Where Writing Ideas Live by Daven Carlson

So here I am, writing a monthly column about what is absolutely the hardest thing for me about writing: finding inspiration.

Who am I to think I am one to write insightfully about that which confuzzles me with my own writing to no end?

I tell my kids (currently 108 eighth-graders) that perhaps the most challenging aspect of writing is coming up with ideas.

I should know -- I live and breathe this struggle every day as a teacher-writer.

And every day that I ask my students to write, I provide them an “idea of the day”, just in case their own free-writing is sputtering and stalling or they’re in between pieces.


Me, the Idea Guy.

How ironic.

When it comes to my own writing, boy oh boy, do I sputter and stall. I spend a lot of time not thinking of ideas, but thinking about how impossible it is to come up with ideas.

I look out across the classroom at all those fuzzy little heads bowed over notebooks, mechanical pencils scritching away, and I think: Physician, heal thyself; teacher-writer, teach yourself.

And I’ve only recently come to the realization that I’m far too hung up on the belief that I have to have an actionable idea before I can write. As in, a big idea.


That is just phooey.



Where, instead, are the small ideas?

Take a moment to ask yourself what leads you to write. Is it only to have others read what you produce? Or is it to loll in “atomic words” (Langston Hughes), to “trust the collisions” of our words and ideas (David Manuel) so that language takes on a yet-seen form?

A Bounty of Little Ideas

In the coming weeks, I plan to blog about paths for finding inspiration for our own writing as teachers of writing. And to be fair, where I need to start -- where I argue that all of us need to start -- is to pinpoint our “writing why”.

What is it that propels us to hold a pen and sometimes open up a closet, sometimes to pound a wall, sometimes to build a room or a house or a world through ink?

What are we after?

To answer such questions, we can first look at the thousands of moments each day that call out to be captured.

I can look at the recently-vacated houses on the south side of Bilter Road for the ghosts of the children who lived in them many years ago.

I can look at the back of my 27-year-old son’s head as he, a traumatic brain injury survivor from the age of 2, remains riveted to a new episode of Winnie the Pooh, unaware of my presence in his bedroom’s doorway.

I can savor the immaculate song of a mourning dove as it creates the simple ambiance while I walk my dog through a newly desolate neighborhood, its shutters pulled shut in the face of a pandemic.

So let’s start here: no one will ever live for one trillion seconds. (If they did, they’d live to the remarkable age of 31,709.)

But if we live to be, say, 78 years old, we have approximately 2.5 billion moments to notice and to capture.

This means our supply of the “little ideas” is beyond bounteous.

I think we can start writing from here.

Invite to Write:

I encourage you to discover the bounty of "little ideas" in your own life that might lead to further writing exploration.

Set a timer for three minutes. Jot a list of moments from your past 24 hours which stir a vivid sensory image. Express each in a few words or sentences. Which moment has the most potential for more extended writing? Transfer that idea to a new page for further writing exploration.


Daven Carlson has been teaching middle school for about 27 years or so in a small town outside of Chicago, IL. He writes alongside his students, finding them to be a source of inspiration and a reminder of what he loves about teaching. When not writing poetry, Daven can be found completing Scatter Pages in his notebook and writing alongside his friends in a Teach Write online workshop. You can connect with Daven on Twitter and on his blog.

At Teach Write, we believe that teachers who write make the best teachers of writers. Through this blog, we share ways to help both you and your students grow as writers.

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