Tag Archives: writing


From zero words to 500, one character at a time.

The season of colds, holiday events, planning time for spring and summer writing project events, my mom’s very slow recovery from heart failure, and the lengthy winter nights try to add up as an excuse. The truth is, after my concussion, I simply haven’t gotten back to a writing habit. I used to use a blog simply or that – for daily writing to sit down for 20 minutes after work and blurt on the page.

Then blogging seemed to need purpose and I wrote commentary on teaching and explored ideas about writing process.

Now I share the blog with an instructional coach who is busier than I am. We co-write professional development and have brought another teacher in on a book proposal. Except we never find time to write on our blog.  Too busy doing it all to write about it.

A blog now seems too public to contain my free writing, that is, when I start doing it again.  Which, today, going for those 500 words, I intend to do. The return.

Anne Lamott said, “Writing.  Almost anything else is more fun.  But it’s a shitty life to wish you were writing.  In a great life, you get your work done.”

And here, with no one making me write, and writing badly, I’m already beginning to feel better.  To whom did I owe this non-writing apology, anyway?  No one else cares.

I have begun to pull out stories from my checkered life that seem to want to be written.  I have experience with teaching writing I want to share, if I can find a useful vessel for it.  I want to write.

And, since I’ve come back to my little writing desk in windowed corner of my room, my cat is on my lap, acting needy of attention.  Even my writing cat is out of shape and forgot the routine.  Jump up on the desk and sleep next to my laptop.

For now I will tolerate him seeking my warmth and resting his silly black and white head on my left arm as I plunge ahead, going for 170 more words.

Non-writing has also meant I’m writing for other people’s purposes.  Writing up the spring Saturdays, four workshops for K-6 teachers in teaching essay, making it synch with the 4-6th grade students who will attend.  Meeting the coaching requirements of my sharp co-writer.

Composing in my head while I’m driving and then not getting to the desk is another kind of non writing that has been going on.  Musing out the window at the winter changes and not knowing what project to begin.

So, that ceramic sculpture of the clay person is out the window, in my view.  He says tell the truth about some of my unconventional life experiences and take that Hemmingway adage to heart to write about what hurts.

Then, in this process of this discovery draft, I realize what I already knew, all along.

I just need to write.

Goal 1 Get a Writing Group

Small moment

Or, feeling small.

Yesterday I got the back of my garage organized and cleared a big space. It was extra dirty in there due to the re-roofing job from last month, but cleaning was cathartic. You know the feeling? 

I was rearranging two original –shall we say ‘vintage’ — cabinet doors from my kitchen. I placed one on the floor stud in the corner on the left garage wall. I looked at the other on the back wall, and, noticing it was wider, decided to put it in the corner space. I was just turning back to the old ironing board closet door on the left when…

Yep, it had already started falling. Something smacked me over my left eyebrow, pushed my glasses into my face, and the next thing I know I’m picking my glasses up off the floor and holding the left side of my face, stumbling out of the garage, saying “Fuck!” “Fuck…fuck!!…” I cursed as I headed into the house. I was still trying to understand what had happened at that point.

I sat on the kitchen floor, pulled a towel off the oven rack and wiped the blood. I reached over into the freezer and got out ice. Dolores came in and wanted to help, so I had her get me a clean, cold washcloth. Then she poured me some apple juice and hovered. The juice tasted so good.

I was doing okay, until I made the mistake of looking at myself in the bathroom mirror where I went to get bandages. Ugh. I’m squeamish anyway. I sat back on the floor and breathed.

Eventually I got the forehead wound dressed and wrapped in a head band. The bleeding under my eye stopped. I took 4 Ibuprofen, got in my yoga clothes, and climbed into bed. My accommodating kitty joined me. I calmed down and that felt good.

Writing Moves

Or, The Writing Conversations Get Into Your Head

Thomas Newkirk explained that “fluent writers have moves they can make…moves that are crucial for fluency.” But what are the moves student writers can make, especially our EL learners?

When writing personal narratives or realistic fiction, fluent writers notice they can make a movie in their mind and then tell the story, getting it on paper bit by bit.  It’s like a video – play. Pause. Write that bit.  Play. Pause.  Write that bit…

Fluent writers can almost act out a scene as they write it down.  And as the scene gets on paper, the writer has conversations like, “What did my character say here?”  “How did the other react?

Fluent story writers ask themselves while they are writing, “How do I want my audience to feel here?”  “What does ___ look like?”

When writing essays the writer might think, “What else can I say?” and keep writing to push more thoughts.  And Lucy Calkins conversational prompts come to mind here, such as, “Another thought I have…” and “This makes me think…”

In persuasive writing the writer might think, “What would someone who disagrees with me say?”  So, Newkirk says that “writing fluency is the ability to prompt myself.”

So, I’ll try one.  “Where should I go next?” (I think I’ll go for a concluding summary.)

I think this is the real curriculum in demonstration and example, modeling writing and thinking aloud with a group in a lesson:  the writer’s self conversation moves the story or essay along. And the more of these little bits, these conversations we’ve got going in our head, the more our thoughts can flow out onto the page.


Message on My Mind

Response to Chapter 5, Writing Without Teachers

Walking 4.2 miles with my girlfriend in Westgate Shopping Center one night last week was exercise with the benefit of air conditioning and fun talk. She’s one of those friends Elbow refers to — “that’s why it’s so magical when you have a friend who actually understands much of what you are trying to say. It makes you want to say things you never thought you had in you.” [pg 122] We really do get each other. And we were laughing and talking up a storm, in our typical style with five or six open incomplete threads, sentences that would be picked up after other anecdotes or comments.

For me, this was an art tour of the high-end handbags in various name brand stores, partly because my friend had just attended a graduation where her ex was invited. For some reason, her way of making him “eat his heart out” was for her to be dressed super fashionably with all the right labels. I surmised he’d always required that kind of class of her. Now she was my docent.

My theme was trying to articulate why one purse got my attention or some repelled me. We were in yet another a store, both having agreed that the best handbag was an unusually textured Ives St. Laurent. My friend K. wanted to know the price, so an obliging saleswoman opened it and found a card.

My friend realized that, in my inattentiveness, I hadn’t gotten it. To help it register, she said “nine grand” in an aside with teeth in her words. Just to let me know. Which was maybe information for her, but I went on mute. Underwater, into the fog. Something I couldn’t articulate, and wouldn’t expect K. to understand. I could do some math: ten times less expensive would still be $900. Who would spend that on a purse? And ten times less again would put it down to $90, a lot for one at Marshalls.

Recent national events have been roiling pictures in my mind I cannot reconcile, on the one hand seeing extreme luxury — the local reality of people living in dream homes, driving super cars and buying small islands for get-away — people from banking and investing who are so ultra wealthy that I don’t get it. Someone has to lean in and put teeth into the nine figure sums like I don’t speak English.

And on the other hand, seeing deprivation and poverty — the pictures I’d seen all day of poor people downtown, and people online who had been shot or man-handled, and I read things that made me envision so many more in small towns scraping out a living. I couldn’t stop feeling the weariness of people ground down with overwork and fines, and betrayals from landlords and layoffs for downsizing that upsized somebody’s pocket.

After that Ives St. Laurent registered with me, I couldn’t shake a dull feeling. Over the next few days, I’d remember the moment, looking up at the carefully lit plate glass the handbag sat upon. Glittering light around a very sleek finish. It was no longer just a handbag. This underwater mute feeling.

I tried to put those divergent people in the same room in my mind. I wanted them to have a look at each other and maybe talk. One criminalized for his skin color and hustling CD’s. Another selling cigarettes because a prison record handicapped an able body from work. And another, a corporate CEO whose pay increased 148% over the past three years, standing with an elegantly dressed lobbyist who knows the ways of Washington. Paid per hour what would sustain a poor household for a week.

Some may have honestly and accidentally risen to this luxury, as happens in history. As happens to some who fall on hard times. Yet, lately I apprehend some of these men and women as the profiteers who have done covert, criminal things for their wealth. I don’t mean the Mafia. I mean out in the open, on Wall Street, in committee hearings, in corporate deals unhampered by the laws that apply to me. They don’t get shot. Never have a hand slapped. This court fines you three Ives St. Laurent handbags for raping our economy and compromising the federal legislature with bribes.


Our thinly disguised fictional versions of ourselves have become characters on the page. I typed up the final stories my friends in the RS Fiction Factory wrote in after school intervention.  And I wrote my own, after a model character the kids named. 

What the Others Think

            Lizzie is leaning on her desk in Room 22 looking out the window. She daydreams during reading assignments. Mrs. Hues walks by and taps her book. She gives Lizzie the look and walks on.

Lizzie is not the only kid waiting for the lunch bell. The chair is her prison. Her mind is full of sentences. “Will anyone here like me?” she wonders to herself.

Walking in the group to the cafeteria, Lizzie is paler than the other kids. Her thin black hair is pulled into a scraggly ponytail. Skinny white arms stick out of a white blouse and swing against a blue uniform jumper that’s been laundered hundreds of times.

In line with jostling kids, her worried face floats over a sturdy frame held up by strong legs. No one else wears roll down white socks with their running shoes. Some girls secretly talk about her. If they are making fun of her, Lizzie thinks she might agree with their opinion.

Lizzie sits down at the end of one long table by herself in noisy room.   Kids are unpacking store bought Lunchables and eating cafeteria burritos. Lizzie opens a small paper bag. The two boys across from her stop to watch her pull out a white bread sandwich she made that morning.

“What’s that?” one boy asks.   Lizzie doesn’t speak. She forces herself to take a bite of bologna.

“Hey,” says the other boy in a tie-dye spirit shirt, “It’s a sandwich! Duh!” Both boys laughed and slapped each, other teasing themselves. Lizzie shrugged. She wonders if any of them ever feel lonely.

“It’s bologna,” she says. More laughing that she doesn’t get.

Outside at recess the air is sunny and warm. The wind reminds Lizzie of home. Kansas. She heads for the basketball courts.   Those two silly boys follow her, but she doesn’t care.

Without asking, Lizzie trots onto one court and intercepts a rebound off the hoop. She pivots, dribbling and goes around two players to return for a lay up. Several kids are rushing in to take the rebound and Lizzie darts into the swarm to come zigzagging out with the ball. She shoots and scores again.

She doesn’t pass or look at anyone. But those legs and speed are a surprise to the kids on the court. Lizzie has tuned out their comments, mostly in Spanish.

Lizzie exits the court on the other side running out onto the grassy field. She imagines she’s a wild horse and gallops to the farthest edge of the field, running until her lungs ache. She wheels around catching a breath, ready to cross imaginary prairies with a mustang herd when the bell makes her heart sink. “Ugh…” She becomes lonely girl again.

Turning the hallway corner to Room 22 she sees the two boys standing with a group by the door. One kid kind of waves a hand at her.

“Hey! That was good basketball,” said Abner.

“My name is Cristiano,” said the other, the one who had laughed about her sandwich. “I always bring my grandma’s quesadillas or tamales. I’ve never had a white bread sandwich. They look good.”

And because the two funny guys were talking to her, two girls named Hailey and Rocio also said “Hi,” and smiled at her.

Mrs. Hues came walking back and started shooing everyone in the classroom. “Get out your science notebooks, all of you,” she said.

Lizzie stood a moment longer looking at the little group of kids and then felt happy for the first time in a long time. “Thanks,” she nodded.

“It’s hard to be the new kid,” said Abner.

“Yeah,” said Hailey. “I remember.” Hailey rolled her eyes knowingly.

“Maybe you can teach me some Spanish?” she asked looking at the girls. Rocio smiled looking up shyly.

Lizzie felt accepted. Fourth grade was going to be okay.


Slice of Life #3


When a cat really bonds with you, they’re devoted.

Mickey gets up wherever he’s been napping when I park my car in the garage at the back of the lot. Today I think he came out the cat door.  He likes to sniff the bumpers on my Miata to know where I’ve been, but I was already sliding the door closed as he came up to me.  “There’s the kitty.  The pretty kitty…” I intoned and headed for the front.

Mickey followed and supervised hauling in the trash and recycling bins from the street, rolling them up the driveway. He sauntered alongside, content with my performance and knowing the routine. My neighbor commented on what a good looking cat he is and laughed when I explained he always supervises this chore.

When I let myself in the house, he followed me into Mom’s room meowing insistently.  Petting and saying “hello” was not enough.  I checked in with my mother, who has come down with the awful designer virus going around here. All the while, Mickey punctuated our news with meows and meow-meows.

My late afternoon arrival signals “tea time” which means a small handful of tuna flavored dental treats, so I dumped a few of the crunchy things in his dish.  I obediently turned on the sink faucet when he jumped – well, heaved his big old bod up on the kitchen counter.  He refuses to drink out of a bowl on the floor.  I got the sink faucet dripping just so and Mickey lapped water.

This evening I thought I’d be smart and park my laptop on the fold-down table in the kitchen so Mickey wouldn’t be pestering me, trying to sleep by my computer at my tiny writing desk.  Trying to step on or lean on my laptop.  Last night, I left my desk and he followed. He settled for curling up on the kitchen table cloth to sleep while I wrote and responded to blog posts.

But no, this evening, after sampling a few tidbits of my homemade pulled pork, my buddy has gone outside to enjoy the sunset light, watch the neighbors walk their dogs, and (to my chagrin) walk one of his routes in the hood.  Crossing streets.  Good thing he’s a smart, big black and white cat. And I have the entire kitchen table to myself.

The photo I snapped of Mickey the other afternoon makes me think of a trusted reader. He listens.  He hears my voice but doesn’t lose his own train of thought.  He may have judgment but does not argue. We understand each others tastes. And it is just good to be together.

2016 OLW

What is it?

morning sky 2I went for a walk this morning to think about my “One Little Word” for the new year.  I thought about words like “forward” and “focus,” which seemed good, but not on point.

I noticed that grays and highlights caught my eye this morning.  Remarkable how many homes in the neighborhood are painted gray.  (Is gray with an e, grey, a softer shade?)

Eventually, in the home stretch back up the hill by the park, I knew the word.  It’s   w r i t e.  Just write.

Funny, because I design pd to inspire others to write and to teach writing, and sometimes free write for fun, but my focus and my forward motion needs to be on my writing. Write.

Whatever that means, it ought to be a daily practice of mine.  I do have projects in mind.  And it is good for me to discover my thoughts and sort my feelings by writing.  So many good reasons. So, with a baby step I’ll just hold that word out there, in it’s imperative form, or as an invitation.  Write.  And try not to make a program out of my OLW or it will be doomed to failure.

This year, today.  When I can.  And sometimes maybe write when I don’t want to.  What if it became a habit.  On n’y sais jamais.

morning clouds

Open sky over the park where the rain is gathering.  The last day of a lovely winter break.



Second Day of the Last Week

I am layered under blankets like a lasagna because it’s very cold in Santa Cruz this morning. Last night, after steamed fish and stirfry veggies, Joy and I went out for Chinese massage. Then we had tea and chocolate and watched strange a Viking show from a Danish TV series.  Vikings from that impression are not very happy people and they are continually cold but they deny it.

Whereas this morning in Santa Cruz I admit it’s too chilly to even get up. Indefinite day and time, the weight of a fog and cloud – the grey cold is  fitting for the days that end the year. And I’m burrowed into vacation mode with nothing more serious to do today then go out to lunch and catch a movie.
It is odd to not be sure what day of the week it is yet be certain there are only a few days left in the year.

I want hot tea.  And I am thinking of what my OLW (One little word) for the New Year may be. 

It is something like this:


Free Writing

Writing that doesn’t cost anything.  Writing not bound by rules or directed by genre.  Writing that flows and changes and ebbs with thoughts.  Writing that discovers its own rhythm.  Writing that may reveal a gem or may be saved and read later with a pile of other free writing to discover a trend or a nagging hesitation in one’s style.

Free writing as opposed to costly writing?  Writing you pay through the nose for?  Writing that allows dangling prepositions? Really.

I’m still reading Peter Elbow’s Vernacular Eloquence and absorbing what speaking can bring to good writing.  And, of course, I loved finding out that the effectiveness of free writing has been studied.  College students (I know, a subspecies) were examined who did daily free writing for a time and those who were instructed in other modes, such as structure, etc. The free writers did better writing for on demand essays than did the other groups.  Yay!

Why is free writing in terms of school writing deemed such a waste.  I mean, what standard are we addressing?  What are we producing?  (How about fluency and thought organizing skills?)  There’s such a raft of laws in school writing — myths, as Donald Murray correctly labels them.

So, today is a holiday, part of an entire week of celebrating puttering at home, lunching with friends and then my family comes over Friday afternoon for our festivities.  They go on into the midday Saturday with sleepovers.

Being on holiday and not mindful of the clock, I feel extra free to do free writing.  I don’t have to have a story.  This moment watching the wind stir the leaves in the back yard, and small birds flitting from branch to wire, while the sky darkens into a soft grey blue, instead of lightens.  The north bay will get some rain and the mountains will get lots of snow.  Here, in the south bay, we will get a chilly breeze and a cloudy day.

Certainly a reader won’t follow without sensory details.  And so my mind won’t follow an abstract thought very long without bringing it into focus with an analogy.

The opposite of free writing might be constrained writing.  Planning writing and structuring how it will go in advance is not a bad thing to do, for some projects, perhaps.  But, in general, writing is like cooking or painting.  One doesn’t work the plan.  Well, I don’t in the kitchen. I have endured the discipline of French cooking from recipe books and that was good exercise.  However, I cannot cook by the book.  You can kiss by the book, if you want, but recipes are general information and hints for secret seasonings.  They are not composing in a saute pan.

I should not say much about painting because it has been so long since I’ve actually sat down with watercolors and painted.  But I remember that, even with a view of the bay at Pacific Grove in front of me, and the wild play of light through waves and over dunes, I have to experiment and play with what happens on that slab of watercolor paper.

So free writing has another advantage, if one takes it up as a habit, say, like exercising on a cycle, doing arms weights, meditating, etc. It is a playful approach.  A let’s-see-what’s-up kind of start.  It allows felt-sense and it lets the words themselves drive turn of phrase.  The thoughts from the writing create the next bit of writing.

The story of my thinking and the sheer joy of having time during the day to sit at my tidied up writing desk will have to suffice.  I do have a bigger writing project.  I’ve wanted a project bigger than blogging and it has come to mind.  However, it is a collaborative with two other teachers.  I am going to trust my free writing to take me into those memoirs.  Yes, there’s always still going to be fix it up “dental drafts” and critical editing, but so much depends upon (not the red wheel barrow) the flexible mind that can talk onto a page.