Five-card story

For three summers now, my district has offered a week-long Teacher Writing Institute, an invitation for K-12 teachers to deepen their identity as writers, hone their craft, and experiment with form. One of my great joys is co-facilitating this event.

I love to see how teachers rate themselves as writers and teachers of writing at the beginning, then, at weeks’ end, how much higher they rate themselves. They’ve written and shared a lot; confidence has spiked. Which is the whole rationale for the institute: Write first for yourself; grow so you can help the students grow.

Every year I stretch myself a little more with writing exercises and modeling for participants. I try new things.

This time it was Five Card Flickr.

Here’s how it works: Go the site and select Play a Round. Five random photos will appear. Choose one, and another round of five photos appears. Choose another, and keep going until you complete a sequence of five cards.

Then write the story represented by those cards.

When playing individually, you can share your story online with the 5cardflickr community if you like. At the Summer Writing Institute, we opted for selecting the photos as a group, with everyone writing their own version of the story in their notebooks.

Here are the photos we selected together during our round (all credited to bionicteaching ):

5cardflickr 15cardflickr 25cardflickr 35cardflickr 45cardflickr 5

One participant asked a question: “Should we write the story with scenes in the same sequence as the pictures, or can we switch it up?”

“I think that should be up to you, since we’re writing in notebooks,” I replied. “Just know the site won’t allow you to manipulate the order of the photos at the end of the online selection round.” (I had given it a try the day before).

And so, for about fifteen minutes, we wrote.

I wrote, too, as I do everything I ask students—or in this case, colleagues—to do.

Besides, I felt an idea bubbling . . .

Every day I pass by the brothers’ building. Hoarders, the neighbors said. Apartment full of junk to the ceiling. No one ever goes in and we’ve never seen them come out.

I used to stare up at that window but all I could ever see was a bit of lace curtain from a bygone era and the reflection of my own apartment building across the street. 

That was before the smell.

Before the police were called.

Before the medical examiner came and one of the brothers was wheeled out in a body bag.

Dead for a week, caught in his own booby-trap, rigged to keep intruders out.

The remaining brother, white-haired, frail, bedridden for who knows how long, was carted off to a hospital where he died in a matter of hours.

On the day the city sent people in hazmat suits to start cleaning out the apartment, a violent wind whipped through the streets, slapping against the crowd of us gathered on the sidewalk. The brothers’ neighbor, Mrs. Rosales, put her hands  in the air as their belongings were hauled out. A whole human skeleton, jars with alien things in fluid, a stuffed peacock with majestic tail feathers fully fanned . . . I couldn’t determine if Mrs. Rosales was shielding herself from the sight of it all or just bracing herself against the wind. Her scarf whipped out behind her like a red flag, waving.

Of all the objects I saw, the scarf is what I couldn’t get out of my mind that night. For a long time I watched from my apartment window on the top floor, as workers carted bulky things in the darkness, passing in front of floodlights across the street like shadows, like ghosts.

I tried to sleep and couldn’t.

All my life those old men had lived right across from me and I’d never seen them. Heard their dad been a doctor decades ago. Their mother, a socialite. How do people with such comfortable beginnings in life come to such bizarre endings? And who was left to truly mourn the brothers? Was mourning even appropriate, given their circumstances?

In the morning, as I walked to work past the brothers’ building as always, on the familiar, crumbling sidewalks I spotted something I’d never seen beforesome kind of petals. Pink and white, soft and delicate, as if they’d just fallen to the old gray stones where they lay.

Except that there are no such trees in this city.  There are, in fact, no trees at all anywhere nearby.

I stood rooted to the stones, lost in thought, mulling the presence of these petals, when a hand grabbed my arm.

I jumped—and relaxed.

Mrs. Rosales.

“Mamá told me long ago their mother had a tulip tree.” Her voice sounded strange, distant. I followed her gaze up to the window with the lace curtain, the one that reflected my building. Where the brothers were, and were no more.

I wanted to say Why are the petals here now? Where’d they come from? If they came off of that tulip tree long ago, they’d be dried, brown. . . these petals were fresh. They couldn’t have fallen out of the brothers’ things. . . could they?

But I couldn’t speak. I just watched Mrs. Rosales walking away after she patted my arm in parting, as she headed for some unknown destination, her scarf flapping behind her like a waving red flag. . . .

And when I looked back at the brothers’ building, my eyes fell on a rusted gate enclosing tiny old courtyard, tucked into a recess. Why I had I never noticed this before? I felt drawn—called—to go in, to see where the courtyard led. It had to be a secret entrance to the brothers’ apartment, surely.

But on the rusty gate sat a shiny new chain and padlock, gleaming in the morning sun.

I shall never enter, will never know the whys of the brothers, who went with all their stories locked inside of them. Forever.

*******

My inspiration: The Collyer Brothers, 1881-1947, who lived in a Harlem brownstone. I read about these two famous hoarders years ago. Over a hundred tons of trash was removed from their apartment after their deaths. Truth is far stranger, and more horrifying, than fiction: One brother had fallen ill and the other was caring for him, tunneling through the hoarded stuff, when his own booby-trap really did kill him. Without anyone to care for him, the sick brother died there, too. Nearly two weeks later.

At the writing institute, these five randomly-dealt cards on Flickr selected by my colleagues—beginning with the old window, the old brick building—immediately stirred the haunting memory sleeping in my mind. So much of writing is memory and the search for meaning. Once you start writing, you’re never sure what might come . . . what strange petals will drift through, what red flags might start waving, what gates will remain locked to you. . .  although hopefully not forever.

A story will find a way to be told.

Just open yourself, and write.

Dust motes

Dust motes

Dust. ZoiKorakiCC BY

Last week I had the pleasure of co-facilitating my district’s third annual Teacher Summer Writing Institute. K-12 teachers were invited to deepen their sense of identity as writers, hone their craft, and experiment with form. Guest author Matt de la Peña led us through a series of writing explorations on Day One.

Here’s how it went for me as de la Peña used this exchange from “Steady Hands at Seattle General,” a short story by Denis Johnson, as a springboard for capturing images: 

“What about your past?”
“What about it?”
“When you look back, what do you see?”
“Wrecked cars.”

What might those two words mean, de la Peña muses aloud for the benefit of participants. 

“Wrecked cars?” Might they be literal or figurative? 

He goes on: Choose two words to create an image describing your past—when you look back, what do you see? 

At first I wrote ‘Christmas trees’. When I look back, I see them. From my grandmother’s all-silver, 1960s tabletop tree to my real Fraser fir decked in Victorian decor. Christmas trees mean another year is ending. That life and perspectives change continuously. To me they symbolize more than tradition. They mark time. Eras. Celebrations. Losses. Our children grow up; grown-ups from our own childhood pass away . . . between chapters of the unfolding story of life stands a tree.

When I look back, I see it all.

Suddenly I don’t want to use those words, Christmas trees.

In that instant, two other words materialize: 

Dust motes. 

I do not know why.

Except that I can clearly see the image of my childhood living room, a shaft of light between the drawn curtains of the picture window, the dust floating there, tiny specks of gold— 

He’s speaking, de la Peña. Asking if any of us would share our two words.

After a moment, I volunteer. 

“Dust motes?” he questions.  “I’ve not heard this before. I’m curious—why?”

Well,” I say, thinking as I speak, “it’s the image that came to mind, a shaft of light with dust specks floating in it . . . maybe because as a child I spent much time to myself, reading, in the stillness, in silences . . . when I look back, that’s what I see. Dust motes being partly your own skin. Shed cells. Pieces of yourself floating in that light . . . “

His expression is unfathomable. 

He says: “That’s fascinating and eerie. It lends itself to something really creepy . . .”

I consider this a compliment. 

De la Peña shares a model, “What Jimmy Remembers” from Jimmy & Rita by Kim Addonizio (2012):

Girls in white stockings and checkered wool jumpers, round white collars, red bows at their throats. Birds in Saint Christopher’s schoolyard—hundreds of them, black, spread out across the lawn in late afternoon. The brick wall of the steel mill on Dye Street he could see from the living room window, his father in there working, his mother in a shiny black dress coming in at dawn after singing in some nightclub, waking him for school. Shivering and dressing over the heating vent in the front hall. Dark-blue blazer and black shoes. A puppy that died of distemper, put in a shopping bag and into a can in Bushler’s Alley. Cotton candy on the boardwalk in Seaside Heights, the barkers calling Hey bub, Hey sonny, Buster, Skip, You. . .The black hearse carrying his father through the snow, a semicircle of metal folding chairs. The green faces in avocado leaves smiling down at him. God in the clouds. Who art in Heaven. His mother, ghost now: wearing a stolen mink, flipping a cigarette from a deck of Lucky’s. His father moving toward her with a match, cupping his palms around the flame.

—All images, fragments, this bit of microfiction.

“Now, using your two words as a title, take a few minutes to write what you remember from your past, but here’s the challenge: Don’t mention those two words in your scene,” says de la Peña. “Don’t worry about proper sentences. Just write . . . “

My pencil is already scratching away against the notebook paper: 

Hand-me-down corduroy Levi’s in baby blue, green, tan, cream. Ashtrays overflowing. Trips in aging Fords to buy discounted boxes of Salem menthols. Complimentary bubblegum cigarettes. A screen of smoke in the air mingled with chicken grease. Ivory Liquid suds in the sink, stiff, dry, stained with spaghetti sauce. Bathroom wall by the tub caving in where a soap dish used to be. The biting scent of Pine-Sol as it’s poured in the toilets, rolling white like smoke, clouding the water like creamer in coffee. Vaporizer in my bedroom, rattling, sputtering. The hallway, broom leaning against the wall, a gathered pile of gray lint.  Bullet in the living room rug, in the floor, if you know where to look. Books. Books. Books. Silences. Shafts of light through the picture window, beckoning from beyond. The wrought-iron lamppost by the concrete steps leading to and from the front door, the heavy, decadent fragrance of my mother’s gardenias in various stages of living and dying on the bushes there. Church carillon chiming, loud and clear, from several blocks away: Let me hide myself in Thee. The pungent whiff of crab from the factory, if the wind is just right. Salt. Salt. On my baked potato, tin foil too hot to touch, on my popcorn, on the wind. The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind. All we are is dust in the wind. Words and words in my head and my heart, pouring onto stacks of pages that are always able to hold it all, and which never judge, which just absorb, and save.

There you have it. Dust motes. What I see when I look back, at least in part.

With apologies to Matt de la Peña, for while I didn’t use “motes” anywhere in my remembering, there was just no getting around “dust.” 

But also with deepest thanks to him for creating the conditions for this writing to occur.

Which is what good writing teachers do.

On Tolkien

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes, a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring . . . .
—J.R.R. Tolkien

I went to see the movie Tolkien this weekend. My thoughts, while sitting in the darkened cinema, watching it play:

Story is magic.

Reading aloud is magic.

Words are magic.

All are part of writing magic. 

Whatever critics may say of the movie, however accurate it may or may not be in depicting the early life of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, as a writer, I loved it. For me it beautifully captured the way a writer’s mind works.

When young John Ronald sat by the fireplace, utterly captivated by his mother’s reading and enactment of a dragon, I could relate to how the book and her voice spurred images to life in his mind. How flickering shadows on the walls, thrown by a candle carousel, took on the shapes of  mythological beings, how story played in his brain as vividly as this movie played in mine. I understood how these images stayed with him long after his mother died, after he landed as an orphan in a boarding house, even how they grew nearer, larger, clearer on the battlefields of the first World War while he succumbed to trench fever. I admired the artistry of the shadowy images recurring onscreen as part of Tolkien’s memory, recognizing: That is exactly what images DO. Once they spring to mind, they are THERE. They lurk, they submerge, they resurface. They’re never gone; they settle and swirl about again, waiting, waiting, waiting always, for the solidity of a page.

I loved how the movie emphasized the young Tolkien’s passion for words, particularly in a romantically-charged scene with Edith Bratt, who would become his wife. Tolkien speaks of the beauty of the phrase “cellar door.” He is enraptured by the sound of it. Edith tells him that it is not the sound of  a word that gives it beauty, but its meaning—what the word stands for, all that it connotes. This is reiterated in a scene with Tolkien and Joseph Wright, Professor of Comparative Philology at Oxford, on the mightiness of ships, buildings, civilizations, history, all summed up in a three-letter word: oak. Connotations, connections, deep, deep roots, power . . . in language, in phrasing, in a single word . . . is this not an ancient alchemy that writers come to know? 

And, at the same time, how captivating is the story of an orphaned boy making it to Oxford, himself becoming a renowned professor of philology (the study of the structure and historical development of language, if ever you’re a contestant on Jeopardy!). It’s the story of a man overcoming circumstances and being a genius, the roots of which run back to Tolkien’s childhood, to the Latin his mother taught him, to the stories his mother read aloud to him.

—Story.  The apogee of language, of words. The ultimate form for which language and words exist. The creative force, perhaps, that calls them, drives them . . .

In the final scene of the movie, Professor Tolkien sits at a desk before an empty page and begins to write a now-famous line. I’ve read his own account of this: he was grading examinations, mind-numbing, “soul-destroying” work, when he discovered a blank page in an examination booklet. Without knowing why, he wrote on it: In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. This instantly reminded me of J.K. Rowling, how the idea of Harry Potter just “fell into her head” as she was riding a train. The genesis, the magical conception, of story;  it does not exist, but then, inexplicably, in the blinking of an eye, it does, and the world is changed by it. The Tolkien Society relates that after the professor wrote that line out of nowhere, he then needed to know: What was a Hobbit? Why did it live in a hole? To find out, Tolkien began to tell the story to his children . . . and thus, eventually, was born the archetype of all modern fantasy.

The old that is strong does not wither. Deep roots are not reached by the frost. From the ashes, a fire shall be woken. A light from the shadows shall spring . . . yes. It seems to me that in these words of his lies proof that old stories Tolkien began learning as a child remained strong in him; they didn’t wither. They sparked in him an unquenchable fire. Those roots of his love for language, quests, myth, survived the freeze of profound loss. His memories, experiences, the images from his childhood onward, all are the shadows, the ashes, from which his own stories spring.

So it is with writers.

Even if all who write are not Tolkien.

It’s still magic.

All that you hold dear

Fawn in hands

A new idea is fragile, fleeting

capture it as soon as you can.

Find the meaning

what it makes you think

how it makes you feel.

Nurture it

as you nurture the artist within you

so the idea and the artist will grow.

Play with the words

the images will come.

Play with the images

the words will come.

Trust your inner writer

to find a way

of conveying that idea, that image

so that others think and see

and feel.

There’s power in that fledgling thought

in every feeling connected to

 all that you hold dear.

More power in sharing it

than in holding it tight, unspoken.

Let it breathe

let it live.

It wants to.

It is precious.

Even

priceless.

Inspired by my writing workshop with teachers yesterday on “creating the magic”  – first as a writer, then for your writers.

slice-of-life_individualEarly Morning Slicer