National Poetry Month: Thirty Poems in Thirty Days

In honor of National Poetry Month in April, the Poetry Society of Virginia held a poem-a-day writing challenge on social media. Each day, a word was designated as the inspiration for the day’s poem. Some of the words included “apple,” “news,” “mask,” and “underwear,” for example.

Sometimes, a word proved easy inspiration, and I would write a satisfactory poem before 9:00 AM. Other times, I would roll a word around in my mind until just before bed before any ideas emerged. Some days, I just gave in and wrote a poem for the sake of writing a poem, even though the result was, frankly, pretty crappy. It was still a poem, and I wouldn’t have written it otherwise, so that was a win of sorts.

The experience definitely got me thinking about a variety of topics I would not otherwise have given any thought to–and got me thinking about them in new, creative, deeper ways. Whether the writing was good or not, satisfying or not, I wrote something every single day, and that felt good.

Throughout the month, churning out even one piece of poetry every day became as routine, necessary, and satisfying as, well, using the bathroom! Just letting the poem out was a relief–and I hadn’t even known it was in there!

I’ve written thirty poems in thirty days. Here, in chronological order aside from the first and second poems (I think you’ll understand why) are some of my favorites. (If you’d like to read the 16 poems not included in this post, you can find them on my Instagram account.)

Day 8: Blue

“Sadie’s Song”

I don’t have music
to put the words to—
the sonorous howl
of my sweet Sadie Blue,
but this is Sadie’s song:

“Jack, Jack—
where have you gone?
You know I can’t stay here
without you for long.

“We’ve walked our last walk,
chewed our last bone—
do you think Mom and Dad
can bear this alone?”

I like to think,
and it seems like I know,
that Sadie saw Jack
just across the rainbow,
and this is Sadie’s song:

“Jack, Jack—
I see you again!
You can’t imagine how much
I missed you, best friend!

“Let’s hike every trail here
and squeak every toy—
make sure Mom and Dad know
all we feel now is joy.”

So I must return
to a life that is changed,
a whole universe
that’s all rearranged—
but I still sing Sadie’s song.

*After I wrote the poem above, I asked my uncle, a talented musician, to set it to original music. He did, and the poem transformed into a beautiful song, which I then used to make a little music video tribute to Jack and Sadie. Now, if only I could figure out how to share it…

 

Day 23: Dream

I’m always happy
when I wake
from a dream
about you.

But I’d be happier still
if you were still
here
beside me.

Best Nap

 

Day 2: Neighbor

Julie & Ed’s dogwood tree blooms both pink &
white
and Larry, our Vietnam War vet, runs each
morning with a stick in his hand.
Lee walks the streets in the quiet predawn,
and Mr. Yates sits on his Jazzy chair, shirtless
in his overalls, beside his voluptuous
Camilla bush, petals in the grass.
And me? Melody and I are the ones who walk
our dogs.
Fourteen years of shared time, shared space,
have made each new For Sale sign a
betrayal—
these stretches of street the only ribbon tying
us all together, unraveling, until one day
Nobody knows my dogs
or Melody
or Larry with his stick
and Julie & Ed’s dogwood blooms for
somebody new.

Day 3: Air

“Airborne”

An osprey catches
an updraft,
hovers above the highway bridge—
balanced between blue river, blue sky.

When I arrive
on my parents’ porch,
they do not come out.
I do not go in.
We do not hug.

We talk through the screen door, their faces
dim. I fight
the urge to lean in closer.

When I leave, some of their
terror follows me, heavy, weighted. And I think
of the osprey—
high above it all, unaware, unaffected, free.

Day 4: Playground

“Playground: Slide of Time”

There is one rule
on the playground. Everyone knows:
You’re not supposed to climb up the slide.

And all the best playgrounds are
in Michigan. My grandparents knew where—

The Rocket Playground
(I once got stuck at the top—that’s how I
learned I was afraid
of heights like my dad, who had to climb up
to carry me down).

The Castle Playground,
made all of wood with bridges and turrets
and secret, shady hiding places.

The Tire Playground,
where we played
Roll-the-Ball-to-the-Bat and 500
every summer.

Until one summer was the last summer
and we didn’t come back anymore, because
there is one rule everyone knows:
You’re not supposed to climb
up
the
slide.

Day 9: River

“James River Days”

(An Acrostic Poem)

Just yesterday it was winter,
And I ran along your banks,
My breath a thin cloud trailing behind me.
End of winter brought purple blooms,
Springing up along the trails,

Reaching above the green grasses for the
sun.
I stood on the bank, watched your swirling
waters beat between rocks like blood
through
Veins.
End of spring I will stretch across a sun-
warmed
Rock,

Drench myself in your watery womb
And emerge glowing, reborn—
Yes. Now, it is
Summer.

Day 12: Else

“Easter Morning: Turn to Something Else”

I was supposed
to do something

else today.

Be somewhere
else.

Eat something
else.

I had my own plans—
and a sense of entitlement to their
fruition.

But I recall the man
who turned

from the pool
to see Jesus—

and walked.

And I think of Mary,
turning

herself
to see Jesus—

and recognizing
her Master.

And I remember the time
I sat at Logan’s Steakhouse
watching half a dozen
flat screen TVs and two truckers
at the bar,
and then I turned

around—
and saw the sunset out the window behind
me,
the sky resplendent with red, violet, gold,
and I thought,
“How long has it been like this?”
And I heard,
“Forever, my child—
you just had to turn

and see something
Else.”

Day 13: Pretty

“Pretty on Paper”

I am pretty—
on paper:
tall, thin, blond.
To the untrained eye,
I belong on a runway,
in a magazine—
but professional perception knows better:
My eyes are brown, not blue;
there’s a strange asymmetry to my features;
I’m just a tad too tall to walk
a runway
(Can’t have you taller than the boy, you see).

When I was in my twenties, my sister (prettier
than I)
told me I just kept getting
prettier.

The trend has begun
to reverse,
but I have learned pretty
does not mean
perfect.

Day 15: Taxi

“Confessional on Wheels”

One Florida morning when I am 23
I find myself
confessing my fears from
the backseat of a Tallahassee taxi
to a driver who tells me
he’s also a preacher,
which is not why I’m confessing.
It’s just that at 23, I already know

strangers are the safest place for secrets.

He dispenses free advice
while the taximeter counts the number of
Hail Marys I will need to say
to atone or do penance
or whatever it’s called—
I am not Catholic
and neither is he
and back at my hotel
I tip for the company,
not the ride,
and watch as the yellow
confessional drives away with my secrets
inside,
moves on to
its preacher’s next parishioner.

Day 17: Language

“The Language of the Land”

This is the language of the land.

“Be still, breathe deep,”
whisper lilacs at the back porch.

This is the language of the land.

“Stop here, drink up,”
babbles the brook in the woods.

This is the language of the land.

“Stand firm, take root,”
sing the trees.

“Work hard, with purpose,”
buzz the bees.

“Rest up, feel me,”
begs the breeze.

This is the language of the land.

“Look up, reach out,”
beckons blue sky, white clouds, warm sun.

“Be calm, sleep well,”
soothe stars and moon when day is done.

This is the language of the land.

 

Day 18: Red

“Freddy Red”

When I met Freddy Red one June night,
I learned it was real—love at first sight.
Because with just one glance I knew:
We belonged together, we two.

Shiny red with six-speed turbo,
my little car could really go.
Key West, Detroit, Philadelphia, DC—
all places Freddy Red took me.

I paid Red off one day in May,
just ahead of our five-year anniversary.
I promised to drive her right into the
ground,
but my little car was accident-bound.

I sat on the median, head in my hands,
looking at all the deployed air bags.
I cried to a witness, “I love Freddy Red!”
He said, “That car is why you’re not
dead.”

 

Day 21: Over

This word actually resulted in two poems, both of which are below.

“When this is over”

When this is over
I will miss
sleeping until 7:30.
I will miss working from
my couch,
my back deck,
my fire pit.
I will miss
sweatpants and hoodies and Crocs
all day.
I will miss takeout
“because it’s just easier.”

When this is over
I will
wear a little makeup again.
(Maybe.)
I will go to a restaurant—
and sit down inside,
or maybe on the patio.
I will go shopping,
get a haircut,
get a tattoo
(a heron),
take a road trip,
resume my monthly massages.

But right now
I wonder—
what will we remember,
when this is over?
What will life be like,
when this is over?
What will we have learned,
when this is over?

“It’s not over, not really”

I always knew
the two of you
were my line
between then and now.

Then we walked together.
Now there is only
the joy of
having existed
together
for a while,
having shared some
of the same space,
at some
of the same time.

But it’s not over,
not really.
Only the nature
of our relationship
has changed.

I know you are here,
your presence felt

like a shadow that
sweeps across the ceiling,
its source unknown.

But I know.

Each prism-cast rainbow
Each sign
Each impulse to be kind

It’s you.

 

Day 29: April

“April”

April spirited Jack away on birdsong and lilac breath
Sent my grandmother to sleep one night and
didn’t wake her in the morning
Threw hail stones that
beheaded the fragrant lilacs and amputated
the branches of the struggling magnolia
out front—

and followed it all with a rainbow.

Gifted me with a robin’s nest
and a pair of besotted cardinals
and little bunnies in the backyard—

As if to say
I’m sorry
I’m sorry
The whole universe loves you—

In its season.

Day 30: May

“May I?”

We have one foot in April now,
the other foot in May,
toes stretching out
to test the waters of an unfamiliar bay.

May I get a haircut?
May I get tattooed?
Tell me, are these things
yet safe enough to do?

May I hug my mother?
May I hug my dad?
Can I go out for ice cream
without feeling really bad?

Yes, wade in the water;
it’s safe enough to test.
Go on and dip a toe in—
just don’t get soaking wet.

 

In closing, I would like to provide an addendum to one of my favorite lines written during this writing challenge: “Strangers are the safest place for secrets.” Addendum: Unless you have dogs.

Poetry Littles
Nacho and Soda snuggle on the couch, seemingly sharing a secret.

Five Prompts to Vanquish Writer’s Block

Among the quotes displayed on posters on my classroom walls, one of the most relevant to my students, particularly when they begin (or try to begin) writing their research papers or college essays is this:

“Not knowing where to begin is a common form of paralysis. Begin anywhere.”

It sounds so simple. Sit down. Pick up a pen or set your fingers to the keyboard, and go. Begin. Let the words flow. And truly, it can be that simple–but we writers all know the feeling of sitting down in front of a blank sheet of paper or a glowing, white computer screen, the urge to write almost unbearable, only to fall victim to this sort of constipation of our creativity. No matter how hard we try, the right words–or any words at all–simply will. Not. Come. We are paralyzed in the face of our immense ideas, or by the sense that despite our need to write, we have no ideas.

Below are five writing prompts to help alleviate the uncomfortable sensation of writer’s block.

1. Unlived Lives

Throughout our lives, we are presented with choices, from the seemingly mundane, such as what to eat for breakfast or what to wear on a given day, to the more obviously life-altering, such as what college to attend or whom to marry. For this prompt, imagine your life had you made “the other” decision. What might have happened if you had taken that months-long road trip with your best friend instead of attending your first semester of college–what would your life be like now? Imagine the life you would be living had you married the first boy you ever loved (never mind that he never asked, like you thought he would). Imagine the life you would be living if you had not aborted the child who would’ve been your first born. What other lives, good or bad, have you had–but forgone in favor of another–the chance to live?

2. Dear Future Self

For this prompt, write a letter to your future self, as far or as near in the future as you like. What kinds of things will you hope for your future self? What kinds of questions will you ask? What will you hope you remember? What will you hope to have forgiven, accomplished, forgotten, experienced?

3. To-Do List

Take an objective look at your to-do list today. Write about what someone would think of you based solely upon that list. If all someone had to imagine the kind of person you are was today’s to-do list, what would he think? Consider the hobbies, obligations, jobs, activities, interests he might imagine you have or are involved with.

4. Another’s View of You

Imagine yourself from the perspective of someone else. Perhaps take on the view of the checkout girl who rang you up at the local grocery store, the man in the car beside you at the traffic light, the neighbor who passes you on his bike as you walk your dog. What do these people notice about you, think about you, infer about you, wonder about you? Take on the perspective of someone else, and write about yourself in third-person from this new perspective.

5. Names

Start the prompt with “My name should have been…” and let your ideas flow. What should your name have been? Why?

 The next time you experience the painful paralysis of writer’s block, I invite you to employ one (or all!) of these prompts. If you’re feeling really inspired, I invite you to post your written response to one (or more!) of these prompts in a comment on this post.

Happy writing!

Nine Must-Reads for Writers

There is, I think, a general consensus in the writing world that writing necessitates reading. To be a good writer, you must also be a reader. Many well-known adages advocate for this. “And when you cannot write, read” and “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write,” the latter by Stephen King, to name just two. Writing courses also perpetuate the idea, especially beginner courses or courses for elementary-aged students, which often recommend as a starting point the imitation of a certain writer, style, or genre. Truth be told, even in my Master’s program, I was once assigned a certain poet to study and imitate. We are all familiar with the famous works of Anne Lamott (I have my College Composition students read her essay, “Shitty First Drafts,” each semester), Stephen King, and other experts in the field when it comes to our craft. Here, I share in no particular order some perhaps lesser known but nonetheless worthwhile reads for writers. Some I received as gifts. Others I stumbled upon. Still others were assigned reading in various undergraduate and graduate courses I have completed.

1. The Halfway House for Writers, Valley Haggard

The Halfway House for Writers by Valley Haggard is an inspirational book for anyone embarking on any sort of writing journey. It is conversational, honest, and motivational. It advocates for raw, fearless writing, presenting writing as a means of healing, learning, and growing, among other things. The author teaches various writing classes in the Richmond area, and maintains lifein10minutes.com, for which an anthology is due out next year. This book is perfect for anyone looking for encouragement or ideas–or both. Read my interview with the author regarding the book here.

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Valley Haggard’s book for writers, The Halfway House for Writers, takes an encouraging approach toward writing, having been written for “wounded writers.”

2. Room to Write: Daily Invitations to a Writer’s Life, Bonni Goldberg

I recommend this book for anyone who finds herself in front of the blank page or glaringly white computer screen asking, “What do I write about?” only to remain seated, staring, paralyzed, at the same blank page or screen. Every page of the book presents a new writing prompt, for a total of just shy of 200 prompts. Each page is broken into three parts: a brief explanation or introduction, the prompt itself, and a relevant and often enlightening, inspiring, or encouraging quote from well-known writers like Zora Neale Hurston, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and Emily Dickinson.

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Room to Write provides ample protection against writer’s block, offering almost 200 prompts.
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The pages of Room to Write include an introduction to each prompt, the actual prompt, and relevant quotes from recognizable writers.

3. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, William Zinsser

My favorite thing about this book when I read it as a graduate student a few years ago was its easy-to-read and conversational tone. To this day, I often use Chapter 14, “Writing About Yourself: The Memoir,” to help teach my high school students vital lessons about writing about themselves in the context of the college essay. The writing is accessible and easy to relate to. It is broken into four parts: Principles, Methods, Forms, and Attitudes, with each part further broken down into individual chapters. I recommend this work for writers of fiction or nonfiction. Though it is clearly geared towards nonfiction writers, the lessons presented could benefit any writer.

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The conversational tone of this book makes it appealing and easy to read. I read it as a graduate student in a creative writing program, but even my high school students have benefitted from the lessons conveyed in this book.

4. 642 Things to Write About

As with Room to Write, I recommend this book for anyone who thinks he is at a loss for material. It is the perfect weapon against writer’s block. This book is full of blank pages, which might sound intimidating, but on each page is a prompt–or in some cases, multiple prompts. Sometimes, when I feel the urge to write but don’t think I have anything to say, I page through this book until I find a prompt that inspires me, and begin. If your main interest is simply to write, without necessarily studying the craft in depth, this book will help you see exactly how much subject matter you really do have at your fingertips. Your job is to just get it onto the page.

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My husband, who clearly knows me well, gave this book to me as a Christmas gift. Like Room to Write, it furnishes writers with weapons against the dreaded writer’s block–642 of them, to be exact. Each page features between one and four prompts, and space on which to write your responses directly in the book.

5. The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative, Vivian Gornick

This book provides commentary and instruction on craft, as well as examples of various writing to help illustrate when and how a certain effect or goal is achieved well. It also discusses how to craft yourself into a character/narrator, among other topics pertinent to those trying their hand at personal narrative. It begins with an introduction, and from there breaks off into parts: the essay, the memoir, and the conclusion.

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One of the most interesting aspects of my particular copy of the book was that is was used, and the previous reader had scrawled some very opinionated notes in the margins throughout. While reading, I had the benefit of not only forming my own take on the advice conveyed in the book, but also of comparing it to the takeways of whoever had this book before me. Our opinions often varied, but I found his (I imagine it was a man; I don’t know why) amusing in their cynicism and wit and enlightening in their insights.

6. Writing Creative Nonfiction, Carolyn Forche and Philip Gerard (editors)

This fascinating book (partly because the genre around which it is centered is so intriguing to me) includes explanations, examples, and exercises in each chapter.  The explanations are enlightening; the examples are entertaining, informative, and illustrative (I particularly enjoyed “A Braided Heart: Shaping the Lyric Essay,” by Brenda Miller, a piece that, years after my first reading of it, influences my writing); and the exercises are thoughtful , demanding the participant to do more than just write. For example, one of the first exercises, on page 13, consists of three steps:

  1. Write a short poem about a real-life event, personal or public, that interests you deeply.
  2. In the above poem, identify the Subject that was triggered by the writing.
  3. From the poem, write a piece of creative nonfiction about the same Subject

The completion of this exercise requires much, not the least of which is experimenting with genre–writing about the same topic using two very different genres, poetry and creative nonfiction. You will be amazed at the different lives a piece can take on when written in various formats.

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One of the example essays included in this book still influences my writing today.

7. Your Life as Story: Discovering the “New Autobiography” and Writing Memoir as Literature, Tristine Rainer

This book, broken into 22 chapters, does exactly what its title claims: Provides an understanding of how to turn your own life into a readable, publishable story.We are all the star of our own plot. This book aims to help you structure it and express it in an artistic, deliberate manner. In addition, it touches on difficult subjects, such as how to write about others, in Chapter 10, “Portraying Others: Casting Your Story From Life.” And, of course, very few writing books would be complete without writing exercises, which this book also includes.

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We all have a story to tell. This book helps us learn how to best tell it.

8. Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film, Seymour Chatman

This was one of the most eye-opening books I read during my time as an undergraduate at Michigan State University. I still remember the first epiphanic moment in great detail: I was curled up on a love seat-sized piece of furniture in a sort of common area in one of the science buildings on campus, in between classes. There was not enough time to go home; too much time to go to my next class just yet. My books and backpack and brown-bag lunch were sprawled out on the floor around the over-sized chair where I sat, still wearing my winter coat. In true sophomoric style, I was reading the assigned chapter only so I could check it off my academic to-do list, and not in expectation of gaining any true insight. But the reading I accomplished that day was extremely engaging and educational. It was the first time I truly understood the difference between the author and the narrator. I believe it was Chapter 4, “Discourse: Nonnarrated Stories,” that had this eye-opening effect on me. What impressed me was how Chatman managed to break down and explain invisible elements–things I had taken for granted–of the experience of reading, elements that as writers writing for readers and as readers reading critically, we need to be aware of.

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I credit this book with one of the most revelatory experiences of my undergraduate academic career, as well as my reading and writing life.

9. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, Janet Burroway

This book, which contains quotes, explanations, advice, examples, and exercises for fiction writers, consists of nine chapters, beginning appropriately with “Whatever Works: The Writing Process” and ending equally appropriately with  “Play it Again, Sam: Revision.” Sandwiched in between are discussions about world building, character building, story form, point of view, time, etc.

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This book is logically organized, beginning with the first idea a writer might have for a piece (or the lack of ideas a writer might have for a piece) and ending with the process of revision, also touching on all the steps between.

 

 

 

 

Rookie Mistakes that Ruin your Writing

As a high school English teacher and literary magazine co-sponsor; former yearbook advisor; graduate of a Master’s writing program; occasional participant in writing workshops and critique groups; occasional freelance proofreader; and occasional writing tutor, I have read writing at all its stages, from rough draft to final draft, and writers at all their stages, from novice to better-than-I’ll-ever-be. Today, as I read through some work for a writing group and reflect on student work I read during the school year, I realized there are five common mistakes writers make, whether they are newbies, or seasoned writers working on an early draft. Here they are, so you can look out for them in your own early drafts.

Inconsistent Tense

I am not sure why writers make this mistake. Perhaps we are simply thinking too quickly and writing too slowly, resulting in a lapse of attention to detail. Perhaps we have simply stepped away from a piece for a while, and upon returning, forget what tense we were originally employing. Whatever causes it, even expert writers often commit this literary sin in their early drafts. Sometimes in the same paragraph, a writer will randomly switch from, for example, past tense to present tense. He will stick with present tense for a sentence, maybe a few, and then, for no apparent reason, revert back to the original past tense.

The good news is, this is a fairly easy mistake to correct. My advice would be not to worry too terribly much about tense in your initial draft, but be sure to pay attention to it as you revise. Make sure that you pick a tense, and stick with it. Granted, if you employ, for example, a flashback, that part of your tale will need to be written in some form of the past tense, but the main story-line should employ one, consistent tense.

Unnatural Dialog

Often, my students approach me with their own, personal writing projects and request that I read them and offer feedback. I am always very honored when a student trusts me with her writing, because I know how scary asking for feedback can be–doing so leaves a writer pretty vulnerable. When I do read students’ work, one of the most common mistakes I see is unnatural dialog, in two forms: 1) all the characters speak in the same manner, regardless of their age, gender, race, background, education, etc. and 2) the characters say things that, simply put, almost no one would ever really say–they are too formal or too stilted or otherwise unrealistic.

While correcting this issue is not as simple as fixing inconsistent tense, it can, of course, be done. A few pieces of advice:

  1. Listen to real people. Listen to how they speak–the cadences different groups use; the vocabulary they employ; the rhythms and colloquialisms and pronunciations. Then, use these observations to inform the way your characters speak.

  2. Read your dialog aloud, and listen carefully to how it sounds. Better yet, assign characters to real people and read the dialog together. Is it natural? Can you tell the characters apart simply by what each one says and how he or she says it? Ask yourself: Would someone really say that? If the answer is no, change it. If the answer is yes, then ask yourself: Would this character really say that? If the answer is no, change it. If the answer is yes, way to go.

  3. Make sure every character speaks a language unique to his or her personality, background, education level, gender, age, etc. While a white, male professor and his twenty-something, white, male student might both speak English, they are going to use very different sentence structures, different jargon and slang, etc. Consider these differences, and respect them.

Clichéd Characters

Unless you’re writing an allegory, your characters should be dynamic (unless you have a literary purpose for keeping them static), complex, and developed. They should have motives, fears, dreams, secrets, pasts. For a hero to be completely good and a villain to be completely evil is not only too simple, but unrealistic. Make sure your characters are just that: characters. They should have quirks, pet peeves, unique personalities, motives, and flaws. Consider what makes every character tick. Avoid using characters as mere plot tools. I have heard various methods for making sure your characters are well-developed, believable, realistic, and relate-able. Here are just a few:

  1. Hold an imaginary conversation with each character. Simply begin with something like, “Hey, Marissa, how ya feelin’ today?” or “Marsha, what’s on your mind today?” Then, let them speak to you. And listen.

  2. Write a letter to your character, and then write a response from him or her in his or her voice.

  3. Write a backstory for each character, including information such as family history, education, geography and location, job history, likes and dislikes, talents, fears, dreams, pets, etc.

  4. Describe a character’s favorite outfit and explain why that’s her favorite outfit.

  5. Describe a character’s dream car and explain why that’s his dream car.

  6. Describe each character–even minor characters–from another character’s perspective, or from multiple other characters’ perspectives.

  7. Tell a chapter of the story (or, if it’s a short story, the whole story) from each character’s perspective. What you learn about your characters might surprise you.

Weak Words

I tell my students to avoid what I call “weak words.” These words include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • great
  • amazing
  • nice
  • good
  • bad
  • stuff
  • things
  • have/has and other “to-be” verbs

The above list is pretty obvious, but these words appear in countless pieces of writing, and usually unnecessarily so. One place they might belong is in dialog, but they generally do a poor job if employed in description or narration. If I tell you my dinner tasted amazing, you know I enjoyed it, but little else. You could easily wonder what made it “amazing.” Was it the service? The flavor? The atmosphere? The company? And once we have determined the answer to those questions, what was so “amazing” about the element? If we’re discussing the service, was the waiter charming? Attentive? Prompt? If we’re describing the flavor, was the food savory? Sweet? Spicy? Buttery? Be as specific as possible. Allow the reader to taste, smell, feel, hear, and see by employing concrete, descriptive words. As a reader, I cannot conceptualize what “amazing” means. I know it’s positive, but that’s where my understanding ends. However, I can very easily imagine what “spicy” and “buttery” taste like.

Inconsistent Perspectives

First, you need to decide if you will tell your story in first, second, or third person. Then, you need to make sure you remain true to that choice. For example, if you elect to utilize a first-person narrator, you must remember that the narrator knows only his own thoughts, motives, and emotions. He might be able to guess at the thoughts or emotions of other characters, or assume or interpret things about them–but he cannot know, and he cannot narrate like he knows. For example, Mark Twain elected to tell The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from the first-person perspective of the character of Huck Finn. Huck Finn cannot tell us what Jim is thinking or feeling–unless Jim tells him. Huck Finn cannot tell us how his Pap feels about him–unless Pap tells him. He can tell us what he might believe the other characters think or feel, but he cannot get inside their heads or hearts. For another example, I was recently reading a writer’s rough draft of a short essay. The writer was looking at a photograph a friend had posted on social media, and started describing to readers what the friend had been thinking about and remembering when he had posted the photograph. Unless the photograph was captioned with that information, how could the writer possibly have known what the friend had been thinking or feeling? The writer had written sentences to the effect of: “Michael started thinking about the past–the missed baseball games and late arrivals to school plays. He promised himself to be a better father, a better man.” Suddenly, the writer was somehow in Michael’s head, which is, of course, impossible, and inconsistent with the first-person perspective of the story. In a case like this, the writer has two choices, as I see it: 1) Cut it. The narrator cannot tell us what he or she does not know. 2) Fix it. Let us know these are the narrator’s thoughts. The example above could be remedied like this: “I think about Michael and what made him post that picture. I imagine him thinking about all the missed baseball games and late arrivals to school plays. Maybe he promised himself to be a better father, a better man. Maybe it was motivation–a reminder of what not to do, who not to be.” Now, we are in the narrator’s head, not Michael’s.

Lesson Plan: Recipe Poetry

The school year is winding down, and my students (and I!) are feeling a bit squirrely. We just took our last test of the school year on Zora Neale Hurston‘s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and there are a mere six regular school days left before final exams. So what do we do with this odd in-between that doesn’t allow enough time for another full unit, but is certainly too much time to descend into the pit of meaningless movie-watching day after day? The answer is: We write.

Now, tell that to most students, and they cringe. But I’m not talking about five-page-research-paper-in-the-MLA-format writing. I’m talking about fun writing. I know, I know. If my students remember what an oxymoron is, they’d apply it to the term “fun writing.” And of course, as a writer, I’m a bit biased; I think almost all writing is fun.

But I think my students did have fun writing today. Here is what we did:

Recipe Poetry

Time:

60-70 minutes

Objective:

Students will: analyze nonfiction writing; analyze authentic texts; review and identify verbs; write using strong, specific verbs; write creatively, informally, and for enjoyment; analyze the structure and elements of an authentic, nonfiction text; work cooperatively; engage in the creative process; think critically, creatively, and abstractly; share their written work aloud

Materials:

several sheets of notebook paper, composition book, or spiral notebook for every student

writing utensil for each student

several copies of cooking magazines or various copies of different recipes

Steps:

  1. Put students into groups of three or four.
  2. Pass out magazines or recipes, so that each group has two or three magazines, or at least six to ten individual recipes.
  3. Give students five minutes in their groups to look through the recipes together, and instruct them to write down all the strong, specific cooking  verbs they come across.
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    Some of the verbs my students pulled from the recipes they used for inspiration

    Each student should keep his or her own list.

  4. After five minutes, ask the students to call out the verbs they wrote down, and write them on the board for the class to see.
  5. Next, give students five minutes to start a new list. This time, they should write down all the units of measurement they see in the different ingredients lists.
  6. After five minutes, ask the students to call out the units they wrote down, and write them on the board for the class to see.

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    Some of the units of measurement my students noticed in the recipes they read. Note the more unique ones, like “sprig” and “stalk.”
  7. Next, give students three minutes to examine the structure and format of the recipes together. They should write down elements they notice most or all of the recipes share. This should include items such as: prep time, cooking time, ingredients list, steps/process/procedure, servings, etc.
  8. After three minutes, ask students what elements a recipe should have, and write the elements on the board for the class to see.
  9. Explain to students that in a few minutes, they will write a recipe poem. A recipe poem is a poem that explains how to “cook” something abstract, such as a certain type of person, a certain emotion, or an experience. Give them some examples: a recipe for success, a recipe for a best friend, a recipe for the worst day ever, etc.
  10. Give students five minutes to brainstorm together in their groups. They should write down experiences, types of people, and emotions they think they might want to describe by way of a recipe poem.
  11. After five minutes, ask students to call their ideas out, and write them on the board for the class to see.

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    A few of the topics students volunteered to share with the class, about which they planned to write their recipe poems. I myself found “superhero” and “patriot” particularly intriguing.
  12. Remind students that their recipe poem should include all the elements of a recipe, and be formatted like a recipe. Instruct them to pick a topic, but not to tell anyone else in the class what their topic is.
  13. Give students about 15 minutes to write their recipe poem, allotting more time if needed.
  14. Once everyone has finished (or mostly finished) a recipe poem, instruct students to go around in their groups and read their recipe poems aloud to their group members, still withholding the subject. After each student reads, his group members should try to guess what his recipe is for. After each group member has guessed, the poet can reveal what his topic was.
  15. After each person in each group has had a chance to share her poem with her group, ask willing students to share their recipe poems aloud with the class.

My students really seemed to enjoy this activity–so much so, that we actually have to finish tomorrow because so many students were so eager to share their poems with the class. We ran out of time!

 

 

 

 

Got 10 Minutes? New Anthology Accepting Submissions

Want to write and maybe even see your work published, but don’t feel like you have the time? Well, good news: You do. That is, if you have ten minutes to spare, you do.

The Life in 10 Minutes method of writing encourages people to set a timer for ten minutes–that’s all–and just write. You can work from a prompt, or just write whatever comes out. The only thing that matters is that you write. For ten minutes. And then you stop. Don’t overthink it. Don’t over-edit it. Don’t apologize for it. Just write it.

In addition to providing you with a way to make sure you write each day, if only for ten minutes, Life in 10 Minutes offers workshops for writers of all levels, from all backgrounds, throughout the year. Over the winter months, I participated in one of these workshops, and I highly recommend it to any writers looking to work with like-minded people, channel their creativity, experiment, learn, and receive immediate and personalized feedback.

Life in 10 Minutes also provides a platform for writers to publish their 10s (pieces they wrote using the Life in 10 Minutes method described above) online. You can read samples of other writers’ 10s here. (Shameless self-promotion: You can find my 10 here.)

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The Life in 10 Minutes method encourages writers to write a short piece in just 10 minutes–and then submit it to their brand new anthology, due out in October. Submissions are due July 15.

The newest development in the Life in 10 Minutes world is the anthology, both digital and print, which has a publication goal of October 2016. Submissions are due by July 15, 2016, and guidelines can be found here. Here are the basics:

  1. Hand write one, two, or three 10s. Pieces between 100 and 600 words will be given priority.
  2. Type up your 10(s), editing (not butchering–be gentle; the piece should be raw and honest and organic) as you type.
  3. Submission can be published nowhere else, short of your own blog or lifein10minutes.com.
  4. To submit, click here.
  5. If your piece has been chosen for inclusion, you will be notified by August 1.

Happy writing, and best of luck!

 

Poetry Society of Virginia’s Annual Poetry Festival

If you’ve ever been to Richmond, Virginia, then you already know: We are a party city. We are the third most-tattoed city in the United States, just behind Miami and Las Vegas. We are fast becoming the craft beer capital of the world. And we throw a festival (or ten) almost every single weekend. This weekend alone, I attended Dominion Riverrock, an outdoor

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The skyline of Richmond, Virginia, on the shores of the James River, as seen from the suspension bridge to Belle Isle during a group hike organized as part of Dominion Riverrock.

festival celebrating Richmond’s active river life; Play Day at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond, an open house with various arts and crafts workshops, from wood and metal working, to glass blowing, to pottery; and the Poetry Society of Virginia‘s Annual Poetry Festival and Conference. If you are reading this blog, you are likely a writer or a reader (or, most likely, both!), so this post will focus on the latter.

 

During my time at the festival, I was privileged to hear readings and lectures from Robert Arthur, the current Poetry Society of Virginia President; Nathan Richardson, a performance poet and workshop teacher for Hampton Roads Youth Poets; Gabriele Glang, a bilingual poet who teaches creative writing in Germany; and Carolyn Kreiter-Foronda, who was the Virginia Poet Laureate from 2006-2008. This post will provide take-aways from the lectures and workshops led by Mr. Richardson, as well as by Ms. Glang and Ms. Kreiter-Foronda.

The Oral Tradition of Poetry, Nathan Richardson

The first lecture I heard focused on performance poetry, and was led by Nathan Richardson, himself a performance poet. One thing he said that struck me was this:

“Memory proved over the history of mankind to be the only fullproof [sic] method of safeguarding the thoughts, history, culture, literature, and law of the human race.”

How right he is, though it’s frightening, given how feeble our memories sometimes seem.

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Performance poet and writing teacher, Nathan Richardson, gives a lecture on the oral tradition of poetry at the Virginia Poetry Society’s Annual Poetry Festival and Conference on Friday, May 20.

But even more fallible are hard drives that can crash, flash drives that can break or become lost, papers that can tear or burn, ink that can smudge, lead that can be erased. Even pictures carved into rock will someday erode, smoothed out by the work of wind and water. For me, this was something of a wakeup call. I always feel like my creations are far more secure once written down on paper or typed up on the screen. But if I lose that paper, or if that flash drive fails me, I will wish I had committed my own lines to memory.

 

An additional lesson I took away from Mr. Richardson’s lecture was a definition of the musical genre of rap. I was unaware, as were, it seemed, all the other poets in attendance, that the term “rap” was born of the combination of “rhythm and poetry.” It’s essentially an acronym. I also learned that one “bar” of a “rap” piece is equivalent to one couplet in a poem.

His advice for poets was simple: “In poetry, leave space for the reader’s imagination.”

He also provided guidelines for poets who need to cultivate a poetic voice for poetry readings and slams. While the ratio does not necessarily need to follow this exact formula, Mr. Richardson advises that the poetic voice consists of 33.3% experience, 33.3% vocabulary, 33.3% passion, and .1% divine intervention. What does this imply for you if you want to become involved in performance poetry? It means first, that you must perform poetry–as much and as often as you can. Attend and perform at poetry slams and readings. Get the experience. It implies second that you must increase the number of words with which you are proficient–you must become more fluent in your own first language. Improve your vocabulary. It means also that you must love what you are doing–love what you are creating, love what you are saying. Be dedicated and passionate. Lastly, though, it means that a small percentage of what you are doing as a performance poet is out of your control. The words, the ideas, the rhymes will just come to you through some sort of divine intervention. You just have to do the leg work–the other 99.9%–first.

Ekphrastic and Collaborative Poetry, Gabriele Glang and Carolyn Kreiter-Foronda

One of the foci of Ms. Glang and Ms. Kreiter-Foronda’s workshop was the haiku. Before we began writing, Ms. Glang gave a few guidelines.

Haiku Guidelines

  • Do not mention the season about which you are writing. The image you convey with your words should make clear the season.
  • Always title your piece, and title it well. Think of a title as a free line with no syllabic restrictions.
  • Save syllables in the following ways:
    • avoid articles; use plural nouns instead
    • replace conjunctions with punctuation
      • the em dash can communicate change, epiphany, turning points
      • “ah!” can signify epiphany or surprise
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Gabriele Glang’s painting, “A Touch of Spring (Pink-Green),” served as inspiration for festival attendees to write haiku.

After providing us with these guidelines, Ms. Glang displayed a painting of her own creation, called “A Touch of Spring (Pink-Green),” pictured left, and we were given a few minutes to compose a haiku using the traditional three-line, 5-7-5 structure.

 

Ligne Donnee

The second exercise we completed in this workshop was writing a Ligne Donnee, or “given line” poem. We were paired up with another poet in the room and provided an art card that displayed one of Ms. Glang’s paintings. The art card my partner and I received is pictured below. Each of us then wrote just the first line of a poem, inspired by the art card. Then, we traded first lines with our partner. From there, we read our partner’s first line, and wrote a poem

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For the Ligne Donnee (“given line”) poem, participants were paired up and given an art card to inspire their collaborative poems.

based on that initial line.

 

My first line was:

Quicksilver cold stealing sunlight from the sky, icy, metallic sheen

The first line my partner composed was:

More light than water, the lake

I followed with:

lapping up sunlight spilled

between clouds,

poured over black foliage,

dripping down leaflet, branch, and bud,

saturating the bibulous bank,

infusing the gray-turning,

pale-turning glass,

impersonal, thirsty,

with borrowed warmth.

At least until dark.

Kasen Renku Form

The final exercise we completed in Ms. Glang and Ms. Kreiter-Foronda’s workshop was another type of collaborative poem, kasen renku. Within this form, the first poet composes a haiku (three lines in the traditional 5-7-5 format). The second poet reads it, and then composes two lines of seven syllables each. A third poet (or the first poet) reads the first five lines, and adds his or her own haiku. A fourth poet (or the second poet) reads what has so far been accomplished, and adds to it another two lines of seven syllables each. This process is repeated until the poem consists of thirty-six stanzas. This, along with the Ligne Donnee form, would make an excellent classroom activity for an English or creative writing class.

Conclusion

I so thoroughly enjoyed the Poetry Society of Virginia’s Poetry Festival and Conference, that I plan to attend future conferences, and am contemplating membership. Attendance allowed me to meet like-minded people, as well as produce a few new pieces of poetry. I also gained exposure to some very creative and productive poets. I learned about resources in my community, and came away with a few new lessons plans for my English classroom.

 

Writing Prompt: Time of Your Life

It’s a rainy Saturday evening here in RVA, perfect writing weather. I don’t know what the weather is doing where you are, but frankly–isn’t all weather perfect writing weather?

Here’s a prompt to get you going:

If you could relive, not re-do or change, but simply relive, a time in your life, what time period and why?

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Nothing like a nostalgic trip down Memory Lane… What time in your life would you love to relive, exactly as it happened the first time around?

Writing Prompt: What is your quest?

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The dogs of Mind the Dog always seem to be on a quest. Every walk is an adventure. In this shot, they are venturing their way through the woods to the sound side of the Outer Banks in North Carolina.

Every time I walk with my dogs, they seem to be on some kind of quest. I usually don’t know what it is, but they seem to, and about a week or so ago, when my honors students and I were about halfway through Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, we discussed how one way to define Janie’s quest is: self-discovery through true love. Because it was Friday Journal Day (every Friday, my students get the first ten minutes of class to write in their journals), we followed this brief discussion with the journal topic:

What is your quest?

So, today, write about your own quest. What have you set out to accomplish, in your writing life or otherwise? I’d love to read about it in your comments on this post. Get creative. Write away.

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Above is the scene the dogs and I found as the woods opened up to the water.

Author Interview: Valley Haggard

V. Haggard
Founder of Richmond Young Writers, Valley Haggard is a Richmond, Virginia-based author and writing teacher.

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/

MTD: The Halfway House for Writers is dedicated to your students, in particular, “wounded writers.”  What do you mean by that? What particular wounds are writers susceptible to?

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.

Mind the Dog would like to thank Ms. Haggard for her generously giving of her time to answer these questions.