SOL #1: Real Writing

“Woman writing” Artist: Pablo Picasso. 1934. Style: Surrealism. Period: Neoclassicist & Surrealist Period

Deep into a lesson on writing a response to literature, one of my students called me over during the drafting stage. As she is a thinker and a solid writer, I prepared myself for a provocative question. Eager to engage in intelligent discourse, I leaned in to consider her question.

“When will we get to do real writing?” she asked with sincerity.

My response was one of shock and disbelief. “What do you mean by real writing,” I asked. She then went on to define “real writing” as an opportunity to write about topics that you’re interested in, not simply the ones a teacher assigns. “You know, creative writing,” she explained.

This question’s staying power caused me to reflect on my practices as a teacher. In my quest to prepare students for their future in high school, I had thrown out what they love most about writing – creativity and autonomy. I killed their motivation.

Through much contemplation, soul-searching and reading about the topic of creative writing, I resurrected the writing workshop in my classroom. Honestly, I am ashamed to admit I had let it die.

As a result, students have created blogs with a focus of their choosing. We (myself included) blog every other day, and one day in an eight day cycle will be devoted to writing. Already I have seen a change in motivation.

Today, we start the Two Writing TeachersSlice of Life Classroom Challenge, and look forward to gaining an authentic audience to add to our enthusiasm for writing.

I love that my students make me think. It makes me a better teacher.

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Slice of Life Challenge!

Classroom Slice of Life Challenge

“To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music that words make.”  ~Truman Capote

March is fast approaching, and as promised, we will be participating in the Two Writing Teachers “Classroom Slice of Life Challenge”.

What does this mean?

  1. It means you will be writing EVERY DAY in March. Yep, even on the weekends!
  2. It means you will be commenting on other student blogs around the world EVERY DAY.

What is a “slice of life?”

A slice of life is a description of the ordinary details of real life.

What should I write about?

Anything and everything! Think of the challenge as an opportunity to journal the exciting as well as the mundane aspects of your life.

Two “slice of life” authors include Sandra Cisneros and Jack Gantos. They use their own experiences as a springboard for their writing. Note the following extracts from their books.

My Name from The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

In English my name means hope. In Spanish it means too many letters. It means sadness, it means waiting. It is like the number nine. A muddy color. It is the Mexican records my father plays on Sunday mornings when he is shaving, songs like sobbing.

It was my great-grandmother’s name and now it is mine. She was a horse woman too, born like me in the Chinese year of the horse–which is supposed to be bad luck if you’re born female-but I think this is a Chinese lie because the Chinese, like the Mexicans, don’t like their women strong.

My great-grandmother. I would’ve liked to have known her, a wild, horse of a woman, so wild she wouldn’t marry. Until my great-grandfather threw a sack over her head and carried her off. Just like that, as if she were a fancy chandelier. That’s the way he did it.

And the story goes she never forgave him. She looked out the window her whole life, the way so many women sit their sadness on an elbow. I wonder if she made the best with what she got or was she sorry because she couldn’t be all the things she wanted to be. Esperanza. I have inherited her name, but I don’t want to inherit her place by the window.

At school they say my name funny as if the syllables were made out of tin and hurt the roof of your mouth. But in Spanish my name is made out of a softer something, like silver, not quite as thick as sister’s name Magdalena–which is uglier than mine. Magdalena who at least- -can come home and become Nenny. But I am always Esperanza. would like to baptize myself under a new name, a name more like the real me, the one nobody sees. Esperanza as Lisandra or Maritza or Zeze the X. Yes. Something like Zeze the X will do.

 Dynasty from Jack’s New Power by Jack Gantos

We threw our clothes off and pulled our new bathing trunks up over our skinny white legs. After we knotted the drawstrings inside our waistbands, we ran down to the pool. Betsy had settled on a lounge chair to read a book. The baby was asleep in his carriage under a striped umbrella with fringe around the edges.

Pete and I gathered up a garden hose, a big rock, and my swim mask. We were playing a game we called “Deep-Sea Diver” after a movie we had seen in the television room. I was the diver and Pete was my air-pump and support crew. Anyone who dove into the pool would be a giant squid. If they touched me, I was strangled to death.

I put on my mask, stuck one end of the hose in my mouth, picked up the rock, and jumped into the deep end. I held my breath and sank to the bottom. I exhaled out of the corner of my mouth and watched the silver-and-blue bubbles go all the way up to the blurry surface. Then I breathed through the hose. It worked. There was air flowing through. I exhaled and took a deep breath. Then I held the hose with my right hand and tugged on it twice. That was the signal. In a moment I could taste lemon soda mixed with some funky inner-hose scum. Then there was more soda, and more. I needed to breathe. I pulled on the hose. The soda slowed to a trickle, then stopped.

This was great. I could have stayed there the entire day. Pete could feed me olives, raisins, and little Vienna sausages all washed down with my new favorite soda, Lemon Squash.

I was thinking that the air was getting a little thin and it would be a good idea if we had a bicycle pump to hook on to the hose so Pete could pump fresh air to me. Suddenly the hose was jerked out of my mouth and I swallowed a lungful of water. I pushed the rock to one side and sprang up toward the surface. “Why’d you do that?” I sputtered.

“Come quick,” Pete said and pranced up and down on his toes as if he had to pee. “Dad’s drowning.”

Other Thoughts:

  • Write a snapshot, drabble (exactly 100 words), dribble (exactly 50 words) or a tiny story of an observation you made on the way to or from school (a stray dog, monkeys raiding your mango tree, the bread motorbike).
  • Sit quietly in a place for 10 minutes. Notice everything around you – what do you see that you have never noticed before? Write a poem or description of your new observation.
  • Listen to the conversations that go on around you. Take a snippet of the conversation and turn it into a drabble (100 words).
  • Write your opinion about something that is happening in the news.
  • Write a photo essay. Using photos you have taken, post them on your blog and write creative captions underneath each photo that reveal the story behind the lens.
  • Write about a pet peeve.
  • Write about an act of kindness you noted that day.
  • Quote wise words you overheard and explain their wisdom.
  • Write about an embarrassing moment.
  • Write about a proud moment.
  • Write an Ode to an ordinary object. Use Pablo Neruda’s poetry for inspiration. Read Ode to My Socks to jumpstart your thinking.
  • Write about something you wish you could ‘do over’.
  • Write about something that is troubling you.
  • Personifying the sun, describe a sunset or sunrise.
  • Personify a storm, describing its actions.
  • Speak to a quote that you find meaningful. Explain what it means and why you find it meaningful.
  • Critique a book or movie.
  • And so on, and so forth…

Just a Hint of Fiction

Johannes Vermeer painting, “Lady writing a letter with her maid” (1670-1)

“The king died and then the queen died” is a story. “The king died and the queen died of grief” is a plot.

~ E. M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel

Recently, I purchased a palm-sized book titled, Hint Fiction edited by Robert Swartwood. In his introduction, Swartwood discusses the hierarchy of fiction as:

  • novel
  • novella
  • novelette
  • short story
  • sudden fiction
  • flash fiction
  • micro fiction
  • drabble (a story of EXACTLY 100 words)
  • dribble (a story of EXACTLY 50 words)

Swartwood claims,

“the very best storytelling [is] the kind where the writer and reader meet halfway, the writer only painting fifty percent of the picture and forcing the reader to fill in the rest. [This] way the reader truly becomes engaged in the process.”

So what about Hint Fiction? Swartwood wondered about stories that did not meet the readers halfway – such as the Six Word Memoirs. He suggested that fiction that only hints of a larger story be coined Hint Fiction; a story of 25 words or fewer that alludes to a larger, more complex story.

Some excerpts from Swartwood’s compilation of hint fiction:

“The Man of Tomorrow or Maybe You’ve Heard This One Before, But You’ve Never Heard It Like This” by Will Panzo

Dying planet. A boy, a rocket, a last hope. Kansas cornfield crash landing. Ma finds it sleeping in the crater. Pa fetches the shotgun.

“The End or the Beginning” by James Frey

Across the river.

The city.

Was just waking.

When I saw the flash.

Heard the noise.

Felt the shockwave.

Everything disappeared.

Except the blooming cloud.

WRITING CHALLENGE: 

Write a drabble (exactly 100 word story), a dribble (exactly 50 word story), or a hint of fiction (25 words or less) that hints at a story, forcing the reader to fill in the details. For inspiration, you may want to use Chris Van Allsburg’s illustrations from The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. 

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Now What?

So you have a blog, now what?

Your blog belongs to you. You determine what you want to share with the world. Use the following blogging process, adapted from the Paperleaf website, before you begin to ‘Add New Post’

  1. Identify an idea/topic. What are you passionate about and want to share? Determine your audience – who will benefit from the post? What do you think the world needs to know and understand? Narrow your focus – what exactly do you want your audience to learn?
  2. Research your topic. If you want an audience to take you seriously, your knowledge must run deep. Read. Research. Record. Read. Research. Record. Read. Research. Record…
  3. Write a title. A title’s main purpose is to attract the audience’s attention. It needs to be creative yet focused on the topic. Truly, it is your title that will determine whether the reader will actually read your post or not.
  4. Write your introduction. Your first sentence should “deliver a fiery blast of expertise (Kelvin),” to sustain your audience’s attention.
  5. Deliver digestible content. Information should be organized into focused, bite-sized statements that are easy to manage.
  6. Create a call to action. If need be, compel your audience to take action.
  7. Revise and edit post before publishing. Engage in several drafts and conferences prior to pushing the publish button.

From time to time I will share writing challenges that may serve as inspiration for posts. It is up to you to decide whether you would like to take on the challenge or not.

You will have the opportunity in class every other day for 15 minutes and an entire class period one day in the eight day cycle.  Be sure to gather ideas to blog about in order to make the best use of your time.

Blog on!