Friday, January 18, 2013

Writing in the Context of Our Lives

Where do we find ideas?

I can still hear some of my students moaning I don’t know what to write.
Many teachers have told me they don’t have anything to write.
You may also feel that you do not have any writing ideas.

The truth is we do not write in a vacuum--writing comes from somewhere. And in reality, I have never met a person, young or old, who did not have something to write about, a story to tell, wisdom to share, and ideas to explore.

So where do we find writing?

 In my experience with both students and teachers, I have found all writing ideas arise from four sources: content, context, containers and container linings.  These elements are not linear; they do not occur in a step-one-step-two sequence. Our ideas may arise from one, all, or any combination of these four foundational starting places and lead us to deeper writing.
In the next several posts, I will explore each of these starting places.  Today we will consider context.

Context as a Source of Writing Ideas

Something makes us want to write--- we may not know what we want to write and what meaning we want to construct, but we know in certain situations and circumstances that we have to write. It may be a conversation in which we have participated or overheard, a book we have read, or the juxtaposition of several texts, or a piece of music, or art or a relationship, place, event or experience.  From all of these and other contexts, we may be surprised by the desire or intense impulse to write.

Death as a Context

In the context of deaths of close family members, three of my favorite poets were moved to write.  All of them chose to  write poetry. 

Nikki Giovanni shared at an OCTELA presentation several years ago how she wrote each day  while sitting at the bedside of her dying mother. The result was Acolytes.

Jane Yolen wrote The Radiation Sonnets while her husband was undergoing treatment for cancer and then a year after his death she wrote Things to Say to a Dead Man.


Mary Oliver’s partner of 40 years died; she wrote Thirst.      

The meanings they each made were diverse, the emotions varied, and the purposes of the  writing individual, yet universal.  But the writing all arose out of the context of death.

Darkness as Context

Twice I have been in power outages that immediately plunged my companions and me into total darkness- no stars, no neon, no far off lights from a neighboring home, distant city or nearby island. Once in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands while on vacation and once again at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio on a CAWP retreat this happened. 

Out of this context, I wrote several pieces, all making various meanings, and focusing on several points, but arising from the same source.   I immediately wrote a had-to-be-there poem to share with the group at Kenyon that next morning, then a narrative written in front of my students as a model, and finally much later, a quick write lesson to include in my book.

The context, the unrelenting velvet black surrounding me, compelled me to write, to make sense of our collective fear of the dark. What is the history of this fear? What did our ancient  mothers and fathers think and do when plunged into this same darkness? 

Each piece I wrote made a distinct meaning and was presented in a different container, but each arose out of the context of darkness.

Today’s Deeper Writing Possibilities

 In what contexts have you felt compelled to write?
What have you recently read, seen, experienced, attended, or observed that made you feel you just had to write something?  How did that feeling manifest itself? 
When else have you had that same feeling?

You may want to list as many of these times as you can and then focus on one to explore in writing.


  1. Robin,
    I can already tell that your blog is going to help me write more. I appreciate your suggestions and am going to my writer's notebook right now. :)

  2. Julie, I invite you to share any writing that results from something you read here.