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.  

 

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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.

 

 

Dear Universe, Please Give Me Stories to Tell

give me bizarre encounters with strangers

As with most high school populations, I have students of all spiritual stripes – believers, seekers, dreamers, hopers, doubters.  So, when I stumbled upon a prompt for prayer in Georgia Heard’s wonderful book Writing Toward Home, I thought it would meet my diverse group wherever they were. All prompts in Heard’s book draw on the past and the introspective, on reminiscences and musings to generate memories for drafting memoirs or vignettes. But for this prompt, Heard suggests the writer call out to the universe and ask for some kind of blessing, for simplicity or courage or wit.  

To launch a long day of drafting vignettes, I introduced the idea of writing a prayer, and my students were intrigued.  I explained that while a prayer may or may not be religious, it’s true power lies in the petition itself, the framing of a supplication.  The power of prayer lies, I suggested to them, in the clarity and self-awareness required in the act of asking for something.

Their prayers overwhelmed and touched me.  I have posted some of them below.

Dear Universe, Please give me stories to tell. Give me bizarre encounters with strangers and hilarious absurd misfortunes, give me whirlwind romances and heartbreak so devastating I can fill a whole notebook with it.  Give me journeys to unfamiliar places, allow me to get lost for days, to break rules and try new things, meet new people. Give me grief, rage, infatuation, regret, fear, shame. Give me stories. Amen.                               

Please fix these broken walls I’ve smashed in anger for I felt incompetent. My writing just gets by, it’s nothing great. I lack inspiration, a set muse. The foundations of my inner house crumble. There is not a front door, only a worn frame.  Ideas do not linger long in the cold and I find myself chasing after them only to find they’ve disappeared. Gone.  I sit in silence.  Waiting. Waiting for what will never come.  Please help me fix my house. Help me find my muse.  Create a warm friendly place where ideas will want to grow and prosper.  To anyone who will listen; to anyone who cares; I pray for my inspiration.

Thank you God for all the gifts you have given me and for Jesus and the sacraments, and the Oreos, and other sacred things.  Thank you for letting Stanford lose, I really appreciate it.  But God, I want to ask you today for something important. I need inspiration, a continuous stream of it, so I’ll never have to stare blankly at a piece of notebook paper ever again.  Also I could use a good notebook, so I don’t have to use a single piece of paper again. And I’m not trying to be a nag or anything but where were you at Notre Dame’s last game?! I mean, come on, it’s your wife’s team, we really needed you. Don’t disappoint me at the BYU game. Amen.

Give me the strength to get over myself. Fill me with humility, with graciousness, with anti-ego and radiance. I have been blessed in my life and want to bless others. Give me the strength to communicate in a way that is meaningful. Wrap my knuckles and tendons and fingernails in lubricant, not so I can pleasure myself, but can pleasure others with pen or key strokes.  I have lived happily in my life and want to bring happy to others. Give me the strength to be satisfied in my life, but still look to the heavens.

 Lord thank you for all that you have blessed me with. You have given me a pen. You have given me a paper. You have given me a support system. You have given me a head full of thoughts. You blessed have blessed me infinitely. Forever I am yours for this. Just one or two quick questions: Do I have what it takes? Can I make a living off this? Thank you again for those blessings. Amen.

I am afraid of losing the desire, the juice that keeps me writing. I am afraid that it will be finished with me before I am finished with it. Please, make sure that it never goes away. I love the desire, the motivation to write. If it leaves me, I will not know what to do.  It keeps me inspired and driving. Will you make sure that it never goes away? Will you make sure that the feeling of contentment that I feel when I sit down at a keyboard or stare at a piece of paper stays with me until the end? 

Writing the Vignette: A Lesson Plan for Generating Memories from Place

generating memories from a top-to-bottom space

This lesson takes about 30 minutes to complete, and it has three parts: visualizing, listing, and writing.  The objective is to generate memories from a specific place.

In E.B. White’s luminous essay “Once More to the Lake,” White writes about taking his son on a vacation to a lake in Maine that he visited with his own father during the summers of his youth. White recalls his memories of the lake, the cabin, the local restaurant, and the summer weather in clear, sharp prose. While his writing is a model for eloquent, simple style, he also tells us a thing or two about recalling memories. On reminiscing, White writes: It is strange how much you can remember about places like that once you allow your mind to return into the grooves which lead back. You remember one thing, and that suddenly reminds you of another thing.

For some reason, my students, who range from 14 to 18 years old, have as difficult a time remembering their childhood as many of the adult students I teach during summer workshops.  While it might seem unbelievable to adults that someone who is only 10 years removed from their 6-year-old self would have just as hard of time remembering those moments as someone who is 40, this experience has proven true in my classroom over and over.

In order to help my students of all ages to “return into the grooves which lead back,” I ask students to draw on the physical realities of a place before trying to mine that landscape for significant memories.

Visualizing: First I ask students to close their eyes and visual a small interior space from childhood—a bedroom, a porch, a hall, an attic, a kitchen.  The space should be a place they can imagine walking through and noticing things to the left and right of their walking path.

I say: “Imagine you are walking through this space. As you walk, stop often and look to your right.  Notice the individual items there –the floor, the walls, the paint, the light switches, the tables or bookcases or lockers, the plants, the windows.  Are there animals or people there? Now look to your left; notice the individual elements there – the walls, the floors, the ceiling, the furniture, the hardware, the plants, the animals, or people.”

Listing: I spend about three minutes having students silently visualize this space with their eyes closed before they ever start to write anything. Then I ask them to get out their writing notebooks and draw three vertical columns on a clean, fresh page.

I say: “Okay, we are going to walk through this space again, but this time with our eyes open and taking notes about the things on either side of us.  Imagine yourself at the bottom of this space. Maybe you are standing at one end of a hall or at the door of a room or on the edge of your grandmother’s front porch.  Walk through this space again slowly, and starting at the bottom of your page, jot down all the items that you noticed as you walk through.  Write down all the things you notice on your right in your far right column. Write down all the things you notice on your left in your far left column.  Leave the middle column open.”

Writing: I give students about seven minutes to list as many things as possible. I encourage them to fill both columns, from the bottom up, with items without describing them in too much detail. The list is only to serve as a reminder of the physical items that were present when a memory was made.

I say: “Now that we’ve recreated two lists of items that would be in this space if you were to return to it and walk through it, I want you to write, in the center column, the memories that you associate with this place. You might want to list, number, or bullet these items or you can just start describing the memories that you have of this space.   Once you have filled up the center column, continue on to the back of this page using the whole page to explore the memories that this space holds for you. If you get stuck, return to the three columns and put yourself back into that space, using the items that you noticed as you ‘walked’ through to jog your memory.”

I give students 20 minutes to write.  During this time, I creep around the room, peering over their shoulders to see what memories have surfaced.  I often jot down two or three lines that startle, surprise or tear my heart out to read to the class later when I wrap up the lesson.

This writing activity may or may not lead to a finished piece, but students have resurrected something from their past that they might choose to write about in the future.

When Memoirs are Terrifying, Vignettes Save the Day

While all writing draws on the imagination and memory of the writer, the personal narrative and memoir are considered by my students to be exclusively “true” stories.  Whatever. I’m from the “all stories are true” camp and try to discourage dogmatic adherence to genre rules.

However, from their self-reflections, I discovered that most of my students loath the idea of writing stories, either true or false, about themselves.

Here are some of their thoughts:

  • I do not like writing about myself in a mode that directly references myself as the person I am writing about.  – Jacob
  • I struggled with writing the memoir. I felt as if I didn’t have really anything interesting to write about. – Cynthia
  • I have always had trouble talking about my life. Perhaps this is due to my problems with actually remembering my life.  It’s an uncomfortable position to be in and quite honestly it [the memoir unit] consisted mainly of frustration and stress. – Harrison
  • The only things I can remember are hurtful, so I guess memoirs for me are just painful. – Boise

After reading these reflections, I decided to forgo the memoir and personal narrative for the vignette.  Students typically have written one or two memoirs for the “narratives, real or imagined” requirement in ELA Common Core standards, but very few of them are familiar with vignettes.

Vignettes are less about epiphany than about representation.  With vignettes, my students didn’t feel like they had to have figured out what grandma’s death meant or why their parents got a divorce.   Memoir requires the writer to have worked through all the pain of the memory and to have come out on the other side, bearing witness of the journey.  Most of the time, high school students are still in the journey and have no idea how to identify or testify about how events have impacted their lives. Vignettes allow them to remember something as visually and sensually as possible without unpacking and examing all the baggage.

Sandra Cisneros’ House on Mango Street is a great model for this kind of writing. Her chapters are short, often plotless, slice-of-life moments which form a loose narrative about her childhood written in rich, poetic prose. The subjects range from hair to sex to violence to mothers to neighbors. Her language is lush and figurative, offering us a glimpse into her world without much editorial exposition.

First we read several of Cisnero’s vignettes from House and then wrote a few entries of our own, using Cisnero’s form as a model. After we’d written a dozen or so starts, we formed a list of characteristics that good vignettes share. Here is a list my students came up with:

v  Vignettes are short.  Some of the vignettes my students wrote were less than 100 words, but most pieces weighed in around 300-800 words.  The tighter and sharper the image, the better.  As one of my students observed, vignettes are kind of like the flash fiction of the memoir world.

v  Vignettes blend memory and poetry.  While the vignette comes from the subconscious as a memory, the prose of a vignette tends more toward image and lyricism than character, plot and setting.  Even though a story may emerge, the rich imagistic description of the memory is the key to the vignette. By employing synesthetic imageries and visual sensations, the writer transports her reader.

v  Vignettes are always about two things.  I often reference Vivian Gornick’s wonderful book The Situation and the Story in class and ask students to identify the “little S” and the “big S” of a piece or writing.  The “little S” is just the situation, the plot, what happens in the story. For example, in Cisnero’s vignette about shoes, the piece is ostensibly about shoes.  But, of course, nothing is ever just about shoes.  The “Big S” of the vignette, or the real story of the shoe chapter, is about the eroding innocence of her childhood as a lurid, sexualized world envelops her.