Steering My Craft: Short Sentences, Revisited

August 15, 2019

This blog post is part of an effort to refine my own work as a writer, and to strengthen my practice as a writing teacher. For each exercise, I’ll provide the directions, my effort, and a short reflection.

The Assignment: I’ll get real here. I wasn’t a huge fan of how things turned out for my short sentence experiment. I went back to the Ursula Le Guin text, and she suggested trying to change voice for a new attempt. So, if the writing was originally narrative, change it up to something more directive. So I gathered my notebook, my water bottle and sunglasses, and sat out on the porch to give this exercise another go.

HOW TO START A DAY: PRIMER FOR A WORKING MAMA

Your alarm buzzes you awake. It’s too late. Your bladder already signals. Take a moment. Inhale your day. Try not to feel its weight. Exhale. Stretch your muscles. Feel your joints. Decide which one is sorest.
Shuffle to the bathroom. Try not to look in the mirror. There are better times. Glare askance at the scale. It is not your friend.
Start the shower. Step in. Let a moment wash over you. Wander into loose thought. Realize you’ve stood still four minutes. It might be a record. Snap back. There is soaping to do.
The bar slips. You quickly calculate. Better to let it fall. No need for heroics. There is dignity in that move.
You pick up again. You begin once more. Your mind tallies up obligations. Better stop now. You don’t want to take all day. You’d run out of water.
Decide it is time to move on. Heave a sigh. Grab a towel. Make it two. You need any coverage you can get.
Pick up your clothes. You laid them out last night. Commend yourself for your foresight. Now open the closet. Put on something different. It’s not much better.
It will do. It will have to do. It will all have to do.

Reflection: This was a fun one! I’m glad I took some time to go back and attempt this exercise with a different tone. Granted, it doesn’t paint a terribly rosy picture of life as a working parent, but I find it pretty accurate.

I also had fun layering on meanings through word play – like “stood still four (for) minutes” – or “the bar slides downward.” Ohh, yes. The bar is ALWAYS sliding downward in life, isn’t it? It’s the only way to stay sane sometimes. The soap passage also reminds me of a poem I wrote a few years ago with the same theme. Guessing the overworked, overwhelmed parent trope still holds a lot of mileage for me. Figuring it will for the foreseeable future.

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Steering My Craft: Long Sentences

August 6, 2019

This blog post is part of an effort to refine my own work as a writer, and to strengthen my practice as a writing teacher. For each exercise, I’ll provide the directions, my effort, and a short reflection.

The Assignment: Craft a passage (up to 350 words) within a single sentence. Punctuation and complex clauses are welcome!

She thought of July as the time that unfurled its way ahead of her with the summer that lay spread out like an overstretched weekend – these many weeks being a delightful lazy Saturday, on which day a teacher can slough off the Friday weight of the fall, the winter, the spring; on which day she may sleep in, take untimed bathroom breaks, enjoy meals unpunctuated by bells and whistles; on which day a teacher can fully inhale; on which day she may take walks – long rambles with no clear plan, objective, goal, agenda, benchmark, or attempt at measuring mastery; on which day endless streams of questions and requests and situations give way to chirping birds, rustling leaves and the drone of cicadas; on which day the endless grind of preparing and implementing the precise logistics of obligations comes to a virtual standstill; she knows Sunday is coming, and she knows that although Sunday, with its accompanying rise in pressure, anxiety, and (from time to time) dread my crouch around the corner, today is a different day.

Reflection: Well, this passage is definite proof that I often write from my own experience! I often notice a theme of protagonists overwhelmed or weighted down by obligation. Can’t imagine how that would come to be.

I did have fun, though, with extending this outsized sentence with a full tool belt of punctuation at the ready. I felt much better about this exercise than the one that required me to forgo ALL punctuation other than the ending mark. I might find a way to try and share this one with my colleagues somehow…

Steering My Craft: Short Sentences

August 2, 2019

This blog post is part of an effort to refine my own work as a writer, and to strengthen my practice as a writing teacher. For each exercise, I’ll provide the directions, my effort, and a short reflection.

The Assignment: Craft a paragraph using short sentences (maximum 7 words each). No sentence fragments are allowed!

FIRST ATTEMPT
Among it all, I sit. Sunlight lulls my eyes closed. I offer a moment of meditation. Sweat descends down my neck. The breeze lifts it away. A fly lands on my arm. It breaks my trance. Steady hums of cicadas pull me back. I store these days for February.

Mini-Reflection: This is a nice slice of life, but it’s also much shorter than the 100 or so words Ursula Le Guin called for. This writing feels more like a cop-out. I pushed myself towards another attempt.

NEXT ATTEMPT
Time to get up. She sniffs, scratches, stretches. Ambles over to the bed. An arm hangs over the side. She huffs, then nudges. The arm stays limp. She huffs, nudges, then growls. Fingers wiggle. She nudges, then grumbles again. A hand scrunches fur, then absently strokes. She wags, then she licks. She licks some more. She keeps licking until her human wakes. He sniffs, scratches, stretches. Time to get up.

Reflection: I can’t say I’m overwhelmed by the writing I did for either of these passages. I’m glad I was able to create a couple of vivid moments. For me, the biggest challenge was avoiding sentence fragments. As a poet, I like being able to play with language in that way, and it’s kind of a bummer that I had my hands tied with that one.

Steering My Craft: Am I Saramago

August 1, 2019

This blog post is part of an effort to refine my own work as a writer, and to strengthen my practice as a writing teacher. For each exercise, I’ll provide the directions, my effort, and a short reflection.

The Assignment: Craft a passage using NO punctuation. Gulp. Here was my go:

He tied his shoes yes all by himself found his way to the garage and his bike and pedal pedal pedaled himself all the way down the block and around the corner past the mean old people house and across the street to the far park with the tall slide and the not creaky swings and the circling circling sickening circling merry go round but what he was looking for and what he really came for was just ahead of him in the sandbox and all he had to do was cross to the scratchy diggy crane but as he almost sat a hand grabbed his shoulder and a voice said WHERE IS YOUR MOTHER YOUNG MAN and he tried to speak or squeak but he must have dropped his voice in the sand so he got back on his bike and pedal pedal pedaled across the street past the mean old people house around the corner and up the block before leaving his bike his shoes his courage at the doorstep.

Reflection: No punctuation at ALL? That was tricky, having to toss aside not just commas and periods, but hyphens, ellipses, parentheses. Maybe I’m whining, but it’s hard to set a piece of writing out into the world with no help for my readers on how to hear those words in their heads.

I do think that my protagonist and his stream-of-consciousness thought made for a good match for this type of writing. Still, at some point, as the book advises, I may go back and toy with this one to see how adding punctuation changes the power of the piece.

Steering My Craft: Sound of Words Part 2

July 31, 2019

This blog post is part of an effort to refine my own work as a writer. For each exercise, I’ll provide the directions, my effort, and a short reflection.

The Assignment: Write a(nother) passage that wants to be read aloud, this one dealing with a particular action, feeling, or emotion. Here’s where I landed:

Yes.
Please.
Thank you.
Tight words, terse voice, hunched shoulders, a tightrope walk of everyday actions and interactions carefully strung together: brow set, breath held, until-

Until alone, when the pin pricks begin, poking, pulling, needling, loosening, then unraveling the grief that has wrapped, spooled, tangled and knotted itself in and around her heart. She senses a slackening, and before she can catch the strings they have spun out and away, leaving her naked, open, in a shuddering, deepening darkness.

It is there she sits until she is ready to gather threads, knit herself back together and back into the world.

My Reflection: Grief always seems to follow me, nosing its way into my writing. Even though the topic itself is a weighty one, I had fun with this exercise, and I like how the imagery of knitting came up as I was working.

Steering My Craft: Exercise 1-The Sound of Words

July 28, 2019

This blog post is part of an effort to refine my own work as a writer. For each exercise, I’ll provide the directions, my effort, and a short reflection.

The Assignment: To craft a short passage that asks to be read aloud. The object is to have fun playing with words and their sounds. Here’s what I came up with:

She stepped off the ship and drank of the air. Not the polite, genteel sips of a carefully-poured glass of wine, but the deep, full-thirsted gulps of clear, teeth-chilling water. Filling her lungs full, fuller, fuller, she began to wonder when she had last truly breathed, or if she had truly breathed, or when her lungs had last known how joyous it was to quench their thirst. Or…had they ever?

My Reflection: I enjoyed this exercise, and I think I crafted a passage that uses the sound of language well. At least, I know that I can hear the words when I write them, and I do enjoy reading it aloud. Did I go so far as to play with words? Mmmm…I’m thinking I may have stopped short there. Perhaps I’ll revisit this one with more of a playful eye – and ear.

Steering my Craft: Ground Rules

July 26, 2019

I’m excited to spend time working on my own writing over the next several weeks in the hope of becoming a stronger writer. But I won’t lie. The task is daunting, and I’ll have to face my demons.

Perfectionism: I get so caught up in my ideal vision that I either won’t begin, or I’ll mire myself too deeply in self-doubt and revision. That, or I’ll chicken out before sharing because my inner voice is a jerk. C’mon. Nobody wants to read that stuff.

Shiny Toy Syndrome: When I was a Campfire Girl, I had to recite the Bluebird Pledge. The hardest promise? “To remember to finish what I begin.” It’s easy to get on a kick, but it’s harder to maintain the discipline to see it through, especially when things get tough.

Self-Worth: As a mom, teacher and grad student, it’s easy to let other roles and obligations overshadow my own personal development. So when I do have time and mental space, it’s easy to sit back with a book, or to catch up on dumb TV, or scroll through a Twitter feed because I’m not obligated to anyone. Trick is, that leaves me. I need to honor my obligation to me.

So, as I begin, here’s how I’m going battle these demons. My plan:
1. Write something every day. Even if I don’t like what I write.
2. Complete exercises from the book at least 2 times a week.
3. Avoid revising the exercises, unless it’s called for. (This one will be difficult. I’ve already revised this post four times.)
4. Share all of my exercises, even if I don’t like what I wrote.

<<inhales>>
<<exhales>>
<<dips toe into water>>
<<shivers>>
<<shrugs>>
<<holds breath>>
<<leaps>>

Steering My Craft

July 24, 2019

I’ve long had a resistance to writing fiction. I’m not quite sure what it is, but perhaps it’s because it’s like art in many ways. I might see a horse in my head, but I can’t get myself to produce what I see. Similarly, I can’t get myself to create fiction that matches the movie I see in my head.

As a writing teacher, I carry a lot of guilt about this. I’ve been trying to write alongside of my students, to go through the process that they do. It helps me understand the magnitude of what I’d really asking them to do. Plus, I’m not going to lie. It gives me a bit of street cred when they see I can write too.

It’s so easy when we’re working on personal narrative or poetry. And I can pre-write fiction with the best of them. But when my kids launch full-on into their stories? They leave me in the dust, marveling at their fearlessness.

I’m determined to make this the year that I draw upon my students’ courage and challenge myself more fully as a writer. It’s time to get brave.

This summer, I’ve committed to improving my own writing through the exercises set forth in Ursula K. LeGuin’s Steering the Craft: A 21st Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story. * I’ll be posting my experiments in this blog, and I’ll hopefully use my learning with my students.

I welcome any feedback. And, if you’re up for writing along with me, send me a link to your work. I’d love to read it!

Bon Voyage.

©Lainie Levin, 2019

*Thanks, storyteller extraordinaire Sue Black, for the original inspiration to take up this challenge.

Summer Dreams

May 27, 2019

This post is in response to a bookcampPD challenge, asking teachers to think about what they dream about for the summer. Here was my submission. I can’t wait to see what my online colleagues have to say as well!

…and you…? I’d love to know what you dream of doing this summer. Leave a comment and let me know!

*******

This summer, I dream of doing more. More “less.”

Let me explain.

Throughout the school year, I pack all of the “more” I can into my days. Between planning, grading, kid logistics, managing a household and trying to maintain some semblance of self-care, I find myself crammed in with little room to breathe.

I used to feel obligated to be productive with my summers, so that when people asked me what my plans were, I would have an answer that sounded important and busy: graduate work, professional development, curriculum planning.

Don’t get me wrong, I still continue much of that over the summer. I don’t think it’s ever possible to completely shut off my teacher brain. But I’m also realizing that I don’t have to feel guilty for having times where I am unproductive. Simply put, I need to come up for air. And summer is the time to do it.

And if that means I do less? So be it. I’m owning it.

This summer, I dream of doing less of my “more,” and more of my “less.”

More hiking and walking.
More reading.
More baking.
More working out.
More sleeping.
More catching up with friends.

And when I come back to school in the fall, there will once again be more of me to go around.

When Poems Find Me

April 17, 2019

Sometimes a poem strikes me, and I’m able to write it in the moment. I get an idea for an image, a phrase or a metaphor, and I just can’t help myself.

Other poems are more coy. They want me to write them, but maybe I have too much to say and don’t know how to squish it all down. Or maybe I feel too strongly and the words haven’t quite yet translated.

I’ve been trying to write this poem for about three years now. It surfaces each time I ask my fourth graders to personify an attribute or emotion. I keep wanting to write this poem, but it’s eluded me. It doesn’t help that this assignment comes around the same time of year I lost my brother, and writing about grief while I’m feeling it is…well…messy.

This year, for whatever reason, this incredibly patient poem decided it was time. Enough with the nonsense. Just write already. So I wrote. Here goes:

Grief

I am Grief.
We may not
Yet
Be familiar.
But we will,
Some day.

When we first meet, I am
Everywhere,
Awaiting you in moments
Large and small.
I hold you tight enough
To steal your breath.
Or hide behind a corner
Waiting to spring you
In the off-chance you have forgotten me.

People know me by
That tell-tale dimple on the cheek
That one song that comes on the radio
The telephone call you go to make before realizing
You can’t.

People never consider
How attached I am
To Love.
But there we are,
Always intertwined
As best friends are.

People never consider
I am not one to be escaped
I am not one who should be escaped.
I want to whisper,

Come.
Sit with me.
Let me surround you,
Enfold you.
I am here, yes.
And so is Love.
As you sit,
And as you sink,
You might just fall.

Let us catch you.

-© Lainie Levin, April 2019