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.

“This Is Just To Say” Activity

Prepared by Lucy Green

I. Read “This is Just to Say” by William Carlos Williams

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

II. Discuss poem

1. Are there any words you would like to know the meaning of?
2. What is happening in this poem?
3. How do we know that the plums weren’t his?
4. Who do you think this poem was written to?
5. Where might the poet leave this poem, if it were a message for that person? (kitchen table, empty plate)
6. He apologizes, but is he really sorry? Would he do it again if he had the chance?
7. William Carolos Williams is known for his use of imagery, or sensory detail, which means he likes to describe things you can see, taste, smell, touch, or hear. What sensory details exist in this poem?

III. Assignment: I’d like you to write your own version of “This Is Just To Say.” Have you ever done anything you shouldn’t have, but that you really enjoyed? Or have you ever wanted to? We call this being mischievous.

Show yourself doing something mischievous, and show the reader you’re not really sorry. It can be something that really happened or something you made up. You can use the idea of eating something that belonged to someone else… but it also doesn’t have to do with eating. Maybe you took your husband’s favorite pen, because you like the way it writes. Maybe you made a mess and left it for someone else to clean up.

Pretend this is a note, or possibly a phone message, you’re leaving for someone.
Try to use imagery—the way something looked, smelled, sounded, tasted, or felt.

IV. Write poems and share them.

Creative Writing Group for International Women -- Introduction

by Emily Anderson, with Lucy Green and Sarah Maloney

Will we approach and present writing as an act of self-expression, to the exclusion of form and stylistic convention? Or will we approach and present writing as a rhetorical act, a way of engaging with an audience, to inform, enlighten, entertain, and emotionally impact? How will we present the vocabulary of creative writing to groups that have never learned that vocabulary?

Ten weeks ago, before our first class meeting for The Writer in the Community, I asked myself those questions. I was not sure how we as a group, or how I personally, would approach the teaching of writing in community settings.

Together with two of my classmates, I am teaching creative writing to a group of international women; they are a mixture of the wives of graduate students and students themselves. We chose to work with this population because they tend to be a rather invisible group here in State College, particularly those women who are married to students or faculty rather than directly affiliated with the university. Often they have come to this country knowing no one but their husbands. We hoped to offer the women a chance to express themselves through writing, to improve their English skills, and to make friends and feel part of a community.

One of my classmates lives in Penn State’s graduate student housing, and she was able to reserve a room in the community center of the graduate housing complex for our weekly meetings. Before our first meeting, we put up fliers around the complex, in some campus buildings, and in a few locations around town, namely the international grocery stores and one supermarket. We also set up a free webmail account and included the email address on the fliers. We got a few emails, and three women attended the first group meeting. For that first meeting, we started with a couple of introductory questions and talked informally for a little while, and then we did a writing exercise from a photograph.

We passed out copies of a photo from a magazine; it was a picture of an immaculate room with a single pair of shoes in the middle of the floor. As a group we discussed the picture, pointing out different items and features, trying to provide some vocabulary so that everyone could write about it. Then we all wrote about the picture, giving the option to either describe it or make up a story about a person who lived there or something that happened there. Two of the three women were willing to share their writing; although the overall level of English knowledge may not have been what we expected, we felt like the first class went well.

For the second class, we decided to do a food theme. Our introductory question asked everyone to describe a favorite meal; this worked better for some people than others – one of the women told us she didn’t know the English words for the ingredients. Then we did a poetry exercise based on the William Carlos Williams poem “This Is Just To Say.” (A template for this exercise is posted separately.) We read the poem aloud and discussed it, focusing both on the vocabulary and on the meaning of the piece, then we each wrote a poem in that same vein. For our second exercise that day, we listed all the items we could think of that were in our refrigerators, and then, picking one, wrote about a situation in which we would use that item.

After this second class, we asked the women what they’d thought of the exercises, and one mentioned that it was really useful to talk about everyday sorts of words, like those pertaining to food and cooking. We took this as a direction for the next few classes and decided to focus our themes on everyday situations and vocabularies such as family, weather, animals, etc. We will write more about other exercises in a future blog post, but we hope this gives an overview of the type of community in which we are working. In most of our meetings, it has often felt more like a peer group than a teacher-student interaction; although my classmates and I have initiated discussion and led writing exercises, quite often, and quite pleasantly, it has felt simply like a group of women sitting around a table talking.

In spite of the generally positive tone our meetings have had, we have had some difficulties, and we have been forced to re-examine some of our expectations and goals. The first issue we encountered is simply how to deal with a wide range of language abilities; our participants range from those who are fluent in English to those whose familiarity with English is very low. We have attempted to keep the instructions for our writing prompts simple but open-ended, and we have also found that talking extensively about the prompt has really helped to provide some vocabulary and to let everyone start thinking about the topic. In addition to a range of very different language abilities, we have also struggled with attendance; our group meetings have averaged only two or three attendees even though we have received emails of interest from many others have had several women attend only one or two meetings. We have tried to think of ways to raise our numbers, and we’ve definitely tried to analyze what we can do to get the women to come back every week.

Finally, we are constantly revising our expectations and what we hope to accomplish in the group. When we first started planning, we’d thought it might be nice to put together a small booklet at the end of the semester or possibly do a small public reading; while that may still be a possibility, our expectations have evolved to focus less on a goal and more on the process. Each week we learn more about what exercises are effective, what topics are interesting; and when we plan for the next week, we incorporate those lessons. We have also shifted our aims slightly. We see real social benefits to the group, and we’ve also received positive feedback as to how the group is helping the women with learning English. Because of that, I think we’ve grown less concerned, and less stressed out about, producing a certain type of creative product. As MFA students, my classmates and I are used to focusing intently on the craft of writing; each week in our group meetings we get a chance to step back from that and just enjoy talking and writing with a group of women.

In looking at the questions I had asked myself at the beginning of the semester, I feel that we are approaching the writing we do each week in this group as a rhetorical, communal activity. The Writer in the Community experience for us has become much more about the community than the writer.