Monday, December 14, 2009

Comics Exercises

I've been wondering what resource I might recommend which wouldn't step on the toes or unnecessarily overlap all of the other wonderful sites offered up on this blog. Based on my rigorous research of at least 25 minutes, it seems like there are more legitimate online resources for poetry (prompts, examples, readings, etc) than for fiction and more for fiction than nonfiction. I assume this is due to the fact that it's easier to get away with publishing one poem than an excerpt from a collection of stories or essays. Or is it perhaps because poetry is the first genre people turn to when they think about writing groups? Perhaps it is the form which most readily lends itself to restrictions of time? I think there are other reasons, but I'm not sure how to put words to them without sounding like I'm making some obtuse assumptions. Anyway, I'm getting away from my point.

I was thinking about genres. Then...

What about comics? I an after-thought, and then immediately felt disgusted with myself for not having thought of that first. Because sadly, even though comics have been enjoying a burgeoning popularity for the past few decades (within and without academia), they still seem to occupy that after-thought space. There's poetry, fiction, nonfiction....oh yeah, and comics. On the bright side, at least people are starting to say “comics” instead of “graphic novels,” finally understanding that adding the word “novel” to a piece of work doesn't make it any more worthy of scholarly attention. What hooey. From now on, I'm going to call my grocery lists “nourishment novels” so that, by the time I get to the store, I don't dare doubt the exigence of my earlier demand for peanut-butter filled pretzels. This is serious stuff.

Again, I am getting away from my point. The problem is not that poetry, fiction, and nonfiction had a head start. I refer you to the first few pages of Scott McCloud's incredible Understanding Comics for an argument about the age of the graphic narrative. (Or go here to see what you would be missing by not referring to it.) Perhaps the three traditional genres had a head start in academic circles? I don't have the knowledge to make claims here. But I do know that comics is a genre which is still struggling to find its place in academic departments. Is it an Arts class? Literature? Composition? I would argue, rather unhelpfully, that the genre exists in between them. Its position remains unresolved. Maybe that's part of what makes comics so interesting.

Regardless of its place in academia, I like to make room for comics in my own field (Creative Writing) because I think a lot of its philosophies, techniques, and vocabulary translate into the language of composition in ways that only improve my understanding of the craft. I especially appreciate the kinds of connections that comics teaches the artist to create. Connections between image and language. Between concrete and abstract. Between time and real-time. Between white space and ink. Between artist and writer.

Here's the catch. While a google search of “poetry/fiction/nonfiction exercise” yields pages and pages of incredibly useful material, a google search of “comics exercise” yields top-hits that take you to cartoons about fitness and working-out. Oh. That form of exercise.

Because, in spite of the flourishing world of comics, there still isn't a lot of material out there about teaching the genre; for the newcomer, this can be especially intimidating. I know. I'm a newcomer. And I'm especially intimidated.

Here's what I recommend: Read Will Eisner's Graphic Storytelling, read Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, read Jessica Abel and Matt Madden's Drawing Words and Writing Pictures. Then read “How to Read Nancy” by Mark Newgarden and Paul Karasik. Because it is hilarious. And because it will have you appreciating the (seemingly) smallest of decisions. The books by Eisner and McCloud explain the theory and history of comics. Abel and Madden's textbook actually gets into a pedagogical approach to the genre. If you don't want to purchase it (which you should, you really should), the supplementary website for this textbook is fantastic. It offers everything from sample exercises to homework assignments to teaching guides. If you've ever scoured the web for good comics prompts, you will understand how rare this resource is.

Above all, I would recommend any who are interested in comics (teaching or creating) not to fear it, not to think yourself unworthy of introducing it to a class or beginning your own because you think you know too little. The genre rewards personal experience, personal style, personal interpretation, personal taste, and personality. And while you may feel quite alone in your endeavor (thanks, google search), there is a thriving community, eager to share what they know and to hear what you have to say. You just need to start listening, start looking.

As a random side-note, Penn State University professor and comics artist, Jarod Rosello, successfully introduces comics into his Creative Writing and Rhetoric and Composition courses. A happy outcome of this is a blog he has just started (Art Cards) which features student work interacting with everyday environments. Check it out. Put some art on some cards.

And happy exploring.

P.S. The title to this post is my attempt to usurp the google search results for "comics exercise" from links to cartoons about fitness. Join me in the good fight; post your own comics exercises.

A Dash of Teaching Philosophy and a Sprinkling of Sandra Cisneros

Two years ago, as I was applying to graduate school, one of the programs requested I submit a teaching philosophy along with the usual materials--writing sample, transcript, GRE, signed waiver forfeiting my soul etc. Understand that, two years ago, I had never taught anyone anything, unless you count that time I showed my family and neighbors how to make their fortune cookie fortunes funnier by adding “in bed” to the end of each. And even that wasn't an original lesson plan.

Recently, an adviser encouraged me to begin developing a statement of my teaching philosophy. Apparently panic-stricken, blind flailing doesn't count. Anyway, even though I now have three semesters of teaching experience and, admittedly, should have some clue of my teacherly intentions, this suggestion has gotten me thinking the exact same things I thought two years ago when confronted with the same request.

When I think about my teaching philosophy, I don't think about my teaching experience. Shameful, right? I think about my student experience, instead. Perhaps this is because I find very few philosophy-inducing epiphanies in my recollections of teaching (note to self: Writing/reading may not necessarily be your students' first priority and you need to be okay with that. Note to self: not everyone will love Annie Dillard and you need to be ready to face that. Note to self: do NOT make fun of Twilight.) Or perhaps this is because I have no way of judging the success of my “lessons” because I am not on the receiving end of them and because I evaluate a classroom's success in strange ways. What matters to me (and what mattered to me as a student) is investment. Interaction. Excitement. The best classes I ever took—the classes that stayed with me—were those in which the teacher nurtured my excitement for the material.

So if writing/reading is not a student's first priority, I want them to write/read a phrase that pierces them, that makes them realize the power of the written form. I want them to write/read a line that gives them sheer pleasure—from the beauty of the language or the sheer loveliness of thought. I want them to be excited. That's the first step to interaction. And interaction produces investment. And investment fosters a desire to extend the class beyond the perimeter of the classroom, past the limit of the semester's end. I don't care whether students love my class, or whether they come to love writing/reading throughout my course. I care that some seed has been planted. That they might grow to love literature. That they might aspire to create it. Wow, I realize as I type: Wow, that is painfully idealistic.

Anyway, probably because I am a young teacher, I have difficulty encouraging excitement about texts/prompts in which I, myself, am not excited. I've heard from many colleagues that it can be incredibly painful to introduce your class to a writer you love, if only because the students may not love him/her (case and point: Ms. Dillard) or, worse yet, may not love him/her as much as they love the Twilight series, and may therefor put you in the very uncomfortable position of informing them just how incredibly wrong they all are. Or, worse yet, they may make you question your devotion to the writer in question. Goodness forbid it!

Regardless, I have recklessly introduced my students to texts that are very dear to me for very personal, illogical reasons—the hardest kind of loyalty to put up to so much scrutiny. Fortunately this shred of bravery has been rewarded. I have had the most success (i.e. my students have been most excited about) those texts in which I am most invested. But my reckless bravery has not stopped there. I have used the same prompt in the classroom (with 18-23 year olds) and in an extracurricular Writers' Group that I help facilitate, and which is made up of 10-14 year olds. Understand that 10-14 year olds are even more willing to admit their disinterest for any particular piece of writing. 10-14 year olds are even more willing to declare how much better Twilight is than all this Literature nonsense.

The prompt (again, not an original—my 9th grade teacher assigned it) is drawn from a chapter of Sandra Cisneros' exquisite little work The House on Mango Street. Composed of what I would call flash fiction vignettes or prose poetry chapters delivered through the voice of Esperanza Cordero, the book tells the story of a young girl's life on run-down Mango Street. It is an exploration of life delivered through a voice so lyric and deceptively simple that it is not easily forgotten. My favorite chapter (and what my teacher once used for a writing prompt and what I now use as a writing prompt) is “My Name.” It's easily available online (but buy the book! You won't regret it.)

I recommend slowly reading this aloud in your session, maybe even bothering to read it twice because of Cisneros' attention to the musicality of language.

Take a few minutes to discuss the sound of the sentences, the voice, and the comparisons Esperanza makes to her own name (e.g “It is the Mexican records my father plays on Sunday mornings when he is shaving, songs like sobbing.”) Talk about how names have stories, how they have meanings, how they fit and do not fit who we are. After this, direct the writers to compose a short piece which emulates Cisneros' style and organization:

For the sake of a prompt, I'd avoid asking this many questions, lest they be too controlling. Just a few questions could be launching points for some incredible writing.

      1. What is your name? What does it mean? What color would it be? What does it sound like to you?

      2. Where did this name come from? Do you own it? Does it own you? Does it have a history? What story does your name tell?

      3. Do you like your name? How does each syllable sound to you?

      4. (Most important part, I think) If you could change your name, what would you change it to? Be imaginative! Explain why this new name is a better fit.

This prompt was very successful in a group of 10-14 year old writers. Partly this is because they already had all the material they needed to have in order to write, and partly because there are so many different ways to emulate Cisneros' style. Each child found a different part to latch onto—for one it was the examination of sounds, for another it was the examination of her name's story, for another the freedom to re-choose a better, wilder name for herself. A name that she could own.

A quote that has stayed with me:

I can remember walking down the street, saying my name over & over, until all of a sudden, it didn't sound like my name anymore. It didn't even sound like a word at all & then I stopped & the silence rushed in & whispered words that sounded more like my real name & I smiled & thought to myself how surprised my parents would be when they found out what a mistake they had made.” - Brian Andreas

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Poor, fun writingly things.

I'm sure by now we've all come upon this site. It's a fun blog to scan through, even if the earlier posts are better than the recent ones. Anyway, the site has posts demonstrating, in a ludicrous and over-the-top manner, ways to write poorly, focusing each time on someone's (indeed many people's) writing pet peeves: spell check reliance, mixed metaphors, excessive dialogue tags, et cetera.

I have an as yet untested idea for how to use it as a template for a writing prompt. Simply, take one of these posts (some surely will work better than others) and let students have a go at replicating the bad writing. Students, if this lesson works, will first be able to then identify what exactly the problem is, and then, by doing it in an over the top style, identify why they are problems. I imagine this would be a fun activity. A natural follow-up could be fixing/revising to eliminate the issue.

The closest thing I have done to trying this involved revising cliches with my Eng15 class. It didn't go over perfectly, and I was put in a tough spot of trying to encourage creativity and participation while also explaining why many of the sudents' offerings were not much better. Having good examples of revision ahead of time would be good. For example, "his heart fluttered in his chest" could be "his heart smacked his ribs like a bumblebee at a window." (I think that was Chabon).

So there are potential problems with this idea: the age of the group, level of comfort between the participants and the teacher, participants being so ingrained with bad habits from trash books that they like writing badly more than correcting it. There's also an issue, perhaps, in so resolutely and concretely designating something as "wrong." I'm not saying it would be an easy lesson, but for the right group, I'd imagine it would be useful. At the very least, the writingbadlywell blog outlines some of the more irritating writing errors, things for which you can then write your own lesson.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Finishing Thoughts?

Now that the semester is just about over, our group has finished working at the youth center. And so I’ve become, as one tends to at the end of things, introspective and retrospective. Outrospective?

I’ve been thinking about the words we use. “…our group has finished working…”

“Finished” has such a finality to it, along with an implication of a task being completed. As in, I finally finished that paper. I see the word there and, for me specifically, it lacks an appropriate sense of accomplishment. I recall racing through tests as a kid and slapping it down on the teacher’s desk, saying, almost yelling, “Finished!” I would do that smiling and happy, but the glee was more from completion than the journey. “Finished,” then, strikes me as a combative word. What else could I say though?
I’m done working…
I’m through working…
I’ve terminated working…
I’ve ceased working… That might work, but the sentence then feels like we faded away, like an over-irrigated stream fades into the desert. “Concluded” could work, but it’s awfully sterile. I know I’m being picky, but the though process is the point.

“Working” has been more problematic all semester. I resist using the word “teaching” because that carries more weight than I’m comfortable with, and often what we’ve been doing resembles leading them through activities. Some might say that’s teaching, or even better, facilitating. That’s better (the kids, by the way, will not like the idea of the group being a class), but it still feels off. I’ve been having a lot of feelings lately.

I’ve settled on calling them, generally, “sessions.” Not classes, meetings, or otherwise. People have asked what we do at the youth center.
We have sessions…
We do sessions…
We have a writing group…
We lead a writing group…

I had to stop myself several times from saying “volunteering.” We don’t get paid, of course, which is the main definition, but we do this work for a class. Even though one we elected to take it, there work is ultimately mandated.

The kids (students? members? attendees? So many word choices!) understand this, I believe, in a strong but unspoken way. Ultimately, the method for getting the writing group to work was simply showing up continually. This raises more questions, especially with continuity and the end of a semester.

But I want to talk, only briefly, about the last activity/thing/lesson/work we did. We did a Pass-around, six simultaneously. Each person wrote a line or two to start, and then passed the paper to the left. Each person added a line or two, and this process continued until we got our originals back. Then we each finished/ended/whatevered the story we began.

It rocked. It was a great way to end, as it reinforced the idea of a group, even as we prepared to leave. It also mirrored how we began 10 sessions ago, which was a communal poem about Pennsylvania (see earlier post). It was also, finally, the right balance of levity and work. Even the unevenness of having 6 different writers of different ages and style and skill added positively to it. It’s an exercise I wouldn’t recommend for an introductory or early session—people need to be comfortable, and the kids need to trust you. Once again, those things don’t happen at the beginning, even with a true volunteering relationship. But it’s a great way to finish.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Writing resource: the Favorite Poem Project

Based at Boston University and run by former US Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, the Favorite Poem Project culls poems and commentary from people all over the United States. In the three books that the FPP has published, the poems appear alongside the commentary, which usually consists of a memory or personal attachment that draws the submitter to the poem. As a teaching tool, the FPP presents poetry in an accessible and comfortable way--I think reading the chosen poems alongside the comments of the submitter would show new poetry readers an entryway into poems otherwise confusing, cryptic, or new. The website also includes a magnificently rich section just for teachers (and publishes a teacher's guide to one of its books, An Invitation to Poetry): Here, you'll find lesson plans for students at both the middle and high school level, some of which are written by American public school teachers. The DVD/audio recordings of Americans reading their favorite poems are also available online in parts.

I'd recommend this resource for any teachers/community instructors working with writers new to poetry. Though the lessons are written for adolescent students, I think they could be easily adapted to suit an adult audience.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

911 Writer's Block!

A great online resource for writing (and writing exercises) can be found here:

The only disadvantage is that it requires a computer and internet to bring it into a writers' group, but I intend to show it to the youth of our group, anyway--using saved internet tabs if necessary.

The link above goes to the directory, which offers 'help' on the following subjects, many of which can be used to generate random writing prompts or assists, others of which are just fun:

Dial 1 for Settings

Dial 2 for Characters

Dial 3 for Dramatic Entrances

Dial 4 for Dialogue

Dial 5 to Commiserate

Dial 6 for Verbs

Dial 7 for Calisthenics

Dial 8 to Kill a Character

Dial 9 for Endings

Much of this can (and should) be used on your own; dialing five repeatedly brings up a variety of quotes from famous (and less well-known) writers concerning writers' block--many of them less than sympathetic. 6 will over you a random verb. Keep dialing to cycle through. Dialing 8 will offer an option such as the following for the death of a character: 'Deep-vein thrombosis on a 22 hour flight to Bombay.'

Buttons 1,2,3,4, and 9 can easily be the basis for a writing exercise in-class. Take whatever results you get from the button and write a story based on it. If necessary, you can press the button and copy down the results beforehand, but it would really be best if the writers could bring up their prompts in real time. 7, Calisthenics, is specifically designed as a writing exercise ('Bring these elements together to make a story').

I'd recommend you check it out. Regardless of everything else, just cycling through the offered story-components is fun.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Online Resource

I thought this website looked a little different than most of the other websites advertising writing prompts. This website has a lot of links which lead to other poetry resources. If you click prompts from the the list on the right hand side, you will get two prompts and one invitation to an e-zine. I'm hoping the e-zine has more of the concrete exercises and less of the fluff that also seems to haunt this site. Still, it is full of poems and aspiring poets talking about poems and it seems to be a place that gets enough regular traffic where people might continue to post prompts of superior quality. As I've been searching the web, I've found that there are a lot of sites out there promising prompts, but the exercises they provide are not very helpful, or their origins are suspect. Since some of my peers already found some great sites that offer useful prompts, the potential pool of resources has been diminished. But I think the prompts from this website might be of a higher quality, since it is a community of poets and writers. I think it has potential at least. Snoop around. See what you think.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Finding Purpose

When working with the Creative Writing Group for International Women...

At first I thought that our workshops were important because writing is important in its essence—it's fun, makes us think, helps us learn. But then I thought our workshops were particularly important because the women need practice with English. After a few weeks passed, I had to reevaluate. It was hard to judge if we'd brought writing into anyone's life in a meaningful way, if anyone had become friends outside of class, or if we'd improved anyone's English. All this kept leading me back to the questions, What are we doing here? What are we accomplishing?

I couldn't answer these questions, but I thought our experience with the blog might have something to do with our overall purpose. In our last post, Lucy wrote about our blog, mentioning how two of our writers' poems can be found there. The women were very excited about the blog. When we asked for permission to post their poems, one wrote, "it's my pleasure! It's a big encouragement." I started to feel something more significant in our purpose, but I couldn't articulate it.

On November 2nd, I attended a lecture on immigration by Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco. He is the Courtney Sale Ross University Professor of Globalization and Education and the Co-Director of Immigration Studies at New York University, Steinhardt School of Education. He has received millions of dollars in grants for his research. His brief NYU faculty biography states, "[h]is basic research is on conceptual and empirical problems in the areas of cultural psychology and psychological anthropology with a focus on the study of immigration and globalization."

At one point in the lecture, he talked about interviews that had been conducted with immigrant children living in the United States. When asked who the most important people in their lives were (besides their nuclear family [and God]) they'd say someone like a godparent. And if you asked where that person was, you'd find (s)he was back in his or her native country.

All of a sudden I realized how heavily I rely on a network of people who are local. I thought of how much time I spend thinking about people in this network, talking to people in this network, and talking about people in this network to people outside of it. And so I realized that maybe these women, when asked what is important to them right now, might respond saying our group is important. When asked what happened this week, they might mention attending our group in a list of activities. They might say their poems were posted to a blog.

Not only does this reaction to group seem worthwhile, this seems more worthwhile than my initial desires for a writing group. Writing is wonderful, English proficiency is necessary, as are friendships, but being able to claim something local as a thing that is important to you, that's truly valuable. Understanding this value reinvigorated me for our workshops. We have been pushing all the women to share their work with us in writing, so we can make a booklet. We want them to have something tangible that they can keep at home and feel proud of. I know we are proud of them.

(For more information about Professor Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco's work, visit this site: )

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Resource for Creative Writing Prompts

This website provides 329 creative writing prompts. They employ techniques such as sensory visualization, listing, word sets, first lines of stories, mini-plots, word-play, and prop-based activities. They cover poems, short stories, and non-fiction. Some are very cheesy, but others are really creative. Most of them are open-ended enough that they could fit any age group (or be easily modified to the needs of a particular group). Some of my favorites are:

Prompt 41: Write about a time you hid from someone, or a time you disguised who you really were.

Prompt 4: Fairy tales have happy endings. All of us know what happened in that mushy fairy tale, Cinderella. Yeah, it’s romantic, the prince actually finding Cinderella. They lived happily ever after. But happy endings can sometimes be… well, boring. No zing. So predictable. So…happy. What if the shoe fit one of the sisters? What happens then? Play with your imagination here. Be funny if you like. Or serious if you feel like it. Or be an Alfred Hitchcock. Whatever you are into, write your ending to the Cinderella story—but this time, make it so she shoe fits one of the icky sisters. What does Prince Charming do? How does Cinderella cope with it? And what about the Fairy Godmother? Start your story here.

Prompt 11: Below are three sets of words. Use all the words in each set to write mini-stories of 300 words or less:
Set 1: paper clips, principle, lunchbox, swing, girl with a pink ribbon
Set 2: biology, class card, foreign student, leaf, blood sample
Set 3: typewriter, filing cabinet, puncher, clerk, carbon paper, janitor

If you’re in a pinch for a writing activity, this website seems like a good place to start.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Building Community and Encouraging Creativity among International Women

by Lucy Green, with Emily Anderson and Sarah Maloney

In Korea, during the first snowfall of the year, couples meet outside and walk together in the lacy air. In Turkey, people own Van cats, know for their excellent swimming ability and almond-shaped eyes of different hues—one blue and one green. In China, women who split from their boyfriends or husbands will often wear their hair curly instead of straight as a symbol of their freedom.

Over the past two months, our creative writing group for international women has evolved into a place where women not only have the opportunity to write and creatively express themselves in English; it has become a forum for cultural exchange, candid discussion, and the development of an open and supportive community.

Nine women of four nationalities have attended our creative writing group for international women, about five of whom have become regular attendees. Our struggle to recruit more women and to publicize our group has been ongoing, but we’ve made some encouraging strides in the creation of writing activities.

Upon the request of one of our group members, we started sending out assignments before meetings and asking attendees to bring photographs and other items that could serve as inspiration during our writing activities. This has had several positive effects: our members can spend time brainstorming outside of class, they can translate words they might need from their own language into English, and they can use visuals to share their cultures with others in the group.

Another breakthrough was inspired by Marian MacCurdy’s essay “From Trauma to Writing” in Writing and Healing. MacCurdy talked about using right brain visualization to allow access to traumatic memories for the purpose of writing about them in order to heal from them. She reported that these activities enabled her students to write stories with “sharp imagery, clear sensory detail, and thematic sophistication.” We were curious whether we could achieve these results by using visualization—not just in describing emotionally charged events from the past, but in creating memoirs, poems, even fictional stories.

We were delighted by the results of two visualization activities which we conducted in our group. During the first, we asked everyone to visualize a room that belonged to a relative—a grandmother’s kitchen, an aunt’s living room, a brother’s bedroom. We took time to close our eyes and evoke memories from that room for each of the five senses. Then we wrote down what we saw, heard, smelled, tasted, or felt. We told the women that they could write in English or their own languages, and everyone wrote furiously after each segment. Afterwards, we shared some of our memories, which contained some of the richest imagery the women had created so far. For the second activity, everyone chose an animal that she thought represented her home. Then, while listening to a series of questions, we closed our eyes and imagined those animals transforming into ourselves. Afterwards, we wrote descriptions based on our visualizations. All of us greatly enjoyed discussing the cultural mores surrounding pet ownership and learning about Van Cats, rhinoceros beetles, flying squirrels, anoles, and grackles.

We have also had success designing our meetings around a theme. We held two meetings around the theme “What is woman?”, which led to both thought-provoking conversation and beautiful writing. We were fascinated to learn about the different conceptions and expectations of women in the different cultures that were represented in our group. We began by sharing what kind of womanhood was demonstrated in our homes growing up. Gender roles in all of our cultures have changed from our grandmothers’ and mothers’ generations. We also talked about how wonderful women are—how they can multi-task, balancing work, home responsibilities, and family. Still, tension exists for us all in trying to balance these roles. We discussed the women we see as role models—our mothers, professional athletes, politicians. We even talked about the way that hair styles communicate a certain persona, and how over the course of history, cutting a woman’s hair has evolved from a symbol of shame and powerlessness to a symbol of empowerment. This conversation was the kind of conversation that teachers strive to inspire among their students, that academic colleagues strive to have with each other, and that friends long to feel safe enough to share. It was honest, open-minded, full of thoughtful questions and genuine insight.

Out of our discussions came some incredibly perceptive writing. We each selected pictures of two different women from magazine clippings and wrote imaginative personality profiles of these women. Then, we constructed split-voice poems: poems with three columns, the left and right containing separate descriptions of the two women, and the center column containing statements that were true about both women. Many of the poems captured the tension between having a career and being a mother. All of them employed powerful and evocative images. Two of these poems can be seen on our group blog .

We still have to work hard to overcome language barriers and the accompanying self-consciousness, but the trust that has developed within our group has taken us long way. Every week, we (as teachers) learn from our failures and rejoice in our successes. Every week, we (as writers and as women) leave enriched by a community that finds beauty in differences and solidarity in similarities.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Poetry Resources

Poetry Daily at

Rather than reading my horoscope, I check Poetry Daily (PD) for a poem that might shape my mood for the day. PD is a good resource for finding interesting contemporary poetry without picking through all the tiny literary journals. While a new poem is posted each day, PD also has an extensive archive of contemporary poetry written in English as well as in translation.

While working within a writing group, I might use PD to locate a new poem to bring into class by browsing the archives and clicking on titles or poets that interest me. Here is a link to one of my favorite PD finds ( I would consider using Laura Treacy Bentley's “Dowsing” with a writing group as a starting point for writing poems that involve instructions. This might be appropriate with teens, adults, and children if adapted. Here is the poem. Ideas for a writing group follows.

by Laura Treacy Bentley

Cut a forked branch.
Strip it clean of bark,

and holdfast.

Seeking water,
it leads you to places

you've never been.

The unseen
pulls like a ten pound trout
bending your branch earthward,

reeling in
the hidden spring.

(originally published in Lake Effect, found on Poetry Daily)

Writing Group Ideas for instruction poems*:

*Note: sometimes making or doing something requires not only expertise but faith in the process. Instruction poems might also hint at an awareness of the mystery in our lives.

1)Ask writers to make a list of things they do often that they might make the subject of a poem. Maybe they knit, cook, paint or draw, fish, play a sport, etc.

2)Read “Dowsing” as a group and discuss. Talk about what the poem is instructing the “you” of the poem to do. I might explain what dowsing (otherwise known as divining or water-finding) is. We could discuss the practical nature of using a forked stick to find water and the more spiritual nature of this poem.

3)Spend some time writing poems.

You might also check out site “Poems for Teens

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Teaching Style to Teenage Writers

For the past two months we've been meeting regularly with older teenagers at a local youth shelter. Our goals have been fluid, our approach plastic, and we have tried many different types of exercises to engage the youth who attend our group. At one end of the spectrum, we have wanted merely to get the youth interested in language and excited to use it. At the other end of the gamut, we have wanted to demystify the various literary techniques, attempting to make our youth feel comfortable and empowered with the tools of language. Their base interest level has fluctuated so much from group meeting to group meeting that at times the former approach seems patronizing and the latter overly complex. We have had more successful weeks and less successful ones, but it has been difficult to tell how much the prompts are at fault and how much the youth's sometimes capricious attitudes are affecting class meetings. Still, we have continued to treat this as a learning experience for us as well, and have not let setbacks discourage us from striving for our various goals. So, after two weeks of dealing with metaphor and evocative photographs, and with a hopeful heart, I wanted to lead a discussion on style.

There is some dispute as to whether you can actually teach style, and I agree with some of the opposing arguments to some degree. But I thought a prompt on style would continue our discussion of the tools and techniques of language and allow the youth to begin to think of themselves as writers with the power to craft their own style.
So, I compiled a sheet of seven different writing samples. They were 2-4 sentence excerpts taken from Harry Potter, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” Fahrenheit 451, The Bluest Eye, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” “John Wayne: A Love Song,” and “The Road.” I tried to get a good mix of styles—resigning myself to the fact that it is impossible to capture the complete range of writing styles on one page. I tried to make sure that I used male and female writers—considering ethnic background but making it secondary to diversity of style. I also represented young adult as well as more mature novels, but I kept to passages that used vocabulary which would be understood by nearly every 15-18 year old. We ended up only reading the Rowling, Thomas, Hemingway and Morrison excerpts, which was probably a good thing.

I wanted to read the passages and discuss whether we liked them and why. Did we like the words that were used? The sound of the passage? The images? Did we notice the similes or metaphors and like or dislike them? Did we like the voice of the narrator? My plan was to engage in discussion of each, determine everyone's favorite and then for the freewrite have everyone continue one of the passages in emulation of the author's style. Perhaps Eliot and his "Tradition and the Individual Talent" was working in my subconscious here.

Although the youth showed much disinterest and lack of attention during the discussion, the two responses that were read were really great. The one student who selected the Rowling passage and continued it showed more narrative arc, character development and effective use of dialogue than in any of her previous responses. She even read in a British accent! It was really fun and everyone provided positive feedback for her. Another student who had only recently begun attending sessions also responded. Although he had written and shared something tremendous last week, he had not synthesized our lessons of metaphor yet into his response. He had already demonstrated rhythm and rhyme and created an emotionally tense scene, but this week he employed two descriptive similes. They were really fantastic. Despite the problems with the discussion, these two responses made the session seem like a success.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Teaching Resource

Pizzaz! Creative Writing and Storytelling Ideas

This site is run an ESL instructor at the University of Orgeon. It contains a collection of poetry, fiction, and miscellaneous ideas for writing activities. Though the explanations may be geared toward instructors working in ESL settings, most of the activities could also be used in other community settings, particularly with kids.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Writing with Teens: Encouraging Risk-Taking

We conducted this activity with our small writing group of local teens. We’d been looking for ways to encourage them to take risks with simile and metaphor, hopefully leading them towards making odd comparisons that go beyond what they are taught in school about “correct” writing. With this type of exercise in particular, I hoped they might find a way to work through or maybe challenge the constraints and pressures of their daily lives. We met in a room darkened by daylight savings time and continued a discussion from the previous week on simile and metaphor.

I waved around a copy of Lynda Barry’s Cruddy and said that sometimes I go to books with unusual narrators for inspiration for my writing. I mentioned that I like the risks Barry takes in this novel and specifically the risks she has her main character taking both in life and in her story-telling throughout the book. Jennifer Weiner stated in her review of the book, “Like Push, and like Catcher in the Rye, this is a survivor’s story. [Cruddy] is a tale of how a teenager can live through a world of hurt and emerge as someone whose voice you become addicted to, whose stories you need to hear.”

I gave the group lines from Cruddy, three pictures to inspire them, and the following instructions: Choose one of the sentences and one of the pictures below as your inspiration. Write a brief short story or poem. You may use the line from Lynda Barry or not. Take risks in describing your characters, setting your scene, and creating dialogue.

Unusual Metaphors/Descriptions from Cruddy

[Her] breathing was squidding out horror fumes in my direction.

You could have poured a gallon of water into that face and not a drop would spill out.

Super-heated rancid grease air blasting out of vents with dust tentacles waving.

Other Cool Lines from Cruddy

When you are lost you can follow the telephone wires.

I have learned that concentrating on the smallest things can prove a distraction, an escape hole to disappear down.

We found it helpful to talk about some of these unusual metaphors and asked what sensory details they brought to mind (for example: “[Her] breathing was squidding out horror fumes in my direction” smelled like morning breath mixed with coffee, tuna-fish, and onions to us).

The pictures pulled from the web were of: 1) coffee shop scene of two people at separate tables writing/reading, 2) two people reading on a train, 3) a woman standing in front of an empty gas station with mountains in the background. She is holding a doll of some kind.

The pictures were in black and white and we asked them about each image, noticing the clock in the coffee shop, what we thought the characters were reading/writing, and what it might look like outside the coffee shop or train. With the gas station image, we asked them what colors were the mountains in the background that seemed to overshadow the gas station and whether the woman in the picture seemed pleased or upset.

Having multiple types of images helped the young writers tap into their specific moods (some darker than others) and create characters who strained at the limits of their daily lives. Overall, this was a really fun activity.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Discourse & Expression; Prompts

First thought: it's good to know, from Chp six of Writing and Healing (which I dabbled in) that writing out one's thoughts can be useful in people's personal lives in more than just an 'expressivist' way. It always seemed to me that certain models--models that suggest that when we work within the stereotypes of the time we do nothing more than reify them and program ourselves--have a rather dim view of human potential and mental adaptability. We've learned more about such adaptibility in further chapters--eight and nine, for example--nine especially, with its focus on creating narratives, based on pre-existing myths, which allow us to integrate the self back into our own harrowing experiences. I found persuasive chapter six's example of individuals who use prevailing modes of discourse to both work through their problems, and to present situations to the outer world in a way that reflects on them to advantage.

Fortunately, we've been writing in a more relaxed manner in our writing group. The better of the two prompts I've used so far was involved using a set of 'assorted words,' a series of 18 words including: lock, shadow, chest, dusty, beam, detail' of which I asked them to use any nine. The exercise seemed to both inspire and allow freedom for our writers. Perhaps because the words chosen (chest, lock, dusty, spool, acorn, ink, detail, polish, interior, lift, unfasten, scent, nebulous, stone, corner, shadow, beam) all followed a certain pattern, our writers produced broadly similar, but distinct, pieces. I believe the balance this exercise, of allowing freedom while giving enough concrete suggestion for young writers to work off of, may be important to producing good prompts. Further prompts perhaps demonstrate this. A ghost-story prompt, for example, and one based on animal poetry, both seemed to work well along the lines described, offering students a comfortable lead toward producing good writing. However, a prompt using a series of evocative images ('what ideas might the images relate to,' I asked, showing images of space, a stone statue, and a fiery, human-shaped figure) proved either too specific or too abstract to be entirely succesful, producing more stunted writing, and a few nonstarters.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Writing with Children: Poems about their Home State

We conducted this activity with a small group of mixed-age students ranging from fourth to ninth grade. First, we read Carl Sandburg's "Pennsylvania," a short poem which is rich in images and concrete referents to Pennsylvania's landscape and towns--elements we felt would make the poem accessible to young students with limited and varied knowledge of how to read poetry. In our discussion of the poem, we focused on these images, and talked about what made them specifically Pennsylvanian. The students related to the coal, mountains, miners, and rivers present in "Pennsylvania." We then asked our students to write about their own Pennsylvanias--for them, Bellefonte, a small central PA town not far from Penn State's campus--in isolated sentences that focused on images from their experiences. They came up with some rich stuff, including family rituals and landscape description, food and cultural details. We read our sentences aloud and began the process of combining our sentences into a found poem of sorts, one that would stand as representative of our collective PA.

This activity could be easily adapted to suit any town, city, or state. I've discovered that strong resources for poems about place come from anthologies organized by region, though "Pennsylvania" came via some past reading experience with Sandburg and, admittedly, some intrepid Googling--in my opinion, an inestimably helpful teaching tool! We found that the students' enthusiasm for their hometown and home state contributed quite positively to the writing experience and to the quality of the overall discussion. For reference, here's the Sandburg poem:


I have been in Pennsylvania,
In the Monongahela and Hocking Valleys.

In the blue Susquehanna
On a Saturday morning
I saw a mounted constabulary go by,
I saw boys playing marbles.
Spring and the hills laughed.

And in places
Along the Appalachian chain,
I saw steel arms handling coal and iron,
And I saw the white-cauliflower faces
Of miner's wives waiting for the men to come home from the day's work.

I made color studies in crimson and violet
Over the dust and domes of culm at sunset.