Category Archives: Teaching writing

‘Chickens waste heroic dreams’: Creating and revising poems in class

After my students made poems using the Poetry Bingo technique, I modeled a poetry-revision method. I led a class discussion-and-creation session in which we took four 10-word poems and brainstormed several new two-word phrases from those. We grouped some of these phrases into sentences, calling that a new poem. Then I read that poem aloud to the class and I asked particular students which words or lines they liked least (based on their feelings about the sounds or images or anything else about the words). We’d swap those out with others of the brainstormed phrases, or sometimes we looked up words randomly by my opening a book to a random page, putting my finger on a page, and taking whatever word(s) my finger pointed to. We subbed in the new word(s) and read the poem again and tried new change-outs; we did this for 20-30 minutes over two days’ class periods. We started with words that were joined almost accidentally, without intending any particular meanings, and we ended up with texts that seemed to grow almost by themselves into original poems. We said things we never would have thought to say. Here’s what resulted:

 

Sorry water mourns

the judge’s darkest promise.

The gods’ governors trade censors

for groaning temptations.

Earth signs glass bones

with sleeping wings.

Its death agonized

over ancient emotions.

— CW1, 2nd hour, Spring 2019

 

Chickens waste

heroic dreams.

Flat mountains

remain conscious.

Inside a palate, thick breezes

darken corrupt influences.

A blinded witness

frees persimmons.

— CW1, 3rd hour, Spring 2019

 

White rains white on sheets

— perhaps.

Hands expect joy to watch.

Dominion Friday records a man

while silence becomes action.

— CW1, 10th hour, Spring 2019

Note: Poems created by this method may seem abstract and be structured more by juxtaposition than by narrative, of course. This seems to be the kind of poem I prefer, poems that are mental palate-cleansers, poems that startle my mind out of conventional thought, and this is the kind of poetry-sensibility by which I teach the writing of poems. I’m not saying this is the only kind of poetry that’s valuable, but I do want to wake my students from their preconceived notions of what poems can be.

How to Write Creatively

Eight of the journals I bound over the recently concluded winter break.

After nearly 30 years of doing creative writing and over 15 years of teaching it, what I can profess are the following guidelines, which I still think about sometimes as I freewrite:

How to Write Creatively: Keep your pen moving across the page as you

1. Let go of ideas you already have. Ideas are arbitrary — there are at least 13 ways of looking at a blackbird. Making art is playing with ideas. You are not your ideas. Nobody knows what things really are. Question expectations. Release ideas you’ve heard from others or had yourself. Steer from others’ paths, others’ models. If you think you know what you’re making, change what you’re doing. If you’re not surprising yourself as you write, your readers won’t be surprised, either. There’s no wrong way, and other writers are your peers, not your idols.

2. Follow new ideas arising by your inner voiceKey to creativity — we’re NOT in control. We DON’T know where ideas come from — but we can just let them show up! Keep writing til the new ideas come. Write at the edge of thought — follow feelings and whims, get it all on paper, edit later. Ride your mind. Overdrive your headlights. Let the dog of your consciousness lead you astray. Write like you talk. Let your inner voice lead. The E.M. Forster quote: “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” If you have something to say,  just say it, and move on — the point is to find an idea you’d never thought before. Learn from yourself by writing to the edge of your thinking. You’re smarter than you consciously know.

The point of writing is to write, to enjoy the act of writing — find what’s fun for you to write. Writing doesn’t have to be about the tedious process of scraping words together to meet an assignment. The resulting text isn’t really the point. And yet, if you’d like to share some of your freewritings with others, you may want to 

Edit by Discovering:

Get time away from texts so you can see what’s there on the page and forget what you were trying to do — that’s how others will see your texts. Pick out your favorite parts, like taking a bunch of photos and choosing the ones that turned out the best. (There’s a W.D. Snodgrass essay in American Poetry Review a few years ago where he describes this as panning for gold.) There are many ways to tell a story — there is no perfect way to tell a story. Accept what you do, what you did, and move on. Your writings are not you — they are separate from you. Your consciousness makes the art but doesn’t appear with the art. Your art will be rooted in you being you. No one’s ever had your mind, your sensibility (as shaped by your experience, your influences, feelings) before. When you write through a persona, you’re not being original — the only way to be original is to be unselfconsciously, intimately yourself.

We write in place: My students and I in a hallway at school

From our school announcements of 23 February: 
Matt Hagemann decided to let his creative writing students feed the muse, so they left their classroom and sat in the north-facing second floor hall facing away from the windows. “It was a free writing assignment,” Hagemann said. “I told them to write about whatever they noticed.”
Hard at work were Hagemann, Riley Lodico and Cody Thompson. Noah Mershon and Angel Aguirre were taking notice at the time the photo was snapped.
Photo and caption by Vicki Snyder-Chura.

Where and when: In RTHS hallway outside Counseling Center, 2nd floor, facing windows to the north, Tues. 20 Feb. 2018, 8:31 a.m., 1st hour

I’ve never sat here and written before, but here I am, with a creative writing class. There’s a featureless gray sky — though there look to be a few horizontal features off to northern horizon. Most of my students sit on the radiator across the hall. They’re facing south — I wanted to see north. A woman holding what looked like the phone cover to her ear while the phone bounced alongside. It seems odd. Maybe I didn’t see it well.  There are reflections — well, silhouettes — of my students on the floor. There are waves in the reflections — the terrazzo floor’s not quite flat. Phone-ear woman and a young woman leave the Counseling Center together. Two people wearing glasses and carrying books come in thru east-end doors, walk a bit, then run into Counseling Center.

 

Where and when: In RTHS hallway outside Counseling Center, 2nd floor, facing wall to the south, Tues. 20 Feb. 2018, Noon:50 p.m., 8th hour

There’s water splashing on the rubbery roof over the student entrance — same place I saw ice last week. Mr. Oldenburg just passed me headed west to the teacher lunchroom. I don’t eat in lunchroom. … I heard a shout or shriek from the student-lunching area, a shout-shriek. … I see a couple fans spinning above the student commons. Some fans aren’t running. There’s a thereness to this school building — it doesn’t have to do anything (like any object), like I feel pressured to do when I’m here at school. C. and N. are sitting at the left and right sides, respectively, of the top half of the sans serif T shape painted on the wall. I forgot about these letters when I was sitting on that side of the hallway. It’s kinda funny to see these partial letters and to realize that these letters aren’t written to me but to someone much further away, that we’re too zoomed in to see what’s being spelled.

‘Love is Fake News’: Exquisite Corpse poems, Spring 2018

Here are this semester’s Creative Writing classes’ poems written in the Exquisite Corpse method.  What I love about these lines is how they were created almost randomly but have a kinda of weird logic. I like how some of these seem almost brilliant, in an obtuse way. See here for previous semesters’ poems.

Mysterious is what my relationship goals are not.

 

My future is the best artist.

 

The kid who’s rude, he is not all people.

 

Massive pencils write words fastly.

 

Night and day are different colors.

 

I is a letter in the corner that was like nothing.

 

Greatness exists only in the darkest of nights.

 

Summer is when I am always struggling to spell out the reasons why.

 

It was a weird feeling, like the wind understood I was very discombobulated.

 

Words can make everything interesting.

 

Writing makes me wanna sleep in your bed tonight in the moonlight under the enchanted sea dance at the red light at the end of trains.

 

I loved and I lost: one mitten, orange, with the help of shoes on the old person of interests.

 

Birds are all flying to be or not to run from the police who started at me, a person who loves the cold pillow during the hot summer night.

 

Time stills in the silence.

 

A golden mountain lived a long time before the end of the end of the day.

 

Great people make life worth my time.

 

You are dumb, even though he can remember his own death.

 

When I woke up in the sky — tonight is before tomorrow — I will sleep in time.

 

I watch way too much of what we say.

 

The picket fence keeps me safe from me.

 

Coat is all bloody when she hits the baseball bat hard.

 

Eerie quiet came after I went to Heaven and Hell.

 

Slowly the body decayed — until the last minute.

 

The way the waves slide over the next few years.

 

Stuff is a lot of stuff. A lot of stuff can be really annoying.

 

Father, why are we fighting chickens?

 

Always play along with the other people.

 

In the front of the lonely rowboat that couldn’t go too far away from dogs today, it’s finally Friday.

 

You are the best person who is good at that.

 

Sleeping with the fishes is why she left him.

 

Sentences are fun when you swim with sharks.

 

Nothing to do with her smile brightens the room.

 

To love is to live as though you are fairytales.

 

Integrity is an important attribute of fire.

 

Cake is the best kind of pizza.

 

So I learned a new chapter in life: you only live once. Or twice.

 

It became real to secretly speak to her.

 

More people will die if I can fly high and eat fresh prince.

 

My friend, your desire to pass physics class is boring.

 

Songs are fun to jump off the stairs from.

 

Light mayonnaise is the best taxidermied pigeon I’d ever seen.

 

To hide the children, have a secret language.

 

Pumpkin pie is a good dessert eagle.

 

Galaxies are very extra around here.

 

Food is the best thing that looks yellow.

 

Time something that is priceless.

 

My sister hit a judge. I am not guilty.

 

Circles are so dang round like a circle.

 

Please enjoy the hemoglobin because my mom said no.

 

The pie is done and now I can really be true and false.

 

Safety belts out a loud burp.

 

True feelings are definitely not sure if it’s correct.

 

My life story is not aloud at Walmart.

 

I love to sleep like a baby who finds a big kite in the sky.

 

I went to eat everything in my house, family, love, laughter.

 

In my best friend is crazy bread.

 

That an old lady is old and dying seems like quite an apple pie: sugary, delicious.

 

I can’t breathe. Slow down your thinking.

 

Yesterday, all my troubles seemed awfully sketchy to me.

 

With stars I dance.

 

Parties never really end well.

 

Dance is fun when you will never know why.

 

Purpose is just an illusion of dreams and desires.

 

Hidden talents are just ways to drown a rock.

 

Hats and cats don’t rhyme like dogs and cats.

 

A cat is a bad idea when your head is gone.

 

Yesterday it feels like I’m the very best liar we have. Come over and you’ll see if this makes sense.

 

Consequences are not needed anymore.

 

Awesome is a boring word that rhymes with time.

 

Crazy people are very fun games to play.

 

Novels are neat, tidy, and clean lawyers.

 

Bombs make strong enemies.

 

Love is fake news.

 

The dog is to cat as if I were Little Red Riding Hood.

 

Jobs are not done by the water.

 

Boxers get paid money and let the rest happen.

 

Fruits and vegetables aren’t healthy because everyone likes different things.

 

Good apples aren’t good bananas.

 

Rabid weasels don’t know what’s up.

 

Poop is a common side effect.

 

You don’t have to say that this is weird.

 

Hairless cats are really awkward and hairy men.

 

She won the medal for sleeping like a teenager.

 

On top of a mountain is where we fell down a mountain.

 

My favorite item that is very overpriced is everything everywhere.

 

My tummy growls when you are a class that is music always on replay.

‘Best leave it to the pros and cons’: Exquisite Corpse poems, Fall 2017

Here are this fall’s Creative Writing classes’ poems written in the Exquisite Corpse method.  What I love about these lines is how they were created almost randomly but seem to have a kinda of weird logic. I like how some of these seem almost brilliant, in an obtuse way. See here for previous semesters’ poems.

Americans are impatient with my whole life.

A big storm came to my house, for I am a gentleman.

A strange door is where I be the person you admire.

I go to party like an animal goes to get some gas.

Gross-looking fish often smell what the man cooks.

I literally can’t stand people that like me or unlike my milkshake.

When he woke up, he was not in poverty.

Since 2000, I was born in the hospital.

Beautiful panda breaks the Internet to order some parts of the world.

She has an ugly smile like you’re eating lemons to make lemonade.

Boy, you have betrayed me, and you are great.

Miles we have come to the gorilla festival.

Penguins that live in the patience I held.

Thing One and Thing Two plus two equals to all human rights and lefts.

I really cannot control her nuclear proliferation.

Everyone and everything is not what you are.

I’m swimming in a sea of something funny that happened.

The school sounds fun like tying a fish to crash into a car.

Best leave it to the pros and cons.

My own sorrow cannot hold onto my hand.

Me is something that was already said.

You are my sun shine is like the sun shine.

I lost my pencil in your name.

Place the gun on the only husband.

Those who appreciate you look very hot today.

Fender on a car breaks so simple like ice is cold.

The Wright brothers are like sisters but boys.

The zookeeper ran to keep the penguins inside the body.

Dude, I want to hang out with me, said no one ever.

Here I once was a way you smile.

Be smart if you want to survive — it’s not that hard.

The bird flew far, far away where the movie was very boring.

That gray cat leaps off the sofa, but will the world end?

Behind the wall exists God or aliens.

“Duh” is what I exclaimed to your mama’s grave digger.

Dispute this because I think about it, and you are so nice.

First I went bald yesterday.

I slipped and fell down the stairs at room temperature during winter.

Sad like a broken plate with soul food delicious.

I’m trying so hard for somebody to notice the fire alarm.

My student Ali gets published!

My creative writing student Ali Van Vickle recently took initiative and submitted a short story to TeenInk.com, which published her story! Here’s the start:

I was born in New Orleans into a wealthy family who gave me everything I needed. I’m your typical 13 year old. I love to ride my bike with my friends. As long as I can remember I’ve been happy. I remember my first day of kindergarten was terrifying because I didn’t want to leave my momma. I remember meeting all of my friends and all of the people who weren’t my friends. There was this girl named Sara. She has tortured my friends and I everyday from kindergarten to seventh grade. One day my friends and I were riding our bikes down by the bayou even though our mommas always told us not to. Sara and her friends came and told us that this was their bike path, and if they ever caught us there again they’d throw us into the bayou to the gators. I never road my bike so fast away from something before. I’d never been so scared either.

See more of the story here. She also dedicated the story to me:

My biggest inspiration is my Creative Writing teacher Mr. Hagemann. He has always been encouraging, supporting, and helpful with any of my questions. And he always gives me his honest opinion on my work.

Thanks, Ali! Keep writing!

How to break through writer’s block

Thanks to former student Sam Moore’s request for advice, I too have something to post this evening: 

Two pieces of advice:

1. Sometimes it helps to stop working now and try later if you’re really not feeling it. But if the deadline is soon,

2. Just do a freewrite where you throw down onto the page or screen any and all words that come to mind, the closer to the assigned topic the better. Afterwards, go back and delete as much of the crap as possible, and turn the assignment in and hope to do better next time.

Thoreau had some advice I like in the “Conclusion” to Walden:

Having considered that in an imperfect work time is an ingredient, but into a perfect work time does not enter, he said to himself, It shall be perfect in all respects, though I should do nothing else in my life.

Or, in other words: If the quality of the work is the priority, then take all the time you need to make the work great. But if getting done on time is the priority, then do it without worrying so much about quality — it’s not the priority.