WITS Voices: Clearing the Lowest Bar—The Writing Warm-Up
March 4, 2020
By Karen Finneyfrock, WITS Writer-in-Residence
There is a funny idea about inspiration that lurks in our culture. The idea holds that poets are just people who walk around, waiting to be struck by a fit of unexpected inspiration. We collectively imagine poets like hikers in the woods, and poetic inspiration a mountain lion watching silently, waiting for a chance to spring.
In actuality, poems are the result of practice, returning, watching, and working. Most poems go through many rounds of revision. Poets are not hikers, but conservationists, looking for the cougar so they can tag it and follow it around.
In my experience, the student who sits in front of the blank page, waiting for inspiration to strike, struggles the most. To side step that problem, I use a specific approach to the Writing Warm-Up.
To me, a Writing Warm-Up or Pre-write should be a fun, idea generating session that anyone can do. The ultimate goal is not to get the best thing written down, it is to get something written down. It is a place to start, the low bar that everyone can clear. I like a pre-writing question that’s easy. Or, if it isn’t easy, it should make the poem-writing easy.
For example, for a fourth grade lesson on onomatopoeia, this was our pre-write:
Chose one word that is an example of onomatopoeia. You can chose your own word or one from this list:
slam, splash, bang, beep, babble, warble, gurgle, mumble, buzz, spray, sprinkle, dribble, drip, drizzle, clatter, click, ding, jingle, screech, thud, thump
Choosing one word from a list is easy. It couldn’t be easier. “There is no wrong answer,” I say, walking around the classroom. But the process of choosing a word is a commitment to staring, a way to ease reluctant writers into writing, a way to trick the brain into thinking about the poem.
For a lesson on metaphor, the warm-up is also simple.
Write down your least favorite chore. For example:
Homework, Making the bed, Cleaning my room
From this starting point, we use metaphor to turn our chores into monsters. A poem might be titled, “Washing the Dishes is a Monster.” For students who inevitably say, “But I don’t do chores,” I say, “What about homework?” The answer is easy and it provides a subject for the poem.
When we work on odes, I ask student to write odes to their shoes.
You get to write about your shoes! On your own sheet of paper, use these three senses to describe your shoes.
Sight (how do your shoes look?)
Sound (what sounds do your shoes make?)
Smell (what do your shoes smell like?)
Once during the Writing Warm-up, the classroom teacher piped up. “I don’t want to see the same old boring answers on this warm-up. Come up with something more interesting.” While I really appreciate where the teacher was coming from and I love having involvement from partner teachers, I try not to say things like that to writers. The fear of writing something boring or cliché is probably the number one reason people are afraid to write anything at all.
Instead, I say bring the boring! Write the most cliché thing you can think of! Get all those ideas out on paper during the Warm-Up. It can be fun to treat the blank page as the enemy. “Write anything,’ I say. We can go anywhere from there.
Karen Finneyfrock is a poet and novelist. She is the author of two young adult novels: The Sweet Revenge of Celia Door and Starbird Murphy and the World Outside, both published by Viking Children’s Books. She is one of the editors of the anthology Courage: Daring Poems for Gutsy Girls, and the author of Ceremony for the Choking Ghost, both released on Write Bloody press. She is a former Writer-in-Residence at Hugo House.