The Body Project

In 1855, American poet Walt Whitman self-published his poetry collection, Leaves of Grass, celebrating the human spirit, the body, nature, the shape of democracy, friendship, and love.  Among the twelve poems in the first edition, Whitman included “I Sing the Body Electric,” a multi-part poem of lists that revels in the body as a sacred vessel of the soul.  The snippets of narratives and images in his poem exist almost as organs and systems within the human body.

For this activity, I asked students to brainstorm some language related to their bodies.  They came up with the typical list:  heart, liver, lungs, spleen, blood, bones, bowels, nodes, cells, matter, muscle, tendon, nails, hair, eyes, nose, skin.

Then we brainstormed about language related to their souls. They came up with:  morality, personality, imagination, maturity, emotions, divine/eternal, vision, curiosity, beliefs, values, ego/id/superego, intelligence, reason, memories, language.

My purpose for the brainstorm was to identify how the duality of our bodies mimics the duality of poetry.  A poem about mackerel is not about mackerel. We are not the total of our glands; we are divine.  A poem is not just a collection of artfully arranged words; it’s a prayer, a lesson, a song about being human.

Secondly, I asked students to pair up and help each other draw the frames of their bodies on a large piece of newsprint.

Once secured on the page, the frame served as a vessel within which students transcribed their own celebration of body and soul, the linkage of the flesh and the spirit, the earthly and the divine.

Written without any drafting or pre-writing, analysis or weighing of poetic or rhetorical postures, these poems emerged over the course of three days of spontaneous writing.  The pieces synthesize song lyrics, spiritual texts, political manifestos, bumper sticker slogans, lines of poetry, battle cries, and original poetic texts.

My goals were: 1) I wanted to introduce them to Walt Whitman’s poem; 2) I wanted them to write spontaneously without regard to analysis, prewriting, drafting, etc. and 3) I wanted them to celebrate their body/soul connection with writing. Here are a few of them:

 

The pieces were a success, so we stuck them on the wall in the center hallway at our school, and I used them for a gallery walk for other classes.

 

Lesson Plan: Mirror, Mirror

In the essay “On Becoming a Poet,” Mark Strands says, “A poem may be the residue of an inner urgency, one through which the self wishes to register itself, write itself into being, and finally, to charm another self, the reader, into belief.”

Today in my Literary Arts 1.2 class, my learning target was to register ourselves, to write ourselves into being, and, of course, to use the kind of language and details that would charm a reader into belief.

First, I led the class in a poetry transcription of Charles Simic’s fabulous poem “Mirrors at 4 a.m.”  and afterward, we discussed images: “rooms webbed in shadows,” “the empty bed,” “the blank wall,” and of course, the surreptitious (authentic vocab moment) wiping of the “hanky” over the brow.   We talked about mortality, existence, time and eternity, but my objective was not analysis. The poem was just a spring board for self examination and self rendering.

I passed out small mirrors.  I’ve used these hand-held numbers before to assist students in writing about their hands, but this was the first time we have ventured to the face.  After everyone had a mirror, there was much giggling and groaning and bang fluffing and chin jutting. Then we got down to business.

Employing top to bottom description, we wrote for five minutes on each element of the face, starting with the 1) hair, 2) forehead, 3) eyes, 4) nose, 5) mouth, 6) chin and jaw, and finally, 7) the whole face.   The whole activity took about 40 minutes, and it produced about two pages of description of some element of the face. I urged them to reject the easy description, the cliched, the hackneyed, and take up residence in the unique pores, moles, freckles, and follicles of their face.

Using this fodder as a zero draft, students then created a poem (any length, any form) that addressed, defined, described, or gave voice to one of the abstract words on the board:  self, existence, mortality, personality, identity, purpose, destiny, character.   

Or they could write anything they want.  That’s always an option.   Here are a few of the results:

#1  Leila, Grade 10

#2 Ruby, Grade 10

#3 McKenna, Grade 9

#4 Autumn, Grade 9

#5 Sarah, Grade 9

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.9-10.3.D

Use precise words and phrases, telling details, and sensory language to convey a vivid picture of the experiences, events, setting, and/or characters.

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.

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.

 

 

 

Family Isn’t Always Blood: A Visualization Exercise for Personal Writing About Friends

Most high school students identify more deeply with their peer group than with their family.  They value those people who are in their life by choice, not by blood, but students are often self-conscious about writing about how much they cherish someone in their peer group.  This activity is designed to place them in a hypothetical situation that is both safe and secure where they interact with one of their friends.  The writing that is produced in this sequence rarely becomes a draft of an essay, but often students discover something about themselves or about the other person that leads to an thoughtful and meditative piece of descriptive writing.

To start this activity, I ask students to answer the following 20 questions that will generate a list of people.

 

  1. Who are you most likely to confide in?
  2. Who are you most likely to get fashion advice from?
  3. Who is your teacher?
  4. Who knows where all the bodies are buried?
  5. Who makes you feel alone when you are with them?
  6. Who has betrayed you?
  7. Have you been Friendzone? And if so, by who?
  8. Who was your best friend in elementary school?
  9. Who was your best friend in middle school?
  10. Who is your best friend now?
  11. Which one of your friends will not make it to thirty?
  12. Who is the clown in your circle of friends?
  13. Who is your Frenemy?
  14. Who is the rule maker in your circle of friends?
  15. Who’s the most irritating person in your friend circle?
  16. Who’s the last person you shared a secret with?
  17. Who makes you laugh the most?
  18. Who truly gets you?
  19. Who would not be happy for you if you won $43 million in the lottery tonight?
  20. Who would you gladly die for?

 

After students answer all 20 questions, I ask them to add five more friends’ names and imagine it is a guest list for a party in their honor.At this point in the lesson, I ask them to sit up straight, place their hands neutrally on their desk or in their laps, close their eyes, take a few deep breathes to clear their minds and listen to my voice as they imagine this scene. My script:

“Okay, let’s get started.  Close your eyes and imagine it’s a beautiful day outside. You’re walking up a long drive way to a very large house.  You can hear lots of people inside, and you hear music.  As you walk onto the porch, the door swings open and someone beckons you inside.  You are led to a giant dining hall where an enormous table is laden with bread, meats, fruit, cheese, and drinks of all kinds. Seated around the table are all your friends who are happy you have arrived. This party is in your honor. You are seated at the head of the table.  Everyone is eating and laughing and having a good time.   You feel completely happy, safe and whole.  Look around the table again.  Take a few minutes to look around the table, and now let your gaze naturally fall on someone.  Focus on this one person and look at them closely. How do they talk? How do they laugh? How do they chew, eat their food, hold their fork?  What are they wearing?  Really observe them, listen to them.  Now open your eyes and describe this person.”

 

Students then write for about five minutes, describing this person.

 

“Okay, close your eyes and return to this scene.  As you observe this person, he or she gets up from the table and comes to stand next to you.  “Is there something you want to say?” he or she says, and you say, ‘Yes, there is something I want to say to you, but it’s too noisy in here.’  And this person says, ‘Follow me.’  He or she walks out of the room, motioning for you to follow.  You walk out of the dining hall into a long hall. At the very end of the hall, you see a plain wooden bench under a big window.  The person motions for the two of you to sit on the bench. You do.  You are very close to this person. Your knees are almost touching. ‘Now,’ this person says to you. ‘What is it that you want to say to me?’  Open your eyes, and write down what you would like to say to this person.”

 

Students then write for about five minutes, describing in first person what they would like to say.

 

“Okay, close your eyes again and return to this scene.  This person has listened thoughtfully to everything you’ve said to them.  He or she says, ‘There’s something I’d like to tell you also, but let’s go outside. It’s such a beautiful day.’  The person motions that you should follow, and you both walk out of the house and down the driveway and into a beautiful field full of tall grass and wildflowers.  Then you and this person face each other. The wind is blowing gently. You can feel the sun on your arms, and this person says, ‘There’s something I want to tell you also.’ Slowly open your eyes, tune into what this person wants to tell and write.”

 

Students then write for five minutes, describing what they believe this person would say to them.  This is often the hardest part of the writing. Sometimes the information they hear is buoyant; sometimes it is damning.

 

After this activity, I have students put away the writing they generated and write a brief vignette or personal essay about the person they focused on. The writing is always deeper, more complex and rich after the visualization because they’ve spent time with this person in the unguarded, mutually beneficial and communicative environment of their own brain on the page.

Poetry Boxes: From Concrete to Abstract in Poetic Persona

In Naomi Shihab Nye’s beautiful poem   “Valentine for Ernest Mann,” she says that “poems hide” and that we must “live in a way that lets us find them.”  At the end of the poem, she urges:  “Maybe if we re-invent whatever our lives give us/we find poems. Check your garage, the off sock/in your drawer, the person you almost like, but not quite/And let me know.”

In my writing classes, I urge students to live in a way that lets them find their stories and poems:  to be open, hopeful, observant, humble, and awestruck by the world.  For this poetry box activity, I want them to image a life that exists in the cast-off items that one might discover in the garage or the sock drawer, to create a life from those items, and to imagine a narrative relationship between the items and this fictional character.

When I ask students to write, they often want to write about the big abstracts (LOVE DEATH FEAR JOY WAR), but I am continually urging them to pay attention to the little concretes.  To shore up my argument, I invoke Anton Chekov who said, “Don’t tell me about the moon. Show me the glint of light on broken glass” or Tim O’Brien who beautifully describes the big abstraction of War by saying, “And in the end, of course, a true war story is never about war. It’s about sunlight. It’s about the special way that dawn spreads out on a river when you know you must cross the river and march into the mountains and do things you are afraid to do. It’s about love and memory. It’s about sorrow. It’s about sisters who never write back and people who never listen.”

And so we start with the concrete. I plunder Goodwill stores and antique haunts for things I can stuff in a gift box and wrap up.  Six or seven things go in each box, including one natural thing in the collection, such as a pebble or a pine cone.  I put in old pictures, charms, trinkets, glass and several item of ephemera. Then I wrap the boxes in whatever gift wrap I have stashed about.

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Once students select a box and before they open the box, I ask them to write about what they think is in in the box.  I give them about two minutes of writing time for this.  Then they open the boxes and catalog each item and describe it as objectively as possible.  I urge them to look over each item and detail it exhaustively, using both sensory details and cultural or social associations.  This usually takes about ten minutes.

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Once all the pieces have been placed on the table in front of them, cataloged and described, students write a character sketch about the person who owned these items.  I give them about seven minutes to write a fully-fleshed out profile of this person.  After they do this, I ask three or four students to share their character, using the artifacts as evidence for particular personality traits and/or lifestyle choices they have given their characters.

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Then I ask them to focus on one particular item in the box, the one thing in the box that was the most precious to their character. “What is the item that this person carried with them through every move,  every bad marriage, every child, job, house? What item was this person holding, in her hand, his wallet, her purse, his backpack, when he or she died?”   They select the item, and I ask them to jump or wade out into a poem that tells the story of this item and its relationship to the fictional character who owned it.

Most the poems that are born in this activity eventually become swallowed up by something longer – a piece of flash fiction, a short story, the beginning of a one-act.  I might tweak this assignment in the future to start with the items first and ask students to write from the items or about the items instead of developing the character first.  Students become attached to the character and the story leads from that.

There are a lot of variables that could be used with this lesson.  You could give students boxes and ask them to create their own “artifact box,” collecting five or six items that are emblematic of their own life, to generate writing for a memoir or vignette.   Some teachers have used the idea of items in a box to create “Me Musuems” for first-of-the-year ice breakers or to use boxes as a means to analyze literary characters.

 

Hand Poems: Tools of Industry or Works of Art

My Creative Writing 1 and 2 classes participate in two exploratory units on writing poetry.  During their freshman year, they focus on imagery and language, and during their sophomore year, they focus on different forms.  Even though they will be exposed to a variety of poems through poetry transcription and reading for poetry for pleasure, which is a daily activity in my classroom, the poetry unit concentrates on writing poems, not analysis.  While we discuss and share poetry as models or as inspiration, the writing, not analysis or explication, is the goal of this unit.

A lot of student poetry leans toward the clichéd, the obscure, and the abstract. To that end, this unit is designed to encourage students to plant their poems firmly in the concrete as a way to explore the abstract, to dig into fresh and original language as a way to dispel with the clichéd, and to spend time revising for clarity and sharpness to negate the murkiness that students often believe substitutes for profundity.

The body is great inspiration because we carry in the body the memory of trauma, genetic matter from ancestors, scars, tumors, cells, blood, etc.  We carry the germ of life and the hands that can extinguish life.  We carry glorious things like our pumping heart and sieving liver and inglorious things like pores that explode with dirt and puss-corruption.

The follow-up lesson to the Body Project is an activity where I ask students to look at one part of their body for an extended examination – their hands, specifically their non-dominant hand, since they will be writing with their dominant hand.  We read “Hand” by Jane Hirschfield and Dylan Thomas’ poem “The Hand That Signed the Paper” just to get us thinking about the power of the hand and its role and utility.

Then I ask students to examine their head line, heart line and life line on their non-dominant hand and respond in writing to what they believe their palm is telling them about their dreams, personal relationships and emotional struggles.  I give them about seven minutes to write this up, then we discuss our “fortunes,” which is always a creative and ridiculous conversation.

Then I ask students to start distancing themselves from their the hand.  To enhance this disconnect, I give each of them a mirror, and they must view their hand objectively as if they were viewing a tool or a piece of art impartially either in a hardware store or in an art gallery.  Students write for about 3-4 minutes, describing the item they see in the mirror, then we discuss.

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Then I ask students to wrap their hands in chicken wire and observe the metal-wrapped hand in the mirror, which will further distance themselves from their hand and hopefully provide them the necessary objectification to write about this  body part, not as a hand, but as a tool of industry or a work of art. Students write about 3-4 minutes, describing the item they see in the mirror, then we discuss.

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In the final step, they add to their wire-bound hands some element of plastic, either a plastic bag that I’ve given them or a green Starbucks stopper-stick.  We repeat the process, observing the hand in the mirror as either a tool of industry or a work of art, and we describe what we see in the mirror, then we discuss.

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Then I ask students to look back over their list of descriptions and select one or two lines that seem to have a lot of energy or lines that startled them or lines that unveil a particularly fresh or interesting image, and to write a poem using those lines and images.

Inevitably the poems become something other than about hands, but they benefit from specificity and concreteness that the objective description of the tools and art has  given them.

Here are some of their first drafts:

 Dog Eye Knuckles by Colin

The red dirt of my hands

always gets stuck

in the gears in my head

these spider fingers

always turn up

in the wrong place

and the scales

at the reach of my grasp

grow without my eyes looking

but I like these railroad veins

and these bass string tendons

caked between deep sand dunes

and the knobby knuckles

that pop out of my fist

like bulging dog eyes

 

Lost and Found

By Meredith

The person you almost like

but not quite.

The glove fallen behind the washer

The unfinished heart

drawn on a math book.

Left behind, like

ink running off your skin

during a hot shower after

a long day.

Spiraling down the metallic

drain

The blood stained panties

abandoned in a school

bathroom

The feeling of uneasiness,

swept under the

oriental rug.

 

 

Just In Case

By Strand

 

you are living a torture worse than

the iron maiden

the brazen bull

the heretics fork

the judas cradle

the breaking wheel

it’s an unmistakable sound,

glass hitting the floor,

shattering.

hearts sound like that too

only as they hit the ground,

they bounce a little

roll under the cabinets

sit alone for days, weeks

shrivel up

and shatter

you can’t take a step back,

weigh your options,

and get it through your

thick

skull

that this is not healthy

your brain stuck in

eternal turmoil

your heart stabbed with

six thousand  ruins of glass,

a pocket knife,

and the needle you used

to tattoo my initial on your thumb

and yet you stay

you stay, holding onto hope, just in case

i change my mind, and

choose you.