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

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.

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.

Make A List

It is true. Your grocery list can be a poem. Anything you write can be a poem.

List poems are both the simplest poetry form and the most challenging because writing lists asks the question when does an assembly of words become a poem. I don’t honestly know the answer to that question, but I have never felt that my grocery lists were poetry. And if my to-do lists were a genre it is more likely to be horror. However, today I sat down to write a poem (because LexPoMo) and I ended up writing a list poem (see For Camp). Sometimes this type of poems are called inventory poems.

Some lists are very simple lists (as mine is) but sometimes they offer a bit more. See Shel Silverstein’s Sick for example. I love this idea because it offers so many types of list poems that you could write (just think of all the excuses you dream up to escape loathesome situations). Dorothy Parker also wrote a wonderful Inventory poem which could be adapted to suit your current situation.

This form can also be adapted to study processes or make simple observations such as Christopher Smart’s For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffry. Surely this is a form we could all attempt!

A list poem organizes an inventory of people, places, things, or ideas in a particular way for a specific effect. It does not need to include rhythm or rhyme, but as you play with your words and ideas either may emerge. I will leave you with one final inspiration about a list poem from Anne Waldman, Things That Go Away & Come Back Again.

Give your own list or inventory poem a try and remember to share it using the #JustWrite hashtag.



Writing Walkabout

Writing Walkabout

Australian Aborigines embark on a Walkabout that is a spiritual journey and/or rite of passage – a journey of self-discovery and transformation. In the National Writing Project we treat the walkabout in much the same way. Writing walkabouts are a regular part of our events in an effort to free our inner writer. The walkabout makes a wonderful writing prompt because it is so easy to execute and yet can offer tremendous reward. 

Wandering and wondering, the aborigines sing songlines to guide them over the landscape. These songlines connect people to places and history. Your landscape can be rural, suburban, or urban. It can even be nautical if you have access to a watercraft, bridge, or pier (Note: I’m already thinking about a waterproof pouch I can use to transport my notebook when I swim at the lake). You can even mix up your locations during one writing walkabout or between walkabouts. The idea is simply just to shake things up and write in a new location while offering up new inspiration for your muse.

Richard Louth who was the director of the Southeastern Louisiana Writing Project started them within the National Writing Project, but I don’t know if they existed outside NWP before than.  He used Hemingway’s Moveable Feast as an inspiration, the idea that going out into the world to write instead of writing in a study or library was a very Parisian practice, and Hemingway could either write about what was in front of him or travel through his writing back to his childhood in Michigan.  

There are no rules except to write about whatever inspires you in the moment. Sometimes some appeal to your senses will send you on a trip down memory lane and sometimes something you see or hear will cause you to wonder and sometimes you simply create a study of the scene. There is no wrong way as long as you are filling your notebook with words or other methods of recording (such as drawings or maps). I have traced the names on monuments and drawn rough maps and listed sensory details. I have made lists of street signs and book titles and graffiti. Again. There is no wrong way. #JustWrite

The point is to change your space and location (physically, mentally, emotionally) by walking from one location to another over a pre-determined time period. Think, observe, reflect as you walk. Then stop and write.

If you are struggling with your writing or simply need a fresh inspiration then a writing walkabout is a sovereign cure. Sometimes all you need to generate writing is a change in location and sometimes you do not even need to go very far — simply take a few steps out your front door or a short drive from home. The best places to write offer some place to sit and an excuse (such as a cup of coffee) or opportunity (such as a bench) to linger and something interesting to study and write about. These places can be on Main Street or in the woods. These places can be found in second-hand stores or art galleries. I have perched on street curbs and garbage cans and loading docks and fallen trees. I have braced my notebook against walls and fences and boulders. There are no rules about the location of a writing walkabout. Sometimes I have deliberately chosen a place because I have to drive there and sometimes I have simply wandered around a neighborhood until I spotted a likely spot. There are no rules about the time you spend writing as long as you write. When I have been part of a structure writing walkabout with other writers we generally write for 10-15 minutes per location, but when I am on my own I simply move on as the mood strikes me.

So embark on your own writing walkabout and don’t forget to share using the #JustWrite hashtag!

Solve for X

Solve for X

This prompt is inspired by Oliver de la Paz poem “Solve for X” which has inspired a great deal of thought and writing for me of late.

de la Paz notes:

‘Solve for X’ is part of a sequence of poems about my son who’s on the autistic spectrum. I’ve been attempting to understand the way he perceives the world and I’ve been using cause and effect models as poetic templates. Word problems requiring the mathematician to solve for an unknown, thus, have become a metaphor for how we negotiate our relationship as father and son.

I love this line:

A spasm of radio and the accident of understanding
what it means to be X

We all have unknowns in our life that we are struggling to solve, to understand, and that is an incredibly important writing prompt to explore and some very meaningful writing can come in response to our search. Spend some time writing in response to the idea of solving for X where X can represent any part of your life that you want or need to know more about whether it is your past, present, or future andwhether it is a person, place, or thing. Personally I’m working through my hopes and goals for the future while coming to terms with my present. Let us know if you find this prompt inspiring!

Artwork by Flickr

Fresh Earth

Study this picture and then write about whatever comes to mind. When I encountered this newly plowed field this morning I was struck by all the possible responses evoked by the sight. What potential do you see here?

Now look at this close up. Study the tractor’s tire tracks…the overturned earth…the chopped sections of grass. What ideas and emotions does this evoke? Can you find you or your life represented here?

If you #JustWrite don’t forget to share!