Category Archives: Write it

My Muse

I called my sister yesterday to share a story one of my students wrote. The question was to tell a short narrative with the purpose of entertaining. I started the conversation with “get ready for the funniest story on the planet.” My sister responded with “is it appropriate for young ears because you are on speaker.” Well, I’m used to that when it comes to conversing with a mother of three, but I had to think about this one. Is a squirrel being run over unexpectedly appropriate for a 2, 4 and 6 year old? I had to ask. Teenagers, I’ve got that down to a science. Go any younger than that and I’m pretty clueless.

 

Having determined that the story was appropriate, I proceeded to read it. The story (which I’ve included at the bottom of the post for those who are interested) is not really the point here. After I finished reading, a little voice piped up from the back.

 

“Aunt Ashley are you going to continue your writing?”

A little taken aback, because this is not my story that I’m reading to them I do finally respond.

“Yes, Sadie I am.”

“Good.”

“Are you going to continue with your  writing?”

“Yes I am.”

“You better.” I tell her.

You see, over the Christmas holidays I pitched my book to a publisher so we spent a long time talking as a family about my book and writing and the process. Sadie, my oldest niece, is often listening even when we think she is playing. She may look like a child, but she has the mind and intellectual capacity of someone much older so by the time we were visiting my sister in January, the first thing Sadie wanted to show me was the book she had written. Yes, my niece had written a book, unprompted, just because she wanted to. And it was good too, using higher order thinking with a unique plot twist that I didn’t see coming. The best part, however, was how she felt the need to explain that what she was reading was just the rough draft and how her final draft was going to be much better. Ah, I love how well they learn when they are young!

Now, Sadie is becoming my muse and accountability girl. She may be only six (almost seven!), but sometimes it’s that kind of childlike enthusiasm and energy that you need to keep you inspired. Because when you have someone who always believes in you, who thinks that you are worth imitating…well…who wouldn’t want to keep moving forward?

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Student from my class; identity protected for privacy purposes

Stories and Lies

When I was a little girl I was taught that we do not lie for any reason. In my childish brain this meant that when you do something wrong or something that you are not supposed to do then you do not make up a story about it. If you do, then something on par with a lightning strike coming down from the very heavens might come and strike you down or the earth might swallow you whole. Despite this engrained fear of fabrication, I still managed to distinguish the stories that are regarded as lies from the stories that are considered creative writing genius. From this moment of eminent discovery, I have been spitting out stories in as many ways as I can and preparing to one day teach writing to others. During spring cleaning this year, I stumbled across this pure writing genius from the late 1990s entitled “Twisted Kidnapping”.

                 My Father was killed in a freak accident about 6 months ago. He went out with some friends one night, and got drunk. When he was walking to his car he ran out right in front of a Pepsi truck and was killed instantly. My Mother was killed after giving birth to her sixth boy. After her death, about 2 months ago, all my brothers were sent to an orphanage 2 blocks down. I’m 16 so they let me stay at my preacher,   Herman Mister’s, house until further notice. He was a very nice man. One day he gave me this letter that said I was to stay at my Uncle Bert’s house. I’ve never met my Uncle so I had no idea what to expect. I set out immediately for my uncle’s house. The letter said that my uncle lived in a town called Clarence Ville. About 2 days later I arrived at Clarence Ville. I stopped a young man, at about the age of 20, to ask him about how to get to Bert’s house. “Excuse me…?” “The name’s Clarence “I, um I’m Peanut McDoodle, do you know where I can find Mr. Bert?” “Well sure, but you don’twant to find him!?” “Yes I do.” “If you say so, He lives in that log cabin over there.” “Thanks, by the way, did they name this town after you ?” “No, well yes, you see every man or boy’s name is Clarence, and every woman or girl’s name is Clare.” “Oh, okay, well thanks again! Later!” “Bye” What a strange town I thought. _____________________________ I looked up and up and up. My Uncle’s house was at least 5 stories tall. I felt like screaming and running away. The house was a dirt brown color with a chimney that is cement and gray. Next to the house was a half finished water tower. It is yellow orange and red striped all the way up. To where the builder left off. Just as I was getting up enough nerve to knock on the door, it opened! Out came a man, the ugliest man I’ve ever seen! He had at least 2 warts on his nose and 1 on his cheek, It made me so sick1 “Who are YOU???the man said in a bossy, sassy ,snobby ,voice. “I’m P-P-Peanut McDoodle, sir.” “My brother’s son?” “Yes.” “Well, come in, come in. You must be hungry, eat some of this bread, then I’ll show you to your room” True to his word right after a slice of bread he led me up the stairs to the fifth story bedroom. As soon as I stepped inside the room, he locked the door. “Hey, HEY! Let me OUT! LET ME OUT!?” I screamed. When no one answered I sat down and started to think. I had a PLAN! ______________________________ THUMP!! “What are you doing up there boy?” No answer. “I said What are you……?” He stopped short when he opened his door. There were bed sheets hanging out of the window and the mattress was lying on the ground. Suddenly out of no where the boy jumped out right in front of Bert, kicked him the ankle and ran locking the door behind him. As soon as he got outside he pulled the bed sheets down and moved the mattress out from in front of the window. He looked around and saw a bag of rabid chipmunks. Probably meant for me I thought. Well I‘ll just use his powers against him!! I through the bag in the window and sat outside the door with a shot gun in handy. There was a loud scream and silence. Abducted by WHAT? About 2 days after my Uncle’s death as I was finishing the water tower when a grey hound bus pulled up. Someone stepped out took me by the hand and forced me on the bus, and knocked me over the head, I passed out. When I finally came to a 3 foot chipmunk was handing me a piece of bread. Ok. Now I have seen a lot in my life, but a 3 foot chipmunk? That’s when I saw him, Clint Eastwood. I was so surprised I passed out again. When I came to again I saw many pictures on the walls. Pictures of Mars and the Moon and all the other Planets. I was very stunned.

I didn’t edit this at all, simply copied and pasted. What it shows is an immature but deep appreciation for storytelling and writing—and the personality of a young girl who had a creative mind, a healthy imagination and a respect for distinguishing fact from fiction. Writing is not a science. It does not have a perfect formulaic equation that will work every time to produce a perfect work of art (Clearly! Just read the above again!). However, there are certain skills that we can teach ourselves and students in order to produce better expository, persuasive and creative writing. Most people know the steps of the writing process: prewriting, drafting, revising and proofing. However, just knowing the steps to the writing process is not enough to succeed in the process, there has to be something more. When I was in the fourth grade, I was a terrible writer. My diction and grammar were horrible and messy. It was this time period that solidified my belief in learning and teaching good writing skills and the encouragement that needs follow to help each kid find their niche. I still remember one of the papers that I wrote in fourth grade. I do not have a hard copy of it anymore, but I remember what it was that caused it to stick in my memory so forcefully. It wasn’t the organization or the diction, but rather the comments my teacher made. It was a creative writing assignment that I wrote about a girl who was lying to her mother about keeping a skunk in her room as a pet. The skunk gave off a terrible odor one day when her mother came into check up on the girl, but instead of telling her mother the truth, the girl lied and made the excuse that she had ‘farted.’ My teacher was impressed with my ability to cultivate a story that complex at my age, which was the kind of encouragement that I was used to from my teachers. But that is not what I remember the most. After she praised my story, she told me that using the word ‘fart’ in a paper was inappropriate. That dumbfounded me. It seems to me that in writing, and in teaching writing, it is difficult to say to a student that they are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ because it is the unconventional creative writers that thrive.  However, had the piece been non-fiction or expository her comment would have had more of a foundation, because different kinds of diction are required for the various types of writing. My teacher’s comment has taught me what I want to pass on to others about writing as a process, but even more importantly, it educated me on what I do not want to pass on. Instead of teaching formulas, writing requires an initial demonstration of methodology followed by intense practice. Since my fourth grade epiphany, I have been perfecting this theory. Often during my education courses we were encouraged to be supportive of students’ work. We were told to use reinforcement instead of punishment in order to fully develop the students’ abilities. This kind of thinking applies to teaching writing too, but more importantly we should encourage the students to find themselves in their writing. Much of the writing process is recognizing yourself as a writer.  Becoming  aware of your strengths and weaknesses as a writer helps you to improve your own work. Commenting on style, appreciating uniqueness and encouraging creativity can all help a others recognize their own writing niche. Once a writer identifies their own voice they can work with it to make it the best it can possibly be. However, if the voice remains foreign, the writer’s understanding is inhibited by confusion. The writer spends most of their time scrambling to make sense out of the unknown and falls behind as a result. As teachers, writers and critiquers, it is our job to facilitate the discovery of the self to help each other become thriving writers. Many of these comments and ideas are theories, ideas I have learned in school which will help me, but not nearly as much as experience. Just like Scientific theories must be tested, so must writing theories. Because my parents taught me not to lie, I discovered how to write.  My fourth grade teacher encouraged me to create, and so I formulated an opinion on teachers and writing. I have had many good teachers who have taught me about subject matter and theory, but experience has been the best teacher that I have ever had, so I end up with stories that read more like this:

          Eerie quiet hugged the house in the early morning hours. Feeling like an intruder, Andi made herself continue for the door instead of returning to the comfort of the upstairs bedroom. Once outside, she took calculating steps down to the lawn, where she sat down with her legs stretched out in front of her. She felt her muscles tighten in protestation as she reached for her toes, sheltered by her faithful, worn Shox TL Nike—the most expensive running shoe around. As she sat up again, her muscles gave a sigh of relief before pinching up again as the cycle continued. During her warm up, her mind carefully planned the perfect run that would circle the front yard, bringing her up by then fence, then down around the barn and finally back up by the house. Not exactly the Olympic track Michael Johnson would have chosen, but satisfactory for the stress relief that she needed at that particular moment in time. Her thoughts were running loose and she wanted to return them to the Alcatraz of her mind. Both legs felt ready for their work out as she shook them out, the laces flailing and thumping on the black and blue polyurethane shox columns. Her legs pumped up and down, grinding the dirt beneath her feet as she jogged in place. Then, as if a starting gunshot had pierced the air, she took off around the yard, pushing herself, slowly at first and then faster and faster. She circled two times before the tears of frustration started to fall. They carved dirt caked trenches down her face and neck and blinded her with their glistening salty sting. Then her nose began to run, causing her to sniffle and snuff as she gasped for breath around the obnoxious emotions. Pushing herself to run harder and faster, she made the next two laps in record time in her attempt to escape the tantalizing voices in her head. But the faster she ran, the louder they became. On her fifth lap, she began to feel weak and slowed down as she made her way up by the fence. With a surge of adrenaline, she forced herself to sprint for the barn, seeing nothing. She’d barely made it around when her foot caught on the roots of the grass and she fell like a giraffe, head over heels until she was nothing but a heap of dirt-caked human, a peachy-brown contrast to the Bermuda green grass.

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Open up your mind to the stories within.
(Door to SECCA house in Winston Salem, NC)

My Voice

“I write to give myself strength. I write to be the characters that I am not. I write to explore all the things I’m afraid of,” says Joss Whedon.

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Photo via buzzfeed.com 25 quotes that will inspire you to be a fearless writer

If you are cultured enough to know who Joss Whedon is, bravo. I on the other hand have to admit that I had to look him up after having read this beautiful and incredibly accurate quote, and am I ever glad I did. Joss Whedon is a screenwriter with some very notable and, if I may say so myself, kick ass screen plays. Some of his works include: The Avengers and Firefly, and my brother-in-law will even chime in to agree with my assertion of his works when I add Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel to his notable titles.

Regardless of your personal feelings for science fiction and supernatural drama, Whedon’s words resound deep in my journey to find my voice as a writer.

STRENGTH

Writing gives me strength in ways I can’t explain. I’ve always envied my siblings. Strength has come to them so naturally. Socially they fit in no matter where they go, and people just want to be their friend. They both have a natural charisma and strong personality that I admire in more ways than they will ever realize.

I have looked up to my sister since I was born; I truly believe that is what God designed big sisters for. She was born with a natural strength of self. To me, she is almost superhuman. When I need perspective or when I’m turning into a crazy person, she is usually the first person I call because she is so rock solid in her thinking and emotional outlook. Beyond that she has a strong faith that I can only hope to aspire to someday.

My brother is strong socially and mentally in ways that I will never be. He can think on his feet and react without having to weigh the pros and cons five hundred times. Taking risks and experiencing the fullness of what life has to offer is his speciality. His natural intelligence and wit, not to mention physical strengths, are character traits I lack, but wish I could cultivate.

When I write, I can.

I know this sounds like I’m whining about what I can’t do, but that isn’t my intention. I’m proud of who I am as a person and I have a lot of great qualities—my point is simply that writing gives me a chance to harness the strengths that I have longed for most of my life. It allows me to feel, to heal, and ultimately to be whomever I want to be.

TO BE CHARACTERS I AM NOT

I know who I am.

Writing gives me a chance to be who I am not.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t like who I am; on the contrary, I believe it gives me the chance to show just how much I love myself by exploring the different parts of my own reality and deep desires. And isn’t that what we are all trying to do in this crazy world anyway?

TO EXPLORE ALL THE THINGS I AM AFRAID OF

Because writing gives me strength and because it allows me to be someone I’m not, it allows me to explore worlds, things, and even emotions I am naturally afraid of.

And sadly, I’m afraid of a lot.

I’ve always wanted to take a hot air balloon ride; this shocks most people who know me well simply because I’m terrified of heights. And we’re talking I can barely climb a ladder. In my novel I wrote a scene where my character, also afraid of heights, overcomes this fear and experiences the hot air balloon with a spirit of adventure I’ve never had.

And in a way, that spirit of adventure becomes a part of me helping me to explore and reach to even deeper rooted fears than a physical distaste for heights. Deep within me, deep within most of us, is a fear of rejection. Does writing take away that fear? Of course not; in a lot of ways, it actually opens up it up to public scrutiny. So in that way, writing forces me to face the fear which is an exploration in and of itself.


 

So, today I am a writer, an artist, an explorer, an adventurer; I am who I am and I am who I am not—who could ask for more?