Monday, July 16, 2018

Use It or Lose It: Keeping Writing Skills Sharp Outside of Classes

          As in physical exercise, if you don't use your writing skills and creative energy for a while, you'll lose them (well, not exactly lose, but you'll definitely make it harder to regain your "literary fitness level" after a long hiatus). Here are three suggestions for exercises to keep your writing and critical reading skills active on your own:

  • Regularly practice critical reading by writing responses on sticky notes AS YOU READ, and sticking them throughout your books. Practicing active reading this way, even with your summer "pleasure reading," will sharpen your skills and keep you actively engaged in the reading experience for maximum mental fitness! This technique will keep you attuned to admirable writing techniques that you wish to enhance for your own works, too. Use sticky notes to enable you to flip back through the book later to review what specific passages compelled, concerned, intrigued, or inspired you. (This advanced "flagging" of important lines in literature will surely benefit you when you return to school to write literary response essays or research papers: you can collect in advance, so to speak, quotations that might illuminate themes or exemplify character- or plot-building, which you can easily find later, when writing an essay.) Note the exemplary writing techniques (figurative language, imagery, rhetorical beauty of the prose, etc.) that you wish to emulate, and note why you appreciate them; note hints of plot events to come and make predictions to sharpen your observational skills; note subtle secondary or symbolic meanings that underscore the theme, and note why these implications are important to you; note expressions or events that remind you of other works--in any art form--as well as related experiences from your own life. Active reading will exercise your powers of observation and analogous thinking, while simultaneously entering your subconscious to improve your own writing. Here is a link to an article to read and use for practice in developing your active reading skills:  
 Image result for books full of sticky notes
  • Use and make lists to generate ideas. For example, make a daily list of emotional observations, with any title you want. You might list: Things I Did/Noticed Today that Made Me Feel Relaxed; or People I Miss and Why I Miss Them; or What I Planned To Do Today and What I Actually Did; or What Made Me Angry/Disappointed/Sad/Lonely/Joyful Today, etc. Lists of your own devising can illuminate a lot about YOU to study and turn into stories, too. Also make lists of objects and/or people you notice, randomly, and turn them into parts of a story. The great Ray Bradbury advocated list-making to generate creativity; check this out: . Find lists of writing prompts and see what triggers you to write for 15 or more minutes. Here's a list for you: 365-creative-writing-prompts. And here's another great source for conjuring stories from lists (one sample page from the link is pictured below):
    Related image

  • Take a novel, short story, or poem that you haven't read (yet) and jot down the first line on a blank paper, or type it onto a blank computer document. Continue from that line to write a story or poem that uses the same tone and diction set by the line you borrowed. When you feel that you have finished a scene with a beginning, middle, and end, set it aside and read the work from which you borrowed the opening line. Notice how yours picked up on the language used to create your own ideas; notice any similarities and differences between the path of your work versus the work from which you borrowed. Now go back and change your opening line to make the story/poem entirely your own.
          Those are just a few ideas for exercising your literary muscles this summer. Feel free to share your thoughts for creative sparks or your results from trying these prompts, below.... 

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Promising Middle-School Age Poets Explore Perspective with Humor and Innovation

          Here are the results of prompting my 11- and 12-year-old students to write poems with verse openers borrowed from another poem, by Kirsten Smith, from her poetry novel The Geography of Girlhood. The goal of this lesson was to explore perspective: how someone else sees us, and how they may underestimate or misunderstand our ways. I challenged my students to emulate the tone and format of Smith's poem by modifying her opening phrases to begin each of their own verses. This collection of four poems shows extraordinary introspection, innovation, intelligence, humor, and skills. And I must credit each poet for diligence in both writing and revising, and then sending the typed final versions to me for inclusion on my blog. These are some serious future authors here!

By W. D. MacLeod, age 12

[The prompt was to write a poem about how other people see me, starting my lines with the words To them I am, Because of meThey hope I will, and I will eventually.... It was a lot of fun to write, so enjoy!]

To them, I am the reminders and the redirections, and of course the exasperated “Williams!”s.  I am the kind of kid who not matter how bright he is
Lunch Box.

Because of me, they always must keep watch for me. They shake their heads and chuckle 

They hope that I will eventually get better, get my head out of the clouds.  “Get a wife!says my Dad.  “Write a list!” says my Mom.  But I won’t get a wife anytime soon, and lists…

I will eventually get better.  Maybe I will need a list or a wife, but one thing is for certain:
I Like It Up Here In The Clouds!

Zucchini Jeans
By Lucy M., age 12

To her, I am a nuisance.
I am an ant that steals from her,
A fly that buzzes around her head.

Because of me, she is always covering her ears
To save herself from the squeaky violin sounds
That come out of my room.

She tells me she hopes I would stop following her around 
everywhere she goes,
And she wishes I would stop calling her “Zucchini Jeans.”

And I will stop bothering and following her,
And I will also get better at the violin,

But what she doesn’t know is that I’m
secretly making weird noises to drive her crazy,
Because once she goes to college,
I won’t be able to do that.

           The following poets chose to write not about themselves, but about some other narrator who is misunderstood. I have found that some writers avoid direct introspection in their work, preferring to delve into personally compelling topics through fictional representations. 

Dirt Bomb
By Allison, age 11

To her I am a dirt bomb.
My paws are earthquakes on the wood floor.
My tongue is a leaky faucet, leaving drool everywhere.
My toys are land mines all over the house.

Because of me, she’s constantly cleaning mud off the floor.
She’s always scrubbing a trail of grass stains that never seem to go away.

She hopes that I will be a winner.
One who leaves the dog show with an actual ribbon,
not a “good job for trying” certificate.
But for now, I’ll just eat the certificates. 
I will eventually be the top dog in the show.
I will have gleaming fur,
and I’ll leave no messes, other than...
you know. 
When she wants to find me,
I’ll be at the end of a $100 leash,
marching up to the dog show’s door.

Image result for coexistence with animals
By Joshua, age 12

To us, they are small,
Inferior to our knowledge
And our thirst for innovation.
To us, they do not know
That we take their land
For the good of mankind.
To us, they are selfish.
We live here, too.
We deserve a part
Of this great useful

To them, we are invasive.
They were here first.
The land, trees, rivers
And beautiful nature
Belong to them.
We are selfish.
We only care for ourselves
And our filthy, yucky civilizations
That take up
Their beautiful,
Natural world.

To each other, we are selfish,
But we truly aren’t.
We just use this land
How it was intended to be.
Although you are selfish,
Although you are dumb,
I’ll be the better man/animal
And coexist with you.

Robin Hood
By Christopher W., age 12

To them, I am a criminal to be rid of.
I go around stealing from men who bathe in riches.
They won’t miss a penny.

Because of me, the poor are alive and well,
Going out to the bustling market with coins in their pocket,
Which without they might as well be dead. 

The wealthy are always complaining about me.
They hope I will eventually be caught.
Wanted signs here and there, the reward going up and up.

Commoners are my best friends,
They will not hand me over. 

They will eventually give up.
The poor need me and the rich know they have no choice. 
This prosperous era will not come to an end until I lie in my grave, 

For I am Robin Hood.    

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.”