Where Is Your Writing From?

Monday when rock star teacher Brandie Trent led the Morehead Writing Project‘s Spring 2017 Teen Writers Day Out I was inspired by a prompt that she threw out to us. She asked us to consider where our writing is from. This prompt was an alternative to those of us who have already written about our origins many times and weren’t interested in pursuing that idea at the moment. I do love writing about my origin story, but that day I wasn’t in the mood for it, But to think about where my writing comes from…now that intrigued me. 

One of my table partners and I chose to write very visceral pieces about the well-spring of our writing full of sensory and descriptive detail. Turns out we both were writing from pretty dark places at the moment. Perhaps we were influencing each other, but it had to be some sort of telepathy as we didn’t share our ideas before we wrote.

Sometimes the air is thick and heavy like a thunderstorm is about to unravel. Tall, dark trees overarch the fetid swamp while drapes of moss trail through dark pools of unknown depth. Unseen monsters lurk beneath ready pull the unwary down to drown, rot, and turn to carrion.

I told you it was dark, but then my writing is in a pretty dark place right now. I’m writing things out a lot just to help me cope. I’ve attended some pretty interesting writing events recently and hope to share some of those prompts with you soon, but for now I thought you might enjoy exploring the source of your writing.

And this prompt offers a great deal of potential for other forms of exploration. For example, if you are also in a dark place perhaps you should explore the origins of that darkness — in a more metaphorical sense. I’m thinking about doing that too. Let me know, using the #JustWrite hashtag, if you explore any of your origin stories in this way whether they lead you to poetry, prose, or some remediated form.

Self-Healing With Writing Therapy

Self-Healing With Writing Therapy

Life is hard and sometimes it really knocks us down. Hard. So hard we can’t get up. We can’t crawl. All we can do is curl into the fetal position and cry. Sometimes we are so exhausted and beaten we can’t even cry. For some people it is one big thing, one traumatic event or loss or illness, that has struck the blow and for others it an endless pummeling of small and medium blows that just keep on coming until we can no longer protect ourselves from the pain and devastation.

However, we do not need to fight this battle alone. Therapy and support groups are available for major traumas and often one really good friend can make the difference for those of us who don’t quite fall into a support group category. Don’t be afraid to reach out and get help. You don’t need to go it alone. There are many resources available when you just can’t cope anymore. There are also steps you can take to self-heal – one proven strategy is writing therapy.

Writing has helped many people cope with stress, trauma, and both physical and mental challenges. Studies have shown that writing can help with mental trauma and suffering and abate physical symptoms for some long-term illnesses such as HIV/AIDS, asthma and arthritis. Suppressing negative emotions, stress, and trauma can actually be harmful to our physical as well as mental well-being by suppressing our immune function. However, writing can help us release our fears and anxieties. Even more important, writing can help us understand our pain and offers a way to learn from and move past the suffering. Studies have also shown that writing has the potential to boost our immune system and help us heal faster.

James W. Pennebaker is the founder of this movement which is now extensively used for therapy throughout the world. He offers this simple strategy for beginning your journey with healing through writing:

  • Develop the habit: Set aside time every day for several days to write for about 15 minutes
  • Find a safe place: Write somewhere private where you will be undisturbed and you can cry without judgement
  • Write for yourself: Simply freewrite. Do not worry about the rules of grammar, spelling, or punctuation, and do not fret over the right word or a specific detail. Just write continuously and let the words fall as they may
  • Determine the fate of your words: Some people like to save this writing or gradually develop those words into something meaningful, but these are your words and your challenges so you can do with them as you like. If it makes you feel better to burn them, cross them out, erase them, shred them, or tear them into little pieces and toss them to the wind. It is up to you to decide what action is most beneficial for you and your healing journey

What to Write About:

  • Something that you are thinking or worrying about too much
  • Something that you are dreaming about
  • Something that you feel is affecting your life in an unhealthy way
  • Something that you have been avoiding for days, weeks, or years

Pennebaker offers the following instructions:

Over the next four days, I want you to write about your deepest emotions and thoughts about the most upsetting experience in your life. Really let go and explore your feelings and thoughts about it. In your writing, you might tie this experience to your childhood, your relationship with your parents, people you have loved or love now, or even your career. How is this experience related to who you would like to become, who you have been in the past, or who you are now?


Many people have not had a single traumatic experience but all of us have had major conflicts or stressors in our lives and you can write about them as well. You can write about the same issue every day or a series of different issues. Whatever you choose to write about, however, it is critical that you really let go and explore your very deepest emotions and thoughts.

And also this warning: Many people report that after writing, they sometimes feel somewhat sad or depressed. Like seeing a sad movie, this typically goes away in a couple of hours. If you find that you are getting extremely upset about a writing topic, simply stop writing or change topics.

I know that writing it out has helped me cope with life. Whether you are suffering from a major traumatic experience or a series of stressors, #JustWrite it out to help the healing begin.

Artwork by Steve Snodgrass

Heart Maps and #OLW

Heart Maps and #OLW

We are on the cusp of a New Year and everywhere there are signs of people setting New Year resolutions. Gym memberships. Diets. Donations to Goodwill. All these are admirable, but for many people the resolution becomes just another cause for angst. Frankly, I don’t need that kind of pressure in my life, thank you very much. So for the past three years, I have eschewed the resolution (and the associated angst) and focused instead on choosing One Little Word to serve as my guidepost and mantra for the year. This is a positive action that has helped me focus my energy and my time. My #OLW is a touchstone throughout the year that can help me with difficult decisions and help me reset when life gets out of control.

I have already chosen my #OLW and that is pretty big for me as the journey is usually much more fraught and difficult for me. Last year I did not arrive at “COOL” until well into the New Year. I was especially worried because my emotional state this year is in a more precarious place, but reading my original #OLW prompt reminded me of the essential question: “What matters?”

To uncover the answer to this essential question I decided to try out Heart Maps. I cannot be sure where I first heard about Heart Maps (although I suspect it was at an NWP event). I have read about uses for Heart Maps in the classroom several times on Two Writers Teachers and you can never go wrong using their tips and strategies. If you really want to delve into the world of heart maps you should consider going directly to the source, Georgia Heard in her Heart Maps book. Quite simply, according to Georgia Heard, heart maps are a “a concrete and visual” tool to help the writer “map out their lives — people, memories and experiences that matter to them most.” As such, heart maps are a great journal topic to help you identify personal and important topics to write about. There are lots of great heart map prompts and activities out there, but I found these to be the most helpful to me:

I first created a list of all the things I love, the things I am passionate about, including people, places, and things. I contemplated what makes me happy and what is fun. Then, because 2016 has been a very bad year on so many levels, I decided to make a loathing list, too. I didn’t want to make it a hate list, because I try not to give these negative things any more power than they deserve – hate takes a lot of energy that should be spent only on important things – so a loathing list. That exercise was useful even if those items did not make it only to my heart map, because it helped me sift and sort and prioritize what is important about the entries on my love list and ultimately helped me arrive at my One Little Word for 2017. Stay tuned and start thinking about your #OLW!

Do you choose a one little word? Do you find the #OLW practice a helpful and positive alternative to the New Year Resolution? What is your #OLW process?

Feeling Lost? Write It Out

Feeling Lost? Write It Out

Today I am lost and afraid. Swinging between outright panic and wracking sobs. So I set a box of tissues beside me to catch the tsunami of tears and picked up my pen. I’ve been struggling for weeks, months really, and a workshop I led this weekend really helped me find my way. I led my small cadre of writers through a writing journey designed just to help me — and it did. Here is the path we took:

So while all hope was lost after an election where hate won, I hoped to find it again in the pages of the journal. I believe in the power of words to heal or to at least lance the boil so that healing can come later.

So I poured it out in an angry torrent on the page…taking occasional breaks to wipe my tears and blow my nose. I did feel a little better for the release, but I just couldn’t move on to the next stage. There were many people I wish knew my despair, but I don’t believe they care and I don’t believe they want to listen.

So I broke from the plan and wrote a poem (see Hate Won). Sometimes poetry can help me find solace as I shape and corral the words and feelings. Poetry helped a little, but it took only one Facebook post to send me spiraling back into despair.

Maybe I’ll try again tomorrow. But first another box of tissues. Have you tried to write your way out of despair?

Artwork by Snufkin on Pixabay

A Walk Through the Forest

A Walk Through the Forest

Today I chose to make my poetic adventure a walk through the forest. OK, not a real walk, but rather a metaphorical walk that I first took years ago under the able guidance of my amazing friend (and total rock star teacher) Liz Prather. I have used this writing prompt to inspire poetry more than once and I hope you find it useful. Here is the lesson plan she uses with her students. I have slightly adapted her prompt for personal use below.

Liz notes: “Poetry seeks to reveal the unknown and give a home to those abstract thoughts through sensory image and detail. This activity is designed to extract clues from [your] subconscious, to unearth the vast stores of imagistic material that makes great poetry.”

Liz likes to use a timer to keep the writing moving and to ensure that no one overthinks each writing prompt.

You are walking through the forest. Describe the trees.

(One minute writing)

You continue in the forest and on the path, you notice some keys. Describe the keys.

(One minute writing)

You continue in the forest and on the path, you notice a cup. Describe the cup.

(One minute writing)

You continue in the forest and you come to a wall. Not only describe the wall, but tell me what you do when you come to the wall.

(One minute writing)

You go pass the wall and continue in the forest. You notice a bear in the path. Describe the bear.

(One minute writing)

You have finally come to the end of our journey. You have made it through the forest and come to a beautiful sunny meadow. Before you enter the meadow, you come to a stream. Describe the stream and what you do when you come to the stream.

(One minute writing)

Now it is time to explore the meaning behind the images you have chosen.

The Key:

Trees = Parents

Keys = Money

Cup = Love

Wall = Problems and what you do to the wall represents how you solve your problems

Bear = Death

Stream = Afterlife and what you do represents if you embrace/reject your ideal eternity

Think about these ideas. Using the information retrieved from your psyche, write a poem that is an extended metaphor starting with the line that identifies the item and its abstract counterpart. Liz suggests 10 lines but I think for a future writing retreat I have planned I will challenge my writers to use the Tanka form.

Example of first verse (originally shared by Liz):

Love is a Dunkin Donuts cup

Dirty leaves dot the bottom

lipstick stains ruin the rim.

The poem I wrote the first time I embarked on this journey is Love. Please share the poetry this prompt inspires using 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.

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.”


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?


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.

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!

Write Your Origin Story

Write Your Origin Story

Some of the richest and most powerful writing I see come out of Morehead Writing Project events are pieces generated by the past in which the writer explores the places, people, and events that shaped them into who they are today. These pieces are powerful to read, but are also important for the writer. We all need to understand how our past informs our present and we all have things in our past that we need to reconcile in order to move forward and make the most of our future. These explorations can be celebrations, remembrances, or cautionary tales — or you can revisit the past time and again to attempt all three types of memoir writing. Who we are is written in our DNA.

I am going to share three of my favorite ways to explore where, who, and what you come from:

George Ella Lyon‘s “Where I’m From” poem continues to touch me decades after I first heard her share this piece of writing. I am fortunate to have met her several times and spent many hours writing with her at various workshops and events. I know there are many templates out there created by well-meaning teachers, but I would argue against following such a model. Simply read about her creation process and tips for creating your own “Where I’m From” poem and start writing. If you would like a bit more guidance there is a lesson plan linked from the bottom of the page. Check out my “I Am From” poem as well. A theme explored during the 2015 CLMOOC was storied spaces and exploring the spaces that influenced our lives is another important idea for writers to explore.

Kelly Norman Ellis’ “I Was Raised By Women” is another powerful piece that can inspire powerful origin stories. I know these women even if they did not raise me and I can see their work in her words and presence. Thinking about the people who raised us can be both painful and wonderful at the same time. I invite you to study the lines of her poem and to look at the categories or ideas represented by the women who raised her. Before you begin writing brainstorm a list of people who were influential in your life and determine if you can organize these people into categories. Then further brainstorm a list of metaphors and other descriptive words employing sensory details (sight, sound, scent, touch, taste) to build your own piece. You can also take a page from George Ella Lyon’s advice and remember that this does not have to be a poem.

I’d like to conclude with a more playful and inventive form of identity writing inspired by my experiences with the 2015 CLMOOC. Our first two make cycles focused on issues of identity, first asking us to Unmake an Introduction. The idea was to do more than simply introduce ourselves, but to explore and challenge the idea of identity and how context influences the ways we identify ourselves. Check out my initial attempts to unmake my introduction as well as how others (re)mediated identity as well. The second make cycle invited us to (re)mediate and so I continued to play with these ideas of identity and others (re)mediated as well.

I would be remiss if I didn’t share an idea introduced to me by Crystal Wilkinson (an amazing writer and teacher). During one workshop, she invited us to write poems interweaving the ideas introduced by both Lyons and Ellis which resulted in some pretty interesting pieces. You could take any of these pieces to the next level with some remediation.

What places, people, and events in your past are influencing who you are and what you do today? What do you see in your rearview mirror? Now go forth and write your own origin story! Don’t forget to share them using the #JustWrite hashtag.

Rearview mirror image by Massimiliano Calamelli on Flickr.