|Flickr Credit: Toshiyuki IMAI|
You would have been in fifth grade, maybe. You read some dull novel at the teacher’s demand and received a buff-colored piece of paper (whatever color that meant). You’d behold the twelve lines she expected you to fill. Whatever her prompts were, the teacher basically wanted to know what you noticed, what it meant, and what you thought about it.
In fifth grade I found that exercise tiresome, but it was good practice. You still do that stuff in college, except you gotta write twelve pages. What did you notice? What did it mean? What do you think?
I actually love writing with that model. It’s easy to fall into summarization—even when I tell myself that I am not going to summarize, I still do. It takes a lot of editing time to pare down that summary to the basics and come up with an actual analysis. It’s worth it though. When I write, I seek to explain myself. This helps me remember that fact.
It isn’t even just essays.
Blog posts. Tweets. Diary entries. Whether it’s in a book or in real life, the things I notice matter to me. Rumor has it that keeping a diary is boring because it’s just recording what they did that day. They’re right. That does sound boring. Writing out my reactions in response to something, rather than the details of what happened, always end up more satisfying.
It provides an immediate prompt. So what if nothing happened to you today? You can just write about how you admire Juliet and Lassiter’s relationship on Psych (on account of it is the best) and still be meaningful.
It provides an immediate audience (even if your thoughts are totally private). In the past, I’ve written response posts to other bloggers (examples here and here), but the idea stands even if you’re using a private notebook. Response implies a talking back, a conversation, so you’re writing as though someone were listening. This helps me because I can think of what I want to say to the entity I’m responding to and what they would say to me. What pushback would they say? How would I defend my ideas in a real conversation? It makes my thoughts stronger in the end.
It’s more interesting than a summary. “Today I woke up. Then I ate breakfast. Then I went to work.” Are you bored? I am bored. Compare that to, “Why do people even eat Lucky Charms? I had them for breakfast today, and maybe kids like these, but they’re kind of gross. The charms make me feel like I’m chewing mice bones. Are they really marshmallows? Note to self: don’t buy Lucky Charms. Buy Cheerios. Cheerios will never fail you. And they won’t make you late to work.”
It generates a description of belief. A summary says what happened. A response details what one believes about the meaning of the event. Sure, maybe your beliefs are centered around Lucky Charms one day, but another day it might be about your school’s dress code, or your faith, or a current relationship. It’s significant because…
You can return to it later. Events vary from day to day, as do events in books and the things said on Twitter. People change, though, and so can your overall opinions. It used to be that I thought Lucky Charms were delicious and Harry Potter was better than Twilight. Now, my opinions are the opposite. That is because my mechanism for understanding those inputs changed. Because I wrote down some of those opinions, I have a better idea of what influenced me during my teen years.
For the record, Lucky Charms have never made me late to work. But they were a good example of writing in response to something. It’s kind of fun.