Category: Teaching

How to write good*

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I’m nearly done marking, and find myself reflecting on how better to structure my course next year, should I be invited to teach again. I’m also thinking about how I might structure a higher-level creative writing course: what elements are missing from my current curriculum that perhaps belong in a separate course altogether?

My goal for next year would be to teach grammar in a creative way, because without the tools to build complex yet clear sentences, it is virtually impossible to construct complex stories. And all stories are complex when you break them down: there are so many elements that go into storytelling, many of which become instinctive when one has practiced writing for years and years, but which are actually very tricky to manage–slippery to manage, evasive, elusive, invisible, unrecognized, subtle, and unavoidable. Setting, plot and sub-plot, voice, character-building, relationships, dialogue, mood, verb tense, movement through time, descriptive language, meaning, thematic layers, back-story, interior and exterior action, emotion, perspective. Have I touched on everything? Probably not. Beginnings and endings. Deciding when to tell what you know. Eliminating that which is extraneous, even though you love it dearly. Editing. Rewriting. Not becoming attached to any part of what you’ve made, so that you can cut it out, if necessary. (Writing is not like parenting: writing requires a ruthlessness that I would never draw on, as a parent.)

And here’s the issue: to manage all of these things, or any of them, really, you must construct sentences that support what you’re trying to do. There is real technical skill underpinning excellent writing.

So I find myself dreaming up writing exercises that would seamlessly include practice in the craft as well as the art. I think it’s possible. It’s kind of exciting to dream this stuff up, actually.

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This is not what our living-room looks like at present. This is my aspirational living-room.

On another note …

Things that go well, and things that do not, and things that mysteriously fit into both categories at the very same time:
– helping children practice instruments in the morning, before school
– walking dogs to meet kids after school
– being injured and unable to run and doing an hour of daily core-strength exercises instead

Snapshot 1: “Nope. I’m not going to practice this morning. I’ll practice later! After school!” “But that doesn’t seem to work. Later never comes.” “But I don’t want to do it now!” “But it’s always now. It will be now after school.” “Well I don’t want to do it right this second!” “It’s a privilege to get to play the violin. We can’t keep having this conversation.” “Ok! I will play! But you can’t comment!”
A few minutes later …
“Why are you so excited when CJ practices, but not with me?” “CJ lets me help him.” “But you can’t help me. You never played the violin.” “Your teacher can help with the bowing, but I can help with the notes.” “I don’t want to talk about it now…”

Snapshot 2: Kids running down the sidewalk after school, excited to see dogs. “Wow, you guys are fast today. You’re the first kids I’ve seen.” Small dog in pink sweater decides to stop and produce on someone’s front lawn. I remove mittens, pull plastic bag from coat pocket, stoop to clean up. What happens next happens all at the same time. Pack of schoolchildren appears. Dog slips collar and begins trotting toward street. Neighbour girl excitedly runs to pet dog who has slipped collar, and who is not the friendly dog! I toss mittens, grab for loose dog, try to hand other dog’s leash to daughter while not dropping half-filled plastic poo-bag, and warning (in what I hope are non-frantic tones) the neighbour girl away from the (undeniably cute) dog who is not friendly. Time skips in jagged leaps. Pack of schoolchildren passes, unharmed. I see myself kneeling on the quiet snowy sidewalk, half-filled poo-bag in one hand, skittish dog in the other, trying to figure out what’s gone wrong with the collar. “Mom, you almost threw your mittens in Suzi’s poo!” “What? There’s more poo?” “It’s right there.” “This is way too much drama for me!”

Snapshot 3: The remains of supper are on the table. I’m lying on a blue yoga mat between the couch and the bookshelf that doubles as a computer desk. Kevin is perched on a stool near my knees, replying to work emails on the computer. I’m doing repeats of bridge, which I kind of hate, kind of intensely. Fooey is kneeling on the couch, leaning over the back, observing me from above. AppleApple is moving around restlessly on the beanbag chair near my head, observing me from above. Dogs arrive on scene, enormously excited at the discovery of a human trapped at the licking and sitting-upon level. Imaginary announcement over imaginary PA system: “Could all family members please report to the yoga mat behind the couch? Calling all family members…” The pay-off will be running again. And, possibly, abs of steel, and glutes that could crack a Christmas walnut. Bad image. Time to stop writing.

xo, Carrie

* title is tongue-in-cheek; but you got that, right?

Homesickness prevention plan

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Home.

I had my students write about home yesterday evening. I joined them on the writing exercise, as always, and found myself feeling prematurely homesick. I imagined walking through our front door into the hall strewn with shoes and school bags and discarded socks and dead leaves and muddy patches, the living-room to my right strewn with musical instruments and sheet music and toys and books, the dining-room table ahead strewn with newspaper sections and homework, the breakfast counter beyond strewn with home folders and asthma inhalers and hairbands. I mentally picked up abandoned cereal bowls and cups of tea and carried them to the kitchen, where the counter was strewn with several apples going soft and permission forms and butter knives slathered in peanut butter and honey. There were towels and more socks on the bathroom floor. I could imagine the sound of a French horn being played in the backyard (Star Wars theme song), and footsteps thumping down the stairs, “Hey, Mom, what’s for supper?,” and the phone ringing (a child’s friend on the other end). I could hear the sound of a piano being practiced by a 6-year-old. Kevin coming in the door carrying a grocery bag with milk and eggs and checking his email on his phone, the dogs dashing to greet him excitedly.

And I won’t be here for any of this for the next ten days. What will they do without me to pick up their socks and sign their permission forms and carry their cereal bowls to the kitchen? Well, that’s just the surface stuff. What I’ll really miss is the music and the reading and the chaos and the hugs-in-passing and the many requests.

The feeling of being both surrounded and needed.

Where I’m going, I’m not quite so necessary. I’ll miss the active mothering stuff I’m so accustomed to managing all day, every day. That said, I hope to be useful and to make good use of my time away.

And I also hope to have fun. All work and no play makes Carrie a dull woman, to steal an old proverb. Damn, but it feels true right now. Lighten up, I remind myself, shoulders scrunched, hurrying off to something or other, always a few minutes late and therefore rush, rush, rush.

This, I must change. That is my goal for this trip. Lighten up.

I’m heading out West. First to Wordfest in Calgary, then the Summit Series in Banff, then to the Vancouver Writers’ Fest. Click here to find my events listings. When I’m home again, I’ll be back and forth to Toronto, and other places in Southern Ontario. I’m entering my personal literary marathon-season.

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CJ told me yesterday that they were talking about Making Healthy Choices in Health class. (He’s six.) “I said, EXERCISE. And FRIENDS.” Wow, I replied, thinking, this is wise advice, young guru, which I shall take to heart.

Right now, I’ll admit that I’m missing my friends. If there’s one element absent from my fall schedule it’s time for friends. (And, to a lesser degree, for exercise.) So I’m hoping to connect with people on this tour out West, to make new friends and see old friends, to push myself out of my introspective shell, be brave, and in this way to alleviate or even prevent the homesickness from setting in. But also to lighten up.

To lighten. As in to brighten, hearten, gladden, illuminate, restore.

Gone marking

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I’m reading and marking my students’ poetry assignments today. And tomorrow. In hopes of being done before Thanksgiving weekend, when I’m looking forward to hosting family, and cooking up at least one enormous feast.

I was going to treat myself to croissants … or something similar … to help sustain and encourage me through the marking. Instead, I’ve found myself rigidly plunked at the dining-room table with a glass of water as accompaniment. Currently stopping to eat a bowl of leftover soup for lunch. I need to get better at this “treating myself” thing. Instead, I fantasize about croissants magically appearing before me, or husbands delivering sustaining take-out lattes. Lazy. But true.

Back at it. Dreaming on.

Stillness & motion, noise & silence

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photo credit: Shari Lovell

This morning began unusually. I woke at 6AM, refreshed after a very very long sleep, having crashed out just after 9PM last night. Teaching takes a lot of energy, at least for someone who would skew toward introverted on the personality continuum, and I had my class on Wednesday night (a happy place to spend three hours, I must tell you, even though our windowless brick room in a hive-like building resembles a bunker, and gets very muggy when packed out with creativity and debate). What a day to go and teach. I think it was a good thing, as it forced me to be focused and to pay attention to something other than the noise.

There was some noise on Wednesday. There was this lovely interview done by the Canadian Press, which ran in various media outlets. There was the phone call from the Writers’ Trust to confirm that Girl Runner was on the list, and various emails to note upcoming appearances and media requests associated with the award. I checked my calendar a lot. And my phone. Twitter and Facebook kept pulling me in. It was a lot of noise, as I say, and I found myself unable to settle and reflect, or even, quite, to feel what was happening.

So I was grateful to my students for occupying my evening. We talked about poetry. There was so much to learn from the discussion, so many reminders of why poetry matters, why words matter.

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photo credit: Shari Lovell

Kevin had gotten take-out ramen for supper, which I reheated in our shiny new microwave when I got home, nearing 10PM. (Yes, we finally got a microwave, and I must confess my leftover lunches are much more enticing than those consumed during our long, cold pre-microwave era.) After eating, all the kids in bed, Kevin dug through his scotch collection (so many bottles, each with an inch or three of liquid, leftover from our years of hosting scotch parties), and pulled out a particularly choice selection. I don’t have the name handy. But he went online to check its current value, were it full and unopened, and announced that we would be celebrating with a $5,000 bottle of scotch. I mean, seriously?! There was just enough for two wee drams.

One of the pleasures of the scotch party is hearing our friend Mike read the tasting notes, so to keep with tradition, I will tell you that this ridiculously pricey scotch tasted heavily of oak barrels, with overtones of straw (or was that the colour?) and undertones of turmeric and cinnamon. Or something like that. Maybe it was nutmeg. And a bit of blue sky.

It was a lovely celebration. I was up five hours later to run with my speedy friend Heather, who kindly slowed down for the occasion; also because that will be my last run before I attempt the Toad, tomorrow morning: 25 kilometres of likely-to-be-muddy trail. God help me.

The book I was reading this morning is called A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki. I’m going to keep talking about it until I’m done, and probably for a long time thereafter, and the next reader I’ve got in mind is my 11-year-old daughter.* We’re both of us possessed of a lot of energy and drive (I hazard to suggest she’s got even more of both than I do), and we both of us need to find ways and reasons to turn down the noise and become still. (And not because we’re crashing!)

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my girl runner

Wednesday, after the prize announcement and before teaching, I dashed over to her school to watch her run a cross-country race. She came second out of a large field of 7th and 8th graders. “I’m so tired! Weirdly tired! Like way too tired!” she told me immediately afterward as she lay prone on the grass. “You just ran three kilometres really fast,” I pointed out. “That’s not it!” “Well, maybe you’re too frail and shouldn’t run more than 200 metres,” I suggested, tongue in cheek. She’s read Girl Runner. She smiled faintly. Then she sat up and took off her shoes. “My feet are too hot!”

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At first, she was quite disappointed in her performance, and it mattered not when I pointed out that the girl who finished first was two heads taller and a grade older. She insisted on expecting better of herself. I kept assuring her that she’d been wonderful, that she’d given her all, that I was very proud, and finally, much later, before bed, she smiled to reassure me that she was happy with the race. Mostly. I can’t argue with her. Her expectations are her own. She isn’t discouraged when she doesn’t meet them. Instead, her expectations seem to fire her with greater focus and renewed intent. Yeah. I get that. There will always be someone faster, smarter, more talented. But I think she already knows: that it’s not about comparisons. It’s about finding one’s own voice, one’s own passion.

But what about stillness? What about releasing expectation? What about rest for the mind and body?

A Tale for the Time Being is the story, in part, of a 104-year-old Buddhist nun who’s offered decades to the practice of meditation, prayer, ritual gratitude for each gift, no matter how small. She bows with her whole body to the world. She is at peace with mortality. The humility of her daily practice gives her SUPAPOWAs! Even her physical frailty is a strength.

So I wake this morning, early, thinking about how whatever I have to offer must come from a grounded place, a place where I sit in stillness and silence, practicing gratitude, bowing with my whole body to this beautiful, difficult, scary, noisy world, with openness and with humility. A gift is a gift. What to do with it? How to give thanks? How to give, no matter how tired, frail, mortal, flawed? How to be still. How to listen.

xo, Carrie

PS I’d like to point you toward a review of Girl Runner by a blog-reader who is an Ironman athlete and writer; he also digs into the history of women’s long distance running.

* Note: after writing this post, I finished A Tale for the Time Being, and discovered that in the final third of the book, there are several extremely dark scenes relating to extreme bullying, attempted rape, and child prostitution, and although my 11-year-old is a mature reader, I don’t think the book is meant for her–not yet. But sections of the book are meant for her! However, I can’t figure out how to carve out the darkness to show her the light. I think this Tale for the Time Being will have to wait, for the time being. Nevertheless I highly recommend it to a mature adult audience. What is light without shadow? (The book also contains the clearest explanation of quantum mechanics that I’ve ever read.)

I am doing a writing exercise I’ve assigned to my students

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Insects buzz. Insects with a vibrating hum and insects chirping at regular quick intervals, like a racing pulse. Cars pass. Engines roar, mildly, louder when accelerating, heavily whirring before changing gears, puttering, brakes squeaking, a rushing sound like wind that is not wind, that is mechanical, a hush of white noise.

Shadows on yellow brick, moving as the wind moves the trees, patterned, like lace.

The dogs begin to bark. What have they seen or heard? The first to begin is DJ, loudest, the leader of this pack of two. Suzi joins, confused, eager, uncertain. DJ stops, stiffens behind the raspberry patch, behind the cluster of dead flowers, and sniffs the air. Whatever she has seen is gone. The yard is safe, again.

On the clothesline a few items hang, shirts upside-down, athletic gear airing in the breeze and sunshine. The leaves are turning colour. The sky is steady opaque blue, not quite dark, not quite light, clear behind the flame orange leaves, like an artificial backdrop for a photograph I took last year, and the year before, but not yet this year.

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photo of the changing leaves, last year

I have not taken any photos of changing leaves this year. This is not because the leaves have not changed. I don’t know why I haven’t brought my camera outside to catch the season on its cusp of coming.

I am sitting in a green plastic fake Adirondack chair, bought uptown at the hardware store for cheap. The floorboards beneath my feet are painted a rich blue, the paint also bought uptown at the same hardware store.

I turn to examine the pile of sandals by the open back door, and see instead a large spider, suspended in its web, very near me. It hangs upside down. It is alive, its legs twitch, each leg thin and ringed with a pattern of pale tan, dark brown, and a shade in between the two colours that looks mottled. Its body is fat, and also patterned in shades of brown. I would fear it, but it has lived on our porch for much of the summer, moving its web higher or lower when disturbed by one of us. I have watched it through the kitchen window suck clean the body of a large fly, a bee, draining each to a dried husk of its former self.

I am writing this because I’ve given the students in my creative writing class the same exercise. I want to feel what they feel while forced to sit and focus for 15 consecutive minutes, uninterrupted except by what they observe, their objective to seek out the details, no matter how small, and place them on the page, without judgement, without critique, simply observing and noting and describing.

It is an exercise I’ve given myself at times throughout this past year. It asks not: is this interesting; but rather: what is here to be found?

The timer rings. I don’t want to finish yet. The dogs have gone inside, and are working themselves into a sudden frenzy of emotion, howling and yipping at something they’ve seen through a window. Gradually, the noise diminishes, then stops abruptly. Here is Suzi, come to find me, her little body quivering.

Here am I, glad for the excuse to sit still and think of nothing but what is, right now.

xo, Carrie

New things are happening

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New things are happening around our house.

The kids started school. Yeah, that was a few weeks ago already. I’ve been a touch distracted.

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this was as happy as I could get them to look, and oh how we tried!

New instruments are being played. CJ has started the piano. Fooey has retired from piano and taken up the violin. AppleApple has the opportunity to play both the French horn and the cello through her school, and on Tuesday evening practiced that horn for an hour and twenty minutes. I kid you not. Then she went outside and practiced some more. The neighbours kid you not. “It doesn’t sound quite so much like an elephant’s butt,” her helpful father told her. And Albus joined the school orchestra (he plays the viola), because, he told me, participants will be rewarded with a trip to Canada’s Wonderland at the end of the year. Hey, whatever works.

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I’ve newly begun teaching, again. It’s much easier the second time around. So much easier. It helps not to be suffering the effects of concussion, too. (How did I manage that last fall??)

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Also new: swim kid is no longer swim kid. She’s just going to be soccer kid, field hockey kid, cross country kid, music kid, theatre kid, hanging-out-with-friends kid. This was no small decision. But I think I’m mourning it more than she is, which means it’s absolutely the right decision (she had tears, but moved on). Truth be told, we couldn’t fit the extra commitment into our lives. It’s hard to stop doing something you’ve enjoyed, and that has brought you success. But success doesn’t always mean you should keep doing it. When you’re good at lots of things, you’ve gotta choose what you absolutely love. (I mean, this is a kid who will obsessively focus on whatever is before her. She’s playing the damn horn again as I type. I mean, the melodious completely non-elephant-butt-like horn. She’s trained herself, with literally hour upon consecutive hour of practice over the summer to juggle—with her feet—a soccer ball 379 times without dropping it, when she could barely manage 2 back in June. Discipline is not her issue.)

Here is the reward: she would have been swimming for two hours last night. Instead, when I walked through the front door, home from teaching, I was greeted by this sight:

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Sweeping toward me, decked out in feathered mask and cape, she burst forth in low dramatic tones. Shakespeare? Lady Macbeth’s soliloquy, to be precise. “She’s in a mood,” said her father, fondly.

One more reward: eating supper together as a family.

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See? We tried. We really did. It’s what we do around here.

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xo, Carrie

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