Places

colo iowa photo
Photo by cwwycoff1

I lived in Winder, Georgia in 1996-1997 when I was finishing up my undergraduate degree. I was married, and my daughter was a toddler. There was a house on Center Street in Winder that was blue with red trim, and it had a porch I fell in love with. I was one of those large Victorians with great big shady wraparound porches. I have a goal of living in a house like that, some day. I think if I could find a place like that, with a nice swing, I could really be at home.

Moving around was hard. It was not easy being the new kid, especially since I was what we called shy. Now it’s considered more or less normal, and we call it introverted. I have lived in a lot of places, but it’s hard to call most of them “home.” That’s not to say that I have not liked and even loved some of the places I’ve lived. They just didn’t stir some deep place inside of me that felt like home.

One place that did feel like home was Athens, Georgia. When I went away to college—and I should write a post this month about how I chose my college—at the University of Georgia, I lived on campus. I felt so at home in Athens. There was a spot on North Campus with a small fountain. It didn’t get a lot of foot traffic. I used to love to walk over there and sit on a wrought iron bench and read or study. One of my fondest memories is hearing the trains at night. I have always loved living where I can hear the trains at night. I also used to love to wander as far as I could go up Prince Avenue. It’s hard to explain the pull that Athens had on me, particularly some places in Athens. It is a college town, and a pretty typical one. The first night we drove around downtown when my parents were dropping me off to school, it was like I fell in love. Some time later, I discovered that my family used to live near Athens. As much as it was not the same Athens that existed when they might have ridden into town to do one thing or another, it was there, and some parts of it would have been familiar to them—the parts I loved best, anyway.

Another place I fell in love with at first sight was Gambier, Ohio, where Kenyon College is. I have said that it’s a shame I didn’t know about that place when I was trying to figure out where to go to school. I would have loved it there. Alas, I’m not sure that I could have afforded it, even if I had managed to get in. Still, the place felt familiar and right. One night as I was walking back to the dorms where I was staying during my workshop, I could hear frogs, and there were fireflies flitting through the trees. I remember thinking, “Oh stop it; no place is this idyllic.” Before I even arrived on campus, I remember as our driver was taking me from the airport in Columbus up to Gambier, we passed through Licking County, which is where my father’s family lived for a while in the nineteenth century before moving to Story County, Iowa. Why did this landscape, just one county over from where my ancestors lived, speak to me?

So then I started wondering, given how much I fell in love with Gambier, do we carry our family’s rootedness and love for a place somewhere? A recent study has shown that we do inherit trauma through our DNA. If that is possible, is it also possible for positive environmental experiences to impact our DNA in the same way? Logically, I admit it doesn’t really make a lot of scientific sense. It’s hard to say what it is that produces the feeling of falling in love with a place. I have been other places where my family lived for some time and not felt a thing one way or the other.

On the other hand, what both of these places have in common is that they are college towns, and both are fairly dependent on the college for their existence. I suspect that I would be equally drawn to many other college towns, recognizing in those places a mix of old and new, interesting architecture, and a focus on academia. Perhaps, after all, that is what I’m really in love with: college. I have said many times to students that when they go to college, yes, they should study, but they should have fun, too. My one regret about college is that I wish I had just done more and had more fun. I can’t get that time back.

Still, I wonder what it is about these two special places, Athens and Gambier, so far apart from each other, but each places near where my family once lived—places they, too, may have visited. What, exactly, is it that makes a place feel like home?

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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Slice of Life #21: Plotting

writing notebook photo
Photo by Unsplash

I have been using one of the writing ideas I learned at Kenyon last summer with my juniors. Watching my students write last week prompted me to tweet this comment:

For some reason, the exercise generated a different feeling in the room, and it was a happy moment for me, sitting and looking around the room at the pens moving over writing notebooks. I don’t think my Kenyon instructors would mind if I shared the exercise, especially in the name of spreading the good writing vibes.

First, I asked students to write down a list of places they lived for a substantial period of time, and they could define that, but they should think of places they spent more than a night. Next, I asked them to circle up to three places and draw maps of each place. They should draw where the trees were, where the streets were, where the rooms and important items were, etc. I gave them plenty of time for this because there are often many stories in a single room, a tree… even a single item. I remember when I did this exercise at Kenyon last summer, the place where I found the most inspiration was my grandmother’s sewing room. Every detail in that room is etched in my memory. I can see where everything is, and if there is a single room in any house I’ve ever lived, anywhere, it would be the one room I’d want to preserve, always. When I was at NCTE in November, I did a writing exercise in one of my sessions in which I returned to the room again, and when I shared my writing with a partner nearby, she asked me, “At what point did you realize this was a room that didn’t exist in most houses?” It was a great question, and I don’t know when it was that I really understood how unique that room was, but I’ve been returning to that room over and over again in my writing ever since July.

After students drew the maps, I had them pick one map, one place, and make a list of things they could writing about that were connected to that place: people, events, things. Then I asked students to pick one thing and freewrite. I wrote along with them. Near the end of class, each of us shared one detail or sentence we had written that we really liked.

When we returned to class, we read a chapter from Haven Kimmel’s memoir She Got Up Off the Couch: And Other Heroic Acts from Mooreland, Indiana entitled “Brother.” It’s a beautiful and evocative description of Kimmel’s relationship with a much older brother who left and distanced himself from the family. It is partly a story of the place in which the family lived, but the relationship is at the very center of the piece, and there are some beautiful moments in the description—the time her brother swooped out of the darkness in a Dracula cape on Halloween and scared Kimmel, a description of her brother singing in his room at night. She prefaces her memories of her brother with the sentence “These are things I remember, and they are mine.” I absolutely love the ownership in that declaration. Later, Kimmel shares her mother and sister’s memories of her brother, prefacing these recollections with the sentence, “Here are memories I stole.” And again, I love the idea of hearing stories so many times that you own those memories, too, but also that somehow, because they are not your own memories, they are stolen from others.

We discussed this essay, picking out details we particularly liked and noticing what the author does. The students noticed, for instance, that Kimmel describes some images in detail, but not all, so it’s like zooming in and zooming out with a camera. In fact, Kimmel describes photographs of her brother and what the “eye of the camera” sees that all her family members missed. It truly is a great mentor text for students to use.

After we had discussed this piece of writing, I asked students to make two columns in their notebooks. Then I asked them to head the first column with the sentence “These are things I remember, and they are mine” and to head the other column with the sentence “Here are memories I stole.” After that, I asked students to use their freewrite as inspiration and make a list of things they remember about the person/event/place they wrote about and then make a list of things they don’t remember—others’ memories, things that happened before they were born or went there, or historical events.

They turned these lists into a second freewrite on the topic. Today, students began drafting an essay based on their freewriting. All of this took three class periods. Time well spent. Everyone seemed like they were really in the flow of writing. No one seemed to lack inspiration. The Kimmel text proved to be great source for ideas. Students are currently writing a solid first draft they would be ready to share with peers in writing workshop on Thursday (when class meets again).

I mentioned that I had used this lesson, and Emily Moore, my instructor at Kenyon, commented, “I started the term with that activity and adored it. There’s a part of me that feels like we could do it every day for the entire term and it would never stop being magic.” I couldn’t say it better. Think of all the stories this simple exercise might generate. I love the inductive nature of the idea generation. One of my students commented that the frustrating thing, sometimes, about writing narratives was that though he agreed we all have stories, figuring out which ones would be good to tell, to write, can be really hard. This writing exercise leads students to selecting that story and also gives them a place to return to for inspiration. Marsha McGregor, the instructor who shared this exercise with us, reminded us that plot is a piece of ground, a place, and it’s also a story.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a weekly writing challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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The Transformative Kenyon Writer’s Workshop for Teachers

Doc Emily's Groovy Writers
Photo courtesy Andy Sidle

I spent June 27 to July 2 in Gambier, Ohio at Kenyon College as a participant in the Kenyon Writer’s Workshop for Teachers. Given how much writing I did while I was there, I had a difficult time figuring out how to begin talking about it here on my blog. I thought about it for a few days. I’m still not sure I’ll be able to put the experience into words, which is ironic given how I did rediscover a writing voice I thought I had lost.

I think one of the reasons I was nervous about going to Kenyon was that I didn’t necessarily consider myself a writer anymore. I don’t really want to characterize what I did as “giving up,” but I guess it was. I no longer did any of the things I told my students to do—to just dump out ideas, to write first and revise later, to write for themselves. I had this internal editor going all the time. Most of all, I just didn’t write. Not really. I mean, I wrote the occasional blog post. But I couldn’t have told you the last time I wrote a poem. I used to write poetry all the time. I always had a notebook for my poems, pretty much all through high school and college. I can’t even tell you when I stopped. I think one day I just thought maybe I wasn’t very good at writing poetry. I have written fiction off and on for a while, but it had even been a while since I had written fiction.

What this writing workshop did is crack me wide open. Now I have all these ideas and all this material to work with, and I feel like I found my voice again. I am a writer again. There was a time when writing was something I thought I would always do. I even started an application to study creative writing Emerson College in Boston (I abandoned it once I realized I would not be able to attend college out of state, and at that time, I lived in Georgia). My high school English teacher, Shelia Keener, encouraged me to write and has been telling me for years that I missed my calling. I do believe that I should be an English teacher, but Shelia is right that I should have kept up the writing.

I feel like I found my tribe at Kenyon. We had excellent instructors, for one thing. Real teachers who work with students in the classroom. My instructor, Emily Moore, is a gifted writing instructor. I am stealing simply everything she did with us. The participants were also writing teachers. I was struck not only by their dedication to the craft of writing but also to their dedication to their students. Many of them are practicing writers, and I admit to feeling a bit intimidated by them. They are really good writers. I was thrilled when one of our tribe, Joe Carriere, not only took on the task of creating a literary magazine out of our work, but also created a Facebook group for us. All of us wrote something to share at a reading, even our instructors. Each time we did a writing prompt, they wrote with us. In fact, Emily has a great technique of freewriting on the board with her students, making the messiness of freewriting public. It is freeing to see writers in process. I knew, as a writing teacher, that writing didn’t come fully formed and perfect from anyone’s pen, but for some reason, this inner critic inside me expected my writing to be different from every other writer. If I had to pick one moment when I realized what I had been doing, it might have been when we read the Robert Frost poem “Design.” Emily shared two versions: a rough draft and a final draft. It was like something clicked into place. Even Robert Frost wrote shitty drafts. Even Robert Frost!

Seeing that poem in draft form really helped me see that I am not a bad writer. I probably need to spend more time revising. Just like my students. And a writer’s workshop is extremely valuable. Given how much workshop I have done with my students the last two years, you’d think I’d have figured that out. Somehow I always separated what I did as a writer from what I did as a teacher.

The five days and change that I spent at Kenyon were transformative. I actually see myself as a writer again. I feel like I have been given a gift. The people I met were amazing. I think I have made new lifelong friends. I really do. The campus is gorgeous. The stained glass windows in the dining hall depict scenes from books! It truly is English teacher (or English major) heaven. In addition to giving me back my writing life and helping me make excellent friends, I also met two writers and had an opportunity to talk shop and now have a year’s subscription to The Kenyon Review. I actually read poetry on the plane back home. When was the last time I read so much poetry? I discovered Andrew Grace in the May/June 2015 issue and liked his poem so much I ordered a copy of his collection Shadeland. I really, really can’t remember the last time I read contemporary poetry.

At the workshop, I ran into Sam Bradford, a friend and former colleague from the Weber School, where I worked in Georgia.

Dana and SamSam has been writing fiction for years and will be the department chair at Weber next year, so we will have a lot to talk about, and I am so grateful we are back in touch. Neither of us knew the other would be there. I was so excited to see him, but even more excited to see him connect with Charley Mull, a colleague from Worcester Academy and one of my favorite people. I made them both take a picture with me on the last day.

Charley, Dana, and Sam
Charley, Dana, and Sam

I am so glad they became friends. Charley and Sam were in the same group, which was not my group with Emily. We still had plenty of opportunities to interact.

Here is a picture Sam took of me doing my reading.

Dana Reading
Photo courtesy Sam Bradford

A photo of me with my new friend Whitney (and a photobomb with my new friend, Andy).

Whitney, Dana, and AndyAnd a photo of me with my instructor, Emily. Andy somehow photobombed that one, too!

Emily and DanaWhat a phenomenal experience. I have to thank my Dean of Faculty, Cindy Sabik, for convincing me to go.

I learned some new techniques for teaching writing. I wrote some things I feel pretty good about. In fact, I am actually thinking about pursuing publication, which is something I haven’t thought about doing for many years (and that is one reason I haven’t shared anything I wrote at the workshop here). Honestly, I thought that ship had sailed a long time ago. I truly can’t remember the last time I thought about publication for myself.

You should go next summer.

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Slice of Life #5: A Week in the Pause

Slice of LifeI forgot to do my Slice of Life yesterday. I think I’m settling into a lazy summer groove. I haven’t read as much on my time off as I thought I would, but I did finish a couple of books this week (and I started a new audio book). I blog about books in a separate blog. I suppose I could have folded book reviews into this blog, but truthfully, that blog sort of came first, and it had a different audience that I wasn’t sure would be interested in teaching. Likewise, I wasn’t sure everyone who stopped by here would be interested in my book reviews (unless they concerned professional reading). I actually love blogs, and I really compartmentalize my interests in different blogs. None of the audiences for any of these blogs really overlap much from what I can tell based on comments. I don’t write in any one of them a great deal, though I suppose my book blog gets the most attention these days. I decided not to worry about it and just write when I felt moved to write, though I was looking for excuses to write more often.

This Saturday, I’m traveling to Kenyon College in Ohio for the Kenyon Writer’s Workshop for Teachers. I have a notebook ready to go, and I am looking forward to seeing what it will be about, though I admit I am sad I’m missing my children’s first full week of summer. I hope that when I get back, we can take the commuter rail into Boston and have a fun day exploring. Later in July, I’ll be going to AP Literature training. I’m offering a workshop on digital storytelling at my school. In fact, if you are in the New England area, check out our summer learning series.

Tomorrow is an important anniversary for this blog. Today’s post is a bit rambly, but tomorrow’s will be a bit more focused.

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