Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Choosing Specific Words To Establish Tone and Set a Mood

     After my 10-year-old student Lisa learned about how she could affect a reader's experience by choosing words to connote a particular tone, she took it upon herself to send me these contrasting depictions of "The Waking World"--showing both a positive and a negative connotation. As you will see, Lisa clearly understands the power of words upon the mood of the reader, as well as the mood of the fictional characters. Lessons on "connotation" and "tone" are usually reserved for high school English classes, but I have seen, again and again, with students like Lisa, that avid readers of any age can comprehend word power in a metacognitive way. 

The Waking World (Negative)
Cold dawn light filtered through the gray, cloudy sky. People slumped their way into coffee shops. The gaunt peoples’ spirits were as transparent as a ghost. Rusty cars sat on the dark road, and their headlights, almost like eyes, looked menacingly at the passing pedestrians dragging their bodies across the sidewalk. Empty cans thunked against the ground and echoed the hollow feelings of the town. Children walked their bikes across the dead grass and didn’t stop to say a word to fellow classmates. Dogs barked at approaching cats as they hissed scornfully. Fungi grew on almost every tree and the trees seemed to say, “I am not a happy tree, I am an ugly, sad tree.” Flowers drooped and mosquitos bit into the unappetizing, but only food--the grumpy humans.

The Waking World (Positive)

Warm dawn light seeped into the air of the town. People emerged from their houses and breathed in the air as if God were standing right there and they were trying to breathe in the sweet scent. Coffee sellers came out to greet people with their coffee and maybe a pleasant “Hello!” Children skipped in the front yards, getting their bikes and pedaling off to school, and women pushed strollers across the streets, with babies echoing the cheers of laughter and happiness. The flowers stood proudly, fanning out their vivid colors and leaves. The trees stood tall as if they ruled the world. Cats purred and dogs wagged their tails. As the sun rose over the green mountain peaks, everyone set off happily to enjoy the rest of the day.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018


            Personal ads, written by lonely people seeking connections or reconnections with others, offer an emotional treasure chest of possible stories—both fictional and factual—to a creative, introspective mind. We need not have experienced the same kinds of losses, joys, fears, or regrets that the ad writers express to be able to awaken similar emotions and weave them into original fiction, memoirs, or poems. For example, a couple of wistful lines from the "Missed Connections" section of Craigslist prompted me to spin a story of romantic obsession between fictional characters who have nothing in common with me except these emotions: artistic passion, self-doubt, and a yearning for meaningful connections with colorful people. Emotional authenticity turns stick figure characters into fully fleshed out human beings. These are the lines that evoked my story:

                        “I shouldn’t remember you. Maybe you will fade now.”

            From those pained words, I wrote “Awaiting Fading,” a short story about a young artist who can’t erase the memory of a shopping experience at an art supply store, where she found herself enchanted by an employee with whom she shared glimpses of their respective artworks on Instagram before insecurity transformed admiration into intimidation, making the customer feel so unworthy of the new friend that she ran away from the store, as well as from her own feelings of inadequacy. The story begins with the lines from Craigslist, as the narrator stares wistfully at the now empty store, permanently closed, and realizes that she has no way to reconnect with the artist employee.

            I presented those same story-evoking lines to some of my teenage students. I assured them that by borrowing a pair of lines, and then taking off with it, like a torch passed from runner to runner in a cross-country marathon, they would not be plagiarizing, but rather, connecting and reconnecting with readers in the same way that the author of that borrowed line wishes to have connected with the one whose memory won’t fade. I gave them about 30 minutes to whip up a first draft of a short fiction worked based on emotional, but not actual reality. The teenagers were pleased and surprised by their own creations. 

          The on-demand short fictional works included: one story about a border security agent who can’t get a tiny Mexican boy out of his mind after the agent intentionally broke the law and allowed the boy and his family safe, but illegal passage into the US; another story about a person who once witnessed a woman jumping from a high-rise to her death, and now yearns for that death to stop haunting her; one poem about a witnessed act of charity in India, between a rich woman in a car and a child begging at her window; and another story about a soldier at war, forced to kill a fellow soldier who defied regulations. Each story's personal emotional reality gave texture to the purely imaginary characters and settings. 
(painting by my son, Ian Lipson, just because I find it inspiring...)

          Two sample short stories follow, one by Daniel and another by Liam, ages 15 and 16, respectively.

By Daniel

            I don't know why I remember you. You, of all the people who passed through these gates. What made you so different from that mass of huddled souls?

            I can see you still. Your unbuttoned collar. Your untied shoes. Your toy bear, hugged tight against your chest.  I sometimes wonder what made you come here.  I remember stamping your passport for tourism. Your family said that you’d stay for just a few weeks. To see your relatives, then leave. I’ve gone and checked your records. You never did leave. 

            I sometimes wonder where you are now. I know that I should have reported you as soon as your visa was up, but I didn’t. I wonder why. What made you, of all people, so different from all the other I flagged and sent back?             

            Perhaps you’re not here anymore. Perhaps you were only passing through on your journey to who knows where fleeing from who knows what. You certainly don’t know, or didn’t at the time. Your father didn’t look at me. Your mother left so fast that she left a pair of pants behind. They’d fallen out of her luggage. I called her back, but only you turned to look at me.

              I still remember what was in those pants. They were blue jeans. Made in Malaysia. In the pockets were a crumpled up receipt and a candy wrapper. Caramelo agridulce. I asked my coworker what it meant. Why anyone would enjoy bittersweet candy is beyond me.

              Sometimes I think that I remember you for a reason. After all, God does not play dice. Why should your memory persist? I’ve seen countless deportations, telling myself that it was for the good of our community. I somehow always find myself looking out for your face. You must be grown up by now. It’s been ten years since you passed through our checkpoint. I wonder what your life is like. Do you go to school? Do manual labor like your father did? (The callouses never lie.) Perhaps I should have stopped you. Pulled you and your family over. I knew what was happening. I don’t know why I didn’t.
* * *

I Shouldn’t Remember You
by Liam

          I shouldn’t remember you. Maybe you will fade now…as so many of the others have done. 

           You never really did fit in with us, having nothing to boast, no stories to share, never understanding the jokes we told. I remember the nights you sat alone at the fires, staring off into the distance, as if grasping for a lost memory, while the rest of us huddled close in the winter nights, discussing battle plans and sharing tales of our women and children, thousands of miles across the Atlantic.

Every so often, one of us would call out to you, “Come join us, laddie, tell us of your deeds. We’ve got a lot more wine to spill.” Yet, you never did join us. Instead, your sole response would always be some clever excuse to get away from our reeking breaths.

“Damn rebs,” you would say, in your best impression of a grown man’s voice, “Someone had better keep watch.” And so the nights would go on.

We kept our steady march, until the day we finally reached Bunker Hill. Then came battle day, our valiant countrymen, charging up the slopes, straight into the Americans’ grapeshot and musket balls. Our comrades, who endured so much alongside us were ripped apart, blown to shreds by the merciless rebels above the hill. Then came our turn, our regiment’s attempt to secure the fort. As we charged out into the open field, only you stayed behind, clutching the seams of your bloodstained jacket, crying for mother, crying to be taken back home.

I had to do it. It was my job. One that I had done countless times before. Yet, when I called your name, and stated your crimes for cowardice, I could barely force myself to raise my gun. My hands trembled as I poised the barrel of my flintlock against your temple. “I had to do it,” is what I now tell myself. “It was necessary for the discipline of the men.” But every time I close my eyes, I think to myself, “I am the man who murdered a boy crying for his mother.”

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Stone Soup Story Starters: How a Stone Led to a Story

A box of thought-provoking, "found objects" prompts fiction and poetry writing when accompanied by the following kinds of questions:
  • Who treasures this object, and why?
  • When did s/he receive or find it?
  • What were the circumstances of the receiving of this object?
  • Did someone give it to him/her, and if so, why?
  • Does the object evoke happiness, sadness, anger, nostalgia...?
  • Does the object represent a memory, or will you show the character pondering it for the first time?
  • Will you allow your character to narrate the story of this object, or will you choose third-person omniscient point-of-view?
  • What if the character has found the object after losing it; or what if the character has just lost this object and that is the event in your story?

I advise my students to answer the above kinds of questions in their object-prompted short stories or poems. The only requirements of this exercise are the use of multi sensory imagery and my "D.A.D. Technique for Painting Word Pictures" (the use of Description, Action, and Dialogue). Below is a sample, written by a talented new student of mine, named Allison, about the object in the picture.

Stone Life
by Allison, age 11

I opened up the pencil case, hoping for another eraser to use, but instead, I found something else. I fingered the smooth object. A silent tear escaped from my eye.
“Why’d you leave?” I whispered. Without my wanting to, the memory, from three years ago, flashed in my head.

“Amy dear...” Grandma Jen stopped me at the door. “Before you begin third grade, I want you to have this.” She stroked my wavy brown hair, pulling it into a ponytail, and handed me a rock. But no ordinary rock. A butterfly shaped rock.
I gazed into her blue eyes. How I’d always wanted pretty blue eyes like hers, instead of my drab brown ones!
“What’s it for?”
“Oh, just a good luck charm for when baby Ty comes from the hospital.”
“Ty’s born?!”
“Almost, sweetie! Now run along, you’ll be late for school.”

A day later, terrible news reached me at school.
“Amy,” Mrs. Sunn had beckoned me to her desk.
“What,” I stayed firmly in my seat.
“This is serious, don’t be stubborn.”
         I sighed loudly, walking up to her desk. Was I in trouble?
“Your grandma was in an accident today while walking home from the store," Mrs. Sunn informed me.
Suddenly, everything was blurry. The news of my grandma's death was heartbreaking, because we’d always been very close. Then I broke down and started really bawling. I hoped the kids in my class wouldn’t laugh, for they had never been really nice to me. But, they didn’t. Maybe the good luck charm really was a good luck charm.
“Grandma!” I managed to cough out.

I don’t remember much more about her death, but I know that, for the past three years I’ve never felt the same. I put the rock back into the box, not wanting the memory to come upon me again.
Suddenly Ty barged into my room.
“Amy! Mama’s mad ‘cuz I didn’t eat my lunch!”
“Ty…” I began, “Mom made that lunch specially for you, and she even used Grandma’s recipes; those are very complicated. In fact, Grandma would even say, ‘Don’t waste food that’s been made with care.’"
“But-but the aspawagas is gwoss!” Ty protested.
“Mom has a reason to be mad,” I sighed. “You should always remember, Grandma was very important to Mom and me, so we want you to, at least, cherish Grandma’s ways, you know." I touched Ty’s fine, brown hair.

How I’d always wanted pretty blue eyes like Ty’s.


  The circularity of Allison's story--with the repeated line "How I'd always wanted pretty blue eyes like..."--touched my heart, showing a nostalgic tone and an acknowledgment that people we love live on in us, even after they have passed away. This story not only uses multisensory description and subtle character development via D.A.D., but also illustrates a depth in both the character and the author herself. Congratulations, Allison!

  Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day, and this story feels very appropriate to post today, as a tale of thankfulness for fond memories.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Metaphorical Expressions About Feeling Left Out: A Prompt that Inspired Nods and Thoughtful Poems

     Some writing prompts spark clever, analytical responses or thematically related verbal art; other prompts spark emulations based on emotional/personal connections that shine through the student's original words. My poetry prompt, "Squishable," uses my own poem about the feeling of being left out by "more popular" people to elicit an emotional and metaphorical response from students. Here is the prompt:

One student, a 10-year-old girl called Lisa, wrote a vehement analysis of the feelings conveyed by the poem (Prompt 1), then chose Prompt 2 and composed her own poem, in emulation of mine. Clearly, she understood the metaphor both intellectually and emotionally, as this poem (below) illustrates. I considered her poetic response worthy of sharing here on my blog, and I hope you will share it, too!

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Poem Inspired by Reading About the Power of Resilience

Consolation Surprise
By S. L. Lipson

You’re coping surprisingly well!
The epitome of resilience!
I so admire you.
I mean, losing someone you love,
After so many years together,
That has to be devastating.
And yet here you are,
Powering through grief,
Holding it all together,
Moving forward with so much strength—


What do you mean, you don’t know what I’m talking about?


Wait, whaaat?
I was there. I saw what happened.
Even I was on the verge of tears.
I mean, you put up a tough faรงade,
But everyone knows—


Yes, everyone. Why are you denying that?
We all felt so bad for you….


Why? WHY?!  
You’re messing with me, right?

                        Note to self:
                        Wow. Never mistake denial for resilience.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Short Essays Responses To Elicit Critical Thinking and Concise Writing

     Brief essay responses to poetry and short fiction (or sections of longer works) make up the bulk of my academic writing lessons for ages 10-17. I do not believe that students always have to write the standard five-paragraph essay to convey their understanding of a piece of literature, or other art form. Quick "thematic paragraph responses" (as I call them) exercise students' writing skills by enriching the powers of conciseness and clarity of expression, and students who write these short analyses on a regular basis end up better prepared to take on full essays about longer forms of literature. While I never advocate "cookie-cutter" essay writing, I do provide my students with a mnemonic device--a silly musical allusion to "Old MacDonald Had a Farm"--to ensure a thorough, yet concise analysis of a theme (a format that is also applicable to each body paragraph of an essay): "E I-E-I O" or "E I-E-I, I-E-I O" (the longer version is for more experienced students and deeper analyses, with its repetition of the middle I-E-I section). Here is an explanation of that musical memory-jogger:

 E=Establish topic/theme

 I=Illustrate with a quotation or specific example (introduced in its context)

 E=Explain what the illustration (above) shows the reader

 I=Interpret the Implications of that illustration (why it shows what it shows)

 O=Overall statement related to theme in a broader way 

     To illustrate this kind of lesson prompt, I am sharing, below, a fifteen-year-old young man's paragraph response to a poem that I wrote. I will share the actual poem that he analyzed AFTER the paragraph, to further illustrate something I emphasize with my high school students: write essays about literature as if the reader is unfamiliar with the subject work. That ensures the clearest analysis. Here is the student's written response:

Essay Paragraph Response to “Behind the Armor”
by Enan, age 15

            In the poem, “Behind the Armor,” author Susan L. Lipson describes two different kinds of people through the use of knights and wrestlers. The author writes, “Knights... they battle insecurity loneliness, and weakness.” Knights often wear armor in battle, and when knights face a problem, they deflect them with their armor. Previously in this poem, the author talks about how arrogance is like a faceguard and how meanness is their shield. Through this metaphor, she is trying to convey the message that some people are too cocky to ruin their image. So instead of confronting their problems, they deflect them, and therefore put others down so that they can forget about their own problems. Later in the poem, the author transitions to talking about wrestlers: “Wrestlers engaged in hand-to-hand combat with emotions, building thicker skin through baring it.” When wrestlers fight, they have no protection; they use their bare skin. Although it may be more painful, in the end, the wrestler will grow to deal with the pain better than a knight would. The author is telling us that confronting your problems will make you a tougher person. Rather than be knights who deflect emotions out of their lives, we should be wrestlers who deal with emotions and therefore become stronger.

     And here is the poem he was writing about:

     Behind the Armor
     by Susan L. Lipson

Such clouded knights,
        with their vision obstructed
        by the arrogance they wear as faceguards, 
        the aloofness they don as protective suits,
        and the meanness they carry as shields;
        they battle insecurity, fear,
        loneliness, and weakness— 
        unlike wrestlers engaged in 
        hand-to-hand combat with emotions,
        building thicker skin through baring it,
        from struggle to truce
        from pain to healing,
        from sweat to sigh to 
  enlightened daze.

     Were you able to understand Enan's analysis before even reading the poem? And now that you have read the poem, does his analysis seem credible? (It does to me, and since I am the poet, that should have some weight!)



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