You may have read my father’s recent post discussing his favorite authors. I can easily relate to the experience of being asked about favorite authors and books, especially in my profession as an English Literature teacher. And yet, although I spend my days in the company of some of the greatest writers of all time, it may come as a bit of a surprise to know that when students ask that question I find myself somewhat at a loss for how to accurately answer them.
My struggle for an immediate and concise answer to the “favorite author” or the “favorite book” question is rooted in the slightly fractured construct of (as I explain it to my students) the battle between what I call Capital “L” Literature (or the literature of the accepted literary Canon) and the common pulp fiction of the lowercase “L” variety that populates the majority of bookstore shelves. Now, before any of you take offense, these classifications are not simply mine but are, and have been, the realm of academics for generations. We can debate these classifications, but we cannot wish them away. So, the problem I am faced with whenever a student poses that query is…do I answer as Ms. Gorham Literature Teacher, or as Wendy Gorham Reader and Writer of books?
Any student that really knows me, knows that my favorite day in class is often the day where things don't actually go the way I planned. Now, please don't misunderstand, I always want things to be organized. However, the real learning seems to happen when we deviate from my carefully constructed process, and move into the more fluid areas of intellectual discourse. Well, there is no greater deviation from 'the plan' for a teacher than to lose your voice...
Picture this…AP Literature class and we are finishing up our study of Pygmalion. My plan for the class is to mediate two very interesting Socratic seminars, but since I have no voice I am unsure how this activity will work. In desperation I beg the ASL teacher to let me borrow one of her third year students to be my voice interpreter, thinking that if I sign to her and she speaks for me, perhaps the class time will not be a total waste…
I think my children are going to stop asking me to take them places with their friends. I am actually surprised it has lasted this long for a variety of reasons:
1. I am not very ‘warm and fuzzy’—you know, that mom who all the kids want to be around (she takes them to their favorite ice cream places and then talks glibly with them about all the cute boys in the latest episode of whatever vacuous teen television program is the flavor of the month)…instead, I am…well…suffice it to say, that isn’t me.
2. Whenever I am selected to drive my children to the movies with their friends, the entire ride home is a discussion on the worldview portrayed in the film and whether or not the movie would pass The Bechdel Test. (Who wouldn’t want to talk about those things…and if we don’t talk about those things we are one step closer to Oceania, aren’t we?…) So, pretty much, see point number one.
3. I am now also their English teacher (at least my oldest child and her many friends are in my class now, and so, really, who wants to go to the movies with their English teacher on the weekends?)
This prompt idea is more of an exercise, but it is really critical to honing your craft, and everything you write can easily be morphed into a story later if that is what you desire.
Go somewhere, apart from your house or job or where you normally are, and sit down (or stand, or crouch, or whatever I guess). Focus on your senses and describe in detail (in writing) everything you experience with all five senses: Touch, Taste, Smell, Sounds, and Sights. Likely you will discover that some senses are easier for you to grab ahold of and put into words. This is because we are used to talking about how something ‘looks’ for example. Other sensory imagery will be much harder to capture. We rarely talk about how something ‘tastes’, unless we are discussing food. Try to give equal weight to each sensory experience, especially the areas in which our descriptive muscles have essentially atrophied. Try for at least 100 words for each sense. If you want to go over this amount for some that is fine, but try not to write less. Really stretch yourself. Not only does this work your powers of Mindfulness of your surroundings, but it also forces you to flex your vocabulary muscles.
In the midst of your action packed summer plans, make some time for this activity. Give your body a break and work your mind. If you want a really great ‘workout’ try creating a story using the imagery you recorded. And, if you try this writing activity, let me know how it worked out for you in the comments below.
This is a fun writing activity that I use as the first writing assignment for my creative writing classes. It never fails to awaken the creative muse, and often some of the most interesting stories are born from the most seemingly benign beginnings (or images in this case).
Choose a photograph—this can be one of your own or one from a media source (although, it has been my experience that using your own picture is often the most gratifying and the most creative challenge as you must pull yourself out of reality and see the photo as creative opportunity). Paste the image into your document and then begin writing…the only catch? You can’t tell the real story! Reframe the events of your own life into a fictional text. Have fun! The other catch…try to keep your writing to 250-300 words. This is a snapshot. Literally, and literarily. Tell the story of the photo. Use imagery, dialogue, characterization…all the elements of story craft, just in a condensed form. And, don’t be surprised if when you are done you reach for another photo…but that is ok, this is one addiction that it is ok to fuel.
Have fun! And, please, if you give this a try let me know in the comments below. I’d love to hear about your experiences.
I am an English teacher. I think I have beaten this point into the ground, yes? Well, as such I have the privilege of teaching literature all day long. And I love that, truly. However, every couple of years I get the opportunity to teach creative writing, and that…that is like candy. I love that class because I love having the ability to encourage and spark the interest of the next generation of writers. We write and we read out loud and we critique each other. It is great. But, I am also a brutal taskmaster. I believe there are certain practices that, when made habitual, can transform ‘people who like to write’ into Writers, and these things are often simpler than you might think. One of the simplest yet most critical habits to develop as a burgeoning writer is keeping a notebook.
A favorite blogger of mine (ethanrenoe.com) has recently posted a few pieces dealing with the idea of ‘zooming out’. In other words, instead of being hyper-focused only on the joy or difficulty in front of us we should try focusing more on the bigger picture. Zoom out. This idea struck me, and in many instances I agree. However, I find myself oddly in need of doing the opposite. In my life, and by extension in my writing, I think I need to practice ‘zooming in’ more.
I am a busy person: mother, teacher, writer, homeowner, and a host of other responsibilities. Most of the time, my big picture is chaos. Organized chaos perhaps, but chaos nonetheless…and I am not one of those people who thrives on chaos. So, I find my only escape is to leave—usually headed to the nearest Starbucks (which brings us back to my much-referenced coffee shop habit). But perhaps there is another remedy: Zoom in. Be mindful. Focus on the very minute things—sights, sounds, smells, even the rhythm of your own breathing.
When we think about imagery, isn’t it so easy to think visual? It is natural. When someone is trying to describe a person to us, what is the first thing we ask to help conjure up a picture…yes, you know the answer…we say “what does she look like?” How often do we say “what does she sound like?” Never, right? But why? The visual is powerful, I grant that, but not as visceral or tied to memory as sound or smell or touch. I experienced something of an object lesson in the importance of respecting the auditory today.
I was sitting in a favorite coffee shop (sidenote: I should probably be embarrassed at how much time I spend in coffee shops, but I confess I am not. I love them. I love the calm and chaos combined. I love the feeling of being free of responsibility—nothing to clean, no laundry to do. I can do whatever task is at hand, without regret. Sadly, most of the time the task is grading papers…but somehow even that arduous work is made better by doing it in a coffee shop), minding my own business, when it happened. I was side-swiped by Harry Connick. Not actually—which would have been amazing—but by a song. I was transported back 25 years to my best friend’s basement bedroom. We were standing on the bed putting plastic glow stars onto the ceiling and listening to Harry Connick. Hearing that song actually changed me, for a brief moment, into the girl I had been. I felt how she felt, just for a minute or two, and it washed over me in a way that visual memory doesn’t. When the song was over I was left slightly saddened. The memory had been so vivid, that when it had passed I missed my friend deeply. And it is funny, because I recently saw a picture of us together, and though it made me think of him, and wonder how he was doing, it wasn’t a gut-punch like the song had been.
Any of you consummate literati out there may recognize that I am borrowing my title from a famous poem by an unlikely but amazing poet, Phillis Wheatley. Her ode to Imagination gives this process incredible weight, saying it is “the leader of the mental train.” In fact, she crowns Imagination as an “imperial queen,” saying that none can imagine her force and power, and that she, bird-like, has the power to wing heavenward “soaring through the air to find the bright abode/Th’ empyreal palace of the thundering God.” That is pretty high praise for Imagination…suggesting it is the most important mental process and that it has the ability to bring us to God’s doorstep. But do we, in this age of instant everything and Siri telling us what we don’t know, give Imagination this power? Or have we become numb to it?
I suppose in some sense this post is in response to, or perhaps more accurately in extension of, my dad’s recent post, entitled “Plastic Flowers,” on the importance of imagination and reading.
Writing a book isn’t easy. You have so many ideas and you have to allow some to flourish and grow and some to die, or at least maybe be postponed until another project. Just satisfying your own artistic expectations can seem like a monumental task. I know writers that pour out their hearts for chapter after chapter, and then tear up the work because some intangible element doesn’t feel right. I get it. I totally get it.
Wendy Picard Gorham
Wendy lives and works in the midst of words everyday--English teacher by profession, and writer by passion!
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