My daughter is three months old today. In honor of that, here's a slam poem I wrote back when she was still in utero, and when we called her (gender unknown) Nibbler. It is not as polished as I would like, but one of the things I'm working on this year is sharing my work as it is rather than waiting (until that sunny, uncluttered, un-busy day that will never come) for it to be "finished."
A Letter to Nibbler
One—you are already the center of my universe,
Which, for what it’s worth, is really a pretty big place
‘Cause you see, I’ve been around for a long time now
before you got here. And that has given me a chance to see
both literally and figuratively, what the world is like.
That’s the benefit of waiting, you see,
I’ve had a chance to be me.
I’ve grown comfortable in my own skin,
I’ve settled all the way in. I’ve found a way to make room
In my world for you.
Two—you are so very loved. Little did I know
How far the love would go. So quickly and so fierce.
Like moths attracted to flames, people gravitate toward new life.
They are all waiting for you to arrive.
Hearts of stone you already seem to pierce—people who
Hardly care about me suddenly and deeply love you.
How could you know how much the world awaits your arrival?
Three—Even once you’re here, I’ll still be me. In a way it will take you
Most of your childhood to see, I’ll still be a whole person. Unique.
Free. Separate from you, existing long before you got here,
Growing on my own long after you arrive. One day you’ll see
That your mom is still free to be a person entirely my own.
One that will be around, free standing, long after you’ve grown.
Four—You’ve made me sicker than I knew was possible.
I mean that literally. I didn’t know I could endure so much illness.
Like having the flu. Combined with a stomach bug that sends you
Running to the toilet, your new best friend. Where you crouch, too exhausted
For months. And months.
Five—Life is hard. And the truth is, as hard as it is when all you can
Do is poop and cry, it will get harder. You’ll still want to cry and scream,
But you won’t be able to do a thing but tough it out. There will
Be days when you’ll want to give up. There will be times when you will
Feel that you cannot go on. And yet, those times will not outweigh the
Adventures that await you.
And we’ll be there to see you through.
Six—we overdid it on your nursery. I didn’t even know that I had
That kind of thing inside of me. I am NOT a decorator.
I do not do pink. I am not interested in home décor.
And yet here we are
Decked out with bunny decals and these tiny little stars
Covered in paintings of the sun and the moon
That we carried around, almost buried, moved from place to place
With no thought of resurrecting them
Until there came you.
Seven—I’ve spent my life learning to be strong and to be brave.
But all of the strength and all of the bravery might not be enough
For the daring challenge in front of me that every day with you
Eight—My life has had some hard parts, but I hope yours won’t.
Still, I worry that if yours isn’t hard, you won’t become brave and strong.
I worry that you’ll whine and whimper and cower all night long.
The world is a rough place and I want you to be ready to face
Whatever comes your way.
Nine—I wonder if the kicking you’re doing now is a small indicator
Of all the trouble you’re bound to cause me once you get here.
Each time I push against you and you push back
I consider all of the stubbornness and rebelliousness
That made your father and I love each other in the first place.
If you embody all that, we better brace ourselves--
We’ll be bound to have our hands full with a freight train
Pushing its way through every obstacle.
Ten—Despite all the worry and all the fear,
I can’t wait to meet you.
The excitement makes it feel like every day
Is the night before Christmas
And I’m suddenly five again,
Waiting and wondering
For the world—you--
For our love story to be told.
Until then, I'll write love letters
and wait for new life to begin.
The image to the left comes from B. Gardening, a landscaping company in Colorado that has a hilarious post on protection of your garden and the eradication of zombie garden gnomes. (I promise, it relates. Read on.)
This is a fun assignment we did in Creative Writing last month. The students wrote apocalyptic stories, and we decided on specific criteria that they would focus on in their stories. After much discussion, we settled on the specifics of:
Once we had decided on the criteria, I created a rubric that only focused on these four areas. The students got to choose their point of view, their main characters, and their plot events. However, they did not have control over the actual apocalyptic scenario. Instead, each student created an apocalyptic event and submitted those descriptions to me. The next day, everyone had to draw an apocalyptic event from the pile, and they were required to create a story around that event.
Here are some of the scenarios that the students submitted:
I've been neglecting this part of my website recently, which reflects the general lack of significant progress in the creative writing part of my life. I'm still writing, of course, particularly during creative writing class and on the weekends during blog post times, but I'm not devoting nearly as much time to other writing endeavors as I should. It's so easy to let life get in the way of writing.
That will change soon. November is rapidly approaching, and with it comes NaNoWriMo. Although my current novel still needs massive amounts of revision, I'm going to use November as a time to take a break from my current project and create something new.
But enough about my writing woes! I'm focusing today on a writing activity we've been using in Creative Writing class recently: Word Sprints. I've actually gotten inspiration for this activity from a twitter event that occurs most days. Several writers who I follow participate in #wordsprints, which are short bursts of writing during a specified time period (usually between 15 and 30 minutes). As the "sprint" suggests, the focus of these writing periods is on writing as many words as possible during that time.
In class, we pair word sprints with writing prompts. The students create and submit prompts, and then I select prompts at random. For our word sprint activities, I typically choose 2 unrelated prompts. We'll write for either 10 or 15 minutes per prompt.
At the end of the allotted time, we examine our word count and reflect on our writing. The students write self-evaluations, where they give themselves scores from 1 to 10 in four specific categories. At the beginning of the quarter, we brainstormed the wide range of writing criteria that we could use to evaluate our writing time in class. These are the four categories the students ultimately chose:
(1) Style: The students decided that they wanted to focus on improving their own unique style as
writers. We often have a specific aspect of style on which we focus each time.
(2) Imagery: The students decided they wanted to focus on imagery throughout all of their pieces this
year, so they always reflect on how well they incorporated imagery and detail into their pieces.
(3) Effort: This category encompasses the way that the students used their time and the amount of
energy they put into the task.
(4) Creative Flexibility: The students decided that they wanted to always reflect on their creativity, but
that they also wanted to push themselves to try new things and to adapt to new challenges. The
result was this category.
Students give themselves scores from 1 to 10 in each of the categories. They come up with an average score that I record in the grade book. They also write reflections, commenting on what they did well and what they had trouble doing.
I like the word sprints because they wake up the brain and get ideas flowing quickly. I also like the sense of urgency that they create. I find myself interacting with prompts that seem impossible to penetrate, and the need to produce words quickly helps me make progress with them. I love the sound of people typing and writing frantically as they scramble to get their ideas down. It's a fun part of class, and it's also a great way to push past the feelings of staleness and inaccessibility.
Here's one of my latest word sprints, written from a prompt I found especially challenging. I feel the need to make all sorts of excuses, (like pointing out that I only had 15 minutes and that I haven't reworked it at all), but instead I'll just paste it in here:
PROMPT: Whales have mutated to fly in the sky. They also shoot lasers. It’s the whale-opacalypse. What do you do?
It started out like any other morning. My hologram alarm clock started projecting onto the far wall across from me and a hologram image of Eddie Vedder swooped down over me, singing me a good morning song. The blinds sprung open as the alarm sounded, signaling that it was time to get started with my day.
I forced myself to open my eyes and brace the reality. I had to get out of bed. I had to get to work.
Sadness crept in and I pondered what would happen if I didn’t show up today. The thought that nothing would happen did not exactly brighten my day, but it was enough to force me out of bed.
I realized a bit too late that the alarm was all wrong—the song Eddie was singing was far too late on the list of morning songs. I was going to be late.
I jumped down the stairs, two at a time, more terrified of the thought of the robot escort to the boss than I was of the actual conversation with the boss.
My coffee maker responded to my frantic voice, brewing me a giant latte that would help me cope with my day.
I was in such a hurry that I almost missed the sirens blaring, but when I stepped outside to jump into my hovercraft, I heard them distinctly piercing the air.
It was a disorienting experience, and at first I thought that it must have been just a test of the latest procedures for protection against bioterrorism or the other forms of weaponry constantly threatening our existence.
Just as I began going through the breathing exercises my yogi instructor had taught me to use when handling anxiety-inducing experiences, I noticed the shift from bright sunshine to sudden darkness.
The feeling of an ominous event washed over me as I craned my neck to look at the sky.
Something large and looming had crept over the sun, blocking out all light.
What could it be?
Around me, sirens blared and people screamed. I began to notice the traffic jam of hovercars as people stopped abruptly, frantically staring at the looming objects covering the sky.
It was then that I heard, amid all of the other distressing signals, the sound of a melodic, song-like wail.
I studied the sky again and realized that the objects, which I had initially believed to be blimps or warships of some kind, were in fact whales. The giant whales were covering the sky, and beams of light seemed to be coming from them.
I looked at my neighbor who was screaming as she stood on her porch. I started to walk toward her, thinking that we should at least take cover together. Just as I took my third step, a bright light flashed.
She was gone. Absolutely gone. The whale was shooting lasers and disintegrated her.
I looked up at the giant whale, remembering all too clearly how I had always admired those graceful creatures, and watched as more lasers shot out in all directions. One struck the ground close to me and I shuddered, suddenly remembering that I had to seek shelter.
The end was near.
505 words. I'd give myself an 8.5. I put forth considerable effort, and I definitely scored high in the creative flexibility area, since I never write futuristic stuff. However, my imagery could have been much better, and I was not pleased with my style. (However, my husband who is proofreading this gives it a 10 because it's exactly the sort of stuff he loves to read... Whales with lasers? How can that not be awesome??? ~Signed, The Husband)
The whole point is that word sprints are great ways to get your ideas flowing, and they are a quick, easy way to embark on new adventures.
(Truth: I had my husband, who always reads my blogs before I post them, read this, and he loved my little word sprint story. You have no idea how happy this makes me. I mean it when I say I truly thought it was terrible. Anyway, he also told me that I had to resolve this somehow--that it had no conclusion... So here goes. Here's a conclusion.)
You never know where the word sprints will go, or what will happen with the stories that you create. I don't have an ending for this one yet, but I'll be a lot more likely to come back to it and visit it again now that I've posted it somewhere. Check out my students' blogs, where they post lots of their word sprints and other writing, at their class website, derpinc.weebly.com.
As one of their first Creative Writing assignments for the students this year, they are writing personal essays about their beliefs inspired by the series found on NPR, "This I Believe," and run by a nonprofit of the same name. If you'd like to submit an essay, here are the guidelines and submissions are taken on the site as well.
Since I believe in modeling for my students what I expect from them, I have written my own essay:
I believe in superheroes. Perhaps I should qualify that statement: I do not believe that they wear capes or masks or that they fly or save the world from apocalyptic scenarios (well, the last one could be debatable, depending upon what one defines as “apocalyptic”). However, I do believe that they walk among us, largely undetected, and that they know just what to do at just the right time.
I have come to believe in them through personal experience. In order to prove my point, I’m going to let you in on a secret. You see, my dad is, in fact, a superhero. While it has taken me a long time to discover this truth, I have no doubt that he has been one his whole life. I guess some people are just born that way.
When I was little, my dad could perform magic tricks. No, I don’t mean the kind where he pulled a quarter out from behind my ear or something (unimpressive) like that. He could take a mimosa flower bud and turn it into a Hawaiian dancer with a hula skirt. He could take my broken toys (which I always believed in using, not just admiring, even when they were fragile) and transform them from a million pieces into a complete, seamless whole. He could produce spare parts out of thin air and use them to save my favorite toys.
But his superhero qualities began long before I came into the picture. As a non-traditional student who eventually became a high school dropout, my dad beat extraordinary odds by finding a way through the army and into college. He and my uncle became the first people in their family to earn college degrees. While I could not even find a percentage for the number of people who drop out of high school and then get college diplomas, I did find all kinds of staggering statistics on the problems that befall high school dropouts. (For more information about high school dropouts and the phenomenally difficult pathway they face, an important topic for a later blog post, see this NY Times article, this PBS Frontline article, or these statistics.) My dad, the superhero, beat those extraordinary odds and went on to find success in college and in his career.
Nor did my father’s superhero qualities end when I grew up and moved out on my own. When my mom became sick and ultimately lost her fight with cancer, my father’s superhero strength and bravery stretched far enough to cover my whole family. And then he used his superhero adaptation ability to become both my mom and my dad. While he certainly did not replace my mother, he found a way to play both roles for me. His superhero adaptation transported him from his home in Georgia to visit my husband and me in far off places like Costa Rica and Japan. No task has ever been too difficult, no journey too far, no disappointment to great to stop my superhero dad.
I believe in superheroes, and I could not be luckier or prouder to have a dad that is one.
As he celebrates his 70th birthday, his powers continue to grow. Happy birthday, Dad!
Pulling at the memory of a dream is like yanking on the thread of a sweater. On rare occasion, you find the right piece to gently pull and it fixes the problem in the sweater, moving it toward a more perfect piece. However, most of the time when you pull, you simply watch the sweater unravel before your eyes until there is nothing left but the feeling of absence in the air and a long ball of yarn on the floor. That's what it's like with dreams sometimes. There is nothing left but the haunted ghost of an experience that was so real that it must have happened, even if it was to someone else somewhere else, and yet the memory is murky and faint. If only you could get to that place and tell that story, your life might feel more complete. And yet it always eludes you, moving just beyond the extent of your grasp.
And so it was with my dream this morning. It was a good one--a good story, anyway. It was not such a good dream to experience. In fact, I awoke with a pounding headache, feeling hot and frantic with gritted teeth. However, from what I do remember about it, it was full of time travel and mystery and a young girl who had to be saved in order to protect the world from an inevitable apocalyptic collapse far in the future, and so it violated several of the rules I've created since I wrote my first manuscript during NaNoWriMo last year: (1) No world building components--everything must be tangible and present right here in this world (2) No crazy savior attempts. (3) No parallel universes or other complicated crap that would be difficult to negotiate. (4) No overdone cliche tropes.
Now that I'm looking at that list, I'm considering the possibility that I might never again write another major fiction piece.
And so the truth, if I'm really being honest with myself, is that I am still taking time off from my manuscript. Oh, yes, I have tinkered with it here and there, and I've opened at least 30 different word documents in an attempt to rediscover the sweatery substance of that story, but it seems that once I started pulling on the threads, the whole thing began to unravel and I haven't been able to figure out how to heal the whole piece. I've been doing a lot of reading, which I do not consider a fruitless pursuit, but each time I've sat down to actually write--to really do something with my manuscript--I've found myself in a frantic need of doing laundry or cleaning or some other task that was suddenly so urgent that it could not wait the couple of hours (or days, as the case may be) that an initial revision process would take.
The story feels like the sand dollar in the photo above (though not nearly as lovely)--it's pure and (potentially) beautiful, but with the sand and the salt and the water, it's a bit hard to see it clearly. And even worse, as you try to take capture its essence in an image, what really happens is your own damn shadow keeps getting in the way.
Despite the current stalemate between the story and me, a friend shared an awesome post by Courtney Summers about what to do during the writing process. I found her revision tips to be extremely useful, and I particularly liked her idea about reverse outlining. Of course, my primary problem is that I don't in fact know what the point of my story is. As I discussed before, the story I thought I was writing (back in the days when I was pantsing it and loving every moment of the glorious word count frenzy) was quite different from the one that is now on the page. It's as if the story is still unveiling itself, but unfortunately as time passes, I feel farther and farther away from its secrets.
My current plan? To participate in the James River Writers Conference, and to have a draft and pitch ready by then. I have no idea how I will get there, but I figure it's better to have an action plan, especially with the start of a new school year and the promise of a busy semester.
How do you handle revisions? What do you do when you've lost your way? At what point do you seek out an editor? Are there any writing books that have helped you? I'd love any suggestions and feedback that you have.
"that love is just a shout into the void, and that oblivion is inevitable, and that we're all doomed and that there will come a day when all our labor has returned to dust, and I know the sun will swallow the only earth we'll ever have..."
© K. Ashley Dickson and Teaching the Apocalypse 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to K. Ashley Dickson and Teaching the Apocalypse with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All thoughts and ideas are the author's and do not represent any employer.