Love

Love

Love is a carved wooden goblet

Wood darkened by age and use

Base sprawling wide, solid, unshakable

Stem spiraling upward

The generous curve of the goblet whispers stories once carved deep

now erased by the caress of countless touches

While the lip of the cup runs round endless and smooth to the mouth

The well of the cup dwells deep and dark

waiting to be completed with something rich and filling

Love is a carved wooden goblet

 

This poem was inspired by Liz Prather’s A Walk Through the Forest prompt

Artwork by Lesley Shepherd

You need more poetry in your life

You need more poetry in your life

You need more poetry in your life. I was sharply reminded of this epic truth this weekend when I was cleaning. I hate cleaning and often listen to NPR podcasts to make unpalatable tasks more bearable. As fate would have it, the podcast I chose was new to me although after this weekend’s binge I am a big fan: Al Letson‘s State of the Re:Union.

However, it was the Poetry Month show: The Poems, The Poets, The Power that reminded me that poetry is so often the solution for everything that ails me. My life hasn’t been so great lately. I won’t bore you with the details because there are many many people so much worse off than me, but Friday afternoon was a low point for me. I was just so worn down and worn out that I didn’t know what to do. There were some blog posts I wanted to write, but I just couldn’t settle with all these emotions teeming and roiling inside.

That is how I ended up cleaning – I thought maybe if I took control over one small corner of my life and created order in one room that I might be better able to tackle something larger. Isn’t that one of the things people tell you to do when you are overwhelmed? Focus on some small, simple task you can accomplish?

As fate would have it, I chose to listen to The Poems, The Poets, The Power while trying to take control over one small corner of the chaos that is my life and I found myself laughing and crying and, more importantly, writing poetry. It has been weeks since I wrote a poem and clearly there was a log jam of emotions that needed to be cleared. I dumped three word avalanches onto the pages of my journal, cleaning and writing and cleaning and writing and cleaning and writing.

I have since shaped one of those word dumps into a poem (see The Sandwich) and am still working on the other two — in part because I still haven’t settled on the form I need to harness (direct?) all the emotion wrapped up in those pieces. But this is why I need to write more poetry and you do too!

You can’t tell me — in these times and in this world — you do not have a similar log jam of emotions causing all sorts of problems. Put down the whiskey and the antacids and pick up your pen. Don’t believe me? Listen to The Poems, The Poets, The Power and accept your fate as a poet. You don’t have to share your poems as I do although you should. I share my work not because I think I am an awesome poet because I am still very  much a poet in progress. I share my work because I believe poetry inspires more poetry. I hope to make you think “well if she can write poetry” or “my poems aren’t any worse than hers”.

Whatever you think of my poetry, I hope you will pick up a pen and write a poem of your own to release the log jam inside you. And if you feel like sharing please use the #JustWrite hashtag.

What Do You Believe?

What Do You Believe?

I recently read This I Believe, a companion book to the NPR program of the same name, because we will be using the book in our First Year Seminars this year at Morehead State. I really enjoyed the book and now I’m checking out the extensive collection of This I Believe essays and recordings available on the web. I am not sure yet how I will exactly use this book and web site with my students, but I can already see how much potential this offers as a writing prompt. I was so enamored of the idea I have already written a This I Believe essay of my own (see Empathy is Always the Answer).

The idea is simple. Focus on one core belief that really shapes the way you think and the choices you make. Tie your explanation to a personal experience. Write about something life affirming although it can be heartwrenching or humorous (or both). Then hone your message down to between 350 and 500 words. That is not easy, at least it wasn’t for me. Maybe it will be easier for you.

After reading and listening to a number of personal essays it was fairly easy for me to identify what I believe, but if you need more time to process it then a good place to start might simply be to write your way into your day for a few days or perhaps explore the idea of what the world needs. It was more challenging for me to think of a good personal experience that I wanted to use, but then I am a terrible anecdote collector so others might find this process easier. Check out the web site (or book) for more tips about writing your own This I Believe essay.

Crafting your own This I Believe essay can be a good way to learn more about yourself and your guiding beliefs. A little introspection is always good for your soul. Furthermore, psychologists have observed that thinking about the stories of your life is also a healthy thing. Now go forth and write about your own belief! Don’t forget to share them using the #JustWrite hashtag.

Empathy is Always the Answer

Empathy is Always the Answer

I believe empathy is always the answer. Hate seems to dominate the news and social media. This hurts my heart. I don’t understand how anyone can spend so much priceless life energy on hate. I turned 50 this year and the one lesson I have learned is that hate never solved anything. Love is the opposite of hate, but for love to stand a chance against hate we must first have empathy. I envision empathy as the roots of a tree. While the first roots may be small and tender, eventually they delve deeply into the earth to both feed and support the tree. The deeper and stronger the roots grow then the stronger and taller the tree. In my metaphor, the roots of the tree are empathy and the tree itself is our humanity. Empathy is essential to our humanity, because without it we cannot love. Empathy is the beginning of understanding and understanding cures hate. Empathy helps us see other people as human and builds connections between us that make it harder to sustain hate. Once we have seen that others are like us we can no longer see “others” as something frightening, alien, and less than human – less than us.

My first Ph.D. class was online. A few weeks into classes, my grandfather died. The timing of the arrangements combined with my work schedule put me on a plane during our scheduled weekly class. The next week we experienced severe thunderstorms which knocked our power out – moments before class was due to start. Missing two classes in a row is a pretty big deal for graduate classes. When I contacted my instructor to explain myself, again, all I could think about was the many students who have shared similar versions of back-to-back catastrophes and my frequent skepticism (the grandparent death toll at midterms and finals is alarming). I was sure he wouldn’t believe my explanations, I would fail the class, be kicked out of the program, and so on. None of those things happened. He graciously accepted that sometimes life happens and we discussed how I would make up what I missed. I did the work and we moved on. I aced the class, stayed in the program, and earned my Ph.D.

I have often thought about this experience. Life happens to students and sometimes those students have made mistakes and bad choices. Now that I’ve been on the other side of the desk it is easier for me to give students the benefit of the doubt. I know life really does happen. I strive to apply this lesson outside the classroom as well. There is an old saying: “You can’t really understand another person’s experience until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.” This is a very ancient saying I’ve heard attributed to many cultures, but it is a universal truth. Until we share someone’s experience we cannot understand them. While we certainly don’t want to truly experience the difficulties and tragedies of others, and most people wouldn’t wish us to, we can all benefit from imagining ourselves in others’ shoes. I wonder how much tragedy could be averted if we did this more?

Write your own This I Believe essay and learn more about the NPR program, companion book, and web site.

Artwork by Picography on Pixabay

Your Elevator Pitch: #Writing Meaning Into Your Life

Your Elevator Pitch: #Writing Meaning Into Your Life

Recent graduates and other job seekers are often told to create an elevator pitch for job interviews and networking opportunities. These job-focused elevator pitches are usually crafted to a specific job or profession. I was originally taught this concept when I was a struggling young novelist trying to pitch my book to publishers and agents, but the idea is the same – sum up your message in just a few simple, focused sentences that could be delivered in the time it takes for an elevator to travel between floors or for you to introduce yourself over a handshake.

I think it is important for us all to spend some time thinking about our elevator pitches from time to time. We meet new people all the time – waiting at the car dealership for an oil change, over coffee before church, and on the bleachers at the local park. Wouldn’t it be nice to have an answer to the common question, what do you do, that invites a conversation rather than stops it (Believe me, nothing stops a conversation like telling people you are an English teacher, they always assume you are the grammar police)? However, there is an even more important reason to have an elevator pitch – crafting that message will help us dig in and discover/uncover the answer to a much more important question – what is our life purpose?

Answering that question is important to our happiness. The answer can, and should, shape our lives in important ways and help us make important decisions about our education, our career, and our life. It can lead us in new directions and help us say no to things that do not serve our purpose. Even more important, understanding this purpose can help us tolerate and even accept some aspects of our life that might be challenging if they help us achieve that greater purpose. As Friedrich Nietzsche said: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

nietzsche-why...how

Of course, crafting that answer is a lot trickier than writing an elevator pitch for a job interview, because even when we are reasonably happy with our life and our job it isn’t always easy to zero in on our life purpose. That is also what makes this a terrific writing prompt as it is a question we should explore from time to time.

Some questions to begin your initial writing:

  • Who do you want to help and/or inspire? Who do you want your life to impact and influence?
  • What do you make? What do you want to make?
  • What makes you come alive? What do you love to do? When are you happiest?
  • What problem do you (or can you) solve?
  • How will you measure your life?
  • What will you stand for?

As you ponder these questions, I ask you to watch this slam poem by Taylor Mali written in response to the question: What do you make? Now spend some time just writing about what you do or could do or should do to make a difference in the world…

Now look back over your writing. When I consider these questions I often end up in tears because these are things that I really care about, ideas and challenges that I am passionately invested in. That is the point of this writing exercise to tap into to your heart and soul to uncover what really matters to you. This is not the moment to be practical, instead think about what touches you on an emotional level. Have you written about that?

When I ask my students to write elevator pitches for their class projects I ask them to think about their answers to three important questions:

  1. Who do you want to help/serve?
  2. What is their problem?
  3. How can you solve it (ie. what can you change/do)?

For me, like Taylor Mali, I am a teacher and I believe in the importance power and magic of this job, but more than that I am a writer who is happiest when I get to spend time writing and sharing with other writers. I believe in the power and magic of writing to help us grow and heal. I believe writing can be fun and playful (something we all need more of in our lives). The best writing activities offer both fun and meaning. That is my passion project – helping others become writers whether they are my students, young writers just finding their way, or adult writers whose faith in their writing ability is broken. I want to provide inspiration, guidance, and support for writers who want to play, learn, or discover/reconnect with their muse. I want to provide meaningful writing opportunities that offer fun and growth to writers of all ages.

I make writers for a living and for the sheer joy of it. What do you make? Pablo Picasso once said: “The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.” What is your gift?

Pablo-Picasso-Quote-The-meaning-of-life-is-to-find-your-gift-The

Artwork by kelseyannvere via Pixabay

Write Your Future in #OneLittleWord

Write Your Future in #OneLittleWord

The One Little Word writing prompt is a wonderful way to set the tone for a new year or a new project — or simply to help you focus your attitude and energy. I usually use #onelittleword (or #OLW) in lieu of a New Year’s resolution, but I really like the idea of thinking about it as a tool for reinvention and self-discovery. I try to pick one word to be my guidepost or mantra for the year. For example, in 2015 I chose Simplicity and in 2016 I chose Cool.

I was first introduced to the #OneLittleWord (or #OLW) concept by the Two Writing Teachers blog and their “One Little Word” challenge when Anna Gratz Cockerille urged us to choose One Little Word to act as “a beacon, a guiding light, directing one’s way for the year”:

When you get inundated with all that life brings, this is a word that can help you know what deserves your YES, and what really should get a NO. The right OLW will help to focus your time and energy away from that which is making the most noise and toward that which you truly value.

I am not certain who first created this concept, but Ali Edwards’ One Little Word project is also a great place to explore and find inspiration for selecting your own #OLW. In addition, Margaret Simon shared this great lesson for finding your #OneLittleWord!

Need some more inspiration before choosing and writing about your One Little Word? These are some One Little Words chosen by others that particularly inspired my search:

What are your current struggles or challenges — what #OneLittleWord can be your guide through them? One of my favorite writing coaches (Pat Schneider) offers this writing prompt in her book Writing Alone and With Others (an awesome book every writer should buy – and every writing teacher must own!). She asks us to write about the answer to this simple question: “What Matters?” I think this gets at the heart of the appeal of the One Little Word. Sometimes life (from family to career) just presents too much of muchness and focusing on what matters and one little word will help us stay true to the things that matter the most, help us cut through the clutter, and clarify our vision.

Now go forth and write about your own guiding light! Don’t forget to share them using the #JustWrite hashtag.

3 Reasons For Writing With Others

3 Reasons For Writing With Others

June was a busy month for me professionally, but I still wrote a fair amount of poetry. This is due, in part, to the fact that my professional responsibilities meant leading the Morehead Writing Project’s Online Summer Institute – so I wrote and shared along with my students. However, it is also due to the fact that I participated in #LexPoMo for the first time this year. Lexington Poetry Month was created by Hap Houlihan (formerly of the Morris book shop) and Katerina Stoykova-Klemer of Accents Publishing to get Lexington, Kentucky, writing and sharing poetry for the entire month of June. While the challenge was to write a poem every day, a challenge I failed to meet, I was pretty pleased to end up with 12 posted poems. I have a few more still residing in fragments in my journal that may be finished one day, but considering my workload for June I thought 12 was a pretty good start. I was #LexPoMo Poet # 291 if you want to see what I created. In all, 156 poets participated by sharing their poems throughout the month. Some poets shared only a few poems while other shared dozens.

Both experiences led me to remember how important it is for writers to write with other writers. Many people have a vision of writers slaving away in a cabin in the woods or an attic garret – supply your own stereotype here — but always alone. However, if you read author biographies (like I do) you will realize that, in fact, writers need regular contact with other writers for a number of reasons.

Maintain Sanity

First of all, living inside your head too much can make you a little crazy. Have you read or seen The Shining? Trust me, you don’t want to end up like Jack Torrance. Sometimes you need a break from writing that only your non-writing friends and family can provide, but other times you also need to talk with people who can understand the tragedy of writing your characters into such a corner you had to throw pages away! There are only certain people who will understand your obsession with just the right pen or the perfect keyboard or the need to celebrate the perfect turn of phrase. There is nothing wrong with the people who don’t get it, but they aren’t writers. It is a joyful relief to spend some time with our own kind once in a while. In addition to this understanding that non-writers cannot offer, spending time with other writers writing, talking about writing, and sharing writing can provide three solid benefits.

Inspiration

I know writers can find inspiration in many places. Nature, books, candy aisles… But one of the things I love about attending writing workshops and retreats or reading books about writing by other writers is the inspiration they offer. Whenever I step outside my comfort zone as a writer it is because someone pushed me there (or sometimes enticed me with treats). I try to write my way into my day every morning, but I have a few comfortable ruts that I fall into as a writer. I write blog posts. I write rants. I write 6-word stories. I write Tanka poems. There is nothing wrong with that writing, but too much comfort is not a good thing. So this summer I was inspired by various writers to branch out and I am happy that I did as some of the coolest work I’ve done for a while came out of that experimentation.

Learning

You can learn from your fellow writers in a number of ways. I always learn from reading their work as well as talking to them about their methods, struggles, and triumphs as well as what they are reading to inspire and teach them. My journals are always sprinkled with the names of books and writers along with my own writing. Every writer with any miles on their odometer has some tricks and tips they can share, so don’t try to reinvent the wheel yourself. If nothing else ask them what they are reading as well as what they are writing. Writers need to read a lot to refill their well with inspiration and to provide models and guides for our writing. There isn’t a writer on the planet who cannot learn something new from another writer. I learn from my students as well as my fellow teachers whenever we write together.

Growth

One of the ways that writing has benefited me as a person has been the ways it allows me to explore and understand myself, others, and the world. Sharing pieces of our writing (you don’t have to share everything all the time!) with others can bring perspective and help us on our journey of growth. Sometimes another writer might hear something in our words that we did not even know was there or provide a nudge that will benefit our work and our understanding. Also, there is the simple fact that writing is communication. It can be an intensely private act, but if we never share our writing with others then we will never feel like a writer. While family and friends can sometimes be a good audience, although not so much in my own experience, other writers can be sympathetic and challenging in ways that non-writers cannot. They know responding to writing can be a tricky business and will often feel their way carefully through the shifting sand. There is something magical about coming together to share our words and thoughts, our hearts and souls, that can inspire my writing for days after we share.

While writers can write alone, they should, ever so often, resurface into the real world to live and love like a normal human – and, most important of all, they should occasionally connect with other writers to find inspiration, learning, and growth. Where do you find other writers? How do other writers benefit your writing? How do you benefit from other writers?

Artwork by PexelsCreative Commons license

Because You Asked About the Line Between Religion and Faith

Because You Asked About the Line Between Religion and Faith

Books walls rules structure

Music poetry prayer

Bulwark and support

Minefields and cracked foundations

Blood and ashes on our lips

 

In ancient mountains

Touch comforting newborn cry

Rain soothing dry earth

Nurturing bloom and fruit for

Nourishing spirt and flesh

 

Religion a tool

Gripped to protect or destroy

Faith benevolence

A gift to lighten our load

Without faith religion fails

 

Interested in creating your own “Line Between” poem? Check out the the Line Between prompt that inspired me and #JustWrite.

The Line Between

This prompt was introduced to be me by friend and all around awesome writer and writing teacher Abby Thomas. She has shared this prompt at a couple of Morehead Writing Project events (Spring 2016 Writing Retreat and 2016 Online Summer Institute) and I have heard some amazing work resulting from this idea.

She began by introducing us to Howard Nemerov’s poem “Because You Asked About the Line Between Prose and Poetry.”

Abby’s prompt:

I adore how beautifully and eloquently this poem captures the subtle difference between prose and poetry. This poem lingered in my head long after I read it the first time, as I considered how many times I’ve tried to explain the various blurred lines in my life (and totally not the Robin Thicke creepy, non-consensual kind of blurred line). For me there exists so many hard-to-define lines in parenting, education, religion, relationships, writing, politics, words – heck, grocery shopping has turned into all-day riddle of trying to sort through organic, free range, non-GMO labels when all I want is some delicious cereal!

So I think this poem makes for a great writing prompt because it can stir up so many ideas. Here are a couple of writing starts to you can choose from:

1. Steal the line “Because you asked about the line between and _.” Write (any genre) about the line between two elements that are sometimes hard to explain.

2. Imitate the poem in style and use imagery to create a vivid explanation of the line between two elements of your choosing.

Now give this prompt a try and #JustWrite about the line that is teasing your imagination or keeping you up at night!