How Asking Questions Improved My Writing

Written by: Alex Mika

As someone who struggles with freewriting, my stream of consciousness often feels like a dried-up creek. Last summer, I tried to develop a regular writing schedule, hoping that a routine would break down my inhibitions and lead to writing sessions that are more open to play. The first few attempts did not go well, and often resulted in a screen that looked as bare as when I started. One day, tired of staring at the blank computer screen, my gaze wandered to my bedroom’s popcorn ceiling. What kind of ceiling would I be? I started to think. Popcorn? Smooth? Spiral? While no poem or treatise came out of this particular and somewhat surreal question, it set me on a journey that lasted nearly nine months and changed the way I approach writing. 

Source: Alex Mika

My project had a simple goal: every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I would come up with one question I thought might be generative, or at least interesting. As my practical tool, I bought sticky notes. Lots of them. I would write a question down on the sticky note, photograph it, and post it on Instagram; this served as an extra layer of self-imposed accountability and inspired interesting conversations with my peers, some of whom were also facing writer’s block and would use the questions as prompts. Here were some of the questions I asked: 

  • What is the best gift you ever received? 
  • What are words that you find funny? 
  • What is the first thing you’d plant in a garden?

One question, “What would my rock band be called?” led to many more questions and eventually, the opening paragraph of a chapbook:

Alex and the Dinosaur Prints would be a decent band name, wouldn’t it? We could write a song called “Rock Star” about the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs (sung, of course, from the perspective of the asteroid). Some other songs would be “The Pterodactyl Shuffle,” “Benny and the Rex,” and we would always warm up with dinosaur scales. Our influence on modern culture would be unparalleled, and we would instantly be admitted into the pantheon of pop idols, residing beside The Eagles, The Beatles, Flock of Seagulls, and the rest of The Animals. 

Source: Alex Mika

In many research and writing-driven courses, we’re taught, “You shouldn’t start research with a thesis in mind. You should always start with questions. The thesis comes from what you gather.” I’ve come to find that this is equally true for creative writing…but there’s a catch with questions, too. Whenever I tried to force a question out, it felt just like those early days when I would stare at the screen. While inspiration sometimes needs a push, I learned that I had to nudge it the right way, and that the questions had to come from observations. Often, the first question would be, “Why did this catch my eye?” Then, it would be followed by the “twist:” an existential or personal or even silly turn of thought. 

  1. Observation: My focus keeps turning to the massive oak in our backyard. 
  2. First Question: Why did this catch my eye? It reminds me, in shape, of Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. Also, as a child, I always wanted to climb it and I don’t think I ever totally outgrew that instinct. 
  3. Twist Questions: If this were my “giving tree,” and we spoke, what would it say to me? What would its voice sound like? Would it let me climb it?
Source: Alex Mika

Some questions unearthed memories, some forced me to examine language and literature as a process, and others created hypothetical situations with choices that revealed unexpected aspects of my character. Many of the questions that I asked did not result in a new piece of writing, but they all encouraged me to be more inquisitive and to be more open to reexamining the world I take for granted. This openness led to fewer “blank screen sessions” and more moments of introspection, language exploration, and writing that came organically. As my inhibitions towards freewriting slowly dissipate, I’m able to ask new questions, ones that lead me to examine my relationship with the topics I’m compelled to engage with. Where do I want my writing to go? Now that I know what I want to talk about, what do I want to say? How can I make this topic move others as it has moved me? 

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