I’m taking part again this summer in Teacher’s Write, hosted by Kate Messner, Gae Polisner, and Jen Vincent. Today is the official first day of summer camp for teachers and writers, and Kate kicked things off with a post about writer’s notebooks.
I love the idea of writer’s notebooks. I find it hard to resist a notebook with a pretty cover (artwork is my favorite) and blank pages. It doesn’t matter if they are lined or blank…those pages beckon to me to scribble and doodle with all the colors in my pen collection. I have notebooks I reflect on my spiritual growth. I have a small Moleskin notebook that I keep in my purse. I have stashes of blank ones tucked away in different sizes and colors. I have one notebook that I started in 2007. It is filled with first drafts of poems for my daughter’s birthday, quotes from favorite books and writers, diaries of vacations, even a few doodles here and there. I just filled the last page last week–in 2013.
I am not consistent in writing in my notebooks. Sometimes I get busy and writing gets shoved to the bottom of my to-do list. Sometimes fear holds me back. I know a writer’s notebook can be a place to explore and play around, but I’m leery of just letting go.
One of the things I would like to do with Teachers Write this summer to is to have some fun with my writing. I do write a lot–book reviews and reflections on this blog among other things–but I want to savor all that words can do and explore new worlds. I’m off to a good start. I opened my new writers notebook from last week and finished a story I began during a conference with Tom Romano. My goal for the rest of this week is to play around every day in my notebook for at least 15 minutes. Who knows? I might even do more!
I’m also hanging out with the Making Learning Connected MOOC this summer to play around with new technology tools. I could’t resist creating another Thimble from one of last week’s introductory activities. Instead of a 10-book memoir, I changed it to writer’s notebooks. I must have learned something last night because this one didn’t take nearly as long! I even learned a new iPad app to create the photo collage.
True confession: sometimes I am as bad as my students when it comes to revision–or as it may more truthfully be called–resisting revision. You see, I can write pretty good first drafts. I tell myself that I revise as I write, and it is true that I agonize over my words and even cross out as I draft. But the truth is, once I have a draft down, I want to be done and go on to the next thing.
Yesterday, I had a chance to revisit my resistance to revision as I spent the day in a workshop with Tom Romano. (If you ever have a chance to work with Tom Romano, run to sign up as fast as you can. He is wise and witty and one of the most intense listeners I have ever encountered–a master teacher.) Through reading and discussing and writing, Romano asked me to do the things I ask of my students but that I don’t often do myself. It was good to take on the role of a student and remember the power of the things we do as teachers. I came away with a wealth of ideas, but I want to focus now on two aspects of writing: drafting and revising.
We started with a picture. I don’t know how many times in the past year I have come across writers sharing how they use sketches and doodles and images in their writing process. I even ask (insist, really) my students to draw when writing or responding to literature. I assure them that it’s not the artistic ability that matters. It’s the focus on images that is powerful. Can I draw? No. So I don’t use drawing when I draft or revise. I might be missing out on a powerful writing tool. Yesterday, I started with a picture because Romano asked me to. I didn’t follow the directions and create frames for a storyboard. Mine is more free-flowing, centered on the indelible image I chose to write about. Don’t laugh at my stick people..
The next words of wisdom offered were “Trust the Gush.” I hope Romano won’t mind if I steal this phrase to use with my 7th graders next year. Trust the words that pour out and don’t worry about them….yet. Even though I was sleepy after lunch, I did get started on a story that has been at the top of my mind for some reason this summer. I didn’t finish the draft, but I got a good start in the fifteen minutes or so we got to write.
I stared at the window crank on the car door. Which way was I supposed to turn it to close the window? For the life of me, I could not remember. And it was for my life that I had to remember.
Bees covered the outside of the window. One by one they crawled through the tiny crack that had been left open. Once inside the care, they immediately dive-bombed the two largest targets they could find–my little brother and me.
As the first few bees wormed their way in and buzzed around, I began screaming and flailing my arms around. So did my brother. It didn’t do any good. The bees kept coming in. Ten, twenty, thirty bees. I could feel jabs of pain on my head and across my arms, but I couldn’t stop it.
After what felt like an eternity, I tumbled over the seat to land behind the steering wheel. I knew I had to shut the window. My brother was beyond hysterical. My dad had run off to avoid being stung.
Not bad for a quick draft, but Romano then asked us to look for “second genius” by revising, tinkering with our words. I didn’t change much in the time we had, but I could see the impact those few changes gave to this piece of writing. That’s the power of revision that I want to share with my students. They, too, can tinker with changing verbs, cutting extra words, adding sensory details. I hope they see the power for themselves. Here are the changes I made in the third paragraph:
As the first few bees wormed their way in and buzzed around, I began screaming and flailing my arms. So did my brother. It did no good. The bees swarmed through the invisible crack in the window. Ten, twenty, thirty bees. The buzzing swelled louder than our screams. I could feel hot jabs of pain on my head and arms, but I couldn’t stop it.
I’m still tinkering and excited about where it will lead.
Over the weekend, the wonderful Kate Messner extended a gentle invitation to the teachers who participated in Teachers Write over the summer. School has started, time is filled with lesson to plan and papers to grade and parents to call, but Kate invites us to take time to write as well. I needed the nudge to get back to writing, so I grabbed a pen and paper this afternoon to write.
Instead of following her invitation, I went totally off-topic to a poem I started writing alongside my students a few weeks ago. We read together Charles Bukowski’s poem about poems, “Defining the Magic.” Inspired, I wrote the following poem to define the magic of a good book.
A good book is a kindred spirit
a good book is a secret garden
where miracles occur
A good book is a light
on a dark and stormy night
a good book is a pot of honey
in the Hundred Acre Wood
a good book is a subtle knife
that cuts between worlds
a good book is a wardrobe
that leads to a lightpost in a snowy woods
a good book is a tesseract
through time and space
a good book is a wagon trail
across the prairie
a good book is an arrow
shot through a pig’s snout
a good book is money
to pass through a phantom tollbooth
a good book is a departure
from Platform 9 ¾
a good book is a Golden Ticket….
if you dare to open it.
How would you define the magic of a good book? I’d love to hear in the comments below!
I’m back to writing after taking last week off. I had a great time in the mountains with the youth group from my church. We took part in a mission trip to Hinton Rural Life Center and spent the week painting for the sweetest lady who kept feeding us–Popsicles, cookies, cakes, and even a spaghetti lunch with all the fixings. Since I was on staff over twenty years ago (Has it really been so long ago that most of the current summer staff wasn’t even born when I worked there), I was asked to send pictures and memories from back in the day. I see my writing going in a different direction over the next few days as a reminisce.
But for today, I’m trying the Teachers Write! Mini Lesson Monday, Part I by Alex Lidell. I’m learning to reveal character by NOT describing them. Here is the picture that my characters are supposed to describe:
What can you learn about my characters from how they describe this scene?
Character 1: The woman sprawled against the wall, blood oozing from the bite on her shoulder. Her legs kicked out at odd angles, but it was her eyes that held me. They had once danced with green and gold light. Now that light had leaked out like the blood smeared against the wall. Her flat, empty gaze held me captive. I couldn’t look away.
Character 2: Jagged tears surrounded the bite wound on the back of her shoulder. Even if so much blood had not been lost, I’m not sure I could have sewn up the damage from such a fearsome beast. It was too late, anyway. The tilt of her head told me she was not of this world any longer even before I reached to find the pulse of a no longer beating heart.
The hardest part of this was focusing on just what the characters would say. I kept wanting to describe what they would do!
If that’s not enough writing, there’s more: I definitely want to try out Jo Knowle’s Monday Morning Warm-Up. Then Anne Marie Pace talks about reading like a writer in Part II. Those will have to wait until tomorrow because I’ve spent most of the day procrastinating writing. That’s a whole other post!
Yesterday I got to write with Ralph Fletcher at a conference sponsored by the IUS Writing Project. I came away with pages of notes of ideas to think about and tips to try in my classroom. Of course, I also came home with a few more books to read. I can’t wait to dig into Fletcher’s books Mentor Author, Mentor Texts and Nonfiction Craft Lessons. I even got my copy of Pyrotechnics on the Page (our study book for Advanced Institute) autographed.
One of our writings used Fletcher’s poem “The Good Old Days” as a mentor text. Fletcher asked us to use his opening and closing stanza, but to write about our own memories in between. I found it fascinating to see how different people in the room connected with different parts of the poem to copy in their poems. I borrowed the beginning and ending stanzas (as we all did). I also used the two-line stanzas, included lots of gerunds (though I kept thinking I was using too many), and adopted a nostalgic tone. Other people focused on a memory involving their mother (as Fletcher’s did) or father.
It was a good reminder to trust my students to take away from a mentor text what they need for their own writing. There are many lessons a single text can offer, not just the one I see. I’ve had success in the past using mentor texts in getting students started with a piece of writing. (Raise your hand if you’ve used George Ella Lyon’s “Where I’m From.”) One of the things I like about such writing is that the structure allows students (and me) to get ideas down on paper in a way that makes us look good. Here is what I came up with yesterday in just a few minutes. It brought up a memory I haven’t thought about in a long time. I just might go back and keep working with it.
Sometimes I remember
the good old days,
rolling down the grassy hill
until the blue sky whirled above me.
I lay in the sun-soaked grass
feeling the earth tilt and spin beneath me.
I staggered to my feet,
grass tickling my toes
and raced my brother to the top
and paused before doing it again.
I still can’t imagine
anything better than that.
What do you like? What still needs work?
I haven’t been jumping in with updates the past week, but I have been writing. I am making good use of Kate’s post last Monday about outlining. I know part of the reason I’ve stalled on my Little Red Riding Hood novel is that once I ran out of fairy tale, I still have lots of story left, and I have no idea where to go next. I started outlining the ten chapters I’ve written so far. (I made it through six so far.) My goal for this week (on Friday when I have time and space to spread out all over the living room again) is to finish outlining what I have and start brainstorming where the story goes next.
I also wrote poems for my daughter’s birthday. I started the tradition of writing a poem for her birthday once she learned to read. I’ve written one for her every year since. (Confession–I skipped last year, so I wrote her two this year!) I’ll see if she’ll let me post them later. I used Jo Knowles’ writing warm-up to write one of them!
Meanwhile, this week I’m reconnecting with the National Writing Project through the Advanced Institute at Indiana University Southeast. We’re celebrating successes, sharing ideas, and writing, writing, writing. This afternoon and tomorrow we’ll work with Ralph Fletcher as we discuss and try out ideas from his book Pyrotechnics on the Page. Yes, I am excited. I can’t wait to try some out in my own writing and with my students next year!
During writing time yesterday, I tried Kate’s Tuesday Quick Write. I chose the prompt from guest author Joy Preble about getting to know your characters. What I came up with is not something that will go directly into my novel, but it definitely helped me to get to know my main character better and to hear her voice more clearly. Here is what she had to say in response to the questions. What do you think of her?
How do you see yourself?
I yearn for adventure, but I have been held captive for so long by my mother’s fear. I choke on unasked—and of course unanswered—questions. Why do we move so often, each time to a village smaller and more wretched than the last? Who is my father? Who is the rest of our family? Why won’t Mother let me play with the other children? I’ve grown up lonely at times, but now I can spend hours alone. It’s a good thing because I do spend hours alone. When I was younger, Mother used to take me with her on her trips through the woods to collect herbs, but ever since we’ve lived in Kell, she has left me behind. I know every crack and stone in this cottage. I’ve named every rock along the path between our back door and the spring up the hill. I have organized and reorganized the bottles and jars and drying racks and braided bundles of dried plants. If bored enough, I’ll even sweep the dirt and dust out the door.
I’m getting restless. I loved walking the twisting trails through the forest with Mother. I’d pick flowers to braid into crowns for our head. The children in previous villages stared at me in awe. They may have had free run of the village streets, but most had never been outside the split-rail fences that surrounded each village. I had been past the fences and deep into the forest and survived. I never had the chance to tell them that we never saw anything more dangerous than poison oak. No bears ever peered out of the leafy branches to growl at us. No WolfRiders ever thundered behind us on black stallions. It was just me, Mother, and baskets spilling with fresh herbs snipped from our secret places. I’m getting restless without those trips. I look for anything to break this monotony. I want to fly away. I want to explore more than this cottage. I want to know who I am and where I came from. There must be more to life than fleeing from one poor village to another.
How do others see you?
Mother refuses to see that I am growing up. Or maybe she sees, but wants to stop it anyway. Why else would she keep me at home while she traipses through the woods? Mother expects me to be responsible—to dry and store the herbs and to bring them to her when she’s treating an illness or injury in the village. Sometimes she questions me: What would you do to treat a fever? What herb do you mix with oil to clean a wound? I know nearly as much as she does now, but the villagers always wait for her return. What’s the point of leaving me behind to care for the villagers when they just wait for her to get back?
I only see the other children from a distance when I accompany Mother down the main path of the village. I’m not sure what they think of her silent shadow. Since they’ve never seen me leave the village for the forest trails, they don’t look at me with awe like the children in past villages did.
I definitely want to go back and try the poetry prompt from Sarah Lewis Holmes later. Maybe I can get to it today since I didn’t lug the huge binder with my novel down to New Albany with me.
I’m still taking part in the Teachers Write Virtual Writing Camp. Today’s quick write assignment comes from guest author Margo Sorenson. Since I want to get back into writing my novel about Little Red Riding Hood, I’m writing the option that imagines a character walking into a room and feeling uncomfortable and awkward. There’s been a new character poking around the edges of this story. I’m not sure who is is or what role he might play in this story, but this free write will give him a chance to introduce himself.
Mother and I sat quietly by the fire. I yanked the needle through the rips in my skirt and glanced over at Mother. She sat with a lap full of dried bloodroot in her lap. She had been sorting them, but now her hands were still as she stared at the dancing flames. I swallowed back the questions that burned my throat about the red cloak that now lay stuffed under my mattress. If I asked, she might look to see if I had put the cloak back in the trunk as she asked. I still hoped that she would forget about it.
I glanced up at light tapping at the door. Who would come so late? Eager to be done with my mending, I stood up. Before I lifted the heavy bar that held the door shut, I called out, “Who’s there?” After the events of last night it wouldn’t do to fling open the door too hastily.
“Please, miss, can you help me?”
I could barely make out the words of the soft whine, but I felt the undercurrent of desperation. I lifted the latch and cracked open the door, stopping it with my foot. A boy stood before me. Tufts of hair stood out in all directions on his head, and his bare toes curled in the mud. I recognized him as one of the children from the village. Like me, he usually hung back from the pack of children that ran together through the streets and fields. He stared down and asked again, “Can you help me?”
I opened the door wider and motioned for him to enter. “What do you need help with?” I asked.
He stepped inside, still looking down. Now that he was inside I could see the frayed hems. His wrists and ankles stuck out too far. As if he could feel my glance, he tugged at his sleeves. “It’s my pa,” he whispered. “He won’t get out of bed. He shakes and moans and grabs at things that aren’t there. He’s never been sick before. I don’t know what to do.”
Behind me, mother set aside her bloodroot and rose to stand beside me. “How long has Henry been sick?” she demanded.
“Since yesterday morning, ma’am,” he said. He looked up at Mother and grinned shyly. “Pa always said to come to you if we ever had trouble. I just didn’t think trouble would ever find us.”
Today is Tuesday, my second day with the Teachers Write Virtual Writing Camp. Today’s assignment is to free write about a specific place. I’m using the assignment to get to know part of the setting for my Little Red Riding Hood novel, in particular, grandmother’s cottage. Here goes!
Write for two minutes to describe a specific place: Grandmother’s cottage
The cottage is small, just two rooms. The main room is an open kitchen and living area. A wood stove crouches in the back corner . Between the wood stove and a back door lie stacks of wood. Over the wood is a whitewashed plank shelf. Copper pots hang from hooks above the planks. A table and benches fill the rest of that side of the room. Two arm chairs stand at each end of the table. A door in the wall to the right leads to a small bedroom.
Wow! That two minutes flew by. Since this is not a real place I can visit, I’m going to take a few minutes to go there in my mind. Then I’ll be back for more free-writing of one minute each.
Everything I see:
dark rafters above, armchair in corner opposite a spinning wheel, baskets underneath the shelves that wrap half the cabin in a u-shape, table with polished wood top, cloak hanging next to door
Everything I hear:
teapot whistling on the stove, tinkling of chimes from somewhere, wind muffled through thick stone walls, a warm silence lies like a blanket, soft sounds
Everything I smell:
mint, tang of bitter herbs, mix of drying leaves–like a forest after rain, earthy smell, lemon/citrus
Everything I feel:
walls are cool and smooth, table top is polished smooth–wood that feels almost like a stone washed in the river, blankets are soft, not scratchy like wool, chair has firm cushion, entering doorway feels like walking into a spider’s web–sticky strands cloak arms and face
Next is to rewrite the first paragraph using the sensory details I imagined.
Before I even have a chance to knock, the heavy oak door swings open with a soft swish. I step through the doorway and right into a spider web. I don’t see the web, but the sticky strands of something cling to my face and arms. I try to brush them off, but I feel a trace remain on my cheeks. A teapot simmers on the wood stove crouched in the back corner, filling the air with the scent of lemon balm. Racks of drying leaves add an earthy scent to the air, like the smell of the woods after rain. I sniff, catching the bitter tang of horseradish. This smell of home slows my thudding heart until the door swings shut behind me. The click of the latch mutes the trilling birds outside. All I can hear inside is the light tinkling of chimes.