A few words of encouragement for the weekend…
About six years ago, our school produced its most recent literary magazine. This year, fellow English teacher and W.O.W blogger, Thomas Brandon, and I decided to revive it. For the first time in six years, our students have a place to come and write creatively without judgement, deadlines, or any academic pressure. It is my favorite reason to stay after school, and I think our dedicated group of about ten regular attendees probably feels the same way. Our organization is two-fold: a creative writing club that meets to learn about and practice writing, and a staff that actually creates the literary magazine from student submissions.
Thomas and I held our most recent Creative Writing Club meeting outside, enjoying one of two courtyard gardens our school maintains. Thomas, the students, and I dedicated ten minutes to each of our fives sense. We spent three minutes focusing on just one sense, beginning with sight. Then, we spent seven minutes writing about what we had experienced through that sense. Next, we closed our eyes and spent three minutes just listening, giving our focus to our sense of hearing. Then, we spent seven minutes writing about that experience. We proceeded to smell, touch, and finally, taste. It was a beautiful exercise in getting in tune with our environment and our bodies, as well as a way to practice writing description, utilizing imagery, and paying attention to detail.
Next time you feel a sense of writer’s block trying to tell you you have nothing to write about, quiet it with this exercise. Just go somewhere–anywhere–and write from the senses, devoting undivided attention to each one in its turn.
Below are the unedited (aside from typing them up), uncensored small pieces I came up with when I wrote from the senses with the students in our Creative Writing Club earlier this week.
We are in a garden tucked away in the courtyard of the school, surrounded on four sides by brick. I see an empty, gray trashcan with a collapsed lid, a seemingly abandoned spiderweb splayed across the top, gently rising and falling with each little burst of breeze. I see the abandoned plant in a pot beside the bench across from me. Someone no doubt had the best intentions of planting it, nurturing it. What happened to those intentions? I see half-begun wasp nests, also quiet and empty, not abuzz and pulsating with wings and stings and busy wasp work. Someone no doubt killed them all off, and all that’s left of their labor is a few catacombs, corridors exposed to the elements like so many empty hotel rooms when the first condemned wall comes down.
On the other side of these white brick walls there is the constant whining hum of the highway, interrupted now and again by the down-shifting of a tractor trailer, a jarring, bumpy roar. Closer in are the birds, their chirps and songs and twitters. Some are stationary, perched on branch or roof or railing. Others fly overhead, letting their cry trail behind, and down through the springtime air to land here, in my ear. The leaves above me are disturbed by a bird or squirrel or light, little breeze. There is the quiet crunch of gravel as I shift in my seat. Add finally, my own, echoey breathing, like a creature’s in a cave–deep and heavy and filling my head with a whispery, rhythmic sound.
This is the soft smell of spring. Of warmer air, sweetened by sweeping over fields of alfalfa and meadows of flowers and fresh, unassaulted, now and again reaching up with a wave to make a snatch at the breeze. This is the smell of almost-summertime. Of air baked just slightly to bring out its scent, subtle, refreshing, distracting. It is the smell of sunshine-warmed grasses and someone’s lotion, the perfume activated from heat. It is the smell of the same temperature of my nostrils, unoffensive and smooth and familiar. It is not the smell of earth or fire or favorite food. It is that fresh-air smell that reminds me I am alive, and it is good.
My foot presses hard into gravel, the ground beneath it sold and firm. The planks on the bench holding me up press into the backs of my legs; the planks against my back are unyielding. Earth using all of her forces, all of her pull, to keep me as close to her core as possible.
Foot pressed hard
ground beneath so
solid and firm
Planks pressing into
backs of legs,
Earth keeping me
Sour taste of
on back of tongue
Tongue snugged up to the
roof of my mouth
Mouth filled with tongue and teeth and gums
Teeth slightly parted
or grinding in thought,
pressing together the
stress of the day
Lips closed, but lightly,
concealing it all,
holding back morsels too
juicy to tell
Rough texture of taste buds
like sandpaper fuzz
Smooth underside of tongue
slick, shiny, wet
My first introduction to Valley Haggard took place when I was a participant in her Master Class, “LIFE IN 10 MINUTES: Writing the personal essay,” at the 2015 James River Writers Annual Conference in Richmond, Virginia. I was struck by her deeply metaphorical writing style, as well as her generous, forgiving, encouraging, and inclusive view of writing—not to mention her beautifully thick, dark hair, and her eclectic fashion sense. All of this intrigued me so that when, a few months later, in February of 2016, a friend of mine gifted me with Valley’s book, The Halfway House for Writers, and invited me to join her in one of Valley’s Life in 10 Minutes Writing Workshops, I was quick to accept.
In her book The Halfway House for Writers, Valley writes about learning to “transform my self-talk…into gentle, soft, loving words, the same words I would give to anyone else” (116). This statement is so telling of the kind of person and writing teacher Valley Haggard is. She is an ally of the “writing scared” (121), an advocate for the writer who doesn’t yet know she is one, and a champion of all who are willing to risk themselves through the written word. Writers from every walk of life and every level of experience are encouraged to submit to the Life in 10 Minutes online literary magazine. Valley shares her 10-minute pieces every week here and publishes the work of her students and writers from all around the world every weekday here.I am absolutely honored to present below my interview with Richmond-based author, writing teacher, and founder of Richmond Young Writers, Valley Haggard.
Mind the Dog: You are the founder of Richmond Young Writers. Tell us a little bit about this organization. Where did the idea come from? What is its mission? What are some of its programs? How can people get involved?
Valley Haggard: Our mission at Richmond Young Writers is to share the joy and craft of creative writing with young people. We started out with a few kids and a few classes in the summer of 2009 in the art gallery of Chop Suey Books and now we are a year-round program in our own space- The Writing Room- right next door to Chop Suey Books in Carytown. All of our teachers are also writers and our classes are lively, interactive, crazy-fun, and out of the box. We do everything we can to bring storytelling, poetry, fiction, movie-making, surrealism, and all types writing to life for kids outside of deadlines, grades, and all the pressure of perfectionism. We are always trying to spread the word about the awesome things we do and raise money for our scholarship program so every kid in this city who wants to participate can. Here’s a link to our scholarships page! http://www.richmondyoungwriters.com/scholarships/
VH: I have found that 99.9% of the writers who come to my classes have some sort of hang-up around writing…and by hang-up I mean everything from crushing insecurity, neurosis, and paralysis, to simply questioning whether or not we are actually real writers. Somewhere along the way someone told us we weren’t good enough or that to be a real writer you have to look and act and talk and think a certain way. We think our lives are too boring, our words aren’t big enough, no one wants to hear what we have to say. These are our writing wounds. I think writers are sensitive people who feel things with a certain intensity. We crave a safe place to experiment, to play, to share our words without being shot down. The Halfway House encourages people to find or create that safe place, a place to cultivate confidence, to take creative risks and to heal.
MTD: In your book, you thank the writers who helped build “a writing world you actually want to live in.” What does that world look like?
VH: Ah, yes! The writing world I want to live in is a world where we can be honest about who we really are without being shamed, ridiculed, or stared at like we have three heads. Where we can find points of connection and overlap through our words and stories. Where we can break the isolation of hiding our true thoughts and feelings and experiences and put them down on paper in our own words from our unique points of view. I have found the connection, the safety and the freedom of expression I always craved in my classes. As a group this is what we create together. And for me, this is truly writing heaven, writing nirvana.
Writers from every walk of life and every level of experience are encouraged to submit to the Life in 10 Minutes online literary magazine. Valley shares her 10-minute pieces every week here and publishes the work of her students and writers from all around the world every weekday here.
MTD: There are seven “Rules of the Halfway House” (7-11). How did you come up with them, and do you have one that you believe is your favorite, or the most important?
VH: I came up with the seven Rules of the Halfway House by making a list of all the things I found myself saying most frequently at the beginning of each new class. Surrender your weapons, seek shelter, free write, hand-write, skip the small talk, listen, and don’t apologize. Having put these rules to the test for some time now, I have found them solid, sound, and truly effective. The writing that pours out of students in my class when they have this structure in place has been mind-blowing, deeply beautiful, and profound. Loose structure gives us the freedom to run wild, experiment, be honest, and create. It’s hard to suss out one favorite over all the others, but perhaps I’ll choose the first because it’s also the hardest: Surrender your weapons. This is where we stop following the dictate of the voice in our head that tells us we suck, we should stop writing, that we’re wasting our time. Without this I don’t think we really have a chance at the rest.
MTD: You have written ad copy and product descriptions in the past. How did you make the move from that type of work, to writing your own magazine column and teaching writing classes?
VH: This was an overlapping, intertwined, and long transition without clear demarcation lines! Young and hungry for absolutely any kind of paid writing that came my way, I was still writing ad copy and product descriptions for the first few years that I had my own column. And then, when I had my column and was still writing ad copy, I started teaching first kids and eventually adults. My plate got so full something had to go and luckily that something was the tedious, laborious work of ad copy. Not that I regret doing that for a minute…it taught me so much! But writing a first-person column and helping people access their own story and voice and find themselves staring back from the page has been so exciting and so gratifying, I feel insanely lucky that I was eventually able to let everything else go.
MTD: In “Publication,” you write in part about a generous editor who, having accepted a story you wrote for publication, essentially rewrote it, but who was also willing to, as you put it, walk “me through the most egregious of my errors” (88), giving you the chance to write a second article. I’m sure other writers could learn from your experience and avoid the same errors at the outset. What were these errors?
VH: My basic errors were ignorance and hubris. I had not made myself familiar enough with the format of the essays and articles this publication already published. I thought I could invent a whole new style of writing and storytelling for an established magazine that already had a very particular style. Inventing new styles and voices and formats is great for creative writing, but when you are trying to submit to a publication that already knows who it is, you have to get to know them rather than expect them to get to know you. After the editor rewrote my article, I studied the changes she made, the format and style she wanted, and then imitated her basic structure after that. Each publication is different, so my best advice is to make yourself intimately familiar with what they have already done in the past so you can fall in line with what they want to do in the future.
One of the most common mistakes I see in my students’ (and many other people’s) writing, is confusion as to the use of “every day” and “everyday.”
As one word, “everyday” is an adjective, as in “He was your everyday Joe, just trying to get by,” or “He drove an everyday sedan, indistinguishable from the other beige cars in the lot.” It refers to something that is commonplace, normal, usual. “Everyday” is synonymous with words like “typical” or “average.”
As two words, “every” and “day,” the word “every” functions as a modifier for the word “day.” “Every day” as two words expresses the frequency with which something occurs, as in, “I eat breakfast every day.” In this case, “every day” is synonymous with “daily” or “each day.”
An example that uses both, albeit a bit redundant, would be: “I enjoy a simple, everyday cereal–Cheerios, Raisin Bran, Corn Flakes–for breakfast every day.”
As a rule of thumb, if you could correctly use “each day” or “daily” where you are thinking of employing “every day” or “everyday,” use “every day.” If you could correctly substitute “typical” or “common” where you plan to use “every day” or “everyday,” use “everyday.”
Every Day—expresses frequency
|Every single day||Common|
Somewhere in my soul
there is still snow
on an open field
It is still
of trees reaching
for pale sheet of sky
stretched thin above
It is still
of animal bedding
and broken tools and pallets
we prop up like ladders
to reach the roof.
It is still
air glittery with
relocating with the wind.
It is still
snow boots on a
in the snow
It is still
and frozen toes
and no one home
but you and me
It is still.
Somewhere in my soul
there is still.
In case you’ve ever underestimated the importance of proofreading, don’t.
I recently found myself in the center seat on a full flight that couldn’t take off because of a typo.
It went something like this:
Pilot’s fuzzy voice announces over the cockpit speakers, “Ladies and gentleman, we have a full flight today. There are no empty seats, and it appears we will need to delay our takeoff just a bit because we are running over the weight limit.”
General rumble of dismayed passengers worried about missing connections (I include myself in the group of worriers) rises and falls in the cabin.
And we wait some more.
About twenty-five minutes pass.
Pilot’s voice over the cockpit speakers crackles, “Ladies and gentleman, we are investigating what appears to be a typo. We recently got new handbooks, and we believe this latest version contains a typo. We are looking into it to make sure we are following procedure before takeoff.”
Exclamations of amusement and disbelief rise and fall in the cabin.
And we wait some more.
Ten or fifteen minutes pass.
Pilot’s voice over the cockpit speakers relates the welcomed news, “Ladies and gentleman, it appears the issue was indeed only a typo. We will be taking off shortly. Thank you for your patience.”
Sighs of relief rise and fall in the cabin.
But I am still a little concerned.
You see, my 50-minute layover was a tight one before the typo-induced delay, and by the time the typo was identified and the confusion cleared up, our flight was taking off an hour later than scheduled.
I’ll spare you the details of the three-hour flight, which was uneventful, and skip to what was left of the layover:
We are running through the airport with carry-ons clunking against our thighs and backs. We are panting on the tram. We are racing up to our gate as the woman manning it says, “You’re lucky you got here. They’re closing the door now,” and picks up a phone to tell the operator on the other end of the bridge that we are here and not to close the door yet. We are jostling our way down the aisle of already-settled passengers, eyeballing us as if we are the reason they have not yet taken flight.
We make our flight, but our checked bags aren’t as fortunate.
And our car keys are tucked safely away in them.
We land in Richmond, where the car we cannot unlock, let alone start and drive home, is waiting in the south parking garage. We call my mother-in-law to make the 25-minute drive from our home, where she has been taking care of our dogs, to the airport–with our extra set of car keys in her purse. We drive two separate cars home, and have an excellent excuse to relax for the evening: We cannot unpack luggage that did not arrive, nor can we begin to wash and dry and fold the clothes packed in said luggage.
We wake up the next morning to find our bags kindly delivered, waiting in the shade on our back deck–and the typo-induced ordeal has finally come to close. At least for us. I don’t know what became of the passengers whose connecting flights had already taken off when we finally landed at our connecting airport.
The moral of the story? The next time you consider sending an e-mail, publishing a blog post (goodness help my hypocritical soul if you’ve found a typo in this one!), or turning in a paper before you’ve proofread it (multiple times), consider the chaos one little mistake could cause on the other end (not to mention your own, personal humiliation).
I began reading Laurie Beth Jones‘s nonfiction book, The Path: Creating Your Mission Statement for Work and for Life at the recommendation of a friend with whom I shared the questions that have been dogging (no pun intended!) me for the last few years: Why does it matter? What is my purpose? What am I doing here–and why am I doing it? A year or so before, the same friend had also recommended to me Viktor Frankl‘s deeply inspirational, moving, and thought-provoking work, Man’s Search for Meaning, so I trust her judgement.
I am about two-thirds of the way through The Path, and have found it motivational, informative, and uplifting, as well as somewhat enlightening.
There are two key elements that make this book engaging: the case studies and examples, and the exercises.
Jones pulls examples from two main pools: her own friends, colleagues, and clients, and Biblical and/or historical characters, such as Joan of Arc, Ruth, Jesus, and Nehemiah–just to name a few. With each example, Jones achieves two goals. First, she demonstrates that the advice described in the book has worked for many people, and can work for us, as well. Second, she illustrates how all these people applied–whether they realized it or not–the step-by-step process she details in the book, giving us insights as to how we might do the same.
The second helpful element of the book is the exercises, which keep me engaged, interested, and actively reading. They consist of personal and searching questions designed to help readers dig up their true passions, interests, influences, skills, and selves. Using the answers to some of the questions, Jones provides a formula for readers to create their mission statement, which she advises be short and sweet. One should be able to easily memorize and recite her mission statement. The longer piece is the vision statement, which may stretch longer than a paragraph, and details what one’s life will be like once she begins actually living out the mission statement. The vision statement expresses the ideal life of the reader, allowing her to imagine the results of living her mission, as well as helping her to remember the higher goal when living out the mission gets tough.
In addition to my own personal interest in uncovering my individual calling, I have recently begun a certification course in the field of life coaching, which will ultimately license me to help others live their best lives. To my delight, the information and ideas in The Path are remarkably relevant to much of the course material I have covered so far.
I have not yet completed my reading of this book, nor have I perfected my mission or vision statement–but I am much closer than I was before I began reading, and I am looking forward what I will learn from the remaining pages. If you are seeking purpose, missing meaning, or looking for a way to uncover your best self, I recommend this book. What you learn might surprise you!