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?


  1. Timely post for me, Robin! I've thought a lot about containers lately as I reconsider acceptable "containers" (in this case, structures and media) for my students to present research findings. I'm opening the door to new possibilities -- students have to be able to justify to me why their container is an appropriate one given the objectives they need to demonstrate mastery of -- and I'm eager to see if the expanded choice gives me richer writing.

    The flip side (that I'm trying to ignore and will continue to do so for about another year ;)) is this: I wonder if the PARCC assessments will make me feel limited to containers that prepare my students for Common Core assessment tasks. I'd like to think that I'll slog on through with what's most engaging, but I'm a little nervous to see what will be demanded of my students.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. I realize as I read your comment and think about the work that we are doing with Troy, that just as we provide mentor texts for traditional writing, it will be important for us to also provide mentor texts for digital/new media. For me that means becoming much more familiar with a variety of work online, just as I strive to be familiar with a variety of books and other texts.

      I also share your fear about the new assessments. I always taught test writing as a particular genre or form of writing. That seemed to keep that limited type of writing in perspective for both me and my students.

  2. Great ideas (as usual) Robin! I've loved the idea of "containers" for writing since you mentioned it in a CAWP session. It's such an interesting visual.

  3. Thanks, Gretchen. I am continuing to enjoy your current " container" for your blog posts.