Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Imitation: The Sincerest Form of Learning Writing

This week, I'm reading Jeff Anderson's 10 Things Every Writer Needs to Know to prepare myself for a new year of students.
It's fascinating and well-written, full of common-sense, broken down to its component parts instructions on running a great writing workshop.  It gives great examples and advice and better yet, lots of samples of mentor texts.  I think, probably, "mentor texts" will become the component of my practice that I focus the majority of my preparation on this summer.  The use of great writing as examples to study, name the strategies the writer used, then imitate and integrate into your own writing is as organic as learning gets.  Notice, Interact, Name, Experiment, and Reflect are the steps Anderson takes with his students using model texts.

I'm lucky enough to be a part of our faculty Write Club (First Rule of Write Club: We talk about what we write), started by my friend and colleague, Christy Rush-Levine.  If you know Christy Rush-Levine, have ever been one of her students, or even discussed books, reading, writing or pedagogy with her, you know why she's the head of our Write Club.  She's a phenomenal teacher and learner who is ALWAYS on the lookout for new mentor texts and passages to share with her students.  She does the same for our Write Club, and I've decided to take this opportunity to put this process in action for myself.  If I want to put my students through it more effectively and often, I'd better be prepared to model the process a LOT.

THE MENTOR TEXTS (Read):   Last Friday night, she provided us with two examples having similar opportunities for inspiration.  The first is a poem by Ted Kooser, titled "Abandoned Farmhouse".  The second was a short memoir and prompt by the author and poet, SARK about an old dresser that she had grown up with.

WHAT I NOTICED (Analyze):  Both pieces focused on inanimate objects that seemed to tell the story of the people who had owned them, indeed, their stories were the histories of these people.

NAMING THE RULE (Name):   It was a way to tell a long history without focusing on just one person's view.  It was a way to evoke a sense of place and nostalgia without a narrator's bias.  It was a way to connect to your reader through a shared or remembered experience - that sense of nostalgia that old and well-loved objects can evoke.

MY FIRST DRAFT (Experiment): 

That pitcher was where I first tasted red Kool-Aid and iced tea. Heavy ceramic crockery, cheap as chips when Grandma bought it back in the 50's. It had grown up with my Dad and with his children too.  The sky blue ceramic glaze has faded a little and taken on a bit of a greenish cast, but it is tall and heavy and feels important in my hands.  A responsibility to pour out everyone's drinks given only to the child with the steadiest hands.  Never chipped or cracked, it sits on my counter top now, holding spoons instead of Kool-Aid, but I get to see it every day.  When my grandmother died and we had all collected at her home after the memorial, Grandpa had taken all the grandkids to the basement, filled to the ceiling with all of the history of her life, collected in things - dolls and afghans and quilting materials and corn husks to be dyed, a giant floor loom, scraps of cloth, paints and glues and pictures and glass candy dishes and...everything.  There it sat.  In the ledge of the basement window, looking as if it wanted to escape to the yard to pour lemonade for visitors cooling themselves under the magnolia tree on a hot summer afternoon.
"Take whatever you want," Grandpa said.
I snatched up the pitcher and took it with me out to the magnolia tree, where I sat and remembered.

TALKING IT OUT (Reflection): One of the best components of Write Club is that we read aloud what we've written and offer immediate feedback to each other - what we like, where it took us, where we think it might go eventually.  When talking about this first draft, Christy remarked that it should be a poem - indeed that with a touch of revision that it WAS poetry.  I agreed.  Mark remarked on the line about it sitting on the ledge of the basement window, waiting to escape - how that painted a clear picture - definitely something I'd keep.
In just reading it aloud, I knew that I wanted to change the order of things - that the chronology of my writing was not powerful enough, and that I had not strongly evoked my grandmother's memory in the blue pitcher's description. There were pieces that I'd missed saying: things about how she gently admonished us to be so careful when we poured, and that it was a symbol of how graciously she kept her house for visitors.  All things I wanted to change to make it stronger.

THE REVISED SECOND DRAFT (More Reflection to Come, I'm Sure):

The Blue Pitcher
by Jessica Wisniewski

You take anything here you want
Grandpa growled sad and low
His gray suit rumpled after the memorial
May is hot in Southern Illinois,
but the basement was coolly indifferent,
piled to the ceiling with
The History of Her:
dolls and afghans and 
quilting materials and corn husks to be dyed, 
a giant floor loom, 
scraps of cloth, boxes of ancient sewing patterns,
paints and glues and pictures and 
glass candy dishes 
and...everything, just there.

There it sat.
The blue crockery pitcher.
Out of place,
It belonged in the kitchen, welcoming,
Out of time,
How long had it been down here? Since,
Out of sight,
Had he put all of her things down here? Too painful,
On my mind.

On the ledge of the high basement window,
Yearning toward sunshine weakened
By thick dust and blocks of glass
Looking for all the world like it wanted to escape
to the sideyard where it would welcome the guests
stopped to cool themselves
in the shade of the magnolia tree.
Heavy ceramic crockery
Cheap as chips when she got it
It stands tall and heavy
Good for keeping cool 
the lemonade
the iced tea
the Kool-Aid
the friends old and just met.

It had grown three generations of Thompsons
And its sky blue glaze had faded 
to a slightly more institutional blue-green
But it always felt important in my smaller hands
A gentle word or two 
Reminders to keep steady and
be polite to our guests
The handle was strong, 
like the soft power of her hands. 
Like responsibility to friends 
met so solemnly and graciously.

You take anything here you want
His sadness filling the empty silence
I snatched up that blue pitcher
escaped to the magnolia tree
where I sat
and remembered.

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