One of my favorite days is the final showcase day – definitely not because I am enthusiastic about sharing my own writing with a group of people. I really look forward to seeing what everyone else has created. The visual arts specifically always interest me, because it is so not my wheelhouse and I am in awe of what the participants make.
When Wendel was speaking, he referenced source material for the photography participants. That made me think about how cool it might be if a bunch or all of the classes went on the same trip and worked on producing a response to the same source material. This could also be done with students in an interdisciplinary collaboration.
aTi has become a special place for me. I am not sure if there is anywhere else where I would get the quality of instructors with this sense of community. I am grateful for the experience and hopeful that I can attend again.
There are some people in our class who write constantly and don’t hesitate when calling themselves writers. I am not one of those people. I admitted that I am not sure that writing is something I need to do. When I think about it, while I enjoy the work I do at aTi, if I never wrote another poem, I’m not sure it would be devastating. I might get the shakes, however, if I never read another book. Peter offered my repeated attendance at aTi as the answer to that question. When I was talking to my friend about it, I confessed that maybe I’m just scared to need or want to write. I am very famous for living in my controlled comfort zone.
Even while I am so hesitant to call myself a writer, it is what we expect our students to be. How few of us are actually writing though? I would totally judge an ELA teacher if they told me they were not reading. It never gave me pause that the same should be true of writing. I am also responsible for teaching that as well. And if I am not writing, it should be the equivalent outrage if I were not reading.
This was the first year that I was not scared of running out of ideas to write about. Previously, this had been a gnawing concern. I am not one who has a never-ending supply ideas. On a few occasions I have gotten a thread of a poem I hold on to it for aTi in case I need it. I have come to accept this as an irrational fear. This is the first year I am leaving aTi with additional ideas for poems that I will pursue on my own.
The more I write the more I become aware of my style and the circumstances I need to write. I watched a participant write while on a bench surrounded by a crowd on the Atlantic City Boardwalk while waiting for a laser show to begin. I envy the ability to block out all that external stimuli and to be able to focus. Whenever Peter gave us writing time, I always left and went back in my room or if I was around people during studio time in the evening I needed my ear buds in to block things out. I am not sure if writing more frequently would change these needs or if I will always find myself distracted by the other.
Even though I find myself composing in isolation, writing cannot stay that way. It was so valuable to bring my drafts back to the group. Jackie and I discussed sending things to each other throughout the school year, which is great but also daunting, because teaching is life consuming. This year will be a little less frantic than last year, because I am teaching one less prep and will have a more streamlined group of students. I am hoping that this will allow me to incorporate more of the writing that I used to do. I think Peter mentioned that if we are grading or even seeing everything our students are writing then they aren’t writing enough.
One activity that I can definitely bring into the classroom was the last prompt that Peter gave to us. He said we were going on a field trip and he brought us into an adjacent classroom, where we found hundreds of postcards scattered across a table. He instructed us to select three postcards that we were attracted to and one other that repulsed us. I selected a panoramic photo of a sequoia, a black and white photo of Aretha Franklin, a Humpback whale jumping out of the ocean, and a very strange sculpture of a female. Our prompt asked us to compose an elegy for one of the notable deaths of 2014 according to The New York Times. I have participated in this activity once before and it did not go well so my standards were not set high. What surprised me most was that the group responded positively to my draft and someone said it was their favorite out of the work I had shared over the week.
I think I felt right away that writing about one of these “notable” people would disconnect me from the writing and I would have difficulty “getting in.” Ultimately, I picked Harold Ramis, because Ghostbusters is just classic. Almost just as immediately I shed him and focused on the relationship between the speaker and the person they were grieving. That is not to say that bits of Harold Ramis lore did not enter the universe of my writing. My opening line was at a first tongue-in-cheek Easter egg for Ghostbuster fans, but when the tone of poem revealed itself the line became more sincere. Also, Ramis was a Chicago Cubs fan and that snuck its way into my writing.
Where previously I had struggled composing from this structure, this time the postcards seemed to work for me. I think this would be great for students who many times are struggling to find strong images or an entry point to their writing. The writing becomes more play – here are pieces, how can you connect them? It might also create some excitement for students, in the sense that it offers the teacher a gimmick. We can’t take our students on endless fieldtrips, but that doesn’t mean we can’t create circumstances that allow them to “travel.”
I am always surprised by what develops from Peter’s prompts and how everyone’s poems are so different. Sometimes I stick strictly to all of the challenges in the prompts and other times I tend to ignore some and focus on others. I think they are an essential aspect of my writing and I would love to offer some to my students, but I don’t know how good I would be at creating them.
Writing Tips on the Fly
One of the most interesting topics during our workshop arose in an offhanded manner. While we were workshopping someone’s draft, Peter commented that you should always line break on a noun or verb. I had never heard him say that before. Normally, I break where it feels right (which maybe sounds . . . . arbitrary?). I’d say these feelings are rooted in the sound of the language or if there is movement in the words. Typically, that is also my vague attempt at explaining line breaking to my students when they ask. After this brief conversation, I did find myself being more cognizant of where and how I was breaking my lines and using my white space. I found myself pausing to make sure that the word I broke on was the desired part of speech. I am also happy to have a more concrete approach to share with my students. But I would also say there is something to be said for paying attention to where your instincts lead you.
In terms of teaching, I think this little glimpse demonstrates what can come from open conversation. In our classrooms, the pace can be rather frenetic. The amount of content, skills and standards we are required to cover is overwhelming. What are we losing out on by simply talking? What lessons might our students gain if we spent time just in conversation about our reading and writing?
Peter shared some examples of Robert Hayden’s early drafts and published work. One in particular, Monet’s “Waterlilies,” caught our attention. There was such a shift in the poem, which demonstrates the power of revision. The earlier draft lacked the clarity and power of language Hayden developed as he crafted this piece. Most students confuse revision with editing. Being able to show them how something can change from one draft to another might be more effective than simply talking about the difference.
Normally, I exclusively compose poetry longhand and type my prose. For some reason, this year I found it impossible to work on my poems in composition book beyond an initial draft. I start with just scraps of words and phrases, maybe a line here or there. Once I find a more solid direction, I slap some lines down and see where it takes me. After that initial draft, I can start crafting the piece into something cleaner or more focused. It was at this point in the process that I surprisingly found myself needing my MacBook. Although, it was definitely more convenient in terms of moving things around, I missed revising by hand.
It is important for me to write things down. Especially when we go on field trips and have a prompt, I write down lots of random information and just my observations in case I figure out how to use them later. I try to gather as much information as I can from whatever is at my disposal. For example, when we went to the lighthouse I read all the placards on the wall and all of the ones displayed outside. I also tend to do quite a bit of Internet work, especially when I am writing about a topic that I have not experienced myself or when I want more technical information, because it offers me more material to work with.
Anyone who was been in a workshop with me before is most likely used to my conspicuous groaning when it comes to free writing. I am happy to report that it wasn’t insufferable this time. Actually, there are some pieces and ideas that I used or might revisit later.
Peter always uses his rusty faucet analogy and maybe that is why I’ve struggled with the free writing. He wants us to use free writing as a way to flush out the rusty water. But by only writing during aTi, I was having difficulty even turning the knob. I like that aTi offers me the opportunity to focus on writing without life distractions. Then again, perhaps I have compartmentalized my writing, which can also be problematic.
Our second free-write topic on day 1 was to set some writing goals. Some of mine were to keep in mind tips that Peter has previously given us that I have found valuable: to always have a working title, to use subordinating conjunctions, to invite everyone to the party in my first draft, etc. Some people had very specific items on their list, but really aTi is the only time I am writing and I am just grateful to have time to write. I also wanted to not hate everything and to also avoid writing misery. I also said I wanted to push to keep writing even when I think I’m done and to write longer. Last year, I wrote something that I thought was done-ish; I thought I had my “turn” in the poem. During workshop, Peter said “I think the ending is the beginning of the second part.” I was sure my head would explode. I still have no idea where part two of that poem will go. I am not sure I accomplished that last want. Maybe I don’t need to write long poems at all. Perhaps, it’s just not my style. I don’t think there is anything wrong with having a tight, contained trail of images.
I have included focused-free writing as part of my classroom for a few years. I know it has served as some sort of outlet for them to confess their feelings and explore different topics. However, I’m not sure it has contributed to any writing beyond that. I hope this year with a more streamlined schedule that my students will have more opportunities to write and make more use of their free writing.
Once again, Peter was helping some of us at breakfast. I asked him a few questions, which made me feel better going into today’s reading. When our group reconvened, we work-shopped a final time. I felt as good as can be expected for someone who does not enjoy reading their work out loud or being in front of large groups of people. When I had to read, it wasn’t torture. Sue reminded me that everyone feels that way – the nerves of putting your words out there for others to hear. I think I was less insane about it than last year. Progress? Resignation?
My favorite part of showcase day is seeing what everyone else has been doing. I know my roommates had been coming in after 11pm from oil painting!! One art teacher showed me pictures of her print making work in progress which really helped me understand the process.
My least favorite part of showcase day is the flat tire I found waiting for me at the parking lot. But that, my friends, is par for the course.
Last year at aTi was the first time I had written non-academic pieces since middle school. This summer I thought maybe the proverbial well had dried up and I would have nothing to write about. But that didn’t happen. Thanks Peter! Take that self-doubt.
Before I left for aTi, while I was buying travel-size shampoo and the like, I ran into a co-worker in Target. She questioned why I would choose to spend my summer writing when other peers are sleeping until noon. She asked me if I like it. My hesitation could definitely be taken as a negative response, but it’s not that easy. I don’t think I could ever say writing (especially poetry) is this glorious process. Contrary to some people’s belief, gummy bears and rainbows don’t shoot out of my pen. It is frustrating and sometimes seems impossible. But towards the end there is a different feeling. I think relief is the best way to describe how I feel – to have made something and let it breathe. Although if you ask me later, I might offer a contradictory response.
When I get overwhelmed, I become paralyzed and accomplish nothing much at all. Welcome to The Downward Spiral. I just hit a wall today. My classmates weren’t overly critical. My poem wasn’t a complete bomb, but I just didn’t know where to go with it. The fact that the showcase was in less than 24 hours didn’t help matters either. Whenever I tried, nothing was happening. I sat down at a table. I spread my papers over its surface. I looked at them. I took a walk. I made no progress. It is incredibly frustrating. I was, however, able to help like 3 other people with their writing. I knew I had addressed some of the weaker parts of the work, but that created other issues. Conclusion = revision leads to more revision.
Hoping some retail therapy would distract me I headed to Smithville. It was quaint, but I was too far gone. Dinner cheered me up a bit. I regrouped and Peter offered to help a few of us in the lounge.
When Peter re-read my poem he basically said good job following the prompt instructions, now break away from them. Le sigh. Those were not the words I wanted to hear. When I first read the piece out loud in class, Peter had counted and commented that my use of instructions created a bond with my reader. I wanted to hold on to that. If I removed it, I felt like I had nothing. He also suggested that I needed to focus on the heart of the poem and remove the scaffolding to find a speaker. I sat there in the uncomfortable chair, stunned. Peter asked me a simple question. My response evolved into the piece’s title. And that enabled me to see the poem differently. Without this session, I would have been a mess (or maybe just more of a mess). I think it allowed my poem to grow from mildly amusing to something more. I almost used the word powerful, but I’m not sure it is completely accurate.