A Poem Inspired by Learning Together
We tell a story about a mother who is seventy-four
and a daughter who is forty-nine,
adding up time and
along the line between them.
We share an open array of numbers,
imagining parts and wholes,
our strategies exposed by quantities
of numbers decomposing and
constant relationships in our minds
–before even holding a pencil.
Hand over heart we tap
until we see a place
in a string of familiar anchors
and friendly landmarks.
We can count back to see the value, partial
products of flexibility now.
Voices of facts and concepts
and ways to solve
burst with numerate enthusiasm
and joy, seeing how the teacher
draws our thoughts
together on a whiteboard.
We gasp at its simple magnitude.
moss clings to my
spaces toured by ants and even
Motionless days pass
solid and sound in all seasons,
even this one, until my senses blistered.
Organized signals for help
unseen as my sedentary
service in subterranean
bass tones even
eluded that fir and birch and spruce and pine
who once stood beside me night and day.
Knowing boots rested on my back, even as I slept
as choked branches lay across my face, as I ate
soaked dreams drank my lineage
hardening the horizon–
Even until smouldering spells
struck nine and I waited to exhale.
Years ago I read Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way.” The book had such a profound affect on me that I read all her other books too. Creative people know that there is an energy to creativity. Like other forms of energy there are things that will help it to expand and things that will cause it to shrink. We learn over time how to feed the energy, control the flow of energy, and how to maximize the energy while creating.
Cameron recommends going on artist’s dates as a way to boost creative energy. These are scheduled, intentional solo outings designed to spark insight and connection. So this March Break I decided to spend four days in Toronto on the ultimate artist’s date.
On the train from Cobourg to Toronto, rather than listen to my usual coffee house playlists, I listened to jazz. Within two songs I felt my creative soul opening up. It was all I could do not to spring up into the aisles and sing with my whole body. When had I stopped listening to jazz? A year ago? Five years ago? How does a person lose something as big and as wonderful as jazz?
My days and evenings were filled with artist’s dates while I was in the city. A night at the ballet. An afternoon at a musical. A trip to a museum. A gallery. Time with people who inspire me. Each date stirred stories that long to be written and songs that cry out to be sung.
And now I’m at home bursting with ideas and possibilities and projects. I feel awake again.
So I greet my laptop like a beloved old friend, snuggle in my favourite chair ready to begin. And that’s when the doubt creeps in…the worries…the fears. What if I get distracted again? What if I’m too tired to create when I’m back at work? What if I’ve forgotten how to do this?
When we’ve fed our creative force well it has the strength to overcome our dragons. And so my questions start to pass by like moving clouds. The story is stronger than the doubts. The song is louder than the worries.
It is so nice to begin again…Thank-you Julia Cameron.
- Our creativity and writing processes are unique, just like our fingerprints.
- Children are naturally creative. We can connect to our inner child to remember. Play.
- Metaphors can be gateways to creative exploration and expression.
- When we consider the act of writing practice and the development of the craft of writing as separate processes, we can nurture them both. We set learning goals.
- We encourage our writing to develop by engaging in writing practice, reflecting on our work, referring to elements of style and craft, consulting with writing mentors, and by using our learning to write something new.
It’s the late 1970s in our downstairs Family Room. I’m a toddler standing in my playpen holding the rail with both hands. Using my head as a guide, my upper body moves up and down with the beat of a honky-tonk banjo tune. I’m watching my favourite show: Hee Haw.
It’s 1986 at the arena. My brother is at hockey practice. My red Sony Walkman is clipped to my hip so I can perform full dance routines in the downstairs change room area hallway. My moves are as large as my voice is loud. Now it’s all about Madonna. And Bon Jovi. Or Cyndi Lauper.
When I was young it was easy to embody music, to let the notes and lyrics into my body until they burst through dancing and singing. Children say yes to music. Children say yes to movement. Children say yes to looking and sounding ridiculous because it’s fun, because it’s worth it.
As a child it’s easy to dance like no one’s watching because it feels right to let the music in, to become the music. It feels right to say yes.
Now, I want my ideas to dance across the page. I want to write like no one is reading, to write just for the heck of it—not because it will lead somewhere, not to impress somebody. I want to write with my whole body, connecting intellect and emotion.
And I want to live like this too, spend more time giggling with joy, saying yes to play, and saying yes to fully being in the moment. How do you say yes to life? Yes to health? Yes to relationships? Yes to work? Yes to following your heart’s calling? When I look at these pictures of myself as a child, saying yes seems so simple.
Yes, Let’s is an improvisation game we often played when I taught Drama. The rule is simple. You must say yes. So if your partner says, “Let’s run around the room.”
You say, “Yes, let’s.”
The purpose is to take turns giving and receiving ideas—and to always say yes.
How would my writing change if I said “yes” more often to elements of my process?
Let’s write a blog. Yes, let’s.
Let’s show it another way. Yes, let’s.
Let’s listen to jazz. Yes, let’s.
Let’s change to blues. Yes, let’s.
Let’s dance Yes, let’s.
Let’s sing too. “Yes, let’s.”
It’s my first year of undergrad.
I’m resisting writing a paper for Psychology 101, easily distracted by the warmth of spring, craving to get outside to feel the sun on my face. The last thing I want to do is sit in my dorm room and write about psychology. When I run out of diet soda and chocolate and friends who will support me in avoiding my paper, I close the door, sit in my chair, and stare at my computer screen.
I go to the closet, putting on my most electric outfit: an orange striped hat, red plaid pants, a royal blue long-sleeved t-shirt. My hips swish side to side to imaginary music before I sit down at the desk with a flourish (and sound effects, like crowds cheering and hoots and whistles.) I rest my fingers on the keys and type the dreaded (now nearly late) essay, with an accent—playful, professorial, and a little bit pretentious. Imaginary sound effects continue to punctuate the experience as I write. Drama students know how to get things done.
To complete the writing, to make the writing bearable, to create something, I played. Play shifted my thinking about the process and the work. I changed my thoughts about process to change my writing.
Once the words are on the page, I can shape them into something better; but without words on the page, I have nothing to work with but air. Writing processes can be as unique as fingerprints.
And it goes beyond what writers can do to what anyone can do. “Fake it till you make it” works, but “play it till you make it” works even better. Even now when I’m faced with something challenging I look for ways to play, entering into the process in a fun way. Every time I do it always works out.
At work when faced with a difficult situation one of our go to responses is to call for “back-up.” Our staff works as an amazing team. We know that when we collaboratively work through a complex issue we get better results.
Last year after seeing the Northumberland Players production of “Joseph and the Technicolour Dreamcoat,” I started thinking of back-up dancers every time we called to each other for support. Imagine a whole kick line and jazz hands coming at you down the hall, singing and smiling! The wisdom of Broadway as a resiliency strategy. The musical theatre genre is all about happy endings and togetherness. When we can imagine ourselves and our coworkers as back-up dancers during a time of stress, well then anything is possible, isn’t it?
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.
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.