About Your Mark

About Your Mark

I recently read Amy King’s Ancient Sunlight (brought to me by Poem-a-Day) and I have been thinking about her words as well as her motivation for writing the poem:

‘Ancient Sunlight’ is a consideration of the ways in which we attempt to preserve aspects of ourselves via identity, via material existence (hence the physics aspect) and in seemingly ironic conflict with the idea that we must die in order to achieve immortality. That is, the conservative definition is ‘to live forever,’ but since death is a transition necessary to appreciate the shifts and cycles of being, the larger scope of immortality is often conflated with a desire to be remembered, so would it be a disaster to go on living forever, inevitably forgotten?

These ideas challenge me to think about the purpose and meaning of my life. I was raised to believe that it is not enough to simply live and be — it is a requirement to live a life of purpose. Throughout my teaching career I have always challenged my students to think about the purpose and meaning of their lives and I still believe this is a good writing prompt to explore our identity and to help us understand ourselves better.

Think and write about that essential question, what is the purpose of your life, but also consider:

  • What gives your life meaning?
  • Do you want to be remembered or leave a mark on the world?
  • How do you want to be remembered?
  • Has your purpose changed over the years?

And as always, share your reflections (or poetry!) using the #JustWrite hashtag.

Artwork from Pixabay

I’m Not OK But Thanks For Asking

I’m not OK, but thanks for asking. No really. I know I have a well-deserved reputation for sarcasm, but that was not sarcasm. I can’t tell you how much it means that so many people care about me and have gone out of their way to check on me – reaching out across the country and around the world. That is pretty awesome. If love was enough then I would be well, but it isn’t. I honestly don’t know what will make things well again, but love always helps.

I used to believe in the power of time to heal, but lately it seems that more time just gives karma another shot at me.

I used to believe in the power of self-care to see me through difficult times deploying a combination of wallowing and indulgence to see me through the worst, but now every self-care tip I have attempted has only made things worse.

I used to believe in my resilience but this year has broken me. The truly sad thing is that this has not even been the worst year of my life. I’ve had far worse years, but so much bad luck has accumulated that I just can’t cope anymore. Perhaps it is the exponential bad luck, maybe the compression of a lot of bad luck in a short time span, or simply that I am tired and I am hopeless. That is my ongoing struggle. I am depleted and my usual sources of refueling are no longer working to combat the wear and tear of life.

It really is just life, but for me, right now, life is really really hard. I know many friends are struggling with far more serious challenges than I, but that doesn’t help me cope. Incessant wrangling with my employer combined with constantly deteriorating working conditions has worn me down. I shouldn’t have to fight to get paid for working so much this summer, but I do. I shouldn’t have to fight to receive equipment ordered with my personal professional development funds, but I do. I should be recognized for my contributions, but I am not. So much lost time fighting these battles and losing them takes longer and longer to get over. I love my work, but I wish I wasn’t trapped by circumstances in this position. Add a car accident that left my vehicle totaled to this already precarious financial circumstance so no family vacation and now an unexpected car payment – salt in the wound is the weeks of wrangling with insurance simply to get what is owed. I hate State Farm and cannot ever recommend them, FYI. Then in the midst of all this we had to put down our beloved Max. It was time, but his loss leaves a gaping hole in my life.  I can’t express how much this devastates me. The last straw was the death of our desktop (instigated by Clark Energy’s decision to replace our electric meter). A lost morning trying various methods of revival was followed by an afternoon discovering how much of my course preparation was locked into that brick. Right now I cannot summon the energy to cope with that problem and one more unexpected expense.

So now I’m heading into a semester worn down and emotionally destroyed – behind with my preparation and unable to take a break because there are so many demands on my time and attention. I am barely functional, but somehow I’ll muddle through because what choice do I have?

But that’s why I’m not OK. Thanks for asking.

The Travelogue

The Travelogue

Summer is the season of travel and so this is an ideal time to think about writing the travelogue.

The travelogue is simply a record of the experiences of a writer travelling, but in practice it is so much more as it invariably includes a mix of memoir and reflection about life as well as the journey. For example, Rinker Buck’s The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey records his modern day traverse of the Oregon Trail, but also reflects on his family, his life, and the land and people with which he interacts on his journey. It is uniquely American experience. Read an article about their journey if you do not want to pick up the book.

But today, thanks to the mini-computers we all carry in our pockets (not to mention the technology available to us after we return home) we can create multi-media projects such as Christoph Niemann’s trip to Norway.

It is important to remember that such multi-media projects do not need to be based in technology. I don’t happen to have any good examples in my possession, but I know such things exist on coffee tables everywhere. But we can use a book such as Desert Seasons: A Year in the Mojave as an example of recording your journey (rather than the journey of time in the Mojave) — simply because I have this book on my shelf. This simple book includes maps, photos, journal entries, sketches, poems, and factual tidbits — all things you could gather in a small notebook while you travel — for later curation.

While your travelogue can certainly take the form of simple narration with the random inclusion of photos and other artefacts, I am particularly drawn to the idea of the multigenre travelogue which includes both artefacts and a wide range of genres as well as narration to tie everything together.

From Tom Romano’s Blending Genre, Altering Style: Writing Multigenre Papers (2000)

“A multigenre paper arises from research, experience, and imagination. It is not an uninterrupted, expository monolog nor a seamless narrative nor a collection of poems. A multigenre paper is composed of many genres and subgenres, each piece self-contained, making a point of its own, yet connected by theme or topic and sometimes by language, images, and content. In addition to many genres, a multigenre paper may also contain many voices, not just the author’s. The trick is to make such a paper hang together.”

From Camille Allen’s The Multigenre Research Paper (2001):

The best way I can describe a multigenre paper is to say that each piece in the paper utilizes a different genre, reveals one facet of the topic, and makes its own point. Conventional devices do not connect the pieces in a multigenre paper, nor are the pieces always in chronological order. The paper is instead a collage of writing and artistic expression with an overarching theme that engulfs and informs the reader. (2)

A travelogue will create a document through which others can catch glimpses of your experiences on your journey, but most important a travelogue will also allow others to understand your personal encounters with those experiences and why they impacted you. Of course, Eat, Pray, Love is a great example of this type of personal travel narrative. Most journeys will not create such profound aching change, but every trip offers potential lessons that are worthy of exploration and recording so we can pull them back out from time to time to learn more.

Sometimes a travelogue can be more of an argument such as this one created by my friend Liz Prather, American Road Trip, about a recent journey we took together. It is likely that such an argument will only come to you in retrospect, but keeping a journal of your trip can help you piece together that argument when you have time to reflect.

Some simple prompts to help you get more from your experience:

  • Write before you leave about your plans, what you packed and why
  • Jot down the events of the day throughout your trip – what you ate, where you went, and note sensory and emotional details
  • Note things that surprise you – because they are so unexpected or because they are so mundane and remind you of home
  • Buy a postcard that represents the day and jot down your thoughts about the day, yourself, your surroundings on the back
  • Reflect on conversations both yours and those overheard
  • Don’t forget to record your gastronomical travels

Other tips for gathering artefacts:

How do you like your travelogue? Have you ever written a travelogue? Have you ever wanted to write a travelogue?

Artwork by Pexels

The Art and Practice of Flanerie

The Art and Practice of Flanerie

I am in the midst of preparing my course materials for a writing class I will teach in Scotland next summer through the Cooperative Center for Study Abroad (CCSA). The focus of the class will be the art and practice of flanerie.

I believe this is an ideal framework for a group of writers who will explore the streets of Edinburgh and Glasgow as well as the Scottish Highlands, because I know that a study abroad experience teaches as much (or more) about yourself as it does about the places you visit. I also want to design an experience where we study what happened in those places, who lived in those places, and what those places mean — and in the process we can better understand our own places, our own identities, and our own meanings. That is what flanerie means to me — the simple art of wondering and wandering and writing about both.

For me, this marriage of wandering, wondering, and writing, is a wonderful tool that should be applied not just to special occasions such as a class or writing retreat, but also to everyday life. As George Ritzer notes in the Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology,” flanerie is “a way of seeing the world and being in the world.” Too often we do not spend enough time simply seeing and being and active engagement in flanerie is a way to do more of this. We all need more writing and reflecting about our world and our place in it.

Artistic reflection as well as the collection, and curation, of social artifacts is a central part of flanerie, as described by Aimee Boutin in Rethinking the Flâneur: Flânerie and the Senses. Flanerie is more than a simple travelogue or diary because the experience of the urban (or rural) landscape is unique to each flaneuse. In The Death of the Cyberflâneur Evgeny Morozov explains that the flaneur surveys “both his private self and the world at large.” In The Return of the Flâneur, Walter Benjamin says that through flanerie we combine both our own history and the history of the place we wander which leads to “the immense drama of flânerie.” I love this idea of unique and immense drama that flanerie makes possible. We all need more wondering in our lives.

It is also the very lack of specific direction and planning that appeals to me, because our world does its best to discourage such behavior. We must travel fast (by automation) and with a specific destination in mind, but flanerie is best done by foot with frequent stops and as Franz Hessel observes in Spazieren in Berlin, “In order to engage in flânerie, one must not have anything too definite in mind.” We all need more wandering, without purpose or plan, in our lives.

Read more about the art and practice of flanerie:

And related articles:

I fervently believe we all need more flanerie — wandering, wondering, and writing — to help us make sense of our world and our place within it. Do you agree? What are your thoughts about flanerie and when did you last engage in it?

Artwork is Paris Street; Rainy Day, 1877, Gustave CaillebotteArt Institute of Chicago

Thinking About the Hinge

Thinking About the Hinge

This morning I read A Better Life by Randall Mann and I am still thinking about this poem. I have already written in my journal this morning and I expect I will return to this idea again which is why I wanted to share this poem as a writing prompt. Mann notes: “I wrote this poem on the cusp of my forty-fifth birthday; in what is likely the middle of my life” and, in fact, in the poem refers to this event as the “hinge” of his life. 

That one phrase made me think about the hinges of my life — the turning points — the times when our lives pivoted in some essential way. I love that idea of “hinges” because it can be a door or a gate opening or closing or swinging in the breeze. So my charge to you is to write about the hinges of your life — a time when it is useful to your growth to reflect on what came before and after that pivot point in your life. It does not need to be a poem although it might well turn into one.

And as always, share your reflections (or poetry!) using the #JustWrite hashtag.

Artwork by Marcu Ioachim

A Poem A Day

A Poem A Day

I’ve written before that signing up for the Academy of American Poets Poem-A-Day was one of the best things I could do for myself as someone still working their way to a place where she might be able to call herself a poet (still not there!). The poems themselves are such an eclectic selection of older works and newer poems that I am constantly exposed to new poetry and reminded of poetry that I once experienced but had slipped out of memory. Not only are these poems wonderful experiences by themselves they also inspire me to write poetry — they are often terrific writing prompts.

In fact, sometimes the poem is the inspiration, making me think about something from my life or think about something in a new way, but often I also find inspiration in the “About this poem” section in which the poet shares their inspiration and/or the story behind the work.

I recommend subscribing to the Poem-A-Day service even if you are not interested in poetry, because the poems and stories can inspire writers on many levels. If you are worried about email clutter (which I understand completely) then simply stop by and visit upon occasion when you are looking for inspiration. You will not be sorry.

Challenge Yourself

Challenge Yourself

One of the things I constantly stress with my students is to move outside their comfort zone. It is only outside our comfort zones that we learn and grow — evolve if you will. While this is important for students, it is equally important for the rest of us. When was the last time you challenged yourself? To learn something new, to attempt something new, to simply move away from the comfortable and familiar ruts we all create.

I haven’t always been good at this myself. The comfortable is so very comfortable after all. Plus, life is busy and it is hard enough to handle the things I need to do let alone make time for new things. But I do try, during the summer, when life is just slightly less busy and full (fractionally), to push myself, to challenge myself.

One of the challenges I have undertaken for the past two summers has been to write more poetry. Despite four post-secondary English degrees, my poetry education is lacking and I still find writing poetry to be a very challenging, sometimes frightening, experience, but the more I read poetry, write poetry, and talk with other poets (I cringe to even call myself a poet) the more I come to appreciate that we all need more poetry in our lives. Poetry helps us think about ideas, both big and small, and explore those ideas in more manageable chunks than different text forms. I recently started subscribing to the Academy of American Poets Poem-a-Day and I have found so many ideas to think about and write about. One of the ways that I challenged myself to write more poetry was to participate in LexPoMo – a month-long poetry writing challenge for Lexington, Kentucky, and the surrounding region (seems like all of Kentucky!). Last year I wrote a dozen poems and this year I wrote 16 poems. June is a super busy month for me (even though I’m officially not working!) because the Morehead Writing Project has a lot going on, so I am proud to reach both numbers and I think this year’s poems were better than last year’s so that is also a point of pride. Part of this challenge for me was reading The Poet’s Companion and working my way through a number of exercises in the book. I highly recommend this book if you are interested in writing poetry, but continue to struggle (like me).

Another way I like to push myself each summer is to participate in CLMOOC (Connected Learning Massive Open Online Collaboration). This community spans the globe and involves a lot of educators but others who simply want to have fun and learn together. There is a lot of playful innovation and experimentation as we contemplate some serious questions about learning and human growth. Every summer I learn something new and am pushed outside my comfort zone.

What will you do to challenge yourself? When was the last time you challenged yourself? Do you think there are benefits to challenging yourself on a regular basis?

Capture A Moment

I wrote a poem this morning that made me cry (see Saucijsjes) because it reminded me so sharply of my grandmother. I love her dearly and miss her terribly, but she is hardly the sort of person people write poetry about. She was just a home cooking, gardening, canning, church going sort of grandmother who loved her family and her friends. But two prompts from The Poet’s Companion led me to my poem.

The first prompt was a simple one. Write a poem instructing someone how to do something. The second was more complex and challenging until I linked it up with the first. Capture an essential image or story that represents the essential spirit or character of a member of your family. So many of my memories of my grandmother are tied up in the kitchen and food that it seemed natural to write about making a meal that is quintessential to my family.

Saucijsjes

Saucijsjes

The thing to remember about cooking with grandma is that
Nothing is exact
No measuring cups or spoons
Just dollops, scoops, and pinches
Everything is by touch and taste
Until it is right  

First divide the sausage
Six to a pound if you are feeding the family
Twelve for a party
Already I’m cheating because I use premixed sausage from the store
Roll each portion into an oblong
Ignore the fat coating your skin seeping into your pores
As sage tickles your nose
The microwave a betrayal
Of grandma frying on the stovetop
Turning rows of sausages quickly with a wooden spoon
Serving as punctuation to her story
Or meting out punishment
Pat the sausages dry
Then wrap into tidy dough packages
At least my dough is made from scratch
And tuck into a greased pan
Leaving room to expand
Baking leaves just time for a cup at the kitchen table
And a story about grandpa
Polish each brown-tinted package with butter
Serve with applesauce on the side
Watch that first bite
Or you will burn your mouth
Biting into memory  

The thing to remember about cooking with grandma is that
Nothing is exact
No measuring cups or spoons
Just dollops, scoops, and pinches
Everything is by touch and taste
Until it is right