Tuesday, January 29, 2013

What Kind of Writer Are You?

Do you have favorite pen?  Do you have a special notebook that you carry everywhere in which you write your reflections, stories or poems?  Can you only write on the plane, or at night or in the morning? Do you have to wear  your favorite pajamas to write or sit at a certain table?  

In my lifetime, I have had a variety of preferences.   My current favorite writing utensils, if not using my computer or iPad, are a quad point pen (blue ink- never black) and moleskine notebooks. ( I use several versions of their paperback notebooks.)

Writers are often closely tied to uniquely personal habits and tools.

Each May, the Columbus Area Writing Project holds a pre-institute meeting for those who will be attending the Summer Institute.  At this session, the participants meet for the first time and we review the assignments, schedule, expectations and other related information. Most importantly, we write the first piece of writing of the institute.

Our traditional prompt is I am a _______writer.  Each year, since 2005, I have written to this prompt and had the opportunity to reflect anew on my nature as a writer. I usually describe my writing personality, habits and preferred tools.  Sometimes I mention my purposes and struggles as a writer.

Here are some sample lines I have written to this prompt

May 2005- Excerpt

I am a reading writer.
Everything I read influences
what I write and desire to write
 and takes me in directions
I would never have gone.
Experiments with structures.
“I wonder if I could do it this way…
And then again this way”….

I am a student writer
learning more
each time I write.

May 2009 - Excerpt

I am a frantic writer grabbing napkins or scraps of paper to get down the brainstorm that may never get published beyond my purse.
I am an eager writer approaching the blank space as a personal challenge, the blank page a new frontier.
I am an experimental writer.  Can I put this feeling into a haiku instead of a long tirade? Haiku is good for me because I talk too much.

May 2010 Excerpt

I am a lay in bed composing the next Pulitzer prize poem, yet it is gone in the morning kind of writer.
I am a heard that snatch of conversation in the mall-wow that is poem kind of writer

In 2011 I decided to try something different.  Instead of the typical musings I usually produce for this prompt, this piece highlights my writing in a much wider context of spirituality and relationship to God, to culture and heritage and history, and also it embodies the theme for the 2011 institute which was Intersections and Inbetweens: Writing at the Crossroads. The experimental poem began:

The Writer Who is—I AM

The writer who is
and was
and watched God
and say
Let there be light and truth
and words,

The writer who
excavated hidden scriptures
ancient scrolls and
underlayers of meaning
recasting the words
as personal psalms
and prophetic prayers
You  can read the entire poem here in the National Gallery of Writing

We all have writing personalities and writing preferences.  What are yours?

Today’s Deeper Writing Possibility

What kind of writer are you?
When do you write and why?
Do you have favorite pen or notebook?

Write about your nature and personality, your habits and tools, your preferences and inspirations as a writer.
You may want to begin: I am a _________writer.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Wrapping our Words in a Container Lining

Today we address the final and most personal source or consideration for writing ideas—the container lining.  (In previous posts, we have addressed the first three—context, content and container)

By container lining, I mean all of the lenses we wear as we look at our own lives and the larger world.  The container lining is the unique perspective from which we see and understand everything, including all that we read and write.

In the image of a basket of bread on a table, we are able to see all of the starting places for writing ideas that we have already considered.  The set table, including the condiments, flatware, other utensils, and table cloth, is the context.  The container is the basket, and the content, of course, is the bread.

The container lining separates the bread from the container and the context, and from us, as well.  The bread –the content or meaning—is wrapped in our personal perspectives, seen through our individual lenses, coloring how we see the bread itself.

We each wear at least one lens at any given time.

What are mine?  I am African American, female, short, with short hair, and I love jewelry. (I wear lots of it.) These are all lenses that you can see.  I wear other lenses that you cannot see.  I am a Christian (Episcopalian), Democrat, a retired teacher, a wife, a stepmother, a graduate of The Ohio State University, and the list continues on and on.

All of these lenses color what I read in books and in the world, and also everything I write.

What are the lenses that you wear?

This year’s inauguration poet, Richard Blanco, wrapped his ideas in a container liner that is distinctly his.  His lenses in part: the first Hispanic, first gay male and the youngest person to join the select group of inaugural poets.  Others inaugural poets include Robert Frost and Maya Angelou.

His poem,One Today, could have only been written by him. His unique view of our world is the container lining through which he wrote and presented his work to us. 

Our own lenses are the individual ways in which we hear and receive his words.

Today’s Deeper Writing Possibility

Write a poem about your America wrapped in your personal container lining. 

Look back at your poem to identify your lenses after you have completed your work. 

What lenses did you wear?

Did any surprise you?

Friday, January 25, 2013

Mentor Texts: Learning to Write from What We Read

If you want to write, you have to read

Writers,  like everyone else, read in order to learn and for their personal enjoyment, but beyond that, writers also practice a different kind of reading. “Reading like a writer” entails reading with the intention of learning more about writing  from the texts and authors we are reading.

Reading what other writers have written and attending to how they have written expands the possibilities we can envision for our own writing.   The texts from which we learn may be as short as one sentence, a paragraph, a poem or essay, or a longer collection of poems, or an entire book.  These texts become mentor texts for us as we allow the authors to show us how to write.

When we read like writers we begin to look beneath the surface of the texts to notice the moves that the writers have made and we can try out those moves in our own writing.  We can identify a particular structure or style and we can try it on. We can name a specific strategy or literary device and employ it to make our own meaning
What do you want to write?  That’s want you will want to read. 

I write poetry.  Therefore, I don’t go a day without reading poetry. Several different  “poem of the day” blogs arrive in my inbox daily. I buy books of poetry and I subscribe to several  general writing journals, as well as three poetry journals.  I read what I want to write.

We have all been in the situation where we have to write something and we don’t know where to start.  For example, if I want to write a letter to the editor in our local newspaper, I may need to spend a day or two studying the letters that have been accepted for publication out of the many submitted.  What are some characteristics that make them effective?  Which of these will I use in my own letter?

In 2011, the Columbus Area Writing Project held its first fall writing conference.  I needed to create a program booklet for this event. Even though I had been to lots of conferences and used lots of program booklets, I still wasn’t sure where to start to create one.  I turned to the many program booklets I have saved from other conferences that were similar in size and purpose to the one we were planning.  Those programs taught me how to create my own—they became my mentor texts.

When I began this blog, I read lots of blogs, not just to enjoy and learn, as I had been doing, but with the intention of being shown how to write my own blog. I paid attention to everything from layout to content, from font to use of images, from length of post to frequency and so on.

Sometimes we may adopt an entire written structure as our own framework on which to hang our words and meaning. Click here to reread my poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at Leaving School.  I studied each section of Stevens’s poem and duplicated his framework.   His poem was my mentor text. When we so closely borrow another writer’s structure or ideas it is customary to acknowledge (thank, apologize) that we have done so, usually following the title.
Other poems that are often used to practice borrowing structures are The Red Wheelbarrow by William Carlos Williams and Where I’m From by George Ella Lyon.

We can also borrow a larger, big picture  as a framework.  My friend and fellow blogger, Gretchen Schroeder, after reading Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, is currently writing her humorous memoir entries on her blog, Meat Toast,  in a similar, alphabetical, encyclopedia style.

What we read can teach us much about what we are striving to write.

If we want to write, we must read.

Today’s Deeper Writing Possibility

What books, poems or other texts have taught you how to write?
What are you trying to write now? 
What texts will help you accomplish this?

Can you use one of the following poems as a framework to create your own poem?

What did you learn as you borrowed these writing structures?

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

What Container Will Hold My Words?

Just as the beauty of flowers is enhanced by the perfect vase, so the appropriate container will both reveal and enhance the deepest meaning in your writing. The right container and writing form will empower your message and allow your words to soar beyond your most ambitious expectations.

Today we will consider the container as a starting place for writing ideas.
This source for ideas works in two directions.  We may start with meaning, then choose a container or we may begin with a container in mind to structure our words and ideas.

Starting with the Container

In  Writing in the Context of Our Lives, I shared how Jane Yolen limited herself to the strict structure of the sonnet as she explored her feelings and thoughts about her husband’s illness and treatment.   Marilyn Nelson also used sonnets collected into a heroic crown to convey the horrific events surrounding the lynching of death of Emmett Till.

According to Nelson, she chose a strict form to re-present this intense story, thus protecting herself from the painful, paralyzing effect of the subject matter and enabling her to write a beautiful poem to honor his memory.

Because the limits of a rigid structure force us to concentrate on our ideas and words, we may  be better able to focus and express our ideas, much like a rite or celebration provides a framework for our feelings and actions.  The structure of a funeral, for example, gives us a framework for our grief.  

My favorite forms are the haiku and the haibun, both Japanese forms that require minimal words and dramatic shifts in thinking near the end of the poem. I often begin with one of these forms to develop and discover my meaning.

So sometimes we start with the container.

Starting with Our Writing

Other times we may have already discovered our meaning and are ready to choose an appropriate container. 

Several years ago at our writing project retreat, our theme was Crossing Borders and Expanding Boundaries.  As we worked together on our theme, we read many articles and poems, several of which discussed how trucks driven by “coyotes” might bring Mexicans across the border.  The conditions were often dark, cramped, poorly ventilated, and hot.  The high potential for getting caught or even dying because of the transportation conditions created a deep sense of fear.

Before bed that night, I read a few pages from Elie Wiesel’s Night.  The section I read told of Jews being transported in dark, cramped, poorly ventilated, hot railroad cars.  With the destination unknown to most, one man kept crying out in warning.  They finally beat him into silence.

In the context of this  juxtaposition of these two texts, I was immediately reminded of the Middle Passage with its ships—dark, cramped, poorly ventilated and hot—containing passengers filled with fear.   I knew I had to explore this in writing.

Here are the first few line of the poem I wrote:

Border Crossing Protocol
Why must border crossings be cramped
with people crushed and stuffed like smelts in a sauce of sweat and urine and feces and fear?
Who decided that nakedness --with all precious personal possessions stripped and stolen --was the appropriate attire for such journeys?

I also knew I wanted to represent mothers—of all colors and ethnic groups—all wanting the same things for their children.  The poem ends with these varied mother and child images. painted with words.

The genre I chose to initially explore border crossings was poetry.  By container, however, I mean more than just genre or form of writing, but also the intended and actual audience, the means of publication and presentation, as well as intended purposes and ultimate uses of the piece.

My original poem, Border Crossing Protocol, ending up being the narration of a video, that I created with Microsoft Movie Maker.  The images, along with meaningful transitions, music and songs, and also second poem, all supported, illustrated, enhanced, created, and expanded  my meaning.  The film was use in its entirety as the writing prompt for the writing project institute. Selected parts were also used in my classroom to illustrate concepts we were learning in Social Studies
Together, all of this was the container for my border crossing ideas.

What container is best for your writing?

Today’s Deeper Writing Possibility

Select a container with which to experiment  and contain your ideas.

(Click here and scroll to the middle of the page for sample poetry frames--or select another form in which you are interested.)


Select a piece of writing that you have already completed and rewrite the ideas in several different containers. 

Which container best expresses your meaning? 

What characteristics of that particular container enhance and illuminate your words?

Monday, January 21, 2013

Writing the Content of Our Lives- Part 2

The following poem was written as an exploration of retirement and my thinking that year.(See Writing the Content of Our Lives - Part 1) 

To help me play with ideas and discover new meanings, I borrowed the structure of Wallace Stevens's well-known poem, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.  Click here to read his poem.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at Leaving School
With thanks and apologies to Wallace Stevens

by Robin W. Holland

It is time to go
the energy sapped
 in years of rushing
and dashing

It is like snorkeling
until the skin is wrinkled
and breathing
is intermittent
yet satisfying

The classroom is the theater
the play will continue
after the many me’s exeunt

Twenty-two individual students are one
Twenty-two students and their teacher
are one
I don’t know which to prefer
The anticipation of planning
an exquisite educational experience
or the exultation of execution
or the afterthinking

The waters raged outside
As the sky blackened
Past our window a blackbird flew
Inside we meditated
On the value of freedom
In our soon to be
independent country

Train up a child in the way he should go
Spare the words and books and spoil the child

Learned men of old
And wise women infused
With intuition
Opine in the town square
While their children wait
at home for a morsel to eat
and a single word
to call their own

Higher orders
of angels proclaim
meanings and memories
and mathematic calculations
of poetic persuasions
and academic dissertations

It was a time of prosperity
And generous learning
Until the test devil and his minions
Entered our garden.

He rode high on his horse

Once upon a textbook weary
Three children looked through lenses leery
In vain to find themselves
Among the photos
and theory

Never let the children count the blackbirds
Before they hatch

It’s time to leave---
It’s end of the period
The bell is ringing.

Writing the Content of our Lives- Part 1

What meaning do we want to make as we write?
What message do we want to send?
What ideas do we want our readers to construct or discover as they read what we have written?

Today, as we continue to think about the four starting places for writing ideas,  we will consider how content (the meaning we want to make of our lives and the world around us) can be a source of writing ideas.

We understand our world through our senses—we see, we hear, we touch and smell and taste. We write to understand and make meaning of what our senses are telling and showing us, and how what we sense is making us feel.

We write to discover what we actually have to say.

Meaning may arise out of particular contexts in a flash!  Or meaning may be something we ponder for a while.

Leaving School  

In 2010 I retired from teaching after more than 35 years in public education.  In the context of anticipating my retirement, I took notes that year, detailing what I was leaving, what I imagined I would be gaining, the nature of transition, and  plans for activities and involvements in my next life.

I wrote several pieces –poems essays, lists, and narratives that never quite captured the meaning I was trying to make.  

Completely unplanned, three books fell into my hands-- books that happened to relate to my situation perfectly.  Each of these, in its own way, helped me name my feelings, fears and joys, and helped me to begin to make sense of the contradictions I was experiencing.

Leaving Church
Acedia and Me
The Third Chapter

Meanwhile, on paper I wrestled with new possibilities and tried on new lives. 
One way I  explored was to create a word cloud using Wordle to highlight the words that kept recurring in my writing.  

Another attempt to discover meaning in this transition resulted in the poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at Leaving School (See Writing the Content of our Lives- Part 2- the second part of this post,  to read the complete poem.)   
A multigenre essay entitled Leaving School still remains in a folder on my computer and every now and then I review and revise a small bit of it still trying to identify essential meanings.

 Although I have still not yet arrived at the ultimate core in this experience, I have learned much through my many attempts to capture it in writing.

 Content-- the meanings in our lives and in our world--can be a great  source of writing ideas.

Today’s Deeper Writing Possibility      

What experience are you pondering?
What world event or personal situation are you struggling to understand?
What meaning are you discovering?  
What is the message for you? For  others?

Write a poem (or other form) exploring these meanings. You may want to use Wallace Stevens's poem and my own (based on his) as a model to help you structure your ideas 
See Writing the Content of Our Lives- Part 2 to read both poems)

You may want to paste your resulting poem into Wordle to create a word cloud as another way to explore your ideas.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Writing in the Context of Our Lives

Where do we find ideas?

I can still hear some of my students moaning I don’t know what to write.
Many teachers have told me they don’t have anything to write.
You may also feel that you do not have any writing ideas.

The truth is we do not write in a vacuum--writing comes from somewhere. And in reality, I have never met a person, young or old, who did not have something to write about, a story to tell, wisdom to share, and ideas to explore.

So where do we find writing?

 In my experience with both students and teachers, I have found all writing ideas arise from four sources: content, context, containers and container linings.  These elements are not linear; they do not occur in a step-one-step-two sequence. Our ideas may arise from one, all, or any combination of these four foundational starting places and lead us to deeper writing.
In the next several posts, I will explore each of these starting places.  Today we will consider context.

Context as a Source of Writing Ideas

Something makes us want to write--- we may not know what we want to write and what meaning we want to construct, but we know in certain situations and circumstances that we have to write. It may be a conversation in which we have participated or overheard, a book we have read, or the juxtaposition of several texts, or a piece of music, or art or a relationship, place, event or experience.  From all of these and other contexts, we may be surprised by the desire or intense impulse to write.

Death as a Context

In the context of deaths of close family members, three of my favorite poets were moved to write.  All of them chose to  write poetry. 

Nikki Giovanni shared at an OCTELA presentation several years ago how she wrote each day  while sitting at the bedside of her dying mother. The result was Acolytes.

Jane Yolen wrote The Radiation Sonnets while her husband was undergoing treatment for cancer and then a year after his death she wrote Things to Say to a Dead Man.


Mary Oliver’s partner of 40 years died; she wrote Thirst.      

The meanings they each made were diverse, the emotions varied, and the purposes of the  writing individual, yet universal.  But the writing all arose out of the context of death.

Darkness as Context

Twice I have been in power outages that immediately plunged my companions and me into total darkness- no stars, no neon, no far off lights from a neighboring home, distant city or nearby island. Once in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands while on vacation and once again at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio on a CAWP retreat this happened. 

Out of this context, I wrote several pieces, all making various meanings, and focusing on several points, but arising from the same source.   I immediately wrote a had-to-be-there poem to share with the group at Kenyon that next morning, then a narrative written in front of my students as a model, and finally much later, a quick write lesson to include in my book.

The context, the unrelenting velvet black surrounding me, compelled me to write, to make sense of our collective fear of the dark. What is the history of this fear? What did our ancient  mothers and fathers think and do when plunged into this same darkness? 

Each piece I wrote made a distinct meaning and was presented in a different container, but each arose out of the context of darkness.

Today’s Deeper Writing Possibilities

 In what contexts have you felt compelled to write?
What have you recently read, seen, experienced, attended, or observed that made you feel you just had to write something?  How did that feeling manifest itself? 
When else have you had that same feeling?

You may want to list as many of these times as you can and then focus on one to explore in writing.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Welcome to Deeper Writing

My book is finished.
Book Signing at NCTE 2012

I am sighing with delight and relief at having accomplished what seemed an insurmountable undertaking.  I am pinching myself each time I use my own book as a reference to the answer questions about writing ideas and possible literature or other texts to foster writing. However, I am finding that  I miss the habit of daily writing required to complete the book. as well as the ever looming deadlines that pushed me forward through the process.  

So now I am thinking  about where to go next in my writing life.  I have been contemplating blogging for almost a year and in every way the universe is screaming NOW.

As I weighed the pros and cons,  investigated "how-to" resources, and closely examined blogs I read regularly (and more that I am discovering each day), I also turned to women I know that blog --and do it so well.

They offered kind and encouraging words, as well as cautions and tips that made this plunge easier. They suggested platforms, items to include on my page, and reminded me of the importance of committing to write regularly and staying involved in the ongoing conversation. They also noted the benefit of becoming a better writer. Thanks, Franki, Gretchen, and Julie.

The technicalities and decisions of structuring the page (as simple as it is) raised my blood pressure and stretched my learning capacity.  But now I am looking forward to engaging in deeper writing in this space---and encouraging you to do the same.

What is deeper writing?

By deeper writing I mean writing that challenges us to engage in a thorough search of memory, a critical analysis of relationships and situations, and a powerful discovery of ourselves and the world.

Deeper writing digs beneath the surface, underneath the obvious observations and topics, to reveal that which is in the background  unnoticed, or unexamined.  It touches both the reader and writer with emotions and insights we have buried or ignored, and it surprises us with fresh perspectives of the familiar.

Deeper writing (and thinking) forces us to ask again and again:  What more? What else?  Why?  And so what?

As we observe, remember, reflect, connect, juxtapose, and challenge our own perceptions, we will be ever thinking about writing and new writing possibilities--we will be in what Donald Graves called a constant state of composition.

In the next several posts, I will continue to explore this concept of deeper writing and consider each of the four sources of ideas that lead us to that deeper writing: context, content, containers, and container linings. And in each post I will also offer a new  writing possibility.

Today’s Deeper Writing Possibilities

What is hiding unexamined beneath the surface in your life?
What did you remember this morning that hadn’t come to mind for a long time?
What connection did you make yesterday that surprised you?
What did you see last week that you are still considering this week?

As you explore these questions in your writing, remember to consider the Why? and So What?