a quote from my favorite author

“The most solid advice, though, for a writer is this, I think: Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep, really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive, with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell, and when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.”

-William Saroyan, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Quick Writing Group


Recently, Ruth Ayres blogged about writing just because.  Her words gave me pause.  Writing just because. 

I often make time to read just because.  In fact, having recently discovered the joys of the text to voice feature on my kindle, I have been finding all sorts of time to read just because while I iron, while I cook, while I do my hair in the morning.  I am currently reading 3 different books, which is unheard of from this one-book-at-a-time girl.  But reading fills me up.  Reading inspires me.  Reading doesn’t feel like work.

Could I say the same for writing?  While I am not sure I enjoy being in the midst of writing quite the same way I enjoy being in the midst of writing, I think the emotional outcome is much the same: writing fills me up, writing inspires me. 

So, how can I make time to do more of this writing just because? 

Having read Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them this summer, I immediately thought of the quick writes I do alongside my students.  Although there is so much educational value and purpose behind these quick writes, they also have the feel of just because sort of writing, the feel of play.

I have so many more quick write springboard ideas than I could ever use with my students (especially given the amount of days off, early release days, assembly schedule days, and assessment days lately).  So, I decided to start my very own quick write journal.  One separate from the notebook I keep along with my students.  A sort of project notebook.

I started collecting fodder for these quick writes (just-for-my-entertainment quick writes) in a folder.  Then Ruth posted about having started another writing group.  And it hit me.  Why embark on this quick write project alone? 

I suspected there were other teachers in my building who might enjoy writing just because as well.  I suspected there were other teachers in my building who might be interested in a writing group that didn’t require any work outside of the actual meeting time.   

So, I pitched the idea.  I sent an invite. 

People showed up!  Language arts teachers.  A social studies teacher.  A science teacher.  A special education teacher.

We read a couple of model texts/springboards.  We talked.  We wrote. We shared.

Word spread.  This Friday there will be an even bigger group of writers—writing just because.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012


One group asks to meet in the stairwell.
One group asks to meet in the hallway, just around the corner.
One group asks to meet in the office with the glass wall.
One group asks to meet in the computer lab
where I can still see them through the windows. 
Two groups meet at tables on opposite ends of the long room.

Each group begins with one student reading a story. 
His story. 
Her story. 
Each listener takes a turn sharing a plus.
Each listener takes a turn sharing a delta.
Each writer collects the feedback on post-it notes
to turn into the hard work of revising,
the hard work of seeing their words with new eyes.

One group reports to me that one member doesn’t want to share. 
His story is too sad.
Before I can swoop in to solve their dilemma
they share their own solution.
“We are each going to write our own sad story this weekend.
So he feels better about sharing,” they tell me.
And they do.
There are lots of tears today when they meet again.
They walk away
talking about how cancer sucks.

One group comes in search of tissues. 
One member is crying. 
And it turns out tears are contagious
amongst teenage girls.
I drop by to check in.
“Don’t worry,
these are good tears. 
It just feels so good
to finally share my feelings with someone.”
They walk away
talking about how fathers sometimes let us down.

One group is filled with silly guys
who transform into serious writers
behind a glass wall.
They walk away
talking about what it means to grow up.

One group loses a member
who comes to tell me
she cannot
will not
no matter what
Her eyes say,
“my story is not worth sharing.”
My eyes say,
“this will be the year.
You will share.
You will stop living behind the wall.”
“I like the wall.”
“The others deserve to know you.”
After a lot of head shaking,
she finally shares
with her teacher
and one other group member.
It is a start.
She walks away believing
her story was worth sharing.

Two groups get right down to business.
Writers share.
Others respond as listeners, as writers, as readers, as friends.
They walk away
talking about how high school just won’t be the same
how older brothers can be cool sometimes
how magic hides inside the covers of books waiting to be discovered
how good it feels to push yourself to the limit in sports
how grandmas are to be cherished
how important it is to always kiss your mom goodbye

Six groups of writers
see their words with new eyes.
Six groups of writers
see each other with new eyes.
Six groups of writers
see themselves with new eyes.

Six groups of writers grow.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012



This piece was inspired by Penny Kittle’s “Student dies in a wreck” from Write Beside Them: risk, voice, and clarity in high school writing.  I read it this summer and was so moved I knew I had to try this format to finally capture some of my own memories and feelings about a similar experience.

BEAUFORT COUNTY—On June 3, 1994, about 2a.m. sixteen-year-old Cedrick James Olson was driving home on Old Sheldon Church Road when he apparently fell asleep and his van struck a utility pole.

This is not the guy I knew: floppy blond hair, lanky stature, claiming he would live in those awful Zumba pants if he were allowed.  I had called him that night after he had already left the house.  His mom promised he would call me back.  How could she have known?
            My sister picked me up from school that day.  I could tell something was wrong.  She didn’t want to be the one to tell me. 
            “Josh called.  He left you a message.  You need to listen to the answering machine.  You need to hear it from him,” was what she said.  But the pain in her voice said, “I shouldn’t have listened.  I shouldn’t have heard it first.”
            I knew not to press her.  Somehow the way she was visibly shook, but remaining centered for my benefit wordlessly communicated that it would be best to endure the car ride home without further questions.
            She stood outside the door as I listened.  Josh’s voice was broken.  Ced’s mom was trying to get in touch with me.  She knew he was supposed to call me back.  She wanted me to know why he never would.  In her grief, it was the one thing she had control over making right.  She couldn’t find my phone number.  Ced carried it in his wallet. 

Although he was wearing his seatbelt, he was killed instantly.  A coroner’s inquest revealed he was not under the influence of drugs or alcohol. 

I knew he hadn’t been drinking.  Ced prided himself on being straight-edge.  His brand of getting high on life involved dying his blond hair blue, wearing purple Doc Marten boots, and fastening them with rainbow colored laces.
            In fact, it was this self-assured individuality that caused him to be made fun of when he moved from his aunt and uncle’s house in Eagle River, Wisconsin to move in with his mom in Yemassee, South Carolina—a town not known for its tolerance of old souls trapped in teenage bodies. 
            The students at his new high school didn’t appreciate purple combat boots.  In fact, a group of boys waited for him after school one day to pelt him with stones.  He thought he had left the real world and landed in the middle ages.  I was shocked that these students couldn’t see his light.  Ced was well loved—one of the most popular guys at his old school.  He was welcomed by upper classmen and I felt lucky to ever get his attention.   
            One time he wore a flannel buttoned tightly all day in the South Carolina heat because he was sure this kid was going to make good on threats to beat him up.  “I had worn the t-shirt you gave me and the flannel was tied around my waist,” he told me that night on the phone.  His voice carried his isolation across miles, “I didn’t want to get blood on it.”  My heart swirled with giddy pleasure and sickened angst.  I wanted to rescue him. I wanted to be special to him, but not like this.  I wanted the others to fall under the spell of his sincerity, his creativity, his genuine charm.  I wanted them to see the Ced that I saw. 

Sixteen year-old Cedrick James Olson was a poet, writer, artist and comedian.  His friends and family described him as a free thinker—always daring to be different.

Different doesn’t begin to describe Ced.  When he left Eagle River, I already knew my family would be moving away soon too.  I was confident we would keep in touch.  After all, we had spent each summer writing back and forth while he visited his mom in South Carolina.  My parents were lenient about long distance phone calls and I knew I would be able to call him at least once a month.  Still, I knew it wouldn’t be the same. 
            The day before he left, Ced asked me to meet him in front of the building after school.  I asked my sister to pick me up late that day. 
            When I reached him, he held a shoebox out to me.  I looked at him with question in my eyes.  “It’s just a little something.  A going away gift,” he shyly told me.  Shy was not a usual part of Ced’s emotional vocabulary.  I had a feeling this was something special.
            “But you’re the one going away,” I offered, “I should be giving you a gift.”
“You will be leaving soon enough.  It’s just something I made,” he added, as if that diminished its meaning instead of exponentially increasing its value in my eyes.       
I lifted the lid to find a sort of natural sculpture wrapped gently in tissue paper.  I carefully pulled it out of the box. In my hands was a piece of dried tree bark, with a petrified mushroom forming a little ledge for pebbles and brilliant purple flowers.  I could see when the clear glue had oozed out beneath a pebble before it dried.  How tedious it must have been to work with such tiny stones, such delicate little flowers. 
“I make these sometimes from things I gather when I walk,” Ced explained.  I hadn’t needed an explanation.  His art spoke for itself. 

He wrote a children’s book called Ricky the Lizard—a book asking to please not forget about the animals of the rain forest.  He wrote his mother loving Mother’s Day cards.  He gave excellent back rubs.  He had a beautiful mind.