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.