Friday, April 12, 2013


What do we remember?
How do we choose what to remember?
What sparks those memories?

Sometimes it is a smell, or a snatch of song, or a face that resembles a face we used know.         
Or it may be a certain color that reminds you of the sea or mountains or your grandmother's favorite dress.

How do we choose the specific memories that we want to write?

Lee Upton gives us one way to think about  this in her Index/Table of Contents Exercise included in The Practice of Poetry edited by Robin Behn and Chase Twitchell . She suggests "inventing a mock index focusing on a character or subject of your choice, or inventing a mock table of contents for a future book." 

I am suggesting using this same technique, but instead, treating your own life or a portion of your life as if you were constructing a book.

What chapters will be included in your table of contents? How many pages will you devote to each chapter?

What entries will you include in your index.

What title is suggested by your chapters and index entries?

Below is my own prospective title and table of contents based my  teaching career, beginning with my first year in Chapter 1 and  ending beyond my public teaching career into retirement in Chapter 8.

Epiphanies and Getting in the Dirt

  1. Tachistoscopes, Mass and  Boa the Snake
  2.  Finding the Center and Processing  the World
  3.  Reflecting  On My Practice
  4.  Traveling the Distance
  5.  Reading Recovery and Coaching
  6.  Writing for My Life – The Columbus Area Writing Project
  7.  Returning to the Beginning
  8.  Everything Old is New Again
I still need to think about the number of pages  for each chapter, and perhaps, some subtitles.

In my  mock index, under K I have included the  word Knife, related to my first year of teaching. The resulting story connected to this entry is below.


I was a brand new teacher—or maybe I should call myself at that point a half-teacher.
I was still in grad school earning a Master’s degree, yet I had a teaching degree and state license.  
I had never taught before. 
I had seen it done a lot.
I had some “I would never do’s" firmly etched in my new teacher’s  brain.

I was  ready for anything.

Nothing in my teacher methods classes prepared me for the day my 15-year-old student pulled a knife on me. 
Shiny, blue, six-inches long. A switch blade.  The kind the motorcycle guys in books and movies carried.
But there is was in my face, as I sat while he stood—angry about I don’t even remember what.  He was the bane of my existence.
He lead everything that ever went wrong in this class, whether it was talking or all out rebellion.
You know the kind.
Everybody drops their pencils at the same time.
Everybody refuses to talk.
Everybody does… whatever this big guy says.

The teacher I replaced in January that year had had a nervous breakdown.

The key word is big—He had to be six feet tall-- and me only four feet plus …

This day I don’t know what I was thinking.
I will be honest.  I did not plan my reaction.  It was not the latest discipline technique.
I can’t take credit for the success of my dealing with the knife.

I just began to laugh.  Hysterically. 

“ What do you think you are going to do with that?”  I asked and I continued to laugh.  

Laughter sometimes goes before complete mental breakdowns.
Is this what happened to their other teacher?  

On the other hand, laughter sometimes saves us.

He looked at me—knife still in my face.  Puzzled.   I continued to laugh.

Slowly he  folded the knife.. Still puzzled.  He handed it to me.  “Here Miss Jackson, you can have this."

I still have it.

From then on he was my friend, my unpaid enforcer.  I think because he had concrete evidence that I was as crazy as he.  His equal?

“Get in your seat. Miss Jackson’s ready to start,” he would announce the next morning and every morning after that.

He had not lost his edge or his right to reign in my room.
In the eyes of the kids.
After all who else had pulled a knife on the teacher.

But…., I had forever  gained the right to reign in this room as well.
In the eyes of the kids.
After all, what other teacher laughs at the kid who pulls a knife on them?

Click here to read sample poems created using a variation of this technique written by students.

 Today's Deeper Writing Possibilities

Listing our lives as chapters in tables of contents or entries in indices are ways that we can brainstorm about our lives and remind ourselves of writeworthy memories, stories, events and people.

Create your own table of contents and/or index including events, items, people situations from your own life ( personal, teaching, working, spiritual ...) 

Create a title for the " book of  your life."

Considering what your have created, choose a chapter or index entry  on which to reflect and write.

What chapter will your write?

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