||A Prompt for Finding Essay Topic Ideas
By Sheila Bender*
You can discover new writing ideas and personal philosophies by playing with word definitions and etymologies.
At www.yourdictionary.com, linguists maintain a page about word definitions and histories. I signed up on the web to have these words and stories about their usage emailed to me
each day. Some of the words are ones that Ive never heard or even read. Others are words I use everyday and never think about. After a while, I began using the information I was
receiving as prompts for freewrites, and I found that my freewrites opened my thoughts up and helped me find writing topics, ideas, and notions I wanted to explore through essay
First, I wrote about the words and the associations that came up for me, and then I read over my freewrites and articulated key perceptions I found in the writing. Finally, I
wrote several sentences describing what an essay opening with such a key perception might be about. Through this process, I created kernels that I could later develop into full
It may seem random to take on essay development in this way, but it is my experience that when I surprise myself, I work well and end up writing with energy and passion.
Following are several of the words I worked with, my freewrites and the kernels.
US English has three very similar words, all of which came to be related to music: hup, hep, and hip. Their origins cannot be established but all three have been around since the
turn of the 20th century. The first one is used in timing cadences for marching or playing in a band: "Hup, two, three, four; hup, two, three, four." "Hep" became very popular
among jazz musicians in the 40s and 50s, meaning "in the know, in tune with the latest style." The term "hep cat" came to be used to refer to those who were hep. By the late 50s,
preferences among youth and rock musicians shifted to "hip" with the same meaning.
Hup, two three four. Hup, two three four. I hear myself seriously walking to school and chanting these sounds with my three kindergarten friends. It is 1953. My father and my
friends fathers are four and five years out of the service, still very young men, and dedicated to raising their families in the peaceful times they fought for. We live in the
kind of complex called garden apartments where four unit brick buildings of colonial style on the outside are arranged around courtyards for blocks and blocks. I live in a
downstairs unit. Jackie lives across the hall and David, a little older than us, lives in one of the upstairs units. Karen and Jerry live in a building bordering the next
courtyard. Hup, two three four. Hup, two three four. Jackie and I call for Jerry and Karen. Hup, two three four. Hup, two three four. We have crossed Stuyvesant Avenue with the
crossing guard. Hup, two three four. Hup, two three four. We are almost to Franklin Elementary. Mrs. Hendricks will give us paper and paint. Well take a nap on the little rugs we
set out for ourselves. Well retrieve our sweaters and jackets from the low hooks inside the wooden sliding door closets in the classroom. Hup, two three four. Hup, two three
four. We dont know about the beat generation starting in New York, or even much about the sound of jazz, because though our fathers and mothers love Louis Armstrong and Frank
Sinatra, now they watch TV instead of listening to the radio. We wont know hep from hip for a long time, but we will soon hear Elvis Presleys songs on the loud public address
systems of the trucks that come to our neighborhood with a ride on them called the whip that we ask our parents for money to take. Hup, two three four. My generationfrom
military rhythms to the hippie falling out of line of the 60s to raising whole earth children in the seventies and eighties and meeting our grandchildren in the 2000s. Hup, hup,
As I assess this freewrite with the rhythm Ive leaned upon and repeated, I wonder if I want to write about missing the beat generation of the 50s while I grew up not 20 miles
from its epicenter in Greenwich Village. Father Knows Best and Dinah Shore saw to that (as well as my father, who was the antithesis of a beatnik!). But along with my peers, I was
flung into the hippie era as a freshman at the University of Wisconsin in 1966 and it has taken me, along with the others, decades to understand how we got there. I look at my
29-year-old adult daughter, now a new mother, and notice that she has not experienced the angst I did in my twenties. From the hup, hup, hup, which is how we ended marching in the
drill team I joined in high school, let me explore ....
(Noun) of course means the female parent, the one who gives birth to and/or permanently nurtures, comforts and protects a child. As befits the term, the linguists wrote, mother
is the progenitor of a large and meaningful word family.
When Saddam Hussein challenged the US to the "mother of all battles," we all knew exactly what he meant because of the primordial force of motherhood throughout our language:
Mother Earth, Mother Nature, Mother of God, Mother Goose (the originator of all children's stories since the book's first printing in 1719), the mother lode, the motherlandeven
the motherboard in your computer. Mothers are all associated in all our minds with our origins and what is essential, crucial, and most important.
I think that the mention of Saddam Hussein and pending war in a definition of the word mother pulled a higher diction from me than I might have otherwise used in a freewrite.
Mother, thy primordial force, who givest and does not take away. Mother, birther you must be of the planet and of us all, who sees to diversity and fruitfulness. Mother, flesh
from which my flesh sprung, flesh of a grounding in life and of continuing. Mother, mother, more-there. I turn to you now when the world is darkened by those who believe in their
godliness and rights to kill others who believe in their own godliness. I turn to you now when the godliness of so many is intent on destroying the fruits and the seeds you have
grown for us, that you have given us to grow for ourselves. Mother of more and all that will come, fertile mother of us all, what comfort is there at your skirts? What can you
offer? Oh first goddess, how are you different from the gods?
Spurred on by the fact that mother is the name of the primordial force of our origins, I see that I am praying for guidance, for insight, for a way toward comfort. The world
is uncomfortable now with religious and ethnic wars, on each side in the name of what is holy and sacred and right. A mother must care for all of her offspring, whatever gender,
whatever ability, whatever disability. What can I propose to the world from my own sense of mother and mothering? How close up and how far away can I look to find what I can
offer? I think I shall start with an anecdote about watching my own daughter become a mother, through pregnancy and then birth and then nursing. I shall write about her child,
whose paternal grandparents are from southern India. I shall write about their union and the birth of their child as a mothering toward what the world can be.
This noun is usually preceded by "Grand" or "Great." It is a mock title for a high-ranking, super supercilious, self-centered person, say the linguists. When the actor Charles
Macklin retired from the London stage in 1753, he opened The British Inquisition, an entertainment in Covent Garden. His show featured a lecture by Macklin each evening followed
by a debate. When Macklin claimed as part of a lecture on memory that because of his training, he could remember any text he had read just once, fellow actor and playwright Samuel
Foote composed a piece of nonsense with many made-up words to challenge Macklin. Most of Foote's invented words did not catch on, but panjandrum survived.
Which of the Grand Panjandrums upstairs decided that a company picnic would boost employee morale?" is the linguists suggested usage for the word. Or as they write, This word
works great in political discussions, too: Nothing brings the Great Panjandrums back to Washington like a vote on congressional salaries.
Oh, today I am a Grand Panjandrum. I have feasted on provolone and sourdough bread with roasted turkey and freshly made cranberry sauce. There was rosemary herbing the butter I
drew for the asparagus steamed fresh from the farm. Oh, today I am a Grand Panjandrum sitting on my deck in the sunshine overlooking the new resident family of rabbits hopping
about from under bushes, listening to bees buzz among the purple blossoms of the ceonothus shrub far enough to my side that this is music to my ears. What important work must I do
from my lofty position? What must I bother myself about? Why, none and nothing, of course. I am not a diplomat or a president or ambassador! I am a Grand Panjandrum, loftier than
a princess! No expectation held of me but to please, please, please myself and be pleased!
I reread this freewrite and see I am celebrating amidst the small and nearby. I see that I could write an essay about how to feel higher than a kite, more spoiled and grand than a
princess who seems to be dependent upon others for pleasure. I could write about how this silly nonsense word has given me permission to become such a thing and therefore the
opportunity to see what is around me and what brings so much pleasure if I dont overlook it.
A caboose, the linguists write, is a car attached usually to the rear of a freight-train and used by the crew as living quarters. The caboose used to be the ship's galley
(another home-away-from-home). It has also referred to an outdoor oven or fireplace, conjuring up images of cooked food eaten in the great outdoors with friends.
The linguists quote author Donald Dale Jackson as saying that the caboose on a train was the "cabin car, crummy, way car, van, ape cage, throne room, hack, buggy, the office,
shanty, monkey house, bedbug haven and ever-so-humble home." Metaphorically, the word can mean "the last" or "hindmost: " But the yourDictionary.com linguists hope that what they
call the more homey meaning of caboose will come to gain favor. They propose, "Mum's kitchen was the caboose of our house, the place where weary offspring came to eat, talk and
relax from their everyday worries.
Wasnt the Little Caboose a story I knew and loved as a child? Do all children identify with the little, last car on the trainsomething like themselves among the adults in their
family. And to think the caboose was a kitchen. I dont remember if the story I loved had anything to do with the inside of that last car, but a kitchen! Batter on a spoon,
popping sounds of oil, smells that made your mouth wet with waiting, cakes fluffy and high cooling on the counter, my fathers jelly omelets, and later his shredded cabbage for a
marinated salad. My mother crashing around in the pots and pans looking for the right pan for cobbler or cookies, meringue pie or twice-baked potatoes. The kitchen, place where
company preferred to sit around the little round gold-flecked Formica topped table. The kitchen telephone was always ready, hanging on the wall, its cord like the looped braids of
straight haired girls at school or some days tangled and curly like my own. The kitchen, not last but center.
When I think about writing an essay after rereading my freewrite, I think I was in a secret kitchen cooking up my ideas about the world and myself from there. I will re-read
Little Red Caboose and maybe The Little Engine That Could. I think there are metaphors there for growing up, for how we learn to think of ourselves and what we learn to treasure
and what drives us. I note that so much language we use for descriptions of our personal journeys is from trains: derailed, on track among them. Now I have caboose. I will look
Using the words Ive shared as prompts or using ones you find in a dictionary or get e-mailed to you if you sign up with yourDictionary.com, try writing for ten or twenty minutes
per word. Then try your hand at writing the articulations of key perceptions you see yourself moving toward.
You might want to start a computer file or a notebook for these words, their definitions and etymologies, your freewrites and your key-perception articulating. You may have good
luck doing the freewrite on one day and then looking back at it on another day to see where your mind was going. On a third day, you might want to develop a draft of an essay and
then go on to extend and polish it. Give yourself some hours to sleep on things and you will be less attached to the way the words first came out and more interested in exploring
where you are going in your thinking. You may observe a trend establishing itself over many freewrites and use several of your key perceptions to formulate the subject of an essay
and its content.
If you make this word practice part of your writing time, you will be mining your mind and heart for material you may not have known you wanted to write about. Out of surprise,
you will create strong writing.
Sheila Bender is a poet, essayist, and author. She is also the publisher of WritingItReal.com, an online subscriber-supported instructional
magazine for those who write from personal experience. She has written for The Seattle Times, The World, and Poet Lore Magazine, among other publications. Her work also appears as
a chapter in Marry Your Muse by Jan Phillips, and she has served as a columnist and feature writer on writing personal essays, journaling, and writing poetry for Writer's Digest
Magazine. Her many books on writing include Writing Personal Essays: How to Shape Your Life Experiences for the Page, Keeping a Journal You Love, A Year in the Life: Journaling
for Self-Discovery, Writing Personal Poetry: Creating Poems from Life Experience, and Writing in a New Convertible with the Top Down. She is on the faculties of the Colorado
Mountain Writer's Conference and the La Jolla Writer's Conference and serves as a visiting instructor to many more programs.
Sheila holds a Masters of Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Washington and a Masters of Arts in Teaching from Keane College in New Jersey and has helped hundreds
of students begin to write, continue and publish. Her work with teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the Tucson Unified School District and the Bellevue,
Washington Unified School District has changed the way many teachers approach writing and literature in the classroom. Among her favorite achievements is coaching people in
writing personal statements for college and graduate school applications, where subtle persuasion is of the utmost importance. In her current courses and articles, she combines
over two decades of teaching and writing experience with cutting edge exercises from her previous books and from her newest articles and manuscript.
For more information visit her websites at www.sheilabender.com and www.writingitreal.com.
This article first appeared on the Absolute Write website.