New Growth

The tree outside my window has some new little flowers on it. I never noticed these before, yet I’ve walked past this tree for ten years. I realized today that due to our having to work from home since mid-March I’ve really watched this tree awaken from its winter slumber. First there were the little sprigs of green as the leaves came out. Then, they became fuller. Last week it occurred to me that the tree was giving me more cover now as my desk looks out to the driveway and the path between buildings. Now that there are full leaves, people outside are less able to look right in on me–or think I’m watching them! Today I noticed these little flowerets. They are so pretty. I’ve always liked this tree, but now I’m seeing it in a whole new way, daily watching its growth.

So many of us are waiting for life to return “to normal.” We want this isolation to end. We want to return to school and work and restaurants and hair salons. We want “before.” But, I think we also know that we will never get “before” back. Oh sure, we’ll get back to the beauty parlor and the bistro, but life will never be the same again. Fashion designers are already offering trikinis for this year’s swimsuit season: top, bottom, mask. Life as we know it has changed. We too should change. When I look at my little tree outside my window, I realize that the daily attention has given me this view of beauty that I didn’t appreciate as fully when I used to just breeze past it on my way to the garage. And, as I said, this is a tree I have always liked. But now that I’ve given it this time, I see the details of its beauty. I hope that when we transition back to “normal,” our “new normal” doesn’t include the hamster-treadmill of modern life that we used to run on. Let’s try to hold on to some of the “pause” we’ve learned to live with and appreciate the beauty around us more fully.

Go Bananas

As many of you know, I am often telling my students about the importance of proofreading. Sometimes when we do not proofread, we convey things we did not mean. Sometimes what we write ends up being nonsense at best and downright wrong at worst. Sometimes we end up expressing the exact opposite of what we mean. And if that happens in a way that many people see it, it can be quite embarrasing.

The photo above is being circulated on Facebook. It brings me joy on a couple of levels as well as chagrin. First, it is just funny; the way people goofed on the network’s mistake is clever and humorous. Second, it reinforces what I’ve been saying ad naseum to certain students (you know who you are ;-). In this stressful time of the pandemic, it is wonderful when we find something that makes us laugh. And I did laugh at this one.

But, of course, it also causes a feeling of chagrin. Here is a very public mistake. This person’s job is to create these graphics for the news. S/he should know to proofread carefully and how important it is to his/her job. Writing bananas instead of bandanas changes the meaning to absurdity and makes the network look unprofessional.

Let’s do one more turn though. It’s a mistake, yes, and a very public one. But we don’t know if errors such as this are regularly occurring or if this is an anomaly. Everyone makes mistakes once in a while; that’s being human. It is unfortunate for this person that the mistake is so public, but that’s all it is, and it does not really put anyone at risk. Surely no one really thinks a banana is a good face covering. If the mistakes are frequent, well, that’s another story that the network itself has to address, but let’s assume that this is a one off. Remember too that we are in the midst of a pandemic and that this person may be working from home for the first time. Imagine this: the program for the remote workspace is new; the person writing up the graphics is sitting at a counter in the kitchen; his/her children, let’s say they are 5 and 7, are sitting at the table nearby, coloring; one looks up and says, “Mom/Dad, can I have a banana?” Boom. Viral mistake. I’m actually laughing again picturing this. It’s so plausible. So today, instead of chagrin and blame, I’m going to enjoy the malapropism (look it up-it’s a good word) and smile.

Now I think I’ll go for a walk. Let me grab my banana.

Salvaging a Failed Lesson (Guest blog post on Norton’s K-12 Talk)

Here’s a link to my second guest blog post on Norton’s K-12 Talk blog. In this one I discuss an online lesson that failed due to both a tech glitch and lack of student engagement and how to make the time together still worthwhile. Enjoy.

Facebook Poetry Readings: Taylor Mali

Today I watched/listened to a video on Facebook by the poet Taylor Mali. He offers daily readings of poetry, both his own and others’, on Facebook (and maybe other platforms. I only follow him on FB). I’ve been enjoying these daily offerings. In our time of social isolation, many poets are sharing their work this way, and it is enriching my time. The choices today were “An Abandoned Farmhouse” by Ted Kooser and his own “Please See Me.”

The poems today struck me in two different ways. The first one by Ted Kooser, Poet Laureate of the US from 2004-2006, is very object focused. By looking at what is in the abandoned farmhouse of the title the speaker makes intuitive leaps about the people who were once there. I found myself not only seeing the objects clearly, but also following the tale of these people as if it were a movie. And that’s not even what prompted me to write about it today. Following the poem, Mali shares the assignment he gave his students featuring this poem. They were to look around their rooms and describe the objects from a third person point of view saying what they are and how they characterize the person whose room it is (theirs, yes, but from third person). I thought, “This would be great for the Creative Writing Club.” And indeed it will be posted there soon!

The second poem is directed to those students who don’t offer their best using the excuse “I didn’t understand” to mean “I didn’t really try.” I love the message of this poem as well. I say to my students that I would rather see wrong answers than blank spaces because they blanks say to me that you didn’t even try. Mali’s poem tells them that even more directly. As an educator, Mali’s school-based poems really speak to me. Last year I even choose “What Teacher’s Make” for our school’s Poetry Madness competition. These poems are both light and deep. I love the combination of things that simultaneously make me laugh and think.

I hope you enjoy these poems as well. Maybe you’ll even try the poetry writing exercise!

TV Show Review: Nancy Drew

With COVID 19 dominating the news and changing our lives, I haven’t had the time or inspiration to write. Transitioning to teaching online hasn’t so much been hard as it has been time consuming. But as I urge my students to write, so must I. Yet naturally with our home-based learning, I am spending much time in front of the computer, so I do not necessarily want to spend more time there after work. When I’m done for the day, I join my husband in the living room, and we watch some news. But then, enough. We need entertainment instead by the end of the day. Yesterday, we finished the first season of Nancy Drew, and entertainment it was.

This is not the Nancy Drew of my childhood. Now she is a high school graduate who has left college and returned to Horseshoe Bay, Maine after her mother dies only to find herself and a few others accused of murdering a socialite in town. They have to work together to clear their names. Horseshoe Bay is a town divided between the wealthy, country-club set and the “townies”, with a twist: there are ghosts. Lucy Sable who was murdered almost twenty years before our story begins, haunts Nancy and others, prompting her to also investigate Lucy’s death.

The show is campy. Horseshoe Bay is dark and rainy most of the time. The Claw, the local diner where Nancy and her friends work, is almost always empty, allowing them to leave it frequently to go off on one clue-chasing jaunt or another. They find long-lost, stolen treasure (and lose it again-to ghosts); they hold a seance to call on the spirit of “dead Lucy,” as Nancy calls her; they explore the seemingly endless supply of abandoned and neglected buildings Horseshoe Bay has to offer; they make wrong accusations and right ones. There are twists and turns I did not see coming, especially the revelation at the season’s finale. In a sense, it’s all a bit ridiculous, and I love it. It was a bit slow at first, but now I’m sorry I have to wait now for the new season to start. If you want to give it a try, you can stream it for free on the CW.

Round and Round and Rondeau We Go

So, last week I told you about my students writing Sestinas and asked what other forms we should try. But no one here or on Twitter offered a suggestion, so I scrolled through some Writer’s Digest posts until I settled on the rondeau. Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask” is such a masterful example of this form; reading it alone makes the exercise worth it.

But, of course, there’s more. The writing’s the thing. I think my rondeau attempt is better than my Sestina, but it’s not quite where I want it to be yet. I’m having verb tense issues in trying to work the rhyme. In addition, I find that while my students dig deep, I seem to become a bit trite when confined to a rhyme scheme. This is something I want to work on.

However, as it did last week, the exercise warmed up my writing muscles. I followed up my writing session with a stint at a coffee shop with my novel in progress. It’s a good reminder of why we do these exercises and that I should do them even without my students. Just as musicians often begin with scales before going on to their new pieces, so too should writers exercise before composing new work.

So try a rondeau (follow the link here for instructions) or some other form if for no other reason than to warm up your writing muscles. If you like the result, share it here. And if I find a way out of my tense problems, I’ll post the result too. Good luck.

Sestina

Today I offered my creative writing students a challenge: write a Sestina. We briefly went over the “rules” of the form and looked at an example. (link below) Then I set them free. Our time together is short, and I wanted them to get to the writing part of the session as quickly as I could. One of the girls moaned as we began writing, “I don’t even have a topic yet.” But write they did. In fact, they finished before I did! I will not publish my attempt here–and it was simply an attempt, a not-very-successful attempt. The end words are there, but the poem is clunky. Maybe one day I’ll revisit and revise, who knows. For me, that is not the point. Rather, there were two greater victories today.

First and foremost, my students amaze me. Two high school ninth graders and one junior showed up today (this is an after school activity). One of the ninth graders is painfully introverted, yet she lets me read her poetry as long as I promise not to read it aloud to the rest of the girls. And it is powerful. Very powerful. Even within the restrictive form of the Sestina, she finds the vein and goes deep. The other ninth grader prefers to write prose, sci-fi/fantasy to be exact, but she’s game to try new things. She essentially wrote the bones of a fantasy story about a witch banished to the forest by her father who comes to live in harmony and peace with the animals until the villagers go to the forest in fear and kill her. But she did this in Sestina form!!! And it’s really, really good, like I want to find somewhere for her to publish good. I am blown away. I’m encouraging her to perform the poem at our annual Poetry Café at the end of the month.  (I’m still waiting for the junior’s submission as she had to leave early to get to her extra, after school physics class, but I’m sure it will be good. I also expect that she will have broken the rules at some point for effect.)

Secondly, in addition to the inspiration that my students give me, there is the benefit of having stretched my creative muscle. I tried a new form. The result was not too good, but it is finished. (That in and of itself is an accomplishment sometimes!) And I can try again, maybe choosing better words this time or having a clearer idea (dare I say theme?) when I start out. Even though the poem is a bit of a dud, the brain power is not. Words are churning through my mind searching for the right part of the puzzle in which to land. (Hmmmm…might use that line in a poem one day even though the metaphor is mixed. Perhaps break it up into two images…see what I mean?…Hey, I was even inspired to write this blog post!) It is invigorating. It is gray and wet here in NYC today, and the last week before Winter Break. Everyone is dragging. But my writers and I are leaving today with a bit more bounce in our steps and active minds.

Have you written a Sestina? Want to give it a try? Here’s a link to Writer’s Digest‘s Robert Lee Brewer’s blog post from January 17, 2008 about Sestinas. Give it a read and Sestinas a try. If you like the result, share it with us here in the comments or on your own blog (give me a pingback so I know when it goes up!). Or just share your experience. Or perhaps you have a different form to recommend for my students. What should we try next? What is your favorite poetic form?

Happy writing everyone! Keep at it. 🙂

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“What you would seem to be, be really.”

What you would seem to be, be really.Yesterday, I had my students free-write on a saying attributed to Benjamin Franklin in his Poor Richard’s Almanack. They were directed to choose one from a list of twenty-three aphorisms and explain what it means to them, why they chose it, and if they have any experience to which the aphorism applies. Being a free-write, they could address all or only a few of the topics as long as they explained what it means and wrote for ten minutes straight. I wrote alongside them. The one above is my chosen aphorism. I think it speaks to us writers and crafters, especially for the former in this age of Twitter (etc).

So, what does Franklin mean? Don’t just dream it; make it happen. This is the basis of many motivational posters one sees in teacher catalogs and the like, and for good reason. Many of us dream of being something (or someone), but unless we work to make it happen, it remains but a dream or desire.

20170827_004952When it comes to writing (or any kind of creating, more on crafting later), it is easy to go on Twitter and proclaim oneself a writer and join the #WritingCommunity and hashtag #amwriting. We ask each other questions about style, motivation, main characters, setting, etc. And this is all good, to a point. However, if we don’t get off Twitter and actually sit down and write something, we are just seeming, not being, writers. Joining a community is great, but eventually I (and you, each of us separately) have to sit down in my chair alone with my thoughts and wrangle them into some semblance of meaning.

There are days, many days in fact, when this is easy and exhilarating. The words flow and the story or poem or essay falls into place. There are other days, however, when this is hard. The ideas either churn in your brain but resist flowing out through your pen (or keyboard), or they go on vacation altogether, leaving your brain a temporary tumble-weed town. And it’s the memory of those rough days that can make us reticent to sit down again; they seem to stick to us more powerfully than the wonderful days. Sometimes the anticipation of the hard work involved in writing is worse than the experience of it, and so we talk about our writing rather than do it. We seem instead of be.

20170715_232938When it comes to crafting (I told you I’d get to it!), I think perhaps it is even easier to seem rather than be. Maybe this is because the world at large views crocheting, sewing, quilting, knitting, etc. as hobbies rather than professions. Though some can and do make a living from them, most of us, even those of us with Etsy shops, don’t rely on our crafts for income. And we are not expected to. (Of course it is not easy to make a living as a writer either, but it is more accepted and expected.) If I say, “I’m a writer,” then others ask about the product. “What have you written?” If I say, “I’m a crafter,” then others either say very little. “Oh, nice.”

Additionally with crafting, we run the risk of building our stash without building our stock. Being a crafter, it is hard to resist the allure of the fabric store, the craft store, and the like. And once there, it’s nearly impossible to walk out without purchasing something—often many somethings. To justify the cost, we tell ourselves that we’re going to make something for our Etsy stores, but more often than not, we’ve been to the craft store three or four more times before we get around to making one item. And the stash piles grow. All over the web, there are articles, blog posts, and Tweets about them and how to use them. Our stash piles are lovely things, full of possibility. But, unless we make something with them, they profit us little, and may actually oppress us with their untapped potential.

What we write on a given day may need much editing or may need even to be discarded as we start again (this piece itself has undergone several revisions), and what we craft may or may not be a success in either construction or popularity, but we did it. We tried. If we are writers or crafters, or both, let us be them, not just seem so.