Sunday, August 27, 2017

Morning Pages

Morning Pages

Nulla dies sine linea ("No day without a line")

Although it resided on my bookshelf for several years, I did not start reading The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity by Julia Cameron until the beginning of June. This book is all about creativity. It’s often referenced by writers, and it has been a resource that I have wanted to read for some time now.

Confession: I still haven’t read the whole book yet.

Along with a twelve weeks of self-guided work, Julia Cameron introduces two main tools/principles: Morning Pages and the Artist Date. Even though I have only focused on Morning Pages so far, I’m hooked. It is definitely a resource I will return to.  

The concept of Morning Pages is pretty simple - write at least three pages every day. Morning Pages don’t begin with any kind of a prompt or script. Julia Cameron insists that there is no wrong way to write Morning Pages - you just write. It is all about writing what is on your mind. You know, the stream-of-conscious longhand kind of writing.

Raw thoughts on paper.

The beauty of Morning Pages is that it teaches you that you don’t need to be in a magical mood to write. You don’t even need to be inspired by an amazing idea. It doesn't matter your location. Just write.

Three pages. Every day. No exceptions.

I don’t have a home office or even a space that is only mine. I have two busy tweens, a husband, and two high-need dogs. My small house is loud. (In fact, as I type, my nine-year-old is whistling a shrill tune directly in my ear. Awesome.) I can’t always get to a coffee shop to write (or afford to), especially every day. This hasn’t stopped me from writing each day. I try to carve out at least thirty minutes in my day to write, whether it is in the morning (as Julia Cameron suggests) or later on in the day. In fact, I have been known to write in my mini van (see photo below) just to get a chunk of uninterrupted writing time.

Writing Morning Pages in the parking lot at the grocery store

There are times when I feel like I have nothing to write. Cameron suggests to write over and over, “I can’t think of anything to write” until you think of something. I have written this mantra until I can think of something, even if it is incredibly mundane. At the end of July I read a post from a guest writer on Kate Messner’s blog during Kate’s Teachers Write 2017! As a writing exercise, author Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich suggests to spend at least fifteen minutes to describe what you did and noticed in the last twenty-four hours. I tried this when I felt like I had nothing worth writing about. It worked, and I wrote far more than three pages. This entry ended up being more than just listing-my brain created a spiderweb of thoughts. I honored my messy thinking that day and it fueled me in the best way.

Although it is not always helpful to reread Morning Pages (especially when you first get started), I like to page through mine and flag lines or topics that I want to explore in a deeper way. As I was reminded when I read Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich’s post, I can easily see what I care about - my writing territories. I tend to write about the relationships I have with my children, husband, friends, and coworkers. I write about parenting, books I adore or am wondering about, education, and the power of writing.

Morning Pages often surprise me. Donald Murray once wrote, “We surprise ourselves by what we write. Writing is thinking, not thought recorded.” As I have known for a long time, writing often helps me process what I’m grappling with. Morning pages are a safe place for me to write about what is really bothering me, what scares me, and what I am deeply hurt by. These pages are where I can write about topics that I am not ready to talk about.  

Perhaps the one of the best things that Writing Pages have done for me is to silence my inner critic more often. You know that voice that tells you that your writing sucks? That voice that tells you that your ideas are not worth sharing? That you have no business writing? Author Gae Polisner also wrote about this in a recent blog post on That Wee Bit Heap. She reminds me that the struggle is IN the act of writing. The struggle is what you must embrace. My inner critic is still there, but I since I started writing Morning Pages, I found that I don't listen to it as often.

Writing Morning Pages have helped me more than I thought they would. Have you ever thought about trying it, too?

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Writing My Way Out

Writing My Way Out

“Nobody likes you. Go back to where you came from.” A popular boy from my class whispered this to me as I clutched my dime in my sweaty hand, waiting to buy a carton of milk. I’ll call him Tyler. It was my first day of fifth grade and just a few weeks earlier my family had moved to a new city on the opposite side of the state.

Based on what I remember, Tyler was unkind to me for most of fifth grade and his hurtful comments continued throughout my experience in middle school. Many of my classmates followed Tyler’s lead of how he treated me, like lemmings. I am not sure why Tyler selected me as his target, and I often wonder what kind of pain he experienced to make him disperse hurt to others.

That year I felt like I didn’t belong. I felt like I didn’t matter. I felt powerless to do anything to change my identity at school.

I was a mess.

As I look back now on my tween and teen years, I realize that fifth grade was when I began to struggle with the tension of desperately wanting to be visible-worthy of having friends who wanted to talk to me, while also feeling the need to be invisible-to hide the shame of being picked on and not having friends.

I believed the messages that Tyler told me.

I convinced myself that I did something to deserve his treatment.

Fifth grade was also the year that I started writing. As a going away gift, someone gave me a red diary, complete with a tiny metal lock. Although the lock could be easily picked and ripped off of the small diary, it made me feel like my ideas were private and protected. That diary was never far from my reach, often tucked into my Esprit tote bag or carefully concealed under my Lisa Frank stickered folder so no one would see me deviate from the standard “hamburger” essay about the American Civil War. At home my diary could be found wedged between the box spring and mattress of my bunk bed, out of sight from my mom or nosey big brother.
A glimpse into Trina's adolescent writing 

In fifth grade I couldn’t articulate the words that I needed to. I was ashamed that I was being picked on. I was embarrassed that I didn’t have any friends. I couldn’t talk about it out loud. Yet somehow I could muster the words to write about it. Writing helped me feel like I could talk about how I was feeling, even if it was only on paper. For me, writing helped me cope with my loneliness and bruised feelings and shame. What I didn’t realize then was that this experience helped me learn a great coping skill - how to write my way out. I am convinced that no one escapes from pain. Not really. Feelings of disappointment and sadness are inevitable. I believe that how we deal with challenges is what makes the difference.

Often, as an adult, I find myself dealing with much more heavy topics than unkind classmates. Although I usually write for myself, I craft paragraphs and stanzas about what makes me angry, what leaves me feeling perplexed, and what I’m grappling with in relationships, in teaching, in politics, and in parenting. Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within  (Shambhala, 2016), contends that writing is not the same as therapy. I agree, but I also believe that writing can have therapeutic effects. For me, taking the time to write helps me to show up as a better human being, especially when I am sad or angry. It allows me to name what I am feeling and to dig into my emotions in a safe way. I have found that when I have taken the time to write first that I am not as quick to make accusations and act without thinking.

I believe that writing is an important tool that can help us deal with how messy and painful and unfair that life can be.

I read Ralph Fletcher’s Joy Write (Heinemann, 2017) at the beginning of this summer. Ralph’s ideas have continued to loop in my mind ever since. It is a resource that I know I will come back to again and again. He encourages teachers to provide writers with consistent opportunities for what he calls greenbelt writing. In an incredibly simplified explanation (I apologize, Ralph Fletcher), greenbelt writing is low-stakes writing (not graded or as part of an assignment), providing opportunities for students to simply play with writing. This is writing where students have autonomy. He believes that in many cases we have taken the joy out of writing for students. Ralph Fletcher, I couldn’t agree more with you. In helping my adolescent writers to reach proficiency in the writing standards, I know that I have sometimes forgotten that writing is much more than simply meeting standards. I have probably given students the wrong kind of impression in my writing instruction - that writing is only about meeting standards. Reading Joy Write makes me think about how I can give my high school writers more opportunities for greenbelt writing. I want them to experience joy in the act of writing and playing with words.

Yet, I also wonder how I can provide writers with opportunities for using writing like I did as a kid (and as I still do now) - writing for processing and healing.

As a teacher of high school writers, these are two questions that I am currently grappling with: How can I help to empower my students to see how they can write their way out? How do I help writers find joy in writing?

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Where I'm From

Where I'm From

Last summer I had the honor of participating in a local National Writing Project site, Fox Valley Writing Project. I have participated in countless professional staff developments, but by far, this was one of my favorites. I loved the daily time set aside for writing. Playing with words. Creating. Thinking. Exploring. Talking with colleagues.

In Writing Project, if you aren't already, you become a teacher who writes.  

We began each session writing-either by using a model to emulate, following a prompt, or simply writing what we were compelled to write about that day. One of the poems I emulated was based on "Where I’m From" by George Ella Lyon.

Initially, I wrote a poem that follows George Ella Lyon’s format and shared it with my Writing Project group and later with my friend, Sam. Using her super power of providing smart feedback, Sam encouraged me to keep revising and break out of the traditional form. Reluctantly, I followed her advice and I ended up lifting a few lines from my first draft and rewriting my poem based on some memories from when I was seven. In my mind it became a mixture of Amy Krause Rosenthal's Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life and George Ella Lyon's "Where I'm From."

Here is what I came up with:
"Origins of Seven" by Trina Haase
Trina, around age seven

Church Pew
Sinking into a dark, oak pew-
I sit, clutching a red United Methodist Hymnal and fanning a paper church bulletin-
Impatiently - legs crossed,
Donning a stiff, scratchy dress and ill-fitting ribbed tights
And swinging snug, scuffed black Mary Janes back and forth.
No Sunday morning absence permitted without high fever or vomit - no exceptions.
Mom reminds me, with strict, stern eyeball warnings, that I am a child
Of the Reverend-
The one in the thick, black velvet robe with an embroidered white stole
Preaching from the pulpit.
Greet. Stand. “Peace be with you!” Choral reading. Pray. Stand. Sit. Stand. Sit. Pray. Stand.
Soon coffee hour will follow with juice and powdered donut holes.
“Mind your manners! Say hello! To ALL of the ladies.”
Following with Sunday School lessons of loaves and fishes, disciples,
And the rock moved from the tomb.
“It is well, it is well with my soul.”

Grace before every meal -
Holding hands, eyes closed.
Napkins rest on your lap,
Forks to the left, knife and spoon to the right, and
Back straight to the chair - feet forward.
What will it be tonight? Carp or Bluegill Lake Michigan fish?
Venison, pheasant, liver and onions, squash, or brussel sprouts?
My gagging reflexes find no reprieve.
“Be sure to take your no thank you helping, please”
My naughty antics of food squished underneath the side of my dinner plate,
Sneaking bits to our golden dog, concealing my unwanted bites in paper napkins,
And spitting acorn squash into my milk-filled beige Tupperware cup.
“Missy, you will sit at the table until that plate is clean.
I can wait” -
And she did. Every time.
Children do not leave the table until excused.

Green Lake
Two sticky August weeks we live in a cottage of salmon colored siding
With a creaky, white metal door-
Hydrangeas and hostas hovering around the edges and   
Wispy, willow tree branches reaching into Big Green Lake.
Picking rocks for pennies,
Filling yellow plastic buckets of snails,
Spending lazy days floating on inner tubes,
And spitting black watermelon seeds from the edge of the dock.
My fair sunburned skin sore and tight,
Smothered in gel from Mom’s aloe plant.
Wet swimsuits and towels
Drape over the peeling white criss-cross wooden fence.
Just before dinner Dad and Grandpa Ben carefully record
The day’s measurements of walleye on wall calendar and
Share deer stand stories of last November.
As the sun retires into the lake,
We compete in rounds of Mille Bornes, Yahtzee, and Five-card cribbage,  
Munch on stovetop popcorn,
And sip foamy root beer floats.  

Oak Street
Peering from the smudged backyard patio sliding glass doors,
Sun tea brews in a clear two gallon glass jar,
Yellow plastic Slip ‘n Slide positioned for play, and
Tall, backyard trees ready to welcome dangling, gangly limbs.
A garden hose awaits to clean wet grass
From the bottoms of tough summer bare feet.
Neighborhood children gather for Hide and Seek,
Freeze Tag or Dodgeball.  
“Red rover, red rover, send Trina right over!”
Tetherball marks,
Blistered Monkey Bar palms and
Perpetually skinned, gravel-pressed knees-
Leftover playground gifts.

Blueberry colored nail-
Throbbing, pulsing
A recent product of an accidental
Thumbslamming in the heavy
Chevy station wagon door.
My incessant wailing
And at least three days protesting pain.
Dad (donning safety goggles sans wire glasses), inserts the smallest drill bit
Tests it-
The whirring sound invades the silence.
“No! Please let it fall off!”
My hand and body held flat by Mom-
Me on her lap, one arm criss crosses against my body-
Her body, a tight seatbelt.
“Squeeze your hand as tight as it hurts-then I’ll know how bad it is”
My hand clenches a snake grip around her hand-
The anticipation of the drill.
Mom’s kisses blanket my forehead.
My eyelids smash together - forehead furrowed with creases, and
I can feel the churning drill bit.
Pressure escapes.
Blood trickles.
My nail slides off.

To Do Lists
“It’s a beautiful morning! Don’t waste it in bed!”
Our early morning Saturday wake-up call
Before Mom heads out to work at her part-time library job.
My brother and sister and I trudge down the stairs and
Find our to-do list-
Scotch taped to the speckled formica kitchen table:
“Darling children,
  • Clean bathroom sinks,
  • Scrub kitchen linoleum,
  • Clean toilets
  • Fold laundry - it’s drying on the line
  • Vacuum bedroom carpets
  • Straighten book shelves
  • Put toys away
  • Polish silver baby cups and
  • Dust in the living room
Big sister is in charge.
Love, Mom”
Sighs and eye rolls follow with squabbles
Of who will clean toilets.
Saturday cartoons and couch cushion forts
Will have to wait.
Mom returns later that afternoon-
Toting new library books.
Later in the afternoon we shuck silky corn husks over brown paper grocery bags,
Sitting on the wooden picnic table on the back patio.
“Someday you’ll thank me for teaching you how to keep a home.”  

I plan to introduce George Ella Lyon's poem and my mashup of "Where I'm From" and Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life to my high school students early in the school year, provide them time to think and write, and grant them with the opportunity to share it with their peers. I believe that deeply thinking about where you are from and what has influenced who you are is a worthy activity in itself, but I also hope that this can be one way to infuse writing and building community within my classroom.

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