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.”

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.

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.

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.

 

Slam Poetry

Slam Poetry

Writing is therapeutic and perhaps Slam Poetry is the best therapy of all. We incorporate Slam Poetry into many of our Morehead Writing Project events and it is always a hit. I also like to use Slam Poetry in my classes to help my students uncover their deepest thoughts and fears as well as relieve stress. But ultimately, the beautiful thing about Slam Poetry is that it is poetry for writers who are afraid of poetry. There is no rhyme and the rhythm is only that of your own heartbeat, because there are no rules in Slam Poetry as long as it is true and real.

The Urban Dictionary defines Slam Poetry as:

A type of poetry expressing a persons personal story and/or struggle usually in an intensely emotional style. Very powerful, sincere, and moving.

Slam Poetry is meant to be read out loud and performed, but that doesn’t mean you can’t write it alone as a way to exorcise your fears and let your anger rampage. Bottom line is that Slam Poetry comes from your heart and your mind and your gut. It is the passions and thoughts always seething just beneath the surface. It might be better for you to experience Slam Poetry as I first did by hearing a slam poem delivered by the man who first taught me about this form: Taylor Mali with I’ll Fight You For The Library.

I created a Slam Poetry playlist to help you become a slam poet. The playlist includes two brief tutorials to help you get started with slam poetry, but our usual method is simple.

1.Think about what makes you hot as in angry, excited, thrilled; what weighs heavily on your mind, heart, or soul today; make a list of these things

2. Spend a few moments contemplating your list and pick the one thing that really matters right now and write about it — just let it all out on the page and don’t stop until we tell you

Yes, it really can be that simple. Give your emotions free rein. Clearly, you can craft and shape your message more tightly for performance or sharing purposes, but at its essence, slam poetry is a pressure valve. You can use it for this purpose alone or create something to share. Your choice.

Watch the slams I shared on my Playlist, cruise through Youtube to find still more slams, and then write your own. You can check out some of my rants on my other blog and I hope to have some slams to share here soon.

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

Artwork by Martinak15 on Flickr

Praise Poetry

Praise Poetry

A praise poem is a tribute. Praise poetry holds a special place in southern African literature.

In Zulu, praise poetry is called izibongo. It refers to poetic expression that not only defines but names an individual. Praise poetry is written with bold imagery, expressed in the most distinct or carefully selected language. Writing a praise poem is to write about your life and the events or sacrifices that have brought you to the moment you are in today.

Praise poetry is often a celebration of heritage, family, and place – a celebration of who we are and where we come from. As such, Praise Poetry can be intensely personal. Sometimes praise poems are written about places, events, or animals. Praise poems can be a celebration of something much larger than ourselves, such as national identity, but they can also be intensely personal and focus on a specific person or relationship.

I have created a Praise Poetry playlist to help you on your journey to create your own praise poetry. It begins by sharing some examples that have touched me. I truly adore Lucille Clifton’s Won’t You Celebrate With Me — especially her closing line:

wont.you.celebrate.with.me

I also love Alice Lovelace’s Praise Poem for Jikki. You can also read another praise poem she wrote in tribute to a fellow writer: Praise to the Writer. In addition, I chose to include Annika Izora as her powerful poem is a wonderful example of praise sandwiched around an epic slam poem.

I love teaching, writing, and sharing praise poetry because it is such a celebratory and life-affirming activity. Some examples of my praise poetry include, Praise to the Teacher Writer and Won’t You Celebrate With Me. I often encourage my students and fellow teachers to write praise poetry to combat stress and guide them through difficult times, but I urge you to write about whatever sparks your passion. What has made you who you are? Who has had a dramatic impact on your life? Where do you come from? Those are all ideal praise poem prompts.

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

The featured image for this post is the mythical African bird the Sankofa. The Sankofa inspires us to look at the past, lest we forget it. The Sankofa is an ideal visual representative of praise poetry as in these poems, we are to look at our personal and collective histories to make connections to the present and our future.

Meme All The Things

Meme All The Things

I love memes (see playlist and this infographic if you want to know more about memes). I know that isn’t a very original thing to say. After all, memes owe their existence to our universal enjoyment. But I don’t mean that I love simply to view them. I do, I’m not a robot after all, but I really really love making them (see my Meme gallery). This love is similar to my six-word story addiction, but some days I feel like creating something more visual more interactive — and that’s where memes come in! Exhibit A (created to celebrate my love of six-word stories using The Most Interesting Man In The World meme – Create Your Own here):

6words

Meme making is something creative and fun and is a wonderful escape. You can spend just a few minutes creating a meme capturing your mood or thought of the moment or you can spend hours. I must warn you that meme making can be a black hole that can swallow hours if not a whole day. Much like potato chips, I can rarely stop with just one meme. That is why I chose the the X All The Y meme (create your own here) to illustrate this post.

I often meme to blow off some steam:

conflate-grammar-writing-meme

dead-week

Futurama FryCreate Your Own

education-cuts

Annoyed Picard – Create Your Own

p-16-education-cuts

Condescending WonkaCreate Your Own

teach-not-test-creativity

PhilosoraptorCreate Your Own

testing-time

You can learn about memes on the Know Your Meme web site and the world is the limit for creating your own although I have included links to a number of templates just to get you started.

Now go forth and create your own memes! Don’t forget to share them using the #JustWrite hashtag (and #memes too).

My Meme Collection

Write Your Way Into Your Day

Write Your Way Into Your Day

I have been trying to practice what I preach. I try to write every day. I strive to find a few moments in the hurly burly morning rush and reach for my journal and pen rather than my smart phone. I scratch words on the page rather than update my Facebook and Twitter feeds. It isn’t always easy and sometimes I only manage a few scribbled sentences before life rushes in and carries me away on the tide of the day.

The simple truth is that my day, my mind, and my heart, are the better for this practice. I can vent my frustration and scream my rage onto the page without fear of frightening animals and small children or simply bursting my vocal chords. I have a lot of rage. I really need to vent it on a regular basis or I picture something hot and destructive pouring out of me to burn and bury everything in my path.

On a good day I have a few extra minutes to take the indiscriminate gibberish I have poured forth to shape into something fun, something creative, something inspiring. Sometimes this is as simple as a six-word story. Sometimes my thoughts inspire a meme. But often, I find myself shaping these ideas into a poem. This creativity is balm on my wounds and soothes my battered soul and inspires me to meet the day.

It is not that I am a wonderful poet, but creating something constructive and positive out of my struggle and pain is a way to make meaning from it. Playing with my words helps me understand what is going on in my life. Shaping those words, those ideas, those hopes, those fears, into a form gives me power over the words, the ideas, the hopes, the fears. This shaping, this control, allows me to set them aside with a lighter heart, because, at least for the moment, I am in charge.  I have bent them to my will. I own those words.

There is something about creating something, even if it is not entirely from scratch (after all a meme can never really be original), that makes me feel as if I have done something of worth, something meaningful, something inspirational. I send my creation out into the ether in hopes that it will make someone smile or laugh, pause and reflect, or simply nod in sympathy and understanding. My simple act creates a connection between hearts and minds and souls, and that is never a little thing and there are much worse ways to begin the day.

Words have power. Never forget that you can harness that power for good or for evil. Have you ever tried writing each day to harness your rage and inspire your life? What is your simple plan for using writing to cope with the challenges of life?

Now go forth and write your way into or out of your day! Don’t forget to share your writing using the #JustWrite hashtag.

Artwork by Kevin.Sebold (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons