• Creative Writing,  Creativity

    Stairway to Writing: Or What I Learned From My Brother About Guitar and Writing

    Is writing every day the best thing to do?

    When I studied English Literature at Trent University I told my Irish Drama professor that I wrote in a journal.

    “I want to be a writer,” I said. “So I’m writing a lot. Every day.”

    He had a gorgeous Irish accent and a brash tell-it-like-it-is approach.

    He replied, “Jess-i-ca, my dear. It doesn’t much matter if it’s all bad writing.”

    Every time we put a word on the page, whether it’s genius or garbage, our brain to page connections are exercised. The act of writing is happening. It’s like muscle memory, training the mind to connect to the pen or keyboard, practicing the movement of transposing something from inside to outside, developing expertise in changing the abstract into the concrete.

    When I write every day, my writing is better. I’m more connected to the work. My learning goals evolve more rapidly. The work’s voice is stronger.  After a long break from writing (a couple of months or more), I find it helpful to write a lot, to write often to recharge the connections.

    During a big project, I write every day to ride the momentum, the upward spiral of energy swirling the work into being. Daily writing keeps the words and story focused, alive. Any time I’ve taken a break from a project, it’s died. The energy had moved onto something else.

    In Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear Elizabeth Gilbert writes “Ideas of every kind are constantly galloping toward us, constantly pass through us, constantly trying to get our attention.” She also explains how when we don’t give the ideas attention, they move on.

    The place to improve the writing is during the revision process. The first step is just getting it on the page, giving ideas a place to grow.


    How is writing practice like guitar practice? What I learned from my brother!

    My brother Colin learned how to play guitar when he was in high school. Every time I walked by his room, he lounged on his bed with his acoustic guitar, playing the same songs over and over—“Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin and “More Than Words” by Extreme. At first it was hard to distinguish between the songs. It took regular practice for the chords to become music I could recognize. Colin played the same songs for hours a day. By the time he graduated from high school he could play a number of songs skillfully, effortlessly.

    After a summer trip with my mom to Nashville, Tennessee, I decided to learn how to play guitar. The idea of being a singer-song writer appealed to me. I love to sing. I love to write. I just needed to learn about how to play guitar.

    The day after we get home from Nashville I go to the local music store and buy an acoustic guitar, tuner, picks, and a case. I’m ready to learn.

    At home, I sit on the couch with the guitar, placing my fingers to make a G-chord and gently strumming. A couple of times a week I sit and strum a G-chord for fifteen minutes.

    Ten years pass. Now I can’t remember how to even play a G-chord.

    When my brother learned to play guitar he practiced for hours. Colin had specific goals and looked for support from guitar experts. To develop mastery he needed to practice daily, to get to a place of automaticity, a place where his hands could automatically play the songs with limited thinking or focus.

    Over twenty years have passed since high school…

    We sit on the porch at the cottage in a circle. Feet tap. Heads bob. The family singsong slips out the open windows, across the silent bay. After fifteen minutes of practice, Colin plays “More than Words” and “Stairway to Heaven” on his guitar with the skill he had as a teenager. To play new songs he will need to return to regular practice again.

    This connects to writing practice too. Sometimes we show up to the page and write for writing’s sake. Yet, the guitar shows me that focus and intention can make a big difference in both productivity and the final product.

    So this morning I reflect on why I write. What are my goals? How can setting an intention support my process for better focus and more impact?

    I’m going to start with reading this interview with Natalie Goldberg about the writing life.

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  • Family History Stories,  Georgian Bay,  Life Lessons

    Thanksgiving Tradition: Hike in the Bush on Georgian Bay

    Thanksgiving 2017. Britt.

    Some people might call it the woods, but our family has always called it the bush.  Rolling granite, moss, and long grasses topped with juniper bushes, birches, maples, and pines extend for many kilometres from my parents’ place across Crown land.

    Fall is the best time to go for a hike in the bush. The deer flies, horse flies, and mosquitos are gone. The bears are preparing for winter and most have gone deeper into the bush, beyond where our feet would take us in a day. I’ve never seen a rattle snake in the fall but we have seen other kinds of snakes–grass snakes, water snakes, fox snakes. We know there are wolves in the area but we’ve been lucky. It’s rare to see a wolf during the daytime. Usually it’s winter when the wolves are spotted by the residents. The most worrisome is the hunters. Dad always encourages us to wear bright colours when we go out in the bush in the fall.

    Our hike is about 45 minutes each way. It follows a one-lane path or dirt road that cottagers use to get to their remote places. When my dad was a kid he had a family camp at the very end of the path. He remembers when the narrow road was made in the 1960s. Before that they would hike in, walking 45 minutes to an hour with their food and gear.

    Sometimes at Thanksgiving it’s just dad, my brother Colin, and I making the trek out into the bush. Other years we have a big group of 15 going. It all depends on the weather, who is visiting, and the timing of Thanksgiving dinner.

    Yesterday there were five of us. We decided to drive most of the way. Not everyone is able to hike that far these days.

    Beaver Dam

    Usually when we get to “our spot” it is quiet and the silence is the kind that fills you from your feet up through the top of your head. But yesterday was different. As we approached the beaver dam we heard gunshots. Lots of gunshots. Too many to be hunters.

    Dad and Colin got out of the car to investigate. I shouted, “I have First Aid but we didn’t cover gun shots!”

    Dad said, “Don’t worry. I’m wearing a red hat. They will see me.”

    It was skeet shooters. Across the marsh was a big group of young people, as disks shot up into the air they shot at them with a rifle. We could see them. They could see us. They were shooting out in the other direction. It was safe to explore. But the sound of gunshots changed the peaceful silence I love.

    Eventually the skeet shooters were done. We were able to soak in the beauty uninterrupted–just as it should be.


    Not everyone has a chance to go for a hike in the bush on Georgian Bay in Fall. So I put together a slide show to share some of the photographs I took yesterday:

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  • Creative Writing,  Georgian Bay,  Life Lessons

    Picking Blueberries: A Memory

    Mom’s Homemade Blueberry Pies

    I remember going blueberry picking in the bush near the cottage in Britt when I was eight or nine. Mom carries baskets. Dad carries peanuts in shells. We always bring Princess with us, my great-Aunt Irene’s German Shepherd. Princess leads the way over the granite and moss, into the desolate, dense back bushes on the coast of Georgian Bay, guarding us from the possibility of walking into sleeping black bears or sunning massasauga rattlers.

    We find a clearing with smooth, warm rock bordered by thick, low blueberry bushes. Mom gets to work right away, kneeling by a bush, filling the basket with only the good luscious blueberries, not the shriveled or mangled ones.

    Dad lays on his back on a rock in the sunshine, his arms spread, soaking in the fresh air, settling in for a nap. My little brother, Colin, runs around the area with Princess. He carries a big beaver-chewed stick that he uses like a bat, whacking piles of rocks and dead, grey trees while Princess barks with excitement.

    I sit near Mom, eating the berries she places in the basket—too scared to put my hand in the bush and pluck them, imagining fanged snakes will chew my arm to bits.

    “Do I need to tell you the story of the Little Red Hen?” Mom notices I’m eating her berries. “These are for pies.”

    So I make a fist, plunging it into the bush real fast, hoping to punch the imaginary snake in the fang.

    “You do it like this,” Mom says. She reaches into the bush with her right hand, holding some leaves back with her left hand. She gently plucks the berries off one by one, carefully placing them in the basket.

    I don’t like moving so slowly, being so gentle. It takes too long to feel like we are making progress.

    Dad starts to shell peanuts, still lying in the sun, throwing the shells by the tree line. Colin and I run over to Dad and grab a handful too, pulling the shells off. We sit side by side, waiting with anticipation for Chippy the chipmunk to appear while Mom works steadily in the bush, filling the basket with berries for pie.

    Eventually I return to sit by Mom, picking berries and placing some in the basket, but mostly I eat them.

    Mom grew up picking blueberries. Grandma would send her out into the bush in the morning with a basket and say, “Don’t come home until it’s full.”

    Mom said she often got distracted in the bush too. She spent most of her time in the bush making houses out of moss by peeling up layers of moss off the rock and repositioning them, making floor plans on the granite, then playing ‘house.’ She waited until the last minute before frantically filling her basket with blueberries for Grandma.

    I like to think that distraction is a natural part of the process of getting things done.

    Georgian Bay
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  • Creative Writing,  Creativity,  School Leadership

    Learning from Students About Daily Writing Practice

    Zorb in New Zealand

    Write freely and without censor.

    Free-writing is a stream of consciousness writing. The ideas flow to the page as they arrive even if the connections are not initially seen. It’s not about structure or grammar or spelling. Free-writing is the most powerful type of writing practice as it teaches students that writing is essentially  about expression and thought.

    My English classes usually started with free-writing. Students arrived, took their seats, prepared their workspace, looked at the board for a prompt, and began to write.

    Most students liked structure, routines, and clear instructions. Among the most engaging prompts were student-generated ones.

    Even with a prompt writing can feel like getting in a big bubble and rolling down a hill by a farmer’s field. At first we feel strange, a lack of control, but then we realize it is safe, we will end up somewhere, and we accept the surprises that come with the experience.


     Write about the ideas in books. Writing is about making connections.

    One year we studied John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, a coming-of-age story about an extraordinary boy and his friend growing up in a New England town in the 1950s and 1960s. Owen believes he is an instrument of God and prepares to live out his self-prophesized destiny. The book sparked many questions for the students about friendship and faith and fate— after an exhilarating debate about family, students struggled to reconnect to the literary devices or plot details. We often spent most of the class exploring how Irving’s themes related to our experiences. Story was a vehicle for students to develop understanding about big ideas that mattered to them.

    They gravitated to the big questions. Is there a God? What happens when I die? Does love have a limit?

    Anytime we shifted out of the mechanics of story and into the realm of life, students engaged eagerly. The questions offered big empty spaces for diverse perspectives. Students respected that we could have different ideas about death or love. Abstract thinking was fascinating to them. For many, it was the first time they talked freely about death, exploring theories and beliefs without the influence of their parents by engaging in structured dialogue with their peers.

    Our daily writing prompts became the big questions students posed while reading Owen Meany’s story.


    Reading and writing are interdependent activities.

    Students demonstrated the most growth in their critical thinking and expressive writing when the topic was relevant to their experiences and when it complemented the other work we were doing in class.

    Some days I put this on the board: “Free choice—write what you like.” Students spent much more time chatting with their friends about the party on the weekend than writing. Many students didn’t get past putting the date on the page, saying “I’ll do it when I get home.”

    Students consistently wrote less when they were given free choice.

    On the days where I didn’t put anything on the board, students defended their right to skip the writing part of class because the topic was missing. “We could just take a break,” they’d say.

    To write every day, teenagers need to be interested in the topic, to be invited to explore big ideas in fresh ways. Students also need the routine (accountability) of writing daily.


    Adult writers often need structure and a purpose too.

    Otherwise we can look for distractions and excuses. The paradox: to liberate our writing we need limits.

    Every day we write is a beginning—

    We can allow the words to guide us through the complexities of memory, forming details on the page without censor or expectation, welcoming surprise, opening up pathways and bridges and yellow brick roads to memory that seem to belong to another far-off version of ourselves.

    As I get older, I learn that memory can be a tricky coyote, filing my experiences in non-linear ways, mixing them up with others, sending out pieces at a time as memory.

    Can you remember specific details about your childhood? What happens when you look closely at the moment and try to recall what happened just before or just after?


    And so it’s time to begin.

    I sit at my desk. I breathe. And go.

    Luckily I have no shortage of ideas now, just a shortage of writing time.

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  • Creative Writing,  Creativity,  School Leadership

    What Does Learning Look Like?

    What if we captured our learning in jars, exploring questions and details and ideas through glass walls…

    …like a child collects caterpillars in a jar.

    Children treasure their collections. They check in on them. They poke holes in the lid to make sure the collections can breathe.

    What if we collected experiences and insights and feelings in the same way? A jar of travel. A jar of gratitude. A jar of story.

    When we hold a jar up to the light for a better look, what do we see?


    How can I make space to capture the lessons learned in a day, a month, a year?

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  • Creative Writing,  Creativity,  School Leadership

    Open the Jar: When Creativity Takes You Somewhere Unexpected

    There is freedom in a metaphor. I love its openness to possibility.

    When creativity flows well writing is as easy as taking the lid off the jar, grasping streams of inspiration as they swirl above, and then sprinkling words onto the page. Sometimes it can feel like confidently singing a song you’ve known for a long time. Often when I write poetry the story appears all at once and catches me by surprise.

    Over the years I’ve noticed that I like to write about what I’ve learned. Through the act of writing my learning deepens, my understanding shifts, and my wishes clarify. We can learn from every experience. When we look at things in different ways, we can see differently. When we allow our intuition to guide us and we give permission for the voice deep inside to rise and fill the page, we find our story. We find ourselves. As much as creative expression can offer us soaring freedom it can also offer us deep-rooted connection to our values.

    Writing the poem “Open the Jar” transformed my understanding of sunshine in a jar to include gratitude and generosity. I learned that this light isn’t a beacon of happiness but a symbol of hope.

     

    I remember the day I wrote this poem.

    When the idea to write the poem appeared I leapt out of my chair, wanting to avoid it. But the idea followed me down the hall. I took a deep breath, returned to the chair, picked up my pen, and wrote a poem about some of my most difficult moments as a young teacher.

    There is so much we are not prepared for when we begin our teaching careers. Sometimes we are growing up alongside the students we are teaching. I was in my mid-twenties. My students faced challenges I couldn’t imagine. The students taught me about resiliency, grit, and perseverance through challenge.

    I learned the importance of community and building a school culture where all students feel safe.

    I learned about the strength of my colleagues and the value of having a mentor.

    I learned that by listening to the students we could better identify the issues and work toward change.

    I learned how even in the face of challenge and tragedy schools can be models of courage, truth, love, and wisdom.


    Open the Jar

     

    Last night I opened the jar and it whispered to me,

    “a piece of the story is missing.”

    Silence.

    Breath.

    I wished the thought had stayed in the jar,

    wished to rewind,

    go back to the moment before

    I released the latch and

    eased the lid.

     

    Open the jar.

    Blue dot days glued to glass,

    days of Sylvia’s bell jar and

    cobwebs and fatigue and

    frustration and sleep and

    tears and

    darkness.

    Blue dots

    drowning my calendar,

    blue dots

    covering my day book—

    a giant blue bruise.

     

    You should know,

    I teach outside the city

    in a nice suburban

    community.

     

    Open the jar.

    A morning swarming at 7:45

    two hundred teenagers

    chase a grade ten

    girl

    angry faces

    push against glass,

    she calls for help.

     

    Open the jar.

    Pepper chokes

    classrooms,

    chairs, clocks, and computers…

    A toxic shot

    in the head.

    Later, a fifteen-year-old boy

    wears handcuffs

    and not the kind from his joke store.

     

    Open the jar.

    Racism, bullying, homophobia,

    illiteracy, drugs, eating disorders

    spiralling around bells

    passing days and

    heedless years.

    Take the lid off the subtext.

     

    Open the jar.

    A friend defines “suddenly”

    when our student

    dies…and then another.

    Words evaporate

    hearts frozen in crowded hallways.

     

    Open the jar.

    Julie whispers of last night’s rape

    during attendance

    digital now

    twenty-first century tracking of

    presence.

     

    Open the jar.

    I pass Tina her graded work and

    she asks if she should visit her boyfriend,

    in jail

    even though

    he was charged:

    attempted murder

    she thinks

    only yesterday she smoked pot, drank vodka, slept with

    Tonya, and cut herself on her left arm for the sixth time.

     

    Jars lined up like child soldiers

    down a long corridor of black-hearted

    steel lockers collecting

    souls. We all felt it

    clouds building chains around teen dreams.

    Teacher machines

     

    We forgot the taste

    of sunshine

    jars

    emptied

    closed

    lid twisted tight

    within the glass grooves.

     

    But in time we learned

    to gently turn the lid,

    open the jar

    and sometimes we found something

    for somebody

    and in time we learned to capture sunshine.

     

    Open the jar—

     

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  • Creativity,  School Leadership

    Creativity in the Classroom Begins with an Idea

    It’s my second year teaching high school. I work in a big school with about two thousand students. In Grade 11 Advanced English we study Macbeth.

     

    “Miss, do we really have to write another essay?” a lanky boy in the front row asks.

    “What are you proposing? Do you have another idea?”

    “We should make a play,” a girl suggests.

    Another girl says, “We could invite other classes to watch!”

    The students slouched in the back of the room adjust, leaning into the discussion.

    “How would we begin?” I ask.

    The students talk at once, shocked that the idea of substituting an essay is possible. The volume in the room grows.

    “We’d have to decide how much of the play we want to do,” a girl says.

    “And we could have jobs—”

    “—I could do costumes!”

    “I want to be a witch!”

    “Everyone can do something backstage too.”

    “We can turn our portable into a theatre—”

    “What if I brought in lights my dad uses at Christmas for our stage?”

    “—and I can bring in a cauldron.”

    “Jo can make a head for the end!”

    I stand by the board at the front of our portable, trying to capture their thoughts in chalk as they fire them out one after another. They brainstorm until the board is full.

    “So does this mean we can do it?” a boy asks.

    I pause for dramatic effect, squinting my eyes, squishing my lips up into a thinking face. “Hmmmm,” I say. “You make a really good case. I would love to support you on this—where does the writing fit?”

    A girl stands up, talking and moving her arms. “I know! We can write a reflection on our characters or a reflection about what we learned.”


    Working with teenagers I witnessed creativity every day. We staged Macbeth in our portable that semester. Students collaborated to make props, to paint large sheets of paper to use as a backdrop taped to our chalkboard. Students decided which scenes to include. From directing to acting to finding an audience for the work, the students engaged in every step of the creative process. We had some challenges with meeting deadlines, getting along, balancing different levels of enthusiasm for the project—but the students persevered. Our audience (another Grade 11 class) surprised us by showing up in Elizabethan-inspired costumes. We all learned a lot about how to bring an idea into being, about how to create.

     

    Creativity is the swirling energy that starts with an idea and expands with each new connection, idea by idea, until the ideas land somewhere, turning into something to be shared. Creativity is about process, the ways of bringing an idea into being, the act of creating.

    To begin take some time each day to capture ideas–as many as you can. And then when it feels right, try some of them on.

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