzy sweatshirt, my bedroom, money, my cousin Tony, Cape Cod, basketball, pizza, and my cat Beefo. A student’s “things I can’t stand” column may include – spiders, broccoli, making my bed, bullies, cleaning the basement, arguing, singing solo, the dog next door, roller coaster rides, and homework.

You should make a list, too. When the students are finished, you may choose to have a class discussion and have your students share their choices. You may decide that your students keep their lists private. Whatever your choice, after your students have had a chance to read and appreciate their own lists, challenge them to become more particular as to why they like or dislike the things they listed.

For example:
A student lists Nana Smith on her “things I love” list. Ask her to write about why she loves Nana Smith and try to move her beyond the clichéd answer, “because she’s my grandmother.” Suggest that she use all five of her senses to describe why or why not she loves or dislikes something. She may write that she loves Nana Smith because whenever she visits her grandmother’s house it smells like freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. Or, she may write that Nana Smith is wrinkly, like crepe paper, chubby and soft, and gives great hugs. If she has listed the dog next door in her “things I can’t stand” column, again push your student to write why and to be as specific as possible.

If your student lists a specific activity in their passion list, like fly fishing, press them as to why they like that activity. When working with your students you may find that the people they love are associated with activities they love. And, very often a negative experience has led them to dislike a particular activity. Get them to write about those people, feelings, and experiences.

Have your students use these lists as springboards for story and writing. Writers draw from their well of passion and experience. Student writers, no matter what their age, are no different. Have them keep their lists in a folder or a journal which they can expand on throughout the school year. They may want to make lists of names they like and dislike and use those lists for naming protagonist and antagonists in their stories. You may have them make lists of places and settings they like and dislike, describing those places in great detail, then have your students write a story set in one of those places. Build on both their positive and negative feelings.

It is not necessary for an educational experience to be entertaining, but ideally it should be interesting. When students are given the opportunity to write about things for which they have profound feelings, writing can become a rewarding and interesting experience.

© 2015 The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance