Friday, July 26, 2013

Another quote of the week: Mary Oliver on poetry

For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry. Yes, indeed.
--Mary Oliver

What lovely imagery--and what a beautifully constructed sentence. Totally geeking out right now.

This is from her book, A Poetry Handbook, which is basically about how to read poetry. And a little bit about how to write it. I totally recommend it, even though it's kind of a school-y thing for a grownup to read.

I remember my first poetry class in college--Modern Poetry with I Forget The Professor's Name my junior year. I was already pretty good at close textual analysis (if I do say so myself) but this class really opened my eyes. The professor looked at all of these different elements--meter, rhythm, diction, syntax, form, imagery...stuff I really kind of knew about already but had never had them systematically named and unpacked for me.

 It's kind of like cooking. Having the right tools and learning how to use the properly can make all the difference. Everything is easier and more fun. 

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Quote of the Week: Terry Pratchett on writer's block

There's no such thing as writer's block. That was invented by people in California who couldn't write.
--Terry Pratchett

Not sure exactly what he means, but you gotta love that attitude.

I should point out that Terry Pratchett has published something like fifty books and is one of the best selling authors in Great Britain, keeping company with J.K. Rowling, James Patterson, John Grisham, Alexander McCall Smith, and J.R. Tolkien. He's an interesting guy. Obviously not prone to writer's block.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Poem-y moment of the week: "Fog" by Carl Sandburg

Remember this one from grade school, then middle school, then possibly even high school?

I love the quiet simplicity of this poem. I love the surprise of the little cat feet, and the transformational quality of that line. The fog becomes the cat, just that easily. And then it is the cat, or maybe the cat is the fog.

Carl Sandburg

The fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking over
harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

I quoted the first sentence on a handout for a poetry workshop I'm leading in a couple of weeks at the Adventures in Homeschooling Conference in Sacramento, and Tai happened to see it. "Is that something someone actually wrote," he asked, "or did you just make that up?" I wish.

I found the poem in its entirety and read it aloud to him. He was silent a moment, and then said simply, "I like that poem."

My heart swelled right up with...I don't know what--something good--for my poetry-liking boy.

But he wasn't finished. Then he explained to Kenzo--who had also listened to the poem and was now prowling around on little cat feet--about "haunches": "You know what haunches are, Kenzo? You know when Athena (our cat) is sitting or crouching? Right here (he squatted and pointed to his thighs), those are her haunches."

Kenzo squatted experimentally and looked down to check.

What an important line, that one with the haunches in it. It gives us the cat, alive. And that word, so muffled and soft and heavy-light, simultaneously grounded and ready to rise, so foglike, so watchful-catlike. You do kind of have to understand what haunches are in order to feel that poem all the way through.

Just the day before, Tai told me that poems had to rhyme and have rhythm, so it's interesting that he saw "Fog" as a poem. Maybe because I found it on But maybe not. I'll have to ask. At the time, I was just happy that he liked it.

It's not surprising, really. It's a great poem. It's short. It's evocative. And Tai is a cat fan and we do live near San Francisco. Though I have to say that the fast-motion stuff in SF and along the coast is a little different from the kind of fog that Sandburg probably imagined.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Celebrity Fashion Disasters as Writing Prompts

As promised in the last post, I tried out the "let's make snide comments about celebrities and their dresses" idea with Tai. Results are in and they are mixed. I didn't see the kind of voice, humor, and...liveliness that I was hoping for--a lot of his comments were literal and obvious--but hey, he's a beginner, it was fun and I think there's potential for development here.

For your viewing pleasure, I've included some of the pix and commentary in this post; click here to see the whole slide show. We skipped a few that either didn't inspire or that we actually liked. For example:

courtesy of

I love that Tai thought the jacket was just fine. And now without further ado, Tai's commentary on celebrity fashion disasters:

Lucy Liu:
She looks like a rose garden. Photo courtesy of

Lady Gaga:
She looks like a woman canible [sic]. Photo courtesy of

Someone I've never heard of:
She is a pink centaur. Photo courtesy of

Someone else:
She is wearing wallpaper. Photo courtesy of

Justin Bieber: 
A minion in a construction helmet. Photo courtesy of

and Beyonce:
A volcano! Photo courtesy of

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Fashion policery, imagery and vocabulary

I was indulging in a little HuffPo fluff reading about celebrity red carpet fashion (fashion risks: success or stumble?) when Tai snuck up behind me and said, "What's that?" So I explained the concept to him and he stood beside me as I clicked through a few slides.

About this one he said, "She looks like a milkmaid going a-Maying."

Courtesy of Huffington Post

That's one sleek and sexy milkmaid (HuffPo called this one a Success), but I get his point and I love that he said "a-Maying". Where did that come from? How many times can he possibly have heard or read that term?

You'd think that playing celebrity red carpet fashion police would be a very girly-girl thing to do, but both of my boys loved it. They had something to say about everyone:

That dress looks like her pants are falling down.

She looks like a criminal. 
(Sorry, Beyonce fans. Wondering if it's the skin tone, stripes, or shades. Hope I'm not raising a racist.)

That's just...weird.

So I'm hatching an idea that involves finding slideshows like this--they're everywhere on the web--and writing comments about each slide. We work on refining the imagery and similes, and go for really apt description. This will be a do-it-together activity so we can be funny and snarky together (who can come up with the most creative critique or the spot-on-est description?), maybe with a pint of ice cream or a bowl of popcorn. Probably the fashion blunder photos will provide the best fodder. As always, we'll need to start with a couple of good model sentences.

If celebrity fashion doesn't appeal, I'm sure there are variations: tricked-out cars or bikes, home decorating disasters, bad hair, hats.

I'll try it this week and report back.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Perfectionism and Writer's Block: Baby Steps to Overcoming Both

One big cause of writer's block is perfectionism. This is what is sounds like at our house:
  • I can't think of anything interesting to say.
  • Everything I think of is stupid.
  • Everything I think of is boring.
  • I can't think of how to say what I'm thinking.
  • I can't describe it. It's too hard/complicated.

The fear seems to be that the sentences on the paper are just not going to do justice to the vision in the blocked writer's head, whether the vision is a specific, fully-fleshed out plot/character/idea or just a vague sense that whatever he writes should be clever and beautiful and correctly spelled. I wonder if this problem might be worse in perfectionist kids who also read a lot of good writing. It's like girls who read fashion magazines and then spend the rest of their lives feeing fat and ugly because they're not as thin as runway models or as picture perfect as cover girls. You don't even have to read the magazines to have this problem, actually. All you have to do is watch TV or go to the movies or stand in line at the grocery stores and see the magazine covers.

But that's a separate issue. Back to writing.

Reading good writing is a great way to internalize how good writing should look and sound. It improves vocabulary, gets people comfortable with complex syntax, and provides models for all kinds of skills. Tai can produce pretty sophisticated language for his age, mostly when he talks, occasionally when he writes; I attribute this to his reading and maybe to the language he hears around the house. But often his own self-consciousness and, I don't know—fear of not being able to match the quality of what he reads?—get in the way of producing anything at all.

And finally on to more practical things. Here are a few steps I've taken to try to chip away at the wall between the perfectionist attitude and producing writing.
  • We turned off spellcheck on the computer—those red lines can be so distracting. You're not supposed to worry about spelling in first drafts and journals anyway.
  • For a while, we used frequently misspelled words from journal entries to create spelling lists. I knew that the words will be used again, which gave my writer lots of practice. Sometimes if there was a useful spelling pattern involved, I just picked one word and added some similar ones. This made spelling practice immediate, regular, and practical. We did have quizzes, but they were more like check-ins—let's see if you can spell that word easily. If not, no big deal—just keep practicing. One great thing about homeschool.
  • Every once in a while, we go small—we do writing exercise that are just words or phrases or sentences. Perfectionists don't understand (or maybe don't like) that bumbling along and writing down every ridiculous thought as you go can help develop your thoughts. They want things to burst forth fully formed from their heads like Athena, and the thought of having to produce a whole perfect Something in one go can be paralyzing. If I were more patient and had more trust in the process, I'd stay with small and go bigger in baby steps, until we get to paragraphs. But I'm not.
  • An example of starting small: we have contests making lists of words, phrases, or sentences—I have a big handicap so Tai wins a lot; winning builds his confidence and makes things more fun for him, so he's more willing to challenge himself in the next round or the next contest/exercise.
  • Sometimes when we have a contest I award bonus points for mistakes. Deliberately make one that your perfectionist can catch. Then say, “Awesome! Bonus points for mistakes!” and award yourself an extra point.
  • If you can, get your hands on copies of early drafts of the works of great writers. Look in the library or on the Internet for collected/complete works, manuscripts, or drafts. Marvel together at how much the piece changes from the draft to publication.
  • I find specific things to praise, so that my writer knows what works (at least for me). Not a whole lot of things, either. Now he has a manageable number of clearly defined successes to try and replicate later.

Any additional suggestions are welcome, as always.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Quote of the week: Anne Lamott on perfectionism

A variation on last week's theme:

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won't have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren't even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they're doing it.
--Anne Lamott