Personal Universe Deck: An Oldie, but a Goodie

Personal Universe Deck is a great way to tap into kids’ linguistic whimsy and their sense of playfulness with words. Plus kids get a personal deck of 100 word cards they can keep all year long or for the rest of their lives. The Personal Universe Deck as a writing exercise has been attributed to American poet and playwright Michael McClure .  This archived one-hour 1976 lecture where McClure takes poetry students through the process is a must-listen before you lead your students through the process.

This activity has been tweaked and adapted many times to teach a host of writing and language skills.    Sometimes when we have an afternoon where a fire drill, a pep rally, or some school wide test has jangled our nerves and squandered our sacred time, I ask kids to pull out their universe decks and write a poem using four of their cards. Sometimes I ask each student to throw three cards into a basket, then I pull out ten cards, write the words on the board, and we each write a short story or scene based on the words.  The key to doing this well is allowing each student to build her own universe in words. Their universe; their words. I usually take about five days to allow kids to develop their deck.  Each day, as a bell ringer, I take kids through one stage of creation.

 Day One: I ask kids to write 100 concrete, specific words in ten minutes (or longer, depending on the class) that represent their individual, personal, beautiful universe.  All words need to be words each kid loves, words she thinks are beautiful, words she thinks exemplifies who she is, and words that are in some way associated with the five senses.  The words should also represent their good side and their bad side, as well as their past, present, and future.

I model this on the board:  “Okay, start with free association on clean sheet of paper.  Start with the first word that occurs to you.  Lilac. I don’t know why I just thought of that, but my grandmother had lilac bushes in her yard, and I’m trying to keep in mind my past, present, future. Each word needs to have some significance to you, so lilac. That’s a smell word, right?  And now I’m standing in my grandmother’s yard by the lilac bush, and what do I hear? How about thunder? Yep, I visited her in the summers, and storms popped up a lot.  That would be a sound for me. Now, just start writing concrete words and follow the associations.  I remember touching the cool, rough concrete of my grandfather’s dairy barn.  Barn is one of my words.  That might be a touch word for me.  Don’t just write down anything to finish the assignment – find words that are beautiful to you, that represent your universe, that are concrete.”

Day Two: Same thing on Day Two as Day One:  we create another 100 words.  This second day of free assocation will be important when we start the selection process on Day Three.  My philosophy is that each kid needs 200 words to find the best 100 words that represent his life.

Day Three:  I ask students to start weeding and whittling down their words to the essential 100 beautiful, signficant, personal words.  I remind them  the words should not be descriptive of senses, like “salty” or “sweet,” but concrete words like “hot dog” or “custard.” Cut out the vague words and replace them with specific. Avoid “bird;” intead say “wren” or “raven” or “blue jay.” Also, cut out words with suffixes, like – ing, -ly, -ed, -s.

Day Four: Students begin selecting words for categories. Eighty of the words need to be related to the five senses:  16 words for sight, 16 words for sound, 16 words for smell, 16 words for touch, 16 words for taste.   Add ten words for movement. Add three words for abstraction.  Then the last seven words are anything else they want.  Kids can make the below chart in their writing notebook for classification or just number their words.

Sight  (16) Smell (16) Sound (16) Taste (16) Touch (16) Movement (10) Abstraction (3) Anything (7)
             

Day Five: I give each kid 50 index cards, and they fold them in half and divide them into 100 small cards that create their “deck.”  On the back of the card, write your initials or some tag that indicates the card is yours.  On the front of the card, write one glorious word.  Repeat 99 times.  Presto, your Personal Universe Deck! (You can even get fancy and laminate these if you bring your media technician a nice pie and promise to clean her house.)

Teachers, how would you use this in your classroom?! Please share and add your ideas in the comments.

 

 

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Sweet Retreat: Writing Down a Saturday

In 1986, I took my first creative writing class with Gurney Norman at the University of Kentucky. At the end of a semester, Gurney wrote us a letter. “Writers work mostly alone, but sometimes they get together for a little while.  It means whatever it means.”   I still have that letter, and I think about his words often. Teachers are equally singular.  We go into our rooms and shut our doors, but sometimes it’s good to get together to connect with one another.

I’m grateful to the Morehead Writing Project for hosting two writing retreats each year that brings teachers and writers together for a day of community.  These single days, carved out in October and April, are grounding points in my year.

On Saturday, April 23,, twenty-five writers and teachers of writing met at the Gateway Arts Center, a converted Methodist church that has been painted lemon yellow on the corner of Wilson Alley and Main Street in Mt. Sterling, Kentucky.    We gathered around a long table in a narrow, upper room with hard wood floors and lots of natural light.  Fueled by coffee and donuts, we began.

Abby Thomas, the creative writing teacher at the local high school, started us off with Howard Nemerov’s poem, “Because You Asked about the Line Between Poetry and Prose,” and asked us to respond to the poem by describing the line between prose and poetry or to articulate the line between two other elements/concepts. We wrote for fifteen minutes and shared.

Carole Johnston, author of Manic Dawn and Journeys: Getting Lost, then led us in a 90-minute writing exercise on the tanka, a Japanese short form, traditionally written as thirty-one syllables in a single unbroken line. Similar to the haiku, there can be some syllable counting business, but Johnston discounted that as unnecessary.   Her advice was to pay attention to what is around you and put it down in mindful language.  Keeping the language concrete, writing tankas can be a daily spiritual practice which forces you to be present for the moment of observation.  She asked us to write about a moment from our childhood that was embedded in place.  We wrote for ten minutes or so. Then she asked us to circle the concrete nouns and verbs in the paragraph we had just written and arrange them in lines that followed a short/long/ short/long/long poetry arrangement.  We shared again and repeated the process two more times. Each time we converted experience into tanka, the writing became more concrete, visual, and compact.

Next up, Christopher McCurry, author of Nearly Perfect Photograph: Marriage Sonnets, editor of Accents Publishing, and co-founder of Workhorse, a literary collective in Lexington, also talked to us about forms, indicating that forms were merely starting placew for poetry.  Like taking a cat on a walk with a leash, poetry forms allow us to reign in our creativity, not for the purpose of squelching it but for clarifying the moment and the poet’s intent.

After reading several love poems in varying forms, McCurry invited us to create our own poetry form based on some organizing principle in our lives – draw a grid of your day, look at the pattern of your children, your pets, your collections,  the things you take care of, maybe how your cell phone apps are arranged, and create a poetry form based on this organizing principle in your life.  As the forms took shape, we made decisions about line length, rhythm, rhyme, and stanzas. Finally, we named our forms as well.  Here are a few of them:

Following lunch, we embarked on a writing walkabout, a Morehead Writing Project staple which basically looks like this: writers fall into groups of three or four and walk around a place until they happen upon a spot where they want to write –a park, a coffee shop, a creek bank, an abandoned store front, etc.  They settle into the spot and write for fifteen or twenty minutes. When time is called, they share what they’ve written.  No real criticism or feedback is given.  The space just absorbs the writing, and the group moves on to the next unplanned destination and repeats the process until the walkabout is finished.  In large cities, walkabouts can take an entire day. We had two solid afternoon hours to roam.

My group had three people in it, and we stopped at the old train depot,then we meandered up Bank Street to the unoccupied Traditional Bank drive thru alley, then ended up on the steps of the Montgomery County courthouse on Court Street.

At the end of the day, the large group reconvened on the front patio of the old Mt. Sterling High School which is now a senior residential apartment complex. We had a small reception and shared the fruit of their labors with an informal open mic.

The day was sweet with words and memories. It means whatever it means. Until next time.