Thursday, December 16, 2010

Writing about Winter Walking

Walking Beside a Creek

Walking beside a creek
in December, the black ice
windy with leaves,
you can feel the great joy
of the trees, their coats
thrown open like drunken men,
the lifeblood thudding
in their tight, wet boots.

by Ted Kooser
Flying at Night
The University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Written from a newt's point of view

My daughter Colette just started teaching fourth grade this year. A friend gave her a fire-bellied newt for her classroom. Colette invited her students to write from the newt's point of view about his first week with the students. Colette has always inhabited other points of view in her own writing--since she was a little girl. She wrote novels by dogs and cultivated a family of feathers who spoke.

Here's an excerpt from what she posted on her blog for her students and their parents.

Meet our new class member, Fig, a fire-bellied newt.
The children welcomed him this week by imagining Fig’s life and writing from his point of view. This is an excellent exercise for building empathy and for understanding people and things that are different from us. To write well, it’s important to learn how to inhabit other characters. From the children’s excerpts you will learn some things about Fig’s past and about how he feels in his new environment.

I had the students start by writing: “Hi. My name is Fig and today is my first day in Ms. Henderson’s class . . .”

Here are excerpts from the children’s writings.

From Fig’s Point of View:

I’m excited for the adventures I’ll have here as long as there are no cats! I’m also a little scared. So far every kid is saying things to me like, “Cool!” “Weird!” I am also excited about learning math. I will finally be able to count my toes and multiply my rocks. I’m also pretty scared of falling out of my cage again and possibly dehydrating. I hope I can make some lizard friends and have a fig party! All we do is sit and stare at each other.

Luckily I’m in the one and only Ms. Henderson’s classs! I am so excited. I’ve learned from Lauren that she’s nice, sweet, funny and super smart. That’s not the only good news. I haven’t seen a single cat here, not even a kitten! But it’s a little creepy with all the students staring at me. I am just a regular kid like everyone. I am just here to learn.
It’s also a much better view here on a desk than on the top of a toilet seat!
I also like the kids in this room. So far no one looked at me and screamed. They look at me and do the “aw ooaw cute!” so I show off my really cool really red belly.

I am a fire-bellied newt. I have no idea who all these giants are that keep coming up to my tank to stare at me and tap on the glass. This is better than being stuck in a dark office. I am a little shy so I’m gonna curl up by the rocks and the plant to relax. But I am also excited so I am moving and swimming a lot. By the looks of this place, I don’t see any wild cats to grab me. I have gone through very crazy issues. I hope that the giants don’t think I am weird. When you are a newt life can be hard because you are so puny. The one thing I like today is I’m getting treated like a celebrity with giants looking at me. I think I’m gonna like life here!

I am very excited to switch to all of the tables expecially table 3. I wonder if they are all nice. I hope I learn division and multiplication. I am very glad there aren’t any cats here or else I might get knocked out of the cage and get all dehydrated and risk dying. I live in a small clear tank.

The first reason I’m excited to be here is that I can see out the windows. That might sound weird but you try being stuck in an office all day! The 2nd reason is I won’t get dehydrated I hope. If you want to look at me I’m stuck in that cage at table 5. I could at least tell you one billion things I don’t like but the most important rule is never chuck me at the ground. The worst thing about being a newt is that everyone is always starting at me and it’s seriously weird and freaky, all those giant eyes pointing at me. I’m 16. I can live up to my 60’s. I will have 50% good time and 50% bad time.

I was very nervous at first but when all the kds came in with their smiling faces I knew this would be a good day. I am wondering what we will do the rest of the day. By the way, this is how my day started off. Bump! “Sorry, Fig!” Ms Henderson was driving me to Mills Park Elementary. I had butterflies in my stomach.
The car stopped and parked. We were there.
When we walked in the room Ms Henderson plopped me down on a table. I waited for about an hour until this loud noise went off and Ms. Henderson put something up on the promethean board. Five more minutes passed and finally some kids started coming in. They all walked over to the table that I was at but none of them sat down by me. I was worried again but this time because I thought none of them liked me.
After what seemed like an hour she stopped talking and made people pull stuff out of a cup. One of the tables were all cheering. I sat at that table today and it turned out everybody liked me!

I think that living here will be okay because I’m in my same box and all the same rocks are here. I also like that there is enough sunlight in here. But the best part of all is . . .NO CATS!
I don’t like that all these, what do you call them, kids staring at me all day. Well, yes, that means I’m really popular and all, but it’s starting to freak me out.
Overall, I think living here will be really fun.

It is awesome here with the sunlight from the glass windows and half giants (the kids to you guys), but the way here was not that good. Here is how it went. We were driving to this awesome school when the full giant, Ms. Henderson, hit a very nasty speed bump. I was bouncing like a ball.
I’m now on table 5 so there are four half giants here.
I think I’m a lizard. Bye bye giants. See you table 4 giants tomorrow.

I am looking forward to learning about what usually happens in room 3404 and doing what I usually do, like swim and eat. My cage is an okay place with rocks, water, and a fake plant. Being a fire-bellied newt can be fun and sometimes scary. The fun part is going new places and having new experiences (although not all experiences are fun!). The scary part is escaping from my cage and getting dehydrated and shriveling up. But other than my life-threatening situations, being a fire-bellied newt is fun.

I have been through many crazy adventures. You won’t believe how crazy my adventures were. Luckily humans aren’t afraid of cats. It’s really hard for a type of newt like me to survive in a little cage. I may not be big but I am 16 years old. My master, Laura, kind of does a good job protecting me. I don’t play video games or work! That’s the good part of being a newt.
In my life I don’t have any cell phones, cars, shops, or anything. At least I have food. I am so surprised to see so many new kids. It’s a good thing I’m not shy! Have a very happy day!

Right now I’m feeling really excited to be here. I can’t wait to meet all the boys and girls in room 3404. I have never been to a 4th grade class so I can’t wait to see what 4th graders do.
My cage is fun! I love relaxing in the water. I could use just a little more space and a buddy to hang out with! I love my big plant.
I think it is really fun being a fire-beelied newt. Outside of my cage, I can hear the boys and girls talking about my red belly. They are all saying how it’s so cool! I always smile when they say it.
When I grow up I want to be famous! I love hearing all the compliments I get from the boys and girls! I am also hoping to get some from my fans! I love little children.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my story.

I am excited and scared at the same time. I am looking forward to switching tables but first I’m staying at table 5. The cage is too small but it’ll do for now. Everyone likes me. They all came up this morning to look at me. I think they like my red belly, especially Ms. Henderson. When we were riding to school she hit a bump and I almost did a flip. I’m pretty small but I’m cool. I hope I can control myself not to get out of the new small cage. I think I’ll like it here in room 3404.

I’m feeling excited to be here in room 3404. My cage is a little small but it fits well. I’m looking forward to being at every table in the classroom. In my cage I love to climb up the walls to show off my belly. I’m a little scared of people picking me up and squeezing me or pulling my tail off, but Ms. Henderson told everybody the rules that Laura wants the children to obey. I love seeing all the kids in the classroom. I’ve been through some life and death situations but lucky for me, I survived. Thank you for inviting me here! Your class newt.

I am feeling really excited to be in this classroom, though I’m not used to it. I am looking forward to seeing everyone who is taking care of me. I feel like I’m going to learn new things every day, like meeting everyone and seeing what they’re learning today. It is fun hanging out in my cage looking around in the classroom! I’ve heard that the first week I’m here I’m going to each table so we can meet each other. (Just to let you know, I love meeting people!) It feels cool being a fire-belly newt. I can always swim around and look around, being the best class pet I can ever be!
I am staying here for a long time, having fun! I can’t wait to see what my first week here is going to be like!

I feel so excited to be in Ms. Henderson’s classroom. But I feel so small and shy compared to all the kids in the class.
I like to show off my stomach. It’s red—really, really red. I climb up the walls of my cage and show my stomach off for a little while. Then I climb down into the warm-cold water. It feels kind of relaxing.
I am also 16 years old and I can live up to 60, hopefully.
I know I should have mentioned this before, but I also feel really shy with all those people looking down on me, watching my every move. I hope it gets better. BYE!

Fig is 16 years old and he’s short. Listen to Fig as he tells you what his name is. “Hi. My name is Fig and today is my first day at Mills Park Elementary School. I’m Fig and I am happy. I’m excited and I’m not scared. I like to learn to write stories on a piece of notebook paper. I am learning! Got to go!

Hello parents and students! I am very happy here, but you know what? I would love a bigger house. I understand that this is a time of year when some people give gifts. Hmmm. Anybody want to chip in and get me a bigger cage? Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy with what I’ve got. But I could use some more space—for swimming and stretching and relaxing and watching all of you.
--Your class pet and good friend, Fig

has always inhabited other points of view in her writing--since she was a little girl. She wrote novels by dogs and cultivated a family of feathers who spoke. When our dog Rosie ate most of her collection, Colette said: "Feather's family is ruined."

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Writing Journey: Where am I going?

"To write is to embark on a journey of which we do not know the destination. Thus, writing requires a great act of trust. We have to say to ourselves: 'I do not yet know what I carry in my heart, but I trust it will emerge as I write.' Writing is like giving away the few loaves and fishes we have, trusting that they will multiply in the giving. Once we dare to 'give away' on paper the few thoughts that come to us, we start discovering how much is hidden underneath these thoughts and thus we gradually come in touch with our own riches and resources." Henri Nouwen in Spiritual Direction: Wisdom for the Long Walk of Faith

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Why aren't I writing?

I met with a writing client today who is revising a terrific memoir but has trouble getting to her desk:

"I'll do anything but write," she told me. "I'll clean the trim on the stove and scrub toilets before I'll sit down and get to work. But once I do, I feel great, whole, happy."

Why don't we write when we know it's what brings us the most satisfaction? I, for one, tend to be a deadline-driven writer. On assignment, I get the job done and in a timely manner. As for my own work, well . . .I have been known to wander down many a tantalizing path before I get started in the morning.

Here's an essay on the subject from Glimmertrain.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A memoir about writing

"Above all, avoid melodrama. Understate the narrator's emotional reaction. What the author withholds, the reader supplies. Establish and maintain the story's cocreation; it's essential."

The quote is from a memoir, Mentor, by Tom Grimes. Not only is this a compelling well-wrought story worth studying for its craft, it's also full of gems--even entire teaching scenes lifted from workshops--about writing.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

No Stories after Supper

On several of my grade school report cards, teachers cautioned my parents: Don't tell her stories or read to her after dinner. Settle her down for bed. She gets riled up easily.

I think of that advice sometimes now, as I try to calm down after listening to the powerful stories my students write and read in my classes, which, guess what, meet after dinner. Sometimes long after everybody's gone home, I pace and toss into the wee hours, my mind flooded with narratives.

I'm on break for the month of August and am reading Moby Dick Settle down? Tonight? After ingesting this robust passage? Note to self: Read only in the morning.

". . . After a stiff pull, their harpooneer got fast, and, spear in hand, Radney sprang to the bow. He was always a furious man, it seems, in a boat. And now his bandaged cry was, to beach him on the whale's topmost back. Nothing loath, his bowsman hauled him up and up, through a blinding foam that blent two whitenesses together; till of a sudden the boat struck as against a sunken ledge, and keeling over, spilled out the standing mate. That instant, as he fell on the whale's slippery back, the boat righted, and was dashed aside by the swell, while Radney was tossed over into the sea, on the other flank of the whale.

"He struck out through the spray, and, for an instant, was dimly seen through that veil, wildly seeking to remove himself from the eye of Moby Dick. But the whale rushed round in a sudden maelstrom; seized the swimmer between his jaws; and rearing high up with him, plunged headlong again, and went down.

"Meantime, at the first tap of the boat's bottom, the Lakeman had slackened the line, so as to drop astern from the whirlpool; calmly looking on, he thought his own thoughts. But a sudden, terrific, downward jerking of the boat, quickly brought his knife to the line. He cut it; and the whale was free. But, at some distance, Moby Dick rose again, with some tatters of Radney's red woollen shirt, caught in the teeth that had destroyed him. All four boats gave chase again; but the whale eluded them, and finally wholly disappeared."

Saturday, July 17, 2010

5 Reasons Why I Don't Blog More Often

We've been making lists in my journal writing workshop these last two weeks:

1) Lists of things that give us energy (+) and rob us of energy (- )
2) And lists of why
3) Lists of beliefs and superstitions our families held when we were growing up--overt and covert
4) Lists of beliefs we hold now
5) Lists of what matters

And I just read a post, a list of 7 links for bloggers, which made me ask myself (again) why I don't blog more often.

Five Reasons I don't post more often:

1) I teach at least 4 workshops a week and feel talked out--about writing and everything else--at the end of the day. Write a post, now? Are you kidding?

2) I spend a lot of time each week editing and making post-like comments on writers' work. Go write a post? Busman's holiday.

3) I enjoy being a voyeur, anonymous, reading other people's blogs and not having to comment or post in response. I'm not responsible for or to these people in any way. And that's liberating.

4) Hmmm . . . I'm breaking a sweat. See, I don't have staying power for posts. "Just take something you've discussed in class and turn it into a post," my blog-man husband says. "But, that's work," I say. "So?" he says. And we have a tiresome little spat over who works harder. And I don't get a post written.

5) Here it is, folks. I'm not really clear about my niche. I mean I could post a lot about my mother's face, or my theories on why my cat is acting out on rugs and in suitcases, or my client who can't find drafts on his desktop. But isn't a blogger supposed to know her niche?

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Summer Writing Goals: Write Them Down!

I make one final request of all my students before we break for the summer: Write down your summer writing goals and send them to me.

When I have the entire workshops' goals, I email them to everyone in the group.

"Print this out," I suggest, "and post it by your computer."

And when we get together for our monthly summer sessions, we devote part of every meeting to going over each person's goals.

The act of writing down--and sharing--goals helps us achieve them.

If you're not in a writing workshop, find a writing friend to share goals with. Meet over the summer--online if not in person--and review your goals.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Questions Writers Ask

As an editor and writing coach, I am often asked questions like: Am I a good writer? Do I have potential? Do you think I can sell this piece to The New Yorker?

This question will come up this week at the writing workshop I'm teaching in Doha, Qatar. Many of the fledgling writers here have had little opportunity to take workshops or discuss their literary dreams. I give them a lot of credit for signing up and showing up. I have some answers and suggestions for them but I can't tell them they'll be best-selling authors. I can't tell anyone this, of course.

In this post Jane Friedman, of Writer's Digest, offers solid responses to those Can-I-do-this questions writers so often ask.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Pushing the Boundaries: Writing Deadline

Nothing like a deadline to get us all in gear.

Here are some good summer dates that will keep us working and submitting--on our
nonfiction essays. Three thousand words or fewer and the truth. I think you can do it.

Monday, May 24, 2010

A Blog? A Website? What Does a Writer Need: When and Why

This is an excellent post about blogs and websites--when you need which and how to use both.

12 Submission Possibilities

My students are always looking for good markets for their writing.
Some of these publications sound interesting--definitely worth checking out:

Sunday, May 23, 2010


I just lost a post. It was one of the best things I've ever written. Trust me. After some serious edits I published it.


What appeared?

The first draft.

My honed piece?



So this is why my husband tells me to compose in a text editor, then cut and paste into the blog. Sigh.

I should have watched the final episode of "Lost" instead of writing tonight.


I just lost a post. It was one of the best things I've ever written. Trust me. After some serious edits I published it.


What appeared?

The first draft.

My honed piece?



So this is why my husband tells me to compose in Word, then cut and paste into the blog. Sigh.

I should have watched the final episode of "Lost" instead of writing tonight.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Weekly Writing Roundup, May 7

Hey there. Every Friday I'm going to post links to a few articles and essays I've come across during the week that I hope you'll find useful and interesting. Feel free to comment; I'd love to hear from you.

What are you doing (or did you do) after college? I love this Op-Ed from the Times about the author's experience after graduating. I want to write about the cross-country tour I took with a dance company--in an old school bus and with our director's three young children. How about you?

Many of you are writing about your ancestors. Here's a craft piece on giving them flesh and blood:

A writing friend, Lyn Hawks, just published "Gramma's Day," a piece that uses a simple device to explore her grandmother's life and her own. You might want to play around with the form--using then and now.

And who better than William Zinsser to offer tips on memoir writing? (By the way, he publishes a piece every week, William Zinsser on Friday).

And for grammar geeks! Getting started on sentence diagramming:

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

The Big-Word Problem

Recently I vetoed reading a poem as a writing prompt in a workshop--it used big words that people might not know. I didn't want the participants to spend any time having to decode the poem's meaning.

"I am so glad you didn't use a poem with words we might not get," one workshop member said. "Poetry needs to be accessible, have strong images, not difficult words."

"Yeah, I hate that," another student said. "Big words put me off the author."

I thought of the scene in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland when Alice and her new rodent and bird friends are trying to dry themselves after swimming in a pool of Alice's tears. (She shed the tears when she was huge and crying about being too big to fit through the tiny door that led to the lovely garden.)

The Dodo chimes in about how to get dry: "I move that the meeting adjourn, for the immediate adoption of more energetic remedies."

"Speak English!" said the Eaglet. "I don't know the meaning of half those long words, and, what's more, I don't believe you do either!" And the Eaglet bent down its head to hide a smile: some of the other birds tittered audibly.

"What I was going to say," said the Dodo in an offended tone, "was, that the best thing to get us dry would be a Caucus-race."

Such a wild yet wise book.

Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English (originally published in 1926) advises writers to be: "direct, simple, brief, vigorous, and lucid."

The vocabulary chapter says: "Prefer the familiar word to the far-fetched. Prefer the concrete word to the abstract. Prefer the single word to the circumlocution. Prefer the short word to the long."

Oops. Big word alert: Circumlocution, in case you don't know, means: a roundabout or indirect way of speaking; the use of more words than necessary to express an idea.

Well, sometimes a big word is simply the best word. Still, I try to avoid them in my own writing and in the writings I share with my groups.

William Zinsser states in Zinsser on Friday that we should write with "no unnecessary parts." Big cumbersome words that are off-putting and intimidating are, indeed, unnecessary parts.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Sugar-Coated Exposition

If you haven't yet read Out Stealing Horses, do. You're in for a treat.

By page 67, the reader is really curious to know more about Trond Sander, the protagonist in this book. In chapter one, he has moved back to a cabin on a river in Norway where he spent a summer as a boy. He is a sixty-seven year old man. He seems broken but we don't know why or how. In chapter two we are with him in his childhood for some vivid and evocative scenes. By chapter five we're back to the narrative present--Trond, out walking with his dog Lyra, has recognized a neighbor. We have no idea what has happened to Trond between his teen years and now but we're hooked on the sensual, melancholic writing. We want to know more about Sander.

Here's how author Per Petterson informs us. He has our main character go into the small town to shop at the Co-op. Here's Trond Sander in the store:

"I exchange greetings to right and left, they are used to me know and realize I am here to stay and that I an not one of the holiday cottage crew who pile out here in their mammoth cars every Easter and summer to fish by day and play poker and swig sundowners in the evening. It took some time before they started to ask questions, cautiously, in the queue for the check-out, and now everyone knows who I am and where I live. They know about my working life, how old I am, that my wife died three years ago in an accident I only just survived myself, that she was not my first wife, and that I have two grown-up children from an earlier marriage, and that they have children themselves . . . " and so on.

As readers we always need to know about characters. We demand to know, and if we don't know enough we will detach. At the same time we bristle at direct exposition. So this is a great way to let the reader know in a totally believable and indirect fashion.

Sugar-coated exposition, my husband calls it.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Reading for Life

I saw this on a student's email signature and had to post it.

A woman in a class this week talked about her six-year-old son saying something to her like, "You're always reading, Mom. Nose in a book."

At the time she was sitting on her couch devouring Mary Karr's The Liar's Club. She read him the part about kids shooting BB guns. He got wide-eyed.

Later, he wanted to hear more from the BB gun book.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Don't Bear It

"There is no greater ______ than bearing an untold story inside you."
Maya Angelou

This is a clue in the Sunday New York Times Magazine.

The five-letter word answer?


So don't bear. Write it! Share it.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Cluster Crazy

I've been telling my students this week about the cluster: you put a word that represents something important in the middle of a large unlined piece of paper. Draw a circle around it. Let ideas and chains of thought spill onto the page: spoke, new idea, circle it, spoke, related idea--all stemming from this central theme. (Below is a cluster with revision ideas for a book I'm working on. It's hard to see but the central idea in blue/green is "book revision.")

The bubbles contain related changes and ideas.

Clusters are like outlines except they aren't linear. And I like that. It's easy to see the whole picture. I can pick a circle, any circle, and start writing.

I use clusters for all my writing projects and to plan workshops.

A woman I'm working with needs to move ahead right now writing her memoir, but she wants to come back at some point to expand a section that's incomplete. She has lots of ideas for this section and wants to record them--quickly, in shorthand. But she doesn't want her writing momentum to lag right now. Enter: The cluster.

Another client uses a cluster for each chapter of her book--and sub clusters for sections of chapters.

Try one. And let me know what you think, what you learn.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Only You Can Do Yours

Henry James told Edith Wharton: "There it is round you. Don't pass it by — the immediate, the real, the only, the yours, the novelist's that it waits for. Take hold of it and keep hold, and let it pull you where it will."

What is it that is yours alone? Don't know? You'll find out by writing.

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