An ancient alchemy

One day at dismissal while I was monitoring the hallway, i.e., preventing a stampede, a fifth-grade girl approached me:

Mrs. Haley, I have been working on a story. I was wondering if you could give me some tips?

Of course! Is this an assignment for class?

No, it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while…

Even better. Have you written any of this story yet?

Yes, a little, but I’m stuck. C. told me how you helped him last year and he said youre the one to ask…

And so it was arranged that the student would come to meet me in the morning, story in hand.

She brought a friend. Another fifth-grade girl.

I began to sense that this was either a business conference or a council of wizards… maybe both.

The student read her story (a fantasy) and explained that she needed help with where to go next.

We discussed the strengths of her introduction and how to create a hook. The friend’s eyes glistened.

I asked several questions about the characters and their problem-solving adventure (i.e., plot). The story-writer answered aloud, expanding her own thinking. When I made a suggestion or two, both girls’ faces took on an otherworldly light.

Most of all, my young apprentices (I really didn’t say ‘my young apprentices’ — I only thought it as I spoke), if you’re going to have magic in this story, you have to stick to the rules you put in place or you’ll lose your readers. Does that make sense?

Oh yes, said the friend, nodding sagely. It still has to be believable.

And off they went, leaving me marveling in their wake about codes and spells and the power of one’s own mind to imagine the unimaginable, of idea-dust drifting through the atmosphere to settle upon whomever it chooses for bringing forth the story that wants to be told.

For, in a time and place when writing workshop is out of vogue and crafting responses to texts is essentially all the writing the present educational Powers That Be can imagine, what could be more magical than a child desiring to write a story for the sheer pleasure of it?

Nothing, I think. Nothing. It’s an ancient alchemy.

Go forth, young crafters.

Your stories await.

So do I.

So do we all.

John Steinbeck on Storytelling. Jill Clardy. CC BY-SA 2.0

*******

Special thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the weekly Slice of Life Story Challenge…supporting student writers starts with supporting teacher writers.

A poem of body and song

On the last day of National Poetry Month, Sarah J. Donovan, creator of Ethical ELA, invites teacher-poets to celebrate thirty days of writing for VerseLove. In studying a collection of poems dealing with struggle and celebration about what we are told and believe about ourselves, Sarah says: “I thought a lot about how our bodies hold and shape so much of who we are.” Today we write to own that we are writers and poets, considering figurative body language, other voices that have influenced us, and our own song.

For me, writing calls from sacred places, inherently requiring, as an act of creation, sacred spaces.

As such, writing, poetry in particular, takes on a life of its own. It starts as one thing and becomes another. This may be more than one poem. I am just letting it be.

Polyhymnia at the Core

And there was I as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been.
—C.S. Lewis, “How the Adventure Ended,” The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
 
The ghost
of my father
and grandfather
are here 
in the shape
of my face
something of them
about my cheekbones
my mouth
a certain turning

My grandmother
is in my bones
those are her arms
in the mirror
fixing my hair

no denying
my mother’s eyes

the Spirit sighs

I imagine Polyhymnia
nearby
(if I can choose
my Muse)
in long cloak and veil
finger to her lips
bright eyes glimmering
silken rustlings
as she leans
whispering, 
always whispering

it is with great love
that she raises
the lion’s claw
piercing every knobby layer
of my being
peeling away
until all that remains
at my tender core
is wordless song
singing there
all along

you are alive
alive alive alive
in the listening
in the remembering
in the faces
in the sacred spaces
where you have been brought
to learn
the unforced rhythms
of grace

now find your words
and be

Polyhymnia. Joseph Fagnani, 1869.

Polyhymnia’s name means “many praises.” She is the Muse of sacred poetry, hymns, and meditation.

The lion’s claw in my poem is an allusion to the referenced chapter in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, where Aslan peels away the enchanted dragon skin from Eustace, restoring him to his true—and transformed—self.

“Learn the unforced rhythms of grace” is from the paraphrase of Matthew 11:28-30 in The Message.

Write more

I started this blog in March of 2016 because I knew I needed to write more. At the time I was leading writing workshop training for elementary teachers and teaching writing lessons across grade levels; I would go on to co-design workshops for teachers as writers. Although I’ve loved the craft all my life, I wasn’t always an active writer; if I was going to encourage others to write, that needed to change. One must walk the walk… I came across the Two Writing Teachers Slice of Life Story Challenge too late that year, but I’ve been participating every year thereafter. I didn’t stop writing with the daily March challenge. I kept going on SOLSC Tuesdays. I found other online groups and wrote with them, too… and I kept going when my district moved away from the writing workshop model and stopped providing opportunities for teacher-writers. I kept on going when life took sharp turns. I kept writing because memories started flowing and I didn’t want to turn them off. I kept writing as a means of choosing hope over despair and because I kept coming across interesting things to try. I began recording ideas and dreams in notebooks, all the time thinking about what I might write next…for there’s so much more to write. So many more stories to tell. I love every minute, even when the writing is hardest. I have learned that just beyond that concrete wall is a garden of plenty, if I can just find the hidden door…

I don’t think I would have kept going if I hadn’t been part of a writing community that uplifts, encourages, and inspires one another.

You are the key.

I owe a debt of gratitude to all at Two Writing Teachers.

Fellow Slicers… don’t quit now.

Write more.

When you need a challenge
write more
When challenges are too much
write more
When you need silence
write more

When silence is too much
write more
When you need to know yourself
write more
When knowing yourself is too much
write more

When you need to remember
write more
When remembering is too much
write more
When your heart is full
write more
When your heart is empty
write more

When you are grateful
write more
for you cannot be too grateful
When you are out of ideas
write more
and more ideas will come

When endings come
write more
and find beginnings

My pencil pouch

*******

Thus concludes the daily Slice of Life Story Writing Challenge with Two Writing Teachers. Thank you for thirty-one days of joy.

Tomorrow is the first day of National Poetry Month; I’ll write more in VerseLove at Ethical ELA.

You are what you love

My oldest son spoke this phrase to me, the title of a book he’s reading:

You are what you love.

That’s like being handed a toy for the mind. Something to turn round and round, to consider from every angle: What does this do? More importantly: What do I do with this?

I love my little granddaughters. But I am not my granddaughters. I am their Franna. No existential crisis here; we know who we are. We revel in each other.

I love books, but I am not books. Books might be me, however; their words, images, scenes, stories, live in my brain. They change me. They become part of who I am. They fuse themselves to me so that I carry them with me ever after. No, that’s the content. The stuff of books is me. Not the actual books. But I am neither of those.

I love birds, have always loved birds, even got a yellow parakeet for my sixth birthday. I watch for birds daily out here in the North Carolina countryside, especially hawks. Birds inspire me, lift my spirit, fill me with wonder. I write of them (and their symbolism) often. I’m not sure I could ever keep a bird in a cage again. But I am not birds, as much as my heart goes soaring after them or sings in response to them…and don’t even get me started on dogs.

I love my husband and am DEFINITELY not him. I love my home and…well, here maybe the lines begin to blur a bit. I can see where I might be my home, in a sense. I love my church. It’s a given that the people are the church, not the building itself. Some people love their work so much that they are their work, so there’s that.

I love my memories…oh, what a thought, me being my memories, my memories being me. Some great truth is at work here…

And now, just now, what comes to mind is a student at school who loves making little dragons out of paper. She gave me one recently along with a little paper tree (because “a dragon is nothing without his tree,” she said). Every day, more little paper dragons. She loves them. She is not them, although they’re enchanting and so is she, their creator. When she passes me in the hallway: Come and see my new ones. I have a butterfly dragon and I want to make a dragonfly dragon…look, this one is an ice-wing…they’re all colored with bright markers in superb patterns and one day she showed me a tiny paper dragon resting in a tent she’d made, somewhat like a royal litter, complete with tiny paper quilt.

She is not the paper dragons…but maybe she’s more than the artist. She loves creating the dragons. In doing so, she is creating something more of herself, within. Constantly.

Which brings me to writing.

I love writing.

Maybe I am writing. Maybe writing is me. I live in a constant state of composition as much as the girl making her paper dragons. A new thing unfurls in my mind (like you are what you love) and I am writing around it before I can get to a pencil or screen. The thing blooms like a rose, layer upon circular layer, grows like one of those capsules that expands after you toss it in water, waiting to see what shape it will take, what animal it will become. I don’t want the ideas, sensations, images, patterns to escape…they have meaning that I want to explore. Interconnected threads I need to follow. The snowy hawk perched on the power line, looking across an icy field. The cognizance in my four-month-old granddaughter’s eyes. The wide-flung arms of her six-year-old sister. The myriad notes from piano keys under my youngest son’s dancing fingers, the earnestness in his voice when he sings. Being on my corner of the couch, wrapped in a blanket, book in hand or laptop in lap. Dennis the dachshund burrowing under the blanket to snuggle close. My husband’s contagious, uninhibited laughter. The fragrance of cinnamon, like Christmas, and Vick’s VapoRub, like long ago, and memories, so many memories, that still live…

I really am all these things. They are me. Story is inextricable from life. Story goes on and on. We are story.

And that, I love.

*******

with thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the Slice of Life Story Challenge every day in the month of March. This is my sixth year participating.

Dear Writing poem

Shortly after NBA champion Kobe Bryant died, I watched his film, Dear Basketball, for the first time. I was profoundly moved by his passion for the game and by his gratitude for it. I composed a post afterward, Dear Writing. Today on Ethical ELA’s Open Write, Susan Ahlbrand invites us to write a letter to something we are passionate about, in poetic form.

Here is my first attempt at reworking my letter into an epistolary poem…

Dear Writing,

It is time to tell you
how much you mean to me
for it is more 
than ever before.

Let me begin
at the beginning
when you first materialized.
I was, what, about six years old? 
I wonder now whether I discovered you
or you discovered me
sitting there at the coffee table 
in the living room, 
wide-ruled paper in front of me,
a fat pencil in my hand. 
All I know is that it began with story. 
A pull 
a beckoning
a desire 
to get what was swirling inside me 
onto pages. 
By some great alchemy
my blocky letters
erratic spelling
rudimentary sentences 
ceased to be merely themselves; 
combined, they became something
distinctly Other. 
And there you were.
Almost a living, breathing presence. 

I didn’t know then
that you’d come to stay
that as I grew
you would grow with me. 
That you would, in fact, 
grow me, 
always pulling me to more.
To think more
explore more
discover more
strive more
play more. 
To be more.

Do you remember the diary
Grandma gave me for Christmas 
when I was ten or eleven? 
The front cover adorned
with an illustration of a little girl
trimmed in pink
complete with brass lock and tiny key. 
Do you remember this entry: 
I wrote a story and 
I hope it will be published…
whatever happened to that diary—? 
To that story? 
They’re lost in time. 
No matter. 
I can see that page in my mind to this day
—is it you that keeps this memory alive?

People began to notice our relationship
early on, didn’t they.
Teachers said we were a good thing
and offered tips 
on how we could be stronger. 
Friends and family told me 
to stick with you: 
Please keep writing. 
I owe them all 
for how they shaped
you and me.

Where would I have been without you 
in my teenage years? 
In the early days 
of my marriage? 
Those were the poetry years
the journal years
when you let me glimpse 
the beautiful inside the uncertain
when you compelled me 
to pour out my heart. 
You were bigger than 
my anguish
my anger
my fear. 
You channeled it all, 
absorbed it all. 
Ever how circuitous the path
how violent the storm
how steep the mountain
how dark the night
how deep the pain
you were there
leading me 
to safety
to calm. 

Even now, I reach for you
and you are there. 
Like the ocean
you bring forth 
unexpected treasures
and healing. 
When my emotions 
and energy are spent
washed clean away, 
you reveal over and over 
one thing 
that always remains: 
Hope.

For there’s always more 
to the story
to the ones that I create
to the ones that I live. 
I think that’s perhaps 
the most important lesson 
you’ve taught me: 
This chapter of life is ending.
A new one is about to begin. 
Embrace it. 
This is but one
of your extraordinary powers. 

Then there is
your amazing ability 
to mine my memory…

With you I am any age I ever was. 
I sit on my grandfather’s lap once more. 
He walks with me, holds my hand. 
I hear his voice. 
I am in Grandma’s kitchen
while steam fogs the windows
I am in her arms 
as she rocks me and sings: 
Jesus loves me, this I know
I see my father’s blue eyes
I hear my mother’s laughter 
and the whir of her sewing machine 
late into the night. 
With you my children are still little
my husband is young
black-haired
healthy
whole
and out on the court 
shooting hoops. 
And every dog I ever loved 
comes bounding back to me 
in absolute joy
all my shortcomings
forgiven.

With you, I relive it all. 
The parts I am proud of 
and the parts I’m not
the moments I cherish 
and the ones I survived. 
With you, they all become 
a celebration
of living,
of learning.

I learned long ago 
that I can harness your power 
to attack 
but you showed me 
that this doesn’t bring me peace.
You taught me, instead, 
to defend. 
Not as a warrior 
with drawn sword
but as a careful guardian
of my own mind and heart. 
Not by destroying
but by edifying. 
You enable me to walk 
in another’s shoes 
and see through another’s eyes
to understand that fighting 
doesn’t move the hearts of others
but story does. 

There’s something
of the divine about you.
Marvel of marvels
how a spark 
in the human brain 
becomes a thought 
and a thought
becomes substance 
because of you. 
Like something from nothing. 
Ex nihilo. 
It’s how God created, 
speaking the world into existence. 
With words. 
Without limits.
Anything is possible.
Believe. 

I believe there’s a sacredness 
behind the human spirit’s desperate craving 
to create
to express
to be heard…

which brings me back 
to six years old
at the table
pencil in my hand.

You will outlive me. 
You are my record.
You are what I leave behind.

Let it be the best of me.

Know that you’re an inextricable part
of who I am, 
one of my life’s greatest gifts. 
Meant to be given. 

And so I give you away.

I am grateful beyond words.

I love you.
Fran

One of my many writing notebooks

Dear student…

That email you sent.
Almost didn’t open it.
Seemed like random spam.

Thank God I did, though:
I hope you remember me…
the little girl who

halfway wrote a book
‘bout five or six years ago…

-How could I forget?

Never finished it
but now I’m writing this one…
-You are still writing!

You can’t know the gift
it was, assisting your craft
as it developed

the pure joy I took
from the spark in your child-eyes 
born of storylove

-that’s YOUR gift, you know.
Your storytelling power.
It’s grown stronger, still.

And your plans, to be
a therapist. A healer.
An author. Oh, child

you have no idea
what your words have done today.
I read them again

and again, amazed
by your remembering me.
I compose my thoughts

to respond to you,
most of all to say that you’re
unforgettable.

*******

I wasn’t this child’s regular teacher but the school’s literacy coach, supporting writing workshop across grade levels at the time. Her fourth-grade teacher asked if I could make time to work with her as she had fallen in love with the craft and wanted to write historical fiction. We carved out the time; we made it happen. I blogged about it in 2017: Tripping the write fantastic. That teacher invited the student back a couple of years later to share her writing with a new crop of fourth graders. I blogged about that, too: Still tripping the write fantastic.

In the recent surprise email that sparked the poem I posted today, the student also wrote: “Every now and then I’ll read what you wrote about me on Lit Bits and Pieces, and it always makes me smile and feel inspired.”

That, Dear Student, makes ME smile and feel inspired. ❤ Can’t wait to see where your writing takes you!

Thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the weekly Slice of Life Story Challenge…for teachers must write to teach writers.

Thanks also to Allison Berryhill who hosted an Open Write on Ethical ELA with prompting “a poem to a student.”

Photo: “Steal Like An Artist – ‘Write the book you want to read’.” Austin KleonCC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Pencil wizard

Once upon a time, I said that writing is the closest thing there is to magic.

Here is why.

Magic is not, well, magic. It is a lot of work (or why would Hogwarts exist? Just saying).

Writing is a lot of work.

Work (a lot of it) makes the magic happen.

Here is a true story of magic moments at the end of this dystopian school year (know that I am suppressing the urge to compare virtual learning to disapparating, i.e., teleporting from place to place, or essentially vanishing). After end-of-grade testing—I said dystopian, right? What does the State expect this data to look like?—a fourth-grade teacher sent me a note:

One of my students has been writing a story in his free time. He wants to read it to the class. He knows it needs some work and I am wondering if you have any time to help him? He’s not usually motivated to write…

I made time. I would shift heaven and earth for this.

He came to my room wearing a giant grin, clutching his pencil and notebook. I recognized the cover—it’s a notebook our district distributes to teachers. His teacher must have given it to him especially for his story, for in grades 2-5, our district doesn’t use writing workshop any more (and that, Dear Readers, is a whole ‘nother tragedy for the telling on another day).

“Come in, come in!” I said. “Have a seat here beside me and read me your story.”

Without giving too much away (for the story is his): It’s a fantasy, a battle between humans and wizards, the protagonist a young wizard with power to make living things grow. The student read it all aloud and then we went back to make some changes for clarity and flow, with my asking:

“What exactly do you mean here, when…”

“What is it you are trying to tell the reader? What do you want readers to think or feel here?”

“Think of an action to add here, so readers or your audience can better see what’s happening in their minds, like we do when we watch a movie. What are you seeing here in your own mind? That’s what you need to get across.”

“What’s a better word choice here, to make the meaning clear?”

While the boy thought and elaborated aloud, I began typing the story. As I read the lines back to him, his face glowed: “Perfect! That’s amazing!”

“That is the power of revision,” I told him. “When you start writing, it’s all about getting your ideas down. When you go back to make the meaning clear, by adding these kinds of details and taking out what you don’t need, that’s where all the magic happens.”

“We’ve made a lot of changes,” the boy observed, “but it’s SO much better.”

And yet the story remained the story he wanted to write.

We’d changed city to town, people to townspeople. He made the stylistic choice to capitalize Humans. We’d added transitional phrases to keep the readers from falling out of the story. We added gestures for the young wizard when he makes vines grow (“I need to see how the wizard does this,” I explained). The student vetoed my suggestion to go ahead and incorporate “earthbending power” (a phrase borrowed from video games): “I am not ready to tell readers yet about earthbending power,” he stated. —Such a tone of authority!

“All right then! You’re the author. Save it for when the time is right in the story. Just make a note here to add earthbending power later.”

And then the word tome… “Is tome the word you want here, where you say the wizard found a tome in the laundry?”

“Yes. It’s a big book of spells.”

I blinked. “Indeed! That’s impressive. Just make sure your readers know what you mean here, that they can see and understand what you mean by tome.” It became an ancient tome of spells, hidden in a robe in the laundry, that the young wizard began to read “without realizing the power he now carried”—those are the student’s own words, not mine.

And thus I spent the last days of school this year watching the love of writing take root and flourish in the heart of a child…magical, indeed, in a year where so much felt anything but, even in some of my own writing of late.

As I write this morning, sunlight streaming in my window like all the glories of summer on the cusp, I recall my final words to this child as he carried his typed version away in a bright yellow folder: “Keep writing!”

In my mind’s narrative, I add: Young word-wizard, with earthbending power.

For that is the magic of writing.

May he cultivate it all of his life.

Imagine. Indy Sidhu. CC BY

with my thanks always to Two Writing Teachers, a community dedicated to the craft, power, and love of writing, for all Humans.

A bit of legacy poem

For Day Twenty-Six of National Poetry Month

Testament 

I cannot measure
how much time remains
in the hourglass
of my days

sand grains
steadily trickling
more than half
already gone

yet still refining
polishing
my existence

with words

let them be
the worry-stone
worn smooth
slid into the pockets
of those I encounter
a cool indented
presence of calm
for the holding

let them be a beckoning
a turning inward
toward crystals
forming in the geode void
the amelioration
of hollow places

let them be
like the curious folk remedy
of my childhood
jars of strange white peach rings
with heart-colored centers
floating in witch hazel
(which has nothing to do
with magic; the etymology of the name is
pliable)
cure for bruises and
what ails you

let my words be
a gauge for life-giving rain
collected
yet flowing on
and on
a good measure
pressed and shaken
poured out

a testament of love
for the new life

coming

Habit acrostic

with thanks to Ruth Ayres at SOS – Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog, for reiterating this truth: “Habit is essential for writers. If we develop a habit that allows us to enter into writing, then we will write more often.” She encourages the “magic” community to pay attention to the routines that make blog writing happen.

I am a morning writer. I love the rich, dark silence of the sleeping world around me, the freedom to hear my own uncluttered thoughts, the anticipation of gifts from the burgeoning day. I love the neighbor’s rooster, how his loud crowing wafts through the stillness; there are a few roosters in this neighborhood and sometimes they echo each other in a chorus of wild, rustic, joyful aliveness. It is a song of my soul. For a second, I have a sense of my young grandfather a hundred years ago, preparing for his farm chores, walking the fertile land he cultivated and loved all of his life, as darkness turns to light.

And so I write.

An acrostic, for Day Sixteen of National Poetry Month

Hallowed
Are these moments
Before the dawn
Immersed in words
The breathings of my being

If you are looking to write more or to develop a blogging habit, consider joining the vibrant community
at SOS – Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog.

Writing

With special thanks to Dr. Kim Johnson who hosted Ethical ELA’s Open Write last week with the invitation to compose “Your Life’s Table of Contents” poems. There is no formula, just lots of freedom; Kim said: “I started thinking about how I might write a table of contents organizing the poems I have written over these past few years, in verse…Imagine you are creating a collection of your own work, and try your hand at an organizing poem to be a table of contents or any other feature of a book.

My poem is based on a timeline of my writing history, starting at age 6.

My Life’s Writing Anthology

Bible story plagiarized
in blocky big letters
on lined newsprint paper

All About Me
carefully rendered detail
teacher-praised

Myth of Shoeani
on the origin
of shoes

Dr. Heartbeat, Dr. Heartbeat
a play composed
around four words
heart
lion
clock
—I forget the fourth

The Poetry Years
of rainbows
friendships
love
loss
even a baby dragon
rhythms of my soul
attempting to understand
itself

A short story
a mystery
a secret
a little girl
kept safe

All-nighter
research paper
on the function of 
King Claudius
in Hamlet
—still tied two of my best friends
for the highest marks in class

Oral tradition
of grandparents
put to paper
for the first time

Novel ideas
captured in notebooks
beginning to live
even if 
they haven’t breathed
in a while

Critical research
on children’s fantasy lit
taking the last of my strength
and the humanities prize

Short stories
hammered out
within word counts
for competitions

Mentor texts
for students
and teachers
learning how to write
and to love
memoir
essay
story
fantasy
poetry

The blog:
the archive
the scrapbook
of my writing life
my love letter
to words
and the world

*******

The annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers is underway, meaning that I am posting every day in the month of March. This marks my fifth consecutive year and I’m experimenting with an abecedarian approach: On Day 23, I am writing around a word beginning with letter w. How could it NOT be “writing”?