Writing Community

I have seen myself as a writer ever since I could hold a crayon.  I drew and wrote letters, telling stories to anyone who happened by. Usually, that person was my mother. She was a teacher and always encouraged me. She’d look at my scribbles and pictures and ask me to tell her about them.  And that would be the only invitation I needed.  I’d start rattling off some adventure with animals, the woods, and a tea party with cake. My stories always ended with cake. My father would also encourage me.  He was a poet and a writer and I think he was so proud that I loved the pencil as much as he did.  He’d read stories to me that were way above my understanding, but somehow I would take snippets of images and make them my own.  Today, my father is ninety-four years old, and he continues to send me texts telling me to read this article, or that book, and sometimes he writes me text-sized poems.  So I guess I was very lucky to have grown up with a built-in writing community.

As I grew, I often received praise and awards for my poetry.  It was the one thing I did well.  The one thing of which I could be confident.  I loved to share my writing with classmates and often teachers would showcase my stories or poems.  When I became a teenager all that changed.  I still wrote, but I didn’t share my work with anyone.  I separated myself from my parents as all teenagers must do, but I also felt that I could not share my writing and feeling with my friends. No one else in my circle wrote.  They danced, or skated, or played softball.  I felt that they would not understand.  So I wrote for myself.  It wasn’t until college that I found another community of writers.  These were women like me: English majors, readers, passionate about the world around them, full of ideas and dreams.  In my junior year, I was selected to be part of Adrienne Rich’s year-long poetry seminar.  I was excited and terrified at the same time. This was a whole new level of community.  This community was going to judge me, my writing – Was I actually the writer I thought I was?  Class after class was inspiring, Ms. Rich always pushing us to think and go beyond ourselves.  I received praise at first, and then I was summoned to Ms. Rich’s office one day.  She had been reading my work and judged it to be not serious enough.  It was full of college angst, unrequited love, and misplaced desire.  She knew I could do better, but I would have to read more widely.  I sat there small in her office.  I could not speak.  I just listened and nodded. I wrote down the people she told me to read, I stood up, I walked out the door, head bowed.  I left deflated but determined. I began to read. The one person she told me I must read – Edna St. Vincent Millay – I did not read as my single act of youthful rebellion.  I read and I wrote, but I would not read Millay. I published lots of poems in the college literary magazine, and I started a literary magazine with a group of friends when I was in graduate school, and then in my late twenties the writing began to fade away and teaching took its place. 

As a teacher, I made lots of room for my students to write.  They would fill journal after journal of their ideas and stories.  Some could write easily, filling blank pages with chapter after chapter of childhood adventure and fantasy.  Some sat there, staring at the blank page, terrified.  They were the ones who became my personal mission to support. We would start by drawing pictures first.  Then labeling the pictures.  Then telling about the pictures out loud to a friend.  Then writing something down.  We would slowly build detail, problem and solution, character’s feelings and motivation.  Slowly… slowly… slowly… For the few who had all the ideas but the pencil was their foe, I would listen to them and write down their words.  I asked high school students to become scribes to these students in their free time and watched as those relationships grew and blossomed. I began to see again the power of community.  Having someone to listen was as important to having the desire to write.  If I was encouraging countless students over the years to write, why wasn’t I writing anymore?

My answer was always TIME but I knew that wasn’t a good answer and that TIME would indeed run out.  I was forty-years-old at the time, and I knew I had to become more consistent in my writing.  I began to write children’s books and send them out to publishers.  I got rejected.  I got rejected again and again.  I got good rejections.  It didn’t matter.

I stopped writing. Or rather, I kept writing but I stopped sending out my work.  I didn’t share my work with anyone.  I became guarded.  Then when I turned fifty, I decided to return to poetry.  My husband and I would hike in the woods and he’d take photographs and I would write poetry.  It was a lovely time.  I felt good and confident about my poetry.  It came back like an old friend.  I could always count on it. And then I started reading Millay.  First, I read her biography, Savage Beauty by Nancy Milford, and then I read every one of her poems.  Adrienne Rich had been right.  And I was so wrong.  I laughed at myself.  I wish I could have tea and cake with Adrienne and tell her but she had probably known all along.

For the last fourteen years, I’ve been writing for myself and sometimes for family.  I wrote a collection of poems about my Grandpa Charlie for my mother just two years before she died.  We hugged and cried together as she read them, and I was so happy I took the time to create them.  I wrote poems for my each of my friend’s children when they were born.  I created a picture book for my cousin’s young daughter about my Aunt Jo (her grandmother) who she had never met.  I wanted her to know what a powerful person her grandmother was. I continued to write poems, took up photography too, and was generally satisfied.  Kind of. Not really. I knew I needed connection.  I started this blog a couple of years ago.  I wrote.  No one read it.  Well – yes – one person read it, my friend Molly because I knew she would be positive and encouraging.  But still I wasn’t consistently writing. 

It wasn’t until this past April that I began to write consistently. I had been reading Ruth Ayers’ blogs and books for years.  Last March, I commented on one of her posts.  I wanted to show support.  I wanted her to know there was a stranger that understood.  To my surprise, Ruth responded to my comment and invited me to be part of her online writing community, SOS – Sharing our Stories. That day happened to be my 64th birthday. I wrote Ruth back and told her how much her words and invitation meant to me, and I began to write.  To write consistently.  To think of myself as a writer again.

And I began to step out and share my writing.  Each week, when I publish a post, I send it to a small group of friends and family. The women who post on SOS have also become my readers and I am so thankful for them.  I love reading their posts and am inspired by them.  We are a group of strong women who love to write.  We write about family triumphs and tragedies, we write about gardens and the discovery of grass spiders, we write about the joy of playing at seaside with a beloved nephew, we write about teaching, we share favorite recipes, and we write about our dogs and our favorite shoes.  We write and that is what’s important.  We write, and I am so grateful.

A Writer’s Dilemma

What is a simile

For the rainbow that forms

Beneath the waterfall

At the light of day?

What is a metaphor 

For the red bird

That hops hopefully

Among the bare brambles?

How to personify 

The indomitable, presence

In the morning sky

Announcing the day?

How to alliterate

The spider’s web glistening

High between forked branches

Overlooked and undiscovered?

The writer is left with ancient, brittle words

Which fall to her feet

And break and crack

Into sharp, uneven pieces.

Bending, she tries to salvage

One rough fragment,

One simple thought 

To set free upon the page.

The next poem was written as a response to e.e. cummings’ poem, Song I.

I love his work. He helps children think about and gives them permission

to play with words.  And as I’ve said before, it is always a good idea

to end with cake:

I have joined an open community of writers over at Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog. If you write (or want to write) just for the magic of it, consider this your invitation to join us. #sosmagic

Write What You Notice

I recently attended a teacher’s workshop presented by Penny Kittle at Rutgers University sponsored by Rutgers Center for Literacy Development.  I’ve seen Penny many times. Usually, she talks to teachers about creating reading and writing workshop spaces in high school classes.  Penny was a high school English teacher in New Hampshire and her mentor was the late, great Donald Graves.  I was looking forward to Penny’s presentation because she is always inspiring and gives my teaching doldrums a spark.   This time, I was especially looking forward to hearing her because she would be talking about one of my favorite subjects – Poetry.   However, in the back of my mind, I thought there was very little new that I’d learn ,since I was a student of Adrienne Rich, have published some poetry, and have taught poetry to children for the last 40 years.  What could Penny teach me that I could bring back to the faculty at my school?  Probably not much, but I’d have a great day listening to and writing poetry.  That is a noble undertaking in cold and dreary January.

And of course, Penny had much to share.  She talked about exposing students to a lot of poetry, reading it aloud and re-reading it.  Then lifting a favorite line and using that line to spark one’s own poetry.  I’ve done this many times before both as a student and as a teacher, but practicing it again with unfamiliar poems made it all brand-new again to me.  One of Penny’s creative admonitions also rang true:  Don’t write what you know – Write what you noticeAs a little child, I was always noticing everything in my environment.  In fact, I was such a slow reader, because I was absorbing and dissecting the author’s craft.  I didn’t want anything to escape my notice.  I was also a notorious eavesdropper, using everything little tidbit in different poems, stories, and drawings. Helping students develop a keen eye for noticing is a essential in having them grow to be more curious and deliberate writers.

Then came a space in Penny’s presentation in which she showed a video clip of a poem by Patrick Roche, “21 Cups.”  I could not keep up with the rest of the workshop activities after that.  I became entranced by Patrick’s poem both the way in which he constructed it – counting back from 21 years to one year old – and the compelling way he described the dysfunctional relationship he had with his father.  Patrick’s poem completely held my attention; completely made me sit up and take notice.  Now, this is the true power of a poem. I immediately had to share it with someone.  Who could I share this poem with?  I knew almost immediately – Mike Rosen!  Mike is a former student of mine, and now he is an amazing, accomplished spoken word poet.  I would share Patrick’s poem with Mike; he would understand.  And of course, the world being what it is – small and round – Mike knew Patrick’s poem and had organized a poetry slam in which Patrick was one of the participants.  Small world, indeed.  And that is the other power of poetry – it connects.

I strive to write poems that will make people sit up and notice and connect.  I want to help students writers to notice, connect, and share.  One of the 3rd grade classes in the the school where I am the ELA Curriculum Coordinator, introduces children to philosophical ideas through literature.  This past week, the 3rd grade teacher shared with me her students’ reaction to the question: “Is art and poetry necessary for a community?” after reading Leo Lionni’s book, Frederick This teacher was a bit dismayed that her young students all agreed that poetry and art were indeed NOT necessary.  She wanted to jump into the discussion and tell them that they were wrong, but that is not allowed in philosophical discussions.  My reaction to her was that she needed to provide her students with more art, music, and poetry and have them wonder what life would be without the arts.  This is what happens when we separate the arts from academic instruction, but that is a topic at another time!

Penny ended her presentation by sharing the work she has been doing as a board member of the non-profit group, Poetic Justice, which helps incarcerated women in Oklahoma express their feelings and ideas through poetry and writing classes.  Here, Penny illustrates the immense need for community to forgive and heal through poetry.  Here, she shows  pathways between the outside and inside world.  Here, there is a place for inmates to  explore the depths of right and wrong and redemption.  And it is here where readers sit up, take notice and are transformed.