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.

World’s Most Invasive Character Speed Dating

Students get ready for a round of speed dating to discover their characters and possibly love?

Today my peer tutor, Serena, a Senior in SCAPA’s Literary Arts program, lead my class in a character development activity so fabulous, I wish I could claim I developed it myself.

Some Background:  We’ve been unpacking the power of point of view in short fiction, specifically looking at where the language comes from in models like Daniel Orozco’s “Orientation,” Gish Jen’s “Who’s Irish?” and John Cheever’s “The Swimmer.” This week, we are looking at characterization as the point from which every element naturally stems – detail selection when describing setting, the word choice in dialogue, and the action/reaction in scenes with other characters.  The objective of this lesson is to allow students to explore their character in a safe environment in order to understand the motivations and back story of the point of view character.

The Setup: When Serena was a sophomore, my students participated in a character development activity where students had to walk across the room or tie their shoes or order coffee or drive a car in the skin of their character. It’s method acting meets creative writing class. As Serena and I talked about her lesson plan, she recalled that the activity wasn’t very successful for her because she didn’t really know her character yet, and she wasn’t quite sure how they would walk or talk or drive a car.  She recalled that the class was hesitant to stand up and walk around in front of other students in their character’s skin, because as Freshman they were barely comfortable in their own skin. So she came up with this idea she called “World’s Most Invasive Character Speed Dating”  The purpose of speed dating is, of course, to find a compatible match, but the purpose of our activity was to provide students with ready-made questions and a limited time rotation process to interact with another person as their character

The Activity: We set up the desks in the room in pairs and numbered each pair with a set of odd/even numbers (Ex. 1/2, 3/4, 5/6, etc.) Students were directed to sit down anywhere. On each desk, Serena had placed two questions.  She had 20 different questions total. Some of them were innocuous (What is your eye color? Hair color? Is it natural or dyed? Do you have a birthmark? Tattoos? Where is it? What about scars? How did you get them?) but some of them went deeper into the psychology and back story of the characters, (Have you ever been in love?  What is in your refrigerator right now? On your bedroom floor? On your nightstand? In your garbage can?) and others delved even deeper ( Do you have any powers? If not, if you could pick any power, what would it be? Would you use it for good or evil? If you had to commit a murder, how would you execute it? Where would you hide the body? What weapon would you use? ).  Some of the questions she cabbaged off character development websites, others from speeding dating websites, and others she made up.  Students spent about 4 minutes at each table.  The even number characters stayed seated, and the odd numbers rotated to other desks when time was called.  Since I was not running the show, I participated as a character: a nine-year-old Christian fundamentalist named Charlotte Bromagen who fancies herself as a neo-Joan of Arc with a loose sense of mission.

How Did It Go:   This was one of the most successful activities we’ve done all year.  Several students completely forgot who they were, and actually became their character, adopting tics, mannerisms, dialects, facial expressions.  As they moved through the speed dating, they invented complete back stories, motivations, secrets, dreams, and fears for their characters.  After the activity, Serena asked them to reflect in their notebook.  Students commented that they were surprised when they started to answer as their character.  “As the activity went on, I built up my character and got more and more into it,” commented one student. Some of them were so method, they had trouble coming out of character.  As they made the rounds in the speed dating cycle, they reported, they were forced to react, not as themselves, but how they imagine their character would react.  Hmmmm… that’s exactly what good writers do. ♥