Why I Write

In 2004, I left Kentucky to pursue a graduate degree as a Michener Fellow at the University of Texas in Austin. I was recently divorced, a walking crisis of faith, and I entered a program primarily peopled with students who were much younger. They both wrote and partied hard. I was reeling from a life rent-in-twain, reexamining every truth I’d ever held sacred.  Getting out of bed every morning and walking to the coffee shop around the corner was a victory.

I graduated from that program and returned to Kentucky in 2007. I came back with a new understanding of myself, the world, and my place in it. I now look back on those three years with all the grace that a decade of distance can bring to wilderness moments.

Another Michener Fellow, Jesse Donaldson, has recently published a book of essays, an extended argument to convince his wife to move from Portland where they presently live to Kentucky where he grew up.  Each essay is titled as one of the 120 counties in Kentucky. On October 22, Donaldson launched an ambitious book tour to read his book in every county in the Commonwealth. Yesterday he came to my classroom to read a portion of his book and to talk to my students about writing. He brought with him another Michener Fellow, Greg Koehler, a Texas poet, who was along for a portion of the tour.  

I teach writing in a creative and performing arts program at a large urban high school.  Students who audition and are accepted into the program stay with me for four years, so I am exceptionally close to the juniors and seniors, who were the audience for Greg and Jesse’s reading.  

Tuesday morning: my classroom was dim, lit by festival lights strung across the room.  Fifteen juniors and seniors sat in a semi-circle. Jesse read from his book and talked about writing with such wisdom and generosity.  My students listened intently.  I was aware of how proud I was of them, so smart, that they understood what good stuff Jesse was dishing out and were honoring it with their attention, their interest.

After Jesse talked, Greg took over and read a poem called “Kentucky River Dirge,” a poem he had written during our time in Austin, based on many of the conversations he and I had had about my longing for home, my own nostalgia for the land of my birth, and our mutual love for soil and all the metaphorical power of the two inches of humus that will build under the trees every thousand years. (Thank you, Wendell Berry.)

As he read the poem, I heard lines I had forgotten I uttered, emanating from a time and place I no longer visit, in a voice I no longer use.  In a moment, I was both 50 and 40 years old, both graduate student and high school teacher. Both the wrung-out, strung-out Austin Liz, and the contented, comfortable Kentucky Liz.

Of course, to my students, these lines were merely poetry. As if.

To me, they were sodden afternoons at the Crown and Anchor, so many cigarettes, so many Texas backyard midnight parties, so much reeling from the lost tethers of church and family, a reminder of my struggle to find footing by telling those stories of tobacco and smokehouses. Greg transported me, not only a decade back into my life, but to my childhood as I followed my father to the field, burning tobacco beds to receive the seeds, to my mother’s own stories of sleepwalking along the roof of the smokehouse.

And there I sat, in all my respectability, in my lanyard and my ring of keys, listening to an anthem of a person I once was, rolled out in language. Hanging in the air, among the lights, among my students. Actual words. Hung on lines of poetry, tied together in an activity we call writing. An activity that I ask my students to engage in daily.

I wanted to pitch myself headlong out of my chair and roll around on the floor. The revelation of this moment, the wrecking juxtaposition.  Worlds colliding. My precious students, my old friends, my memories, all occupying some metaphysical space in Room 303.

But even more profound was my wish to impress upon my charges that writing had the power to do all this, to transcend time and resurrect people we once were and allow us to live in both present time and at any time in the chronicled history or in history that has yet to exist.  

 

Advertisements

First Week Lesson: Demographic Grouping

During the first week of school, my goal is two-fold:  I want my students to see self-discovery through writing as their main goal, and I want to build a community based on story.  I use activities that encourage students to meet each other through the details of their lives. These stories and details eventually serve as the fodder for personal essays, arguments, and informational texts they will write later in the year. 

Demographic grouping is one activity which asks kids to group themselves by various identities and meet the other people in the room who share that characteristic.  The key to this activity — for both community building and self-discovery– is to ask kids who find themselves in a demographic group to argue for or against their own inclusion based on their life experience, hence stories. When they find themselves in a circle of Capricorns, for example, they need to tell stories and trot out evidence as they share the details of who they are or who they think they are.

For a 90-minute block class, I use three demographics: Myers-Briggs, Western astrological signs, and birth order.  I want students to share stories about what it’s like to be a part of these subsets of the larger population, and I want them to challenge or confirm their placement in these groups.  Do they agree or disagree with their “label?” What stories in their lives support or negate this assessment of who they are? Do the definitions fit?

The first demographic congress we convene is around the 16 personality types founded in Carl Jung’s theories on psychological types as listed on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.  Students take a 10-15 minute quiz which will then place them in one of the sixteen possible combination of four paired personality traits: 1) Introversion or Extraversion; 2) Intuition or Sensing; 3) Thinking or Feeling; 4) Judging or Perceiving.  Based on their answers to the personality quiz, students will be given a four-letter personality, such as INFJ.  

Before class starts, I post the 16  individual personality types around the room along with a brief explanation of each type.  Once students have their types, they migrate around the room and find their Myers-Briggs compadres.  For fifteen minutes, I ask them to trade stories that confirm, negate, or qualify the personality type by which they’ve been labeled.  

In addition to being a fun, engaging activity which generates numerous narrative opportunities, I also get to see where my dreamers, my leaders, my risk takers, and my nurturers are. 

After that,  students divide themselves by their zodiac sign.  The Western astrological signs are based on which month of the year you were born. According to astrologists, planetary formations at the time of birth can determine a person’s individual character.  I’m surprised every year by how many students do not know their zodiac sign.  

Before class, I print off a generic description of each of the 12 signs and post these around the room.  Students migrate to the mini-poster that bears the symbol for their sign and join the others in the room who were born under the same sign.  As they did with the Myers-Briggs grouping, students spend about 15-minutes reading the descriptions of their sign (they especially love to read the section about relationship compatibility) and share stories in these groups as to how they are alike or unlike their sign. This is a great activity because it immediately creates kinship among disparate students in the class based on their birth month.

The last grouping I do is birth order.  All the first born, middle, youngest or only children get together in groups. I will have printed off descriptions of the characteristic of that particular birth order, and the groups discuss whether they agree or disagree with the definition of their particular rank.  Birth order is a great nugget of teacher information for me as well.  I know first and only born kids are often my natural leaders, and when I select group leaders for inquiry sessions later in the year, this information will come in handy.

Once we’ve circled through three demographic groups, I ask students to return to their seat and write a reflection of the activity, such as what surprised you about the descriptions? Did you strongly agree or disagree with any of the demographic groupings in which you found yourself? What was the best story you told today? What was the best story you heard today?   

 

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.

 

 

Lesson Plan: Using transference in fiction

Manuel Gonzalez, author of The Miniature Wife and Other Stories and The Regional Office Is Under Attack! recently visited my classroom to talk about craft and lead us in a few writing exercises. During the craft talk, he had good advice like “Get your butt in a chair and write 500-1000 words every day,” but the writing exercises were especially good, so I thought I would pass them along to you.

According to Psychology Today, a classic example of transference occurs when someone unconsciously redirects or transfers feelings from one person to another or from one experience to another.  In the world at large, transference might occur when you develop an unwarranted attachment to a coworker who reminds you of an old flame.  But in the writing world, transference can be used to migrate authentic feelings from an author’s real life experience into the world of fiction to bring specificity and humanity to a character.  Gonzalez, quoting fiction writer Tayri Jones, said, “If you’ve been stuck in an elevator for more than five minutes, you know what it’s like to be stuck in a space station.” In other words, you take what you know and transfer it onto fictional characters and fictional places to make them seem real.

At the outset of the exercise, Gonzalez told a story about an Orthodox Jewish Broadway actor who was playing a character contemplating suicide. The last scene required him, without any dialogue, to have the gun in his hand, but then convince the audience he had decided not to kill himself. The reviews for his performance were wild with praise for his showcase of pain and struggle with the decision.  But as an Orthodox Jew, he wouldn’t have ever even considered suicide. At a press junket, a journalist asked him:   How did you inhabit your character?  He said that he lived in a four-story walkup flat with an old water heater in the basement. When he took a shower, it took forever to get the hot water going, so many mornings he had to take a cold shower if he wanted to take a shower at all. “I would stand there and look at that cold water, but some days I just couldn’t bring myself to get into the bathtub. I took that feeling and transferred it to a character who was contemplating suicide, but ultimately can’t do it,” said the actor.  Gonzalez then led us in three transference exercises to bring specificity and humanity to a small scene by channeling personal experience into scene.

  • Think of an ordinary or typical moment in your life. Write that moment, but choose to do something you would never do in real life, adding complications and tension.
  • Write a short scene about something that really happened to you, but change the one thing that pivots the story, so the outcome is radically different from what really happened.
  • Take yourself as a character and drop yourself into a wildly unfamiliar environment. React as you would normally react in an environment like this.  Write that scene.

 

The kids loved these activities, and many of the scenes we wrote during this visit ended up in polished pieces at the end of the unit. Boom! Lesson plan.

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.