– Find your questions

Last week I attended some excellent professional development workshops at the Landmark School. Derek Pierce, the faculty member who taught “Teaching the Analytical Essay,” got us to do some of the writing exercises he uses with his high school students. I found the following one really fruitful, and I promise that it’s as useful for a poet, essayist, scholar, or novelist as it is for the student writer.

1. Take 20 minutes or so and write down 25 personal questions that occur to you. The task is to create or discover ones that are significant, provocative, idiosyncratic. Any question is valid. Try not to second guess yourself; keep writing. [Alternatively, you could take a few days and try to come up with 100 questions; Pierce does this with his students.] Questions generated by participants in our group were unique to each person: One fellow was curious about a dog’s sense of smell; an older woman landed on several concerns circling around loss. Here are a few of mine:

  • How can I find more time to work on my writing when I spend so much time helping others with theirs?
  • Why do I have to ruminate over everything?
  • Why do I prefer writing tutoring over classroom teaching?
  • What is the history of The Miseries, the two islands off the coast of Salem?

2. Go back to your long list of personal questions and underline three or four themes or patterns you notice. Here are mine:

  • my writing — fiction and poetry
  • teaching
  • time & energy — managing

3. Go back again to your long list of personal questions and circle the top five.

4. From the top five, write down the two questions you feel most interested and invested in answering. (You don’t have to know why; just feel it.) Here are mine:

  • What is the history of The Miseries?
  • Why is tutoring considered a lesser art than teaching?

5. Now, choose one question (it could be from the two; it could be from the original long list) that you think stands above all the others in its significance to you. Write it down. This is your Power Question. Here’s mine:

  • What is the history of The Miseries?

6. Take a moment and reflect, in a hundred or so words, why you chose the question. What could you discover about yourself in pursuing an answer to your Power Question?

I wrote this:

I just learned about these islands and their purpose — I was instantly intrigued: by the name, the function, and the possibilities for making something unexpected out of a slight, marginal thing. Islands — so close to the shore but so far — keeping what you want at a distance, but also perhaps keeping what you don’t want at a distance?

About the relevance of this writing exercise and the inquiries that come of it, Derek Pierce said: “Anything is researchable.”