I am not sure exactly how it happens. It may come in the form of a manual, a hardcover book – or in modern times – the password to a secret website. However, I am fairly certain that when one becomes a grandma, somehow you receive underground information on the art of sandwich making. In […]
The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.
We chase chickens or dogs away from it. Babies teethe at the corners. They scrape their knees under it.
It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women.
As a writing teacher, I often use food as a prompt to help my students capture their stories. Food is universal and we have an intimate connection to the food that surrounds us.
Not only am I a food blogger, but I think that food helps a writer tap into their senses. Food is smell, taste, sounds, and texture. Food is comfort, culture, community, family, and a way to celebrate and nurture others. It even has historical connections and socio-economic implications.
While there are many emotional associations with food – the places where we congregate to eat also hold the power of stories. Joy Harjo’s poem, Perhaps the World Ends Here, is a powerful companion piece and testament to the importance of the kitchen table.
This is the prompt that I gave my creative writing students this fall (right around Thanksgiving):
The Kitchen Table
Our kitchen tables are a sacred space. A hub where we can gather with loved ones and celebrate in our abundance. In our home, the kitchen table is a verb and not a noun. In our house the kitchen table is a place where our children learn responsibility, and manners; they learn and grow by engaging in conversation, helping prepare meals, setting the table, and helping clean up after. It is also the place where homework is mulled over, canvases are covered with paint, Legos are stacked, manicures are glossed, and dinosaurs are sketched. It is a place where our cell phones and tablets are put away and we give each other our undivided attention. Our table is where we pass the seasons, celebrate in the harvest of our summer garden, and hold family meetings.
Growing up my family embraced visitors at our kitchen table with bottomless cups of strong coffee, homemade baked goods, and as a child it is where I learned to value of the power of stories. At times I was excused, if the conversation was not fit for small ears, but the majority of the time I was a welcome participant in a glorious mix of laughter and a legacy of tales from the past.
The kitchen table is where we mourned the loss of my grandparents, welcomed the hearty appetites of friends who helped my father raise the trusses on our new home, and where my mom fed my teenage friends after the Homecoming dance. It was the where we sustained life.
The center of our families, our homes, and our most treasured conversations occur at the kitchen table. We discuss the vibrant color of sautéed asparagus, the deep laugh of a deceased grandfather; or sit quietly, alone, worrying about our children at 3:00 am.
Write a poem, or narrative, about the metaphorical significance of a kitchen table (or another household object or piece of furniture) using Joy Harjo’s poem, Perhaps the World Ends Here, as inspiration.
Since many of my students have shared that due to busy schedules (sports practice, extra curricular activities, parents working shift work, or family members simply preparing their own food separately and taking to their rooms or other living areas to eat) that they rarely eat together at the kitchen table (though that in itself would make a powerful piece of writing). However, I tell the students they could also write about another piece of furniture or household object: a grandfather clock, a piano, a Mason jar, or a rocking chair.
If you found inspiration from this prompt for yourself or your students, please let me know!
Don’t forget to check out my sister blog for healthy food recipes and lifestyle tips; http://www.producewithamy.com
“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.”
As a high school writing teacher, I am constantly looking for new ways to help my students find inspiration. While my creative writing students come to class prepared to create, sometimes encouraging my 9th grade English students to tap into their creativity is a challenge. This is especially true when I ask them to write poetry.
To help free up writer’s block and self-doubt, I tell my students that for their first draft I will not assign a letter grade for a poem but will give credit or no credit. If they turn it in, they get a certain number of points and if they do not turn in a poem they get a zero. The only stipulation is that the poem must be approximately twenty lines long. Over the years I have found that this method helps immensely because my reluctant writers do not feel the pressure of completing the “perfect poem”. To my delight, by the end of our poetry unit, many of my students who did not see themselves as writers (or poets) become confident in their ability to experiment with language and record the world with a new genre.
In addition to taking away the pressure of letter grades until they turn in a revised poetry portfolio, I have fashioned a wide array of writing prompts to keep in my teacher toolbox. These prompts serve as a springboard to help generate creative and critical thinking. Many students dislike being assigned a specific subject to write about so I like to keep my poetry assignments wide open and full of potential. I tell my teenage writers that they have poetic license to alter the prompt in any way that they deem fit.
The following assignment is one that I have been employing for at least ten years and it is one that my students have found a lot of writing success. The concept is simple – I supply a word bank and the students use a computer as a tool to help draft a poem. I tell them to choose at least ten words from the provided word bank that they find intriguing (they can change their mind later).
Students who prefer to compose their poems on paper can simply use the computer to look up the words and use a notebook or journal to transcribe their verse.
I then instruct them to use their favorite search engine to look up the chosen words. They may decide to browse a number of sites and add in more search terms to narrow the results (for example: the word pearl may render up the term: cultured pearl. They may then enter cultured pearl into a search engine to conduct some research).
I recommend that they also search images on the computer. This method words well for students who tend to be more visual learners.
The goal is to write a line or two of poetry from each word. As they continue to work their way down the list of words the poem may assemble naturally or they may have to rearrange the lines after. I usually give them two days to work on the poem in class. The first day I encourage them to focus on coming up with a line or two inspired from each word and on the second day to try to string together their lines.
The connections that they make between the words, research, and their experiences is compelling. It is exciting to have the students share their poems with each other and discover that while they were all given the same list of words, they each have their own unique piece of writing.
When I make my word banks I simply use words that I think sound poetic and have promise. An alternative would be to pluck words from a body of work that you are using in class (think Shakespeare, Greek mythology, a novel you are reading) and let the students research and create poetry at the same time. After all, don’t you agree that some of the most productive lessons are ones where we trick our students into learning? I love to hear the phrase, “I really had fun today!” as students trickle out into the hallway when the bell rings.
Since many of my creative writing students take my course multiple times throughout their high school career, I have four different versions of the word bank that I rotate between. Today I will share one of the word banks with you. I will post a printable version below.
Virtual Scavenger Hunt Poem: Word Bank Poetry Prompt
- Strait of Gibraltar
Printable version —> Virtual Scavenger Hunt via glitteranddoghair
I hope that this post helps inspire your students – or your own writing. I would love to hear back how this activity worked and if you made any modifications.
Thank you for stopping by and helping me create and appreciate a sometimes messy, but always beautiful life. ❤
“Don’t scorn your life just because it’s not dramatic, or it’s impoverished, or it looks dull, or it’s workaday. Don’t scorn it. It is where poetry is taking place if you’ve got the sensitivity to see it, if your eyes are open.”
–Philip Levine, describing what he learned from William Carlos Williams
Mrs. Sherby was my art teacher in both elementary and secondary school and I will never forget the lessons she taught at the Forest Park Schools. I still dream about her classroom – the way the clay smelled, the wide-narrow drawers where we stored our work-in-progress, and the baby food jars where we mixed custom colors of acrylic paint and dipped our paintbrushes.
Mrs. Sherby taught us about the Impressionism Movement and I was moved by Monet. I vividly remember learning about his haystack series and the way he patiently painted during different times of the day to observe and transcribe natural light. What an impact it made on me to realize that a single landscape scene could take on different appearances based on the time of the day and the quality of light. It is a lesson that has never left me.
My boyfriend Matt, freshman year in college at Marquette University, took me to see a Monet exhibit at the Chicago Art Institute and it was a transformative experience. Looking back I realize how painfully naïve I was from my rural upbringing. I gapped, wide-eyed and astonished at how large the canvases were. The layer-upon-layer of paint were exactly as Mrs. Sherby had described them in one of her slide show presentations. I was moved so deeply that I wanted to touch the canvas in front of me. Without thinking, my hand stretched out to one of the paintings to feel the texture of Monet’s brush strokes and I was chided by one of the docents. Though nothing could interrupt the experience for me. I was transfixed. It may seem dramatic, but my world was forever changed. I had come face-to-face with a masterpiece and I felt the spirit of Monet with every step that I took. As a teacher, I hope that something discussed in one of my classes sticks with a student so permanently that they add it to their bucket list.
As a writer, and a teacher of writing, I believe that we must experience the world with the sensibility that other artist’s do. For our craft we also study light as attentively as Monet did. Writing is an image rich process and it also must engage all of our senses.
My students are used to hearing me lecture that as writer’s we notice things that other people do not. We listen to conversations with our ears finely tuned to accents and word choice and experience color and sound in a way that approaches their essence. We constantly ask ourselves, how would we describe the way a high school hallway swaggers with students after the bell rings? Or more accurately, how would I show my reader?
I often have my teenage writers take abstract terms such freedom, love, and happiness and describe them in terms of our senses to make them concrete. What does freedom smell like? What does happiness taste like? What color is love? The true test for a writer is turning the abstract into something concrete so the reader has a sensory experience.
In my last post, Writer’s Block? Mine the Richness In Your Own Backyard, I shared how I have spent my winter snowshoeing around our homestead. Ironically, while I am a native of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, I have never been fond of winter. That was until I started snowshoeing. While my primary goal is exercise and stress relief, I cannot help feeling that I am “Filling the Well” to borrow a phrase from Julia Cameron’s, The Artist’s Way.
When I strap my snowshoes on to burn hundreds of calories, I am also tuning in, memorizing, and categorizing colors, sounds, shapes, fragrances, and textures. It’s true, I even snowshoe with the sensibility of a writer. While I am trudging through the snow I am keeping a deft eye on the landscape, and even though I usually stick to the same path, every day the scenery is different. The snow is never the same shade of white and even the snowbanks are malleable and are shaped by the elements. One day they are choppy from plowing and the next day the peaks are smoothed by the wind like a piece of Lake Superior beach glass tossed by the waves. One day the snow is a flawless, glistening sheet and the next day the surface of the snow wears sparkling grooves and flowing ripples.
As a writer I have what I call my, “Monet Moments”. When I want to experience the world with a new lens. Mid-February I was watching the blues set in at night (on many levels). I wanted to snowshoe at dusk to experience the optical effects of light up close and personal and not just from the mudroom window. I have a trail carved around our pasture and approximately three and a half times around is a mile.
One night when I set out, the sky was blushing a sheer rose with a hint of lavender. Within minutes every snow covered surface was cast with an ethereal blue tint. It was the same trail that I frequented daily. However, on most nights I snowshoe after dinner and since it gets dark early I wear my headlamp. On this particular evening, I wanted to live with intention and experience a moment in tune with nature. While the purple and blue quickly faded, I could not help marveling in what a beautiful world we live in.
The blues of February set in dark and deep. Winter’s heart. Blue veined shadows throb across snowbanks. An ancient voice glistens like gaudy sapphire jewels to stare me down. A deep and sacred silence. Bare branches shiver with faceted sparks hinting at spring’s promise. Ushers of hope. Indelible moment. Winter’s bruised paradox.
When my students roll their eyes when I assign a new piece of writing, it is my job to try to convince them that they will rewarded for their efforts and that what they gain goes far beyond a grade that I assign. I acknowledge that I understand writing is work – it takes patience and diligence. Not everyone in my classroom will publish poems or novels and aspire to become a teacher, professor, professional writer or a blogger. Yet, viewing the world – as a writer – trains us to experience the world differently. It forces us to pay attention. Once our senses are opened as a writer – they can never be closed again and that makes us more astute, sensitive, and engaged human beings. Becoming a writer means looking at the ordinary and everyday things in our life through a magnifying glass. As human beings we are immersed in communication and writing helps make our thoughts tangible. This act of creation becomes as individual as our fingerprint.
I think in the age of digital technology, where much of our lives are dominated by screen time, that engagement is more important than every before. We are so focused on instant gratification that we have forgotten to step back and appreciate. To watch and wait. We neglect to see the nuances that the world offers up. I am thankful that I saw myself as a writer at a young age because it has helped me to find my balance and focus on the positive even during challenges and struggles. It has helped me become a seeker of beauty and wisdom and has taught me to look for patterns and see that everything in the world is connected.
My writing challenge to you over the next few days is to participate in a commonplace activity with the sensibility of a writer and artist. Whether you are baking bread or taking your dog for a walk – open up your senses. Leave your cell phone behind so you can have an uninterrupted experience or use it as a writing tool to capture images (sometimes taking a photo gives us an excuse to stop and focus). When you are out in public eavesdrop and listen to conversations. Listen to an individual’s diction and the melody of laughter. Watch the sun cast shadows and the play of branches on a snowbank, building, or sidewalk. Wake up early on the weekend and watch the sun rise blister the sky with color. Pay attention to how nimbly the horizon washes into new hues as it dissolves into pale morning light. Take a walk at dusk or at twilight. Fill your creative well and make discoveries about both humble and pretentious spaces and things. When you are a writer your practice is portable and your writer’s sensibility goes wherever you go.
Who knows, like me, you may make the revelation (after forty-seven years) that there is beauty where you least expected it — such as in the mid-winter blues of February. The writer in me is thankful for the experiences that I had as a teenager that shaped me. Such as art teachers like Mrs. Sherby and the paintings of Monet.
I would love to hear from you as you bear witness to your creative spark. What has inspired you recently? What fuels your inner artist? What is a lesson that you have learned about writing? Please share your insight and wisdom.
Do not forget to check out my sister blog where I share healthy lifestyle tips and recipes: Produce with Amy
“Anyone can take an adventure even if it’s only in your own backyard. Let your imagination be your adventure and see where it takes you.”
I often tell my high school writing students that when I was their age, I was not well traveled. My dad was an Iron Worker, and due to the seasonal nature of construction, he either seemed to be working around the clock logging massive amounts of overtime or he would experience periods of being laid off. Looking back, since my father is the most financially responsible person I know, we probably could have gone on elaborate family vacations. Yet, my dad is not one to be around hoards of people. He loves the quiet and peaceful beauty of home in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
Instead of Disney (though I did visit my aunt and uncle in California at the age of 10 where they took me to Disneyland) our getaways were often spent on the Way Dam backwaters. Since my childhood was spent growing up in the wilds of Upper Michigan’s Crystal Falls, I hauled in lunker Walleye on the Paint River, I learned how to identify the different varieties of pine trees by their cluster of needles, I got goosebumps whenever I heard the lonesome trill of the whippoorwill, I picked blueberries along the driveway on my way back from checking the mail, and I spent many July nights under a peppering of crystal stars and a crackling campfire.
As a grown woman I realize now how lucky I was for my rural upbringing. Yet, as a teenager reading Hemingway, Charles Dickins, Jane Austen, and William Shakespeare — I often felt isolated and thought that I had to travel extensively to experience life and have important things to write about. How could I write about Paris if I had never strolled along the Champs-Elysees? How could I draw in a reader’s interest with stories about having the first day of white tail deer season off of school, swimming across Fortune Lake, or the winter we received close to three-hundred inches of snow?
Thankfully, as a writing teacher, I know better. While my students may see ice fishing on Big Shag Lake as common place and too dull to write about, I always explain that to people living in snowless climates the thought of drilling a hole in the ice and waiting in freezing weather for a fish to bite would be an exotic, thrilling, and unusual activity. I remind my students that while we may see the things we grew up doing and the places we were raised as boring or bland (because we are so close to them) it is what we know best and it is our job as writers to bring out the richness of these experiences. It is for these reasons that Place Conscious Writing has a strong command in my classroom practice and curriculum.
In adulthood I have been fortunate to travel quite extensively. I have walked the cobblestoned streets of Jerusalem, watched one of my students read her poetry at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C., and panned for gold on an active claim in the quirky settlement of Chicken, Alaska. Yet, to be honest, most of my creative impulses are still inspired from my own backyard.
This winter I have felt of rush of expressiveness channeling through my snowshoe adventures around our homestead. Last night was no exception. The Super Snow Moon was so brilliant that I did not need my headlamp to snowshoe. It was bitter cold but worth every moment of beauty. I snapped photos as late as 9:00 pm (no flash – just the bright moonlight and my iPhone).
While I wish I could figure out how to use my fancy camera at night, a phone is much less cumbersome for snowshoeing. Besides, I think I enjoy the grainy roughness of these photos. It turns our pasture into a landscape that is moonlike itself.
As writers, our work begins when we tap into what we know best. We are experts in our own memories and the smells, flavors, sounds, and textures of the places that we frequent. If you are looking for something to write about — mine your heart and work outward. Compile a list of places in your journal. Draw maps, list flora and fauna, name the trees and rivers, and even document the sky.
Let your readers smell the bruised purple lilacs on the bushes that you played in as a child and show them the day you begged your mom if you could wash your hair in a rainstorm. Detail the way the iron rich soil ran red and how the sky ached a glowing green moments after the drops dissipated.
Describe an India ink dark sky, yet, at the same time so luminous with stars that it made you shiver and feel so small. That on humid summer nights you would spread out a homemade patchwork quilt on the lawn and lie inert for a couple of hours to watch the constellations spread across the lush dome. A sky so magical that it became the fabric that you stitched your dreams.
Being a writer means being able to look in the face of every day experiences and record it in your unique way. When we chart the varied paths we have traveled, we deny the presence of Writer’s Block. It becomes an illusion.
Now tell me, what are you going to write about? Leave me a list, a poem, a description, or the snippet of a scenerio from your own backyard. Reach into your depository of memory and share. Let others find the universal in your musings. Comment here, on my Facebook page, or on Instagram. I will be waiting to hear from you!
Don’t forget to check out my sister blog where I share healthy recipes and lifestyle tips: Produce with Amy
“You have this ability to find beauty in weird places.”
― Kamila Shamsie
As a writing teacher, I often tell my students that when we see ourselves as writers, we experience the world through a different lens. Our perspective of the world changes because we become more in tune to human nuances, landscapes, and even the way the world tastes and sounds. We become passionate about recording the world and this can have powerful potential. Writers have the capacity to become agents of change as we create content that we may share with others.
For the next ten days mine the world you inhabit and find beauty in a variety of settings. Include a photo(s) and a written narrative or poem of the following:
2. An animal/living creature or pet
3. Inside your living space
4. Food or beverage
5. Architecture (inside or outside a building)
6. Junk mail or product packaging
7. Something shiny (or made of glass or metal)
9. Passage from a book, poem, essay, or song