Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Starting: The Six-Word Memoir

by Merry Gordon

You know what's harder than writing?

Teaching someone else how to start doing it.

I'd know.  I've been trying for 15 years.

Now, my English 101 class is a survey course, an introduction to expository writing.  And we write. Oh, do we write.  We write negative process in the style of W.S. Merwin's "Unchopping a Tree."  We write analyses of gendered discourse.  We write tongue-in-cheek classification pieces that rework Dante's Inferno in the DMV.  We write Hamlet's Twitter feed. We take our political and cultural opposites to lunch, listen to their points of view, and strain their words into being, arguing against our own perspectives in the name of understanding.  By the end of the semester I have wrenched from them so much more than the requisite 3000 words earmarked in the course competencies.  By then, they don't even know it; they have stopped counting long ago.

But it's now, right about this time of year when the air crisps and the leaves begin to turn* that they start asking me the one question I still struggle with myself:  Where do I start? 

I can practically see the blinking cursors in their eyes.

I tell my students what writers and mentors told me for years:  write what you know.

So we start there.

When I tell them their first assignment is six words, they are dumbfounded.  Six words?  That's it? They grin, leaning back in their chairs a little.

That's when I throw Ernest Hemingway at them.

Well, maybe.  The attribution's apocryphal, but for the sheer, gut-wrenching punch I wouldn't put it past the old man:  "For sale:  baby shoes, never worn."

Six words.

Their grins turn to confusion, then to slow-dawning horror as the full impact of those six words hits them.  

Lesson one:  words are powerful.

I introduce to them the Six-Word Memoir, as conceptualized by Smith Magazine and based loosely around those few words ascribed to Hemingway.  The project is just what it sounds like: autobiographies in six words by both the famous and the obscure. We read the hilarious (like Colbert's "Well, I thought it was funny.") and we read the poignant ("Couldn't cope so I wrote songs," by Aimee Mann).  Then I invite students to distill their own lives into bite-sized memoirs.

Six words.

Just a little thimbleful of syllables, but we all have to start somewhere.

I write with my students.  I pen six-word memoirs for my job:

English teacher: more spellcheck, less paycheck.

I write them for my family on the good days:

In their laughter, I hear eternities.

I write them for my family on the bad days:

Mommy needs a timeout and nap.

This is when magic starts to happen in the classroom.  In six words, I help students make sense of their world.  Their writing becomes real and important.  It's not the kind of thing that'll ever make those bubble-in standardized tests, but they'll remember it, and that's a start for both of us.

Maybe it's worth it after all.

What's your six-word memoir?

*Not really.  There aren't actual seasons in Phoenix. The tempterature will remain over 100 here until December, when we all break out our Uggs and sweatshirts for approximately six days of actual winter.  But every September I still burn pumpkin-scented candles and pretend it's fall.

Monday, September 22, 2014


"Joey! Sit down please... c'mon, let's get it done fast so you can go out with your friends.."  I beg my son for what seems like the millionth time.  You see, my son struggles with ADHD.  He is a really good kid, but like most that struggle with it, still has a hard time with long difficult events like homework. This is not an uncommon scene for most parents, even those who don't have kids with ADHD.

"Liya, please don't distract him, just concentrate on your own homework!"
I send a silent prayer, begging for help.
Right then an idea hits me.  I bang my hand down on the kitchen table for effect, and watch my kids look up startled.  (Probably expecting me to start yelling at them... ha!)  I put on my most wicked expression and slid over close to my sons face.  In the most sinister 'witchy' voice I said "I have changed your sista into a... llama!

The only way to change her back is to figure out the formulas!!"  (This witch apparently has a bit of an English accent..)
Joey looks at me, his previous dulled look gone, his eyes twinkling with interest.  "Where is the formula?"  he giggles.

         "THIS," I hooked my finger and slid his math page away from him, " is the formula!  My plan is perfect, because I don't think you can figure it out!"  I let out an evil cackle.
"Ha!  Yes I can!  I will save my sister.  I'm smart enough to figure this out!"  His sister is watching from the side, giggling at the fact that she was turned into a llama, fascinated at the scene unrolling in front of her.  He grabs the paper away from me, and starts doing the problems!

I was elated!  "We'll see about that..."  I cackle as I slowly back off.  As I walk away, I turn around and see that not only was my son scribbling furiously away at his homework, but my daughter was too!  Incredible!
When he got to his word study, we dove into another scenario, making it a quest for a spell to unlock a secret room.

What use to be a 2-3 hour battle of the homework, suddenly became an exciting story they got to act out.  My goal, and the purpose of my prayer, was not just to get their homework done, but to help them to see that it doesn't have to be a negative experience!  I want my kids to see that they control how situations affect them.  If we can help our kids to learn this young, they can handle and conquer the trials that they face when they are older...
I was telling my sweet friend Kasey about this experience and she suggested that I blog about it.  I hope that this helps you all open up for other ideas in the big homework battle!  Maybe in the process we can dust off our own imaginations too!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Parable of the Backpack

by Becky Porter

It was a hot summer Saturday, just a week or two after another school year had ended, when the unpacking of the backpacks ensued.  Our youngest had just finished preschool, and his small Elmo backpack held nothing but a plastic folder with a couple of papers.  I made a mental note that he would need a new, larger backpack when the first day of kindergarten rolled around.

In age order, up the line, each child emptied his or her bag of a years' worth of detritus.  Handfuls of paper were placed in the basket by our back door, waiting to go to the recycling bin.  Little bits of trash were tossed out, and the packs were hung again on their hooks near the garage.

And then . . . it was Sam's turn.  As our oldest child, he had just completed seventh grade.  The entire school-year he had complained about the weight of his pack, sometimes literally dragging it in from the van.  Every morning as he heaved it onto his shoulders, I would wince.  So many days I would plead, "Are you sure you need to carry all of that?  Isn't there something you can take out?"

Now, Jeff and I sat beside each other on the couch and watched, in a kind of horrified fascination, as Sam's backpack was emptied: reams of worksheets and old assignments, a broken binder, his lunch bag, pencil lead, and more began to pile up on the large, leather ottoman.

Toward the end of the process, our son pulled out a large rock; it easily weighed a couple of pounds.  

"I forgot all about this!" Sam exclaimed. "I took this to show my science teacher when we started talking about rocks."

"How long has that been in there?" I asked slowly.

His answer: "Since the first month of school."

I am left to wonder how often I carry unnecessary burdens in my life.  What have I placed in my sack and what am I currently lugging around, complaining about, when I have the sweet opportunity daily and weekly to place my burdens at the Savior's feet?  

Today I will make time to answer my Master's call:  "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."  (Matthew 11:28)

Today I will empty my backpack of all that weighs me down.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Enabling Goals for Writers

By Lacey Gunter

It is near the end of September and I have been doing some assessments on my yearly goals. So far I am on schedule with my writing goals. I just need to finish my current picture book manuscript and write one more to complete my goals. I feel like my writing improves with each manuscript and I am happy with what I have accomplished so far. 

However, I have come to the realization that I need to be setting some enabling goals for my writing. Here are some of the enabling goals I have thought of that will help me achieve my long term writing goals:

1. Goals for Reading: a number of books to have read, a proportion for how many should be within certain genres and what proportion should be recently published or high impact

2. Goals for Writing Education: college courses, writing workshops, conferences, webinars and seminars or any other useful learning opportunities

3. Goals for Submissions: the number or timing of submissions to agents and/or editors

4. Goals for Critiquing: the number of critiques each manuscript goes through, how often to engage with a critique partner or participate in a critique group

Do you have enabling goals for your writing and are there any you can add to this list that you have found to be helpful?

Friday, September 19, 2014

Let There Be Light - Again

I didn't publish a post two weeks ago when I should have, because my dad was not doing well, and I was bummed out by world affairs and our daughter leaving for Ireland and book concerns, and I was just a grumpy-pants.  I didn't want to dump all that here.  So, I dumped it on my own blog  HERE.  Check it out if you want to see where my heart was two weeks ago.

If you'd just as soon skip the gloom, read on. I'm in a better place today, and I just want to thank God for the fact that the sun ascends every morning.  Every twenty-four hours, light appears again, and we get to start over.  No matter what occurred yesterday. I'm grateful for cinnamon toast and hot water and physical therapists and Downton Abbey.  Big things and little things, significant things and trivial things. This life can be so difficult and confusing, I just need to enjoy soft serve ice cream dipped in chocolate once in a while. And not feel guilty about it.

I've been watching the mini-series The Roosevelts: An Intimate History (on PBS), and I've been astounded by FDR's bout with polio and his struggle to recover.  It was a brutal, depressing time in his life. He overcame so much, and I get so grumpy about having to clean the bathrooms (didn't I just do this?!) I so easily forget there is suffering everywhere, and most of it is much worse than mine.  I have a small mind and a very short memory.

So, today I'm writing about how glorious God is and how grateful I am for everything I have.  I'm blessed in many ways I often take for granted.  I'm so glad God is patient with me and loves me no matter what.  Because, Miss Grumpy-pants shows up too often around here.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Book Lists!

- a post by Jeanna Mason Stay

So, Merry wrote up her “books that changed your thinking” list last week, and it got me thinking. I started wanting to share mine, but here’s the problem with me and book lists. I can’t just list. I get wordy, I get gushy. There’s just too much to say! Also, I can’t pick easily—there are too many to choose from! Also, I can’t make just one list! Gack. I should never write up book lists. And yet . . . here we all are, and I have indeed written not just one list but several! (And I have used far too many exclamation points in doing so!!) Because frankly, the “books that changed my thinking” are not necessarily the same as my “favorites” or the “books that I’d recommend to almost anyone” and definitely not the same as the “books I’m reading right now.”

Fortunately for you, I realized that posting all of those lists at the same time would be excessive. So you get one list now, and I’ll keep on forcing more on you as my fortnightly posts come around. Lucky you!

Books that changed my thinking: 

The View from Saturday, by E. L. Konigsburg. Thoughtful, quirky story about some geeky but delightful kids on an academic bowl team. It made me want to give to others in meaningful, life-changing ways.

Ender’s Shadow (and the rest of the series), by Orson Scott Card. I related to Bean, and he taught me that being smart wasn’t enough.

A Separate Peace, by John Knowles. I don’t know if this one counts anymore, since I eventually got over feeling crazily inferior to my best friend. Also, I never pushed her out of a tree. (But we did have a very heated debate over the color of her shirt once.)

The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Just go read this one. It will only take you an hour and you’ll be glad you did. Also, you’ll be glad if you have someone in your life who has “tamed” you.

A Grief Observed, by C. S. Lewis. Come on, it’s C. S. Lewis. Of course it’s life changing! Seeing his grief was heart rending and touching, but seeing his faith was affirming and beautiful.

A Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. At over 700 pages, it was maybe the first book in my life that made me say, “Hey! Maybe history is cool!”

Holes, by Louis Sachar. Impossible to explain how a story about a kid digging holes in a detention camp can be life changing. And yet . . .

The Chosen, by Chaim Potok. There are different ways to be a leader and a friend. And the world needs them all.

The Pearl of Great Price. While many of us (including me) tend to say, “Of course the scriptures are top on my list of life-changing books,” I really can’t not include this one. If I could only keep a copy of one of the standard works, this would be it. (Am I going to be struck by lightning for this?) We are children of God, people. This book contains the most powerful testimony of that truth that I have ever experienced. Along with incredible examples of strength, witnesses of our purpose on earth, and just general amazingness.

The Princess Bride, by William Goldman (and let’s just pretend it’s by S. Morgenstern too). Because, like little William, I was so relieved to finally have someone say, “Life isn’t fair.”

Stay tuned for next fortnight, when I regale you with more books and opinions (of which I am never in short supply)!


Related Posts with Thumbnails