My Opening Day Lecture

Good morning. Welcome to SCAPA Literary Arts at Lafayette.

Get out your notebooks.   We are going to do some writing.  Put today’s date on the upper right hand margin.  Get in the habit of doing that when you write.  It grounds your thought in time. It answers that eternal question: when did I write this?

Before we do some writing, I want to say a few things. First, I want to welcome you to my class. I want you to know that I’m glad you are here.  My sole responsibility in this classroom is to help you become the writer you want to be.

In that vein, I expect you to write and read every day.  I expect you to struggle with ideas, words, and images.  I expect you to rejoice when you have a break through, and I expect you to persevere when you’re stuck.  I expect you to write before you think. I expect you to revise before you submit.

I encourage risk and failure. I disdain complacency and sloth. Through constant self-reflection, I want you to discover the lies you tell yourself, lies that most likely affect every part of your life.  Then being honest and devoted to love, find a way to squander that negativity.

I expect you to be respectful of others. And that means don’t touch or take anything that does not belong to you.   That also means that what is read and written in this class, stays in this class until the author sees fit to publish it to the world. That story is not yours to tell, to profit from socially, to use to hurt or exploit the owner of that story.

Even though becoming better writers is our only goal, you will achieve others along the way—you will be a better communicator and collaborator for having been a member of a community of writers. You will become a better reader of others’ writing, and because of that, you will become a better reader of your own writing.  You will discover new stories, authors, poems and poets, new writing forms.  And you will form a lasting trust and relationship with your growing self through reflection.

You will never master writing.  There will always be more to learn.  In this room, you are a part of something that is greater than yourself – a grand enterprise, the life-long pursuit of being a writer and a human.  You will learn how to do both better through constant effort.

Room 303 is a special place with a power that is built from within by you.  The degree to which you take this journey of a being a writer seriously will be the degree to which this room becomes a spark plug, a launching pad, and also a cloister, a refuge, a warm home.  I expect you to clean up every day, to put away your laptop, to rinse and put up your coffee mug if you drink coffee, and to look around your desk to make sure you haven’t left anything on your desk or on the floor around your desk at the end of class.

You are going to write more than you have ever written before, but you will be a better thinker, a better reader, and a better writer when you walk out of here next May. Writing well—both logically and beautifully— is our only goal.

Are you ready?

Okay.

What was your first memory?

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Childhood Photograph: Stepping Inside a Memory

Who are these people? What is their story? What happened before the picture was taken? What happened afterward?

Another great writing activity for the beginning of the year is one that involves a childhood photograph. (Side Note: At some point, I will not be able to use this  exercise because no one has actual photographs anymore.  Weep. Even this year, my students said they didn’t have anything from their mid-childhood, only from their earliest years.)

The purpose of this exercise is dual: to build community and to develop students’ powers of observation. This lesson also helps students develop those “dig deeper” skills, mining a universal theme, which is discovered in this single moment in time.  This lesson may also translate into the beginning of a personal essay, memoir, or short story.

A couple of days before the assignment,I ask students to bring a childhood photograph to class. The photo should be an actual snapshot, not a studio or school picture, and it shouldn’t be merely a landscape or blank back yard or a wooded area, but a picture that has people or animals or some kind of dynamic personal element.  A picture with story or conflict or emotion is the best.

At the beginning of class, each student attaches his or her picture to a large sheet of blank paper with a paperclip, and I collect the pictures and redistribute them, so that no one has his or her own picture.  The activity is as follows:

  • Study the photo closely. What do you see in the background and foreground? What type of plants, people, animals, landscape, or structural features in the picture?  Is this a rural or urban setting?
  • On the paper, write a  paragraph as if you are describing the photo for a newspaper article. You are not interpreting the story of the photo, but only what you objectively observe.  Be as specific and clinical as possible.  No interpretation, no editorialization.
  • Next, step into the picture and list 10-12 sensory details that might exist inside the picture. What smells or sounds would you encounter in this photo? What would you taste or feel in this picture?
  • Now look at the animals or people in this picture and start interpreting the “story” of the photo.  Write a paragraph or two. What is the relationship between the people in this picture? If this picture were a short story, who is the protagonist, the antagonist? If this picture were a novel, what is the plot, the sub-plot? If this picture were a movie, what is the genre?
  • Now think about dialogue. If there was a conversation going, what are the people or animals saying? Write a conversation between the people/animals in the picture, or if there is only one person present, write an interior monologue about what the person is thinking.
  • Now think about context.  Write a paragraph that answers this question: What do you imagine is happening just outside the frame of the picture, either physically or chronologically? What happened right before this photo was snapped? What happened right after it?  Who is taking the photo?

After writing the above observations, students return the photograph to its original owner.  The original owners are amazed at the small details their “viewer” has discovered in their picture. Also, students are often surprised by the interpretation of the picture.

After they’ve had time to process the observations, I ask students to write a short vignette about their own photograph or use the observations of their peer to develop a longer personal essay or memoir.  Here is an example from my student, Nathan:

It was the first time I ever entered the home I would grow up in.  Small, hairless, swaddled in a thick mesh blanket, and carried through the brisk October air. There was no big celebration, not yet at least, only my parents, my dearest aunt, and my grandparents would crowd around me in curiosity that early morning. Though I had no consciousness of the world or any of its wonders yet, I was being prepared from that very moment, for the trials that would come in only a few short years.  

     If I’m being completely honest, it was one of the best moments of my childhood. Of course there is no way that I could remember this exact moment, but I know that everything was simple, everything was easy, everyone got along, and to some small extent, the world was at rest.  I find this particular picture a bit funny, because the other two men in this picture, my father and my grandfather, would go on to be among the most influential men that I would have the pleasure of interacting with. I find it incredible that a single picture managed to capture a moment of such approval and joy. I find it incredible that even from the moment I was born, these two incredible men looked at me like a bar of gold. The first few times I looked at this picture, I wouldn’t see it, but now I see that I might as well have taken a picture with Superman and Batman.  

     I was far too young in this picture to remember anything that happened that morning, so there is no way that I could write a memoir of that moment. But I can tell you what this picture means to me just as easily as I can walk on two feet. This picture means everything to me, growing up I had very inconsistent maternal role models in my life, but my dad and my grandpa were two men who were always there for me, this picture captures my life’s inspirations and inspirations, it shows what I once was as well as what I am destined to become. But most of all, it shows me that no matter what happens, I will always have my father and my grandfather to look to, and I hold more dearly to that than any memory I can pull from the depths of my brain. 

Writing Walkbout: The Lafayette Version

Two writers in the wild

In addition to taking kids on a metaphorical walk in an imaginary forest, I also take them, within the first three days of school, on a  bonafide walk with a little writing thrown in for good measure. I call these excursions writing walkabouts.  Writing walkabouts have been used for centuries by writers as an individual exercise to stimulate creativity.   Dickens, Twain, Hawthorne, Hemingway, Thoreau and others all walked as a means of processing, musing, ruminating, and generally, getting their blood pumping for those long nights at the writer’s table.  In addition to reducing stress and decreasing depression, walking stimulates the imagination and provides students with stimulus that is unavailable in the four walls of a traditional classroom.

I’ve been on several writing walkabouts in large cities – New Orleans, New York, and San Francisco — with groups of writers who gather together for this specific purpose.  The walkabout takes a writer on a journey of sights and sounds, a leisurely stroll through one’s town or in a new territory, stopping along the way to write and respond. Most formal walkabouts last all day and incorporate at least two stops for meals. The basic concept is this:  you, and possibly two or three other writers, start out walking, then you decide to sit and write at a spot that appeals to you along the way.  There’s no map, no schedule, no arrangements.   Writers may write about the spot itself or write about something else–a memory or a story–that the spot brings to mind.  After twenty minutes of sustained writing, each person reads what he or she has written in the place.  No response is needed.  The readings are just offered up, then the group moves on to another spot.

During the year, I take students on a field trip for a day-long walkabout at the fabulous Lexington Cemetery, but today’s walkabout was just around Lafayette’s campus.  I had asked students to wear comfortable shoes, and bring along a pen or pencil and sturdy writing notebook.   During a regular walkabout, students would break into small groups, but today, since it was their first walkabout, we did it as a large group.  We started out on the sidewalk in front of Bluegrass SCAPA. Then we sat in the parking lot and looked across the street to a row of residential houses, then we walked down to the creek that runs behind the school, and our last stop was  near the front portico of the main building.  For the sake of time, we only shared once.

From the walkabout, some students had started the first tentative paragraphs of a short story.  Some had jotted down a few lines of poetry.  Others scribed childhood memories while others scribbled rants and manifestos.  The great thing about the writing walkabout is its ability to bring physcial movement and external stimulation to the act of writing.  During the walkabout, we heard birds, lawn mowers, cicadas, chain saws, sirens, train whistles, and we smelled and felt even more – the wet rocks of the creek bed, the dew on the grass, the sun beating down on our shoulders.  The movement jogged the memory and the bones, the blood was pumping and the lungs were full.  Good writing was bound to happen.

 

 

 

Walking Through the Forest: Lesson Plan

Today was the first day of school in Fayette County. My students took a quick spin through their psychic landscape this morning with a fun writing activity that allowed students to introduce themselves to the class, build a community, and write a little poetry along the way. Here’s the lesson plan:

Rationale: 

To ask someone to write a poem about some aspect of her life is a taunting task.  Younger children tend to think in more abstract, poetic terms, but as a child progresses through the system, they seem to become more guarded with the abstractions of their mind. Poetry seeks to reveal the unknown and give a home to those abstract thoughts through sensory image and detail. This activity is designed to extract clues from student’s subconscious, to unearth the vast stores of imagistic material that makes great poetry.

Objective:

To encourage students to think abstractly using figurative language and images to describe concrete relationships and/or abstract ideas.

Materials:

Students should have pencil or pen and paper. You should have a stop watch to time one minute for each response.

Procedure:

Teacher says:  We are going on a journey and on the journey we will come upon six items. Describe each item exactly as it appears when you hear the name of the item.

There are two rules to this activity:

  • I am going to give you one minute each to describe the items as we come to them. As soon as I mention the item, begin writing and do not stop until I tell you to do so.  Be sure to describe the first thing that pops into your head no matter how outrageous.
  • Do not talk during the activity because it will disrupt the vision of another writer. If I ask you to describe an “apple,” one writer might see a juicy Pink Lady apple with a chunk bitten out of the side of it while another writer might see a tart green Granny Smith apple with a worm in a top hat hanging on the stem.  If the Pink Lady writer says “Yum, I love Pink Ladies” then poof! Granny Smith suddenly turns into a Pink Lady and that writer’s vision has been corrupted by another.

Teacher says:

You are walking through the forest. Describe the trees.

(One minute writing)

You continue in the forest and on the path, you notice some keys. Describe the keys.

(One minute writing)

You continue in the forest and on the path, you notice a cup. Describe the cup.

(One minute writing)

You continue in the forest and you come to a wall. Not only describe the wall, but tell me what you do when you come to the wall.

(One minute writing)

You go pass the wall and continue in the forest. You notice a bear in the path. Describe the bear.

(One minute writing)

You have finally come to the end of our journey. You have made it through the forest and come to a beautiful sunny meadow. Before you enter the meadow, you come to a stream. Describe the stream and what you do when you come to the stream.

(One minute writing)

Tell students that each of these items represents something in their life, but that they have to make the connections. As I tell students what each item means (after they’ve finished writing), I reveal my answers and make a connection for them.  For example, when I first did this activity (in psychology class in college), I saw tall, thin birch trees with no leaves and white spots on the bark.  The trees were crowded together and the forest felt claustrophobic.  I explain to students that the trees represents “parents” and I could see many similarities with my picture and my parents – my parents were tall and thin, both were much older when I was born, and they were very strict and narrow in their understanding of the world.

Have one or two students share their pictures and you make the connections for them to show them how easy it is – generally students see leafy trees over their heads – and I always tell them that their parents are protective of them, covering them with their love, etc. You make this up as you go along – the key is to get them to start thinking abstractly instead of literally about one of these subjects.

The Key:

Trees = Parents

Keys = Money

Cup = Love

Wall = Problems and what you do to the wall represents how you solve your problems

Bear = Death

Stream = Afterlife and what you do represents if you embrace/reject your ideal eternity

Using the information retrieved from your psyche, write a ten-line poem that is an extended metaphor starting with the line that identifies the item and its abstract counterpart.

Example of first verse:

Love is a Dunkin Donuts cup

Dirty leaves dot the bottom

lipstick stains ruin the rim.