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:
I love being in a room full of students writing.
— Dana Huff (@danamhuff) January 7, 2016
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.