“I’m the kind of writer that…” – Establishing a Writer’s Identity

I’ve recently applied to the UWM National Writing Project’s summer institute, something I’ve been itching to be a part of for some time. So many of my mentors and colleagues speak highly of their own experiences with the NWP: the immersion in writing research,  the camaraderie of fellow writing teachers, the epiphanies uncovered regarding best writing practices – what teacher wouldn’t want to be a part of this?

So, after attending  this year’s UWM NWP conference, I returned to my classroom, eager and inspired to begin my application, part of which included the following prompt: Describe yourself as a writer. Please include your accomplishments, challenges and experiences. What do you do well and what would you like to improve?

…and then I didn’t write anything for like four days. 

I can’t tell you exactly what stonewalled me about this prompt. It was just intimidating. It felt huge. It was a cold reminder that I often romanticize the writing life,  spending more time thinking and talking about writing rather than, ah, you know, writing

Writing reservations haunt all writers. Sure, there are those transcendent moments, those bursts of inspiration where you write and write and write and are nigh unstoppable, the muse continually singing her sweet, melodic songs of inspiration… but a lot of writing – the part we sometimes talk less about with our students – is in the struggle. A lot of writing is the in the not writing. More often than not, the writing process is about writing just to discover what you’re trying to say. The dirty rotten lie that students have convinced themselves of is that they have to know what they’re going to write before they write it. It’s a lie that I too sometimes tell myself.

So I turned to my writing heroes, desperate for direction.  Anne Lamott, in her famous Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Lifewas, like many times before, the anodyne to my self-imposed writer’s block. In explaining the stepping stones of short assignments, Lammott writes:

It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being… E.L. Doctorow once said that “writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you… Writing can be a pretty desperate endeavor, because it is about some of our deepest needs: our need to be visible, to be heard, our need to make sense of our lives, to wake up and grow and belong. 

Encouraging, right? Puts things in perspective. So I returned to the prompt, determined to begin with a one-inch picture frame.

post itsI began by examining my classroom desk, deciding that there must be an image, a one-inch picture, a way into the writing, that I could begin with. I zoomed in on the notes that cover my desk, thinking  what does this one-inch picture say about my writing habits? What does it say about me as a writer?

Here’s a small portion of where the one-inch picture took me:

I’m the kind of writer that lives with a mound of multicolored post-it notes atop my desk, each one covered in the scribbles and scrawls of ideas and reminders that I’m never patient enough to write down carefully so they’re legible to future-me.

I’m the kind of writer that knows all about the necessity of crummy first drafts but still grows overwhelmed by the intimidating vastness of blank white pages and cursed blinking cursors. Just wait for the muse, I think, secretly knowing how destructive that instruction is.

 I’m the kind of writer that will clean before writing. Anything, really. My books. I’ll dust their dust jackets. My Shoes. I’ll pry tiny pieces of gravel and dirt from the diamonds that decorate their soles (I mean, who can possibly write with shoes infested with earth? Be reasonable). My basement. I once mopped my concrete basement floor instead of writing. I wish that were a joke.

I’m the kind of writer that, eventually, after admitting that I have to write something, overwrites, letting all ideas spill out, no filter, all clutter, a brain barf, something to sort through, something to clean up, punctuation and verbs akimbo, nouns and notes-to-self splattered on white like spilled wine on a wedding dress. It’s a mess, but it’s a mess I can sift through to discover whatever it is I’m trying to say.

I’m the kind of writer that is constantly revising. I whisper half-formed sentences in the grocery line, trying to match predicates to their subjects. I wrestle with clumsy lines on long commutes. I watch the cursor dance back and forth, over and over, eliminating and creating letters and words and phrases in a single paragraph before moving on. I gut moments in the writing I once loved. (This piece once contained an extended simile that began with comparing disparate writing ideas to a rotating cage of bingo balls. It ended with an uprising at a fictional senior citizens center. It was really weird. And not that funny. It was cut. You don’t have to read it now. You’re welcome. Trust me.)

I’m the kind of writer that, on my best writing days, can silence the critic in my own head, fall into the writing rhythm, and summon (not wait for) the muse with the clatter of computer keys and a mug of black coffee. On my best writing days, I live the advice of one of my writer friends: WRITE is a verb, an action word, a doing word. (Okay, so it was a Facebook status update rather than a one-on-one exchange of writerly wisdom, but still.)

 I’m the kind of writer that, as I write this, am thinking, man, this would work great in the classroom tomorrow, this “I’m the kind of writer that…” repetition thing.

The structure is pretty straightforward: Using the sentence stem “I’m the kind of writer that…,” I utilized intentional repetition to describe my writing habits, accomplishments, experiences, and challenges.

Writing this was therapeutic in unexpected ways. It guided me in forming a kind of writer’s identity, one that illuminated my own writing habits and struggles. Better yet, it got me writing. 

It’s important for students to both identify as writers and confront their own habits and struggles and successes; it’s important for students to understand and develop their own writer’s identities. So I took this idea to my Creative Writing class a week later, curious to see what they’d do with it. I shared the origin of the idea, and away they went. Here’s a snapshot of their responses:

Student Examples:

I’m the kind of writer that needs to be alone. In class I find it harder to write if I can hear the people around me, so I end up not writing anything. Once I get home, I can write a paper in 35 minutes if I have an idea, but no distractions. Just me, myself, and the paper.

I’m the kind of writer that will half-ass the sentences to write as quickly as possible to keep on progressing and see if I have any good ideas that might pop out. As lethargic as I am, I don’t wait for my ideas to pop out. If I have to write a crappy sentence for now, I will, and I will revisit that sentence later.

I’m the kind of writer that will buzz through typing words, sentences, paragraphs, sometimes entire pages, in a single instant, and then come to a screeching halt and fail to even plod along at one word per minute.

I’m the kind of writer that will let his mind wander when he idles on a project.

I’m the kind of writer that knows he would need to have scheduled time to write, because otherwise I would use my free time to do anything else. Probably sleeping.

I am the kind of writer that constantly over reads my stuff and tries to make corrections before the final piece is done, often changing the whole direction of the piece entirely.

I am the kind of writer that makes lots of side comments, almost like I’m having a conversation with myself on paper/computer screen.

I am the kind of writer who likes to use big words to make myself seem smart and intellectual, when I really just used a thesaurus. I am the kind of writer that needs a dictionary close at hand because I can’t spell to save my life.

I’m the kind of writer who has an easier time drawing what I’m thinking rather than writing it out.

I’m the kind of writer who, when getting into a crazy writing trance, writes. My hand takes over, and my mind wanders, until the end product is something I didn’t anticipate (or want) to take form and exist… and then play video games.

I’m the kind of writer that has a vast amount of ideas for the next piece that needs to be written, and not a single word down on the page.

I’m the kind of writer who focuses on the minutia of a single detail in my head, and losses it before my fingers are on the keys.

We spent 10 minutes writing using the stem. Then we circled the room, each writer sharing two or three examples of their own writing habits and rituals. As we listened, I encouraged students to add to their writing in list form to capture any ideas that another writer gave them regarding individual writer processes. The discussion itself was successful, and the writers in the room were able to speak openly about process. It was an opportunity – a first step – in developing an individual writer’s identity.

In retrospect, this is something I’ll do the first week of classes next year, as it hit several targets we aim for in our classrooms: We wrote. We reflected. We discussed. We listened. Then we wrote some more. It was easy, enlightening, and fun. 


Music and Memory Part Two: Of Mix Tapes and Mentor Texts


Remember mix tapes? 

Duh. Of course you do.

I’m saddened that the mix tape is now antiquated.  I mean, yeah, I appreciate the fact that I can burn CDs and create an iTunes playlist is no time at all, but the process of crafting a mix tape for another person was like composing a handwritten letter: it took time and effort, and it was just so personal.  

Alas, mix tapes and handwritten letters seem to be relics of the past. No more personalized doodles scratched into the plastic of the cassette. No more handwritten track listings. No more sitting next to your Sony boombox, your fingers hovering over the pause button, ready to stop recording at exactly four Mississippis after the end of the cheesy ska song you just dubbed (Unwritten Mix Rule #17: allow four seconds of space between each track to allow appropriate transition time. Rule is nonnegotiable). Bummer, right?

Or maybe this is just the old man in me talking. Because the truth is that the LEGACY of mix tape lives on because the PROCESS is alive and well. My students convinced me of this.

Here’s what I mean: as the writers in my classroom share their playlists and memories (see Music and Memory Part One), I ask them to consider when and why they create mixes for another person. This gets them talking.

More importantly, I ask them about their process in crafting the perfect playlist. Now they’re really talking.

Because the perfect playlist is primarily dependent on two things: audience and purpose. Who is the playlist for, and what are your intentions? To woo a romantic interest? To expose new music to a friend that will change their idea of what music is? To unleash a flood of nostalgia?

After you’ve decided audience and purpose, everything else is a specific choice (the order of the songs, the blend of genres, etc.) that will shape your final product and determine the listener’s experience.

You see where I’m going with this, right? The process of the perfect playlist is the same as the writing process. Seriously! Consider:

  • The perfect playlist needs a strong opening song, one that’s exciting or interesting and sets the stage for what’s to come. It must engage. It must hook. Same thing with writing. Your first sentence or passage has to be enough to convince the reader to stick around. 
  • The playlist should “flow.” Transitions and structure MATTER. You might have great songs, but if they’re not structured in an order that takes the listener into consideration, the whole mix risks falling apart (you don’t want anyone to skip songs do you? No, of course not). Same thing with writing. Structure matters, and sometimes you have to “Kill your darlings.” 
  •  Don’t be repetitive. Vary the artists, vary the types of songs, all while keeping the “flow.”  Same thing with writing. It’s a good idea to vary your sentence structure, to move between scene, summary, and musings (in the case of the memoir, that is). 
  • Audience and purpose determine everything else.WHO is the mix for? What are you trying to achieve? Same thing with writing. Audience and purpose drive our writing choices. 

So we create THE PERFECT FIVE SONG PLAYLIST. The writers in my classroom must  be able to articulate and defend the songs their order. I need students thinking like writers, and plotting the perfect playlist helps achieve that.

Now we’re movin’ and grovin’ the way, you know, writers move and grove. We’ve a storehouse of ideas. We’re considering audience and purpose. We’re mucking around in the writing process, experiencing what Donald Murray calls “the other self.” Finally, we consider structure with the use of a mentor text.

I purchased a great collection of essays entitled Cassette From My Ex: Stories and Soundtracks of Lost Loves(Confession: total impulse buy. Totally worth it). We read and discuss Vincent Chung’s “Snowballs Chance in Hell.” We consider the bridge music creates between past and present, between our relationships with people. My intentions, however, are to examine a basic structure so as to offer a possibility of how writers might structure their own writing. (You’ll find a link to both Chung’s story and his story with annotations at the conclusion of this post).

We write. We conference. We continue reading chapters from Barrington’s The Art of the Memoir  for guidance. We write some more, conference some more. We review concepts from our fiction unit (Show, don’t tell!). We write and revise and struggle and succeed and experience all the ups and downs of the writing process that I am, here, simply glossing over (excuse this injustice). Finally, after the heavy lifting is complete, we have pieces we’re proud of.

Frank, for example, took the cues from Chung’s structure and composed a piece that beautifully captures the quiet tragedy of the death of  his grandmother. He’s granted permission for me to share his piece, “Potato Soup and Bon Iver.”

Christian  takes a different approach to his structure, but still captures the essence of memoir. His piece, “Do I Wanna Know,” examines how music helped bring him out of isolation during the year he spent in Alaska.

Our time traveling is complete. We go from notebook to discussion. From discussion to research. From research to drafting and conferencing to final, polished pieces. This is our means of time travel, our wormhole.

This is our writing process.

Sources and Links: 

Mixtape image comes from BonusCut.com 

Snowball’s Chance in Hell By Vincent Change (Music and Memoir)

Snowball’s Chance in Hell By Vincent Change (Music and Memoir) WITH ANNOTATIONS

Music and Memory Part One: Music as a Time Machine

There’s this old Ruth Etting song, “All of Me,” a jazzy little number, that’s been popularized and covered and remixed since its conception back in 1930 something. I first heard it in high school (1999, maybe?) when NOFX, a popular punk band, covered it. My grandfather, who passed away in 2010, had heard and loved it long before then.

Everyone called him Butch, though his real name was Robert. I remember all the grandfatherly things about him: his overalls, covered in dirt from a day’s work. His long, calloused fingers, crooked from years of DIY labor. His gruff yet warm voice, an audible dichotomy heard whenever he announced “Lunch!” or “Time to open presents!” during holidays and birthdays. His singing, too. Always singing.

Toward the end of his life, he suffered multiple strokes. His speech became a slur of sounds. Pieces of his mind began to slip away. Our bodies can betray us. His did.

But he never stopped singing.

I don’t know that my grandfather was an exceptionally good singer or anything. He just enjoyed it. Who doesn’t? Even the worst of us are compelled to belt out pop choruses in the confines of our cars. (Come on. You know you are guilty of this.) So, despite the fact that his body was breaking down, my grandfather sang on. So much so that the assisted living facility he roomed in set up weekly karaoke, which my grandfather led: Butch: The Man and His Music. His most popular tune? “All of Me.” It transported him back to before, when his body and mind were his to control; back to moments and memories that were of great personal significance to him. Music. It’s powerful. 

Last summer, I stumbled upon this video. It depicts the power of music with people who suffer from Alzheimer’s. It also reminded me of my grandfather. Take a look.

I couldn’t help but think about the intersection of music and memory. About the overwhelming nostalgia that seizes us when a  long forgotten song suddenly crackles through the radio, catching us by surprise. Music is a time machine, and we’re all Marty McFlys along for the ride. That’s its power. 

This universal truth, that music is powerful in a way that is tied directly to memory and experience, got me thinking about my Creative Writing class. How can I bring this power into the classroom in order to help empower writers? We were just about to begin a memoir unit, but I could tell that they were feeling drained and a bit uninspired after composing fiction and poetry all of quarter one.

So here’s what I did:

LESSON PLAN: MUSIC AND MEMORY (Memoir/Narrative Writing)

1. I begin by showing students the above video, asking them to note any initial reactions to discuss upon its completion. They make the connections. They get it. Music is powerful! Look what it did for Henry!

2. We’re going to create some lists, I tell students, regarding three different periods of our lives: elementary school, middle school, and high school. Create a playlist from your life that corresponds to each of these periods. What are the songs that matter?

I remind students that songs that matter aren’t necessarily the same as the songs you love(d). It might be the song that you and your father would listen to on the radio during long drives. It might be the song that, though you don’t particularly like it, makes you think of all those middle school dances. It might be a theme song from your favorite Saturday morning cartoon as a child.

We make lists. They look something like this:

PicMonkey Collage MUSIC BLOG

We chat. We sing quietly at our tables. We laugh. And the more we write, the more the memories begin to surface. I remind them that writing is a way to unearth memories. 

3. Then, I take a page from Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them for our writing prompt:

 Brainstorm the way music and memory dance together. Choose a song from your lists. Write the memory of that song, the setting, whatever rises to the surface when thinking about music (35).

We write for ten minutes straight in our writer’s notebooks. I remind them of our quick-writing mantra (also stolen from Kittle):

  • Write the entire time
  • Ignore the critic in your head
  • Relax, have fun

If a writer hits a wall, I tell them to choose a different song and begin again.

But they have no problem writing. How could they? They have a direct, personal connection to the topic.

All of this happens before I ever mention the word “memoir.” It has to. Otherwise, I risk scaring them off; I risk the writing becoming just an assignment rather than a piece they care about, one that can be crafted into something killer. The best writing is infused with the writer’s voice, the writer’s personality. If the writer doesn’t care about what they’re writing, then I promise you that the reader won’t either. 

In Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art, author Judith Barrington encourages writers to overcome the debilitating “WHO CARES ABOUT MY WRITING!” feelings that young writers (and all writers, really) face:

The red ink, the echoes of ‘nobody could possibly be interested in my life,’ and the implications of self-indulgence raised by the persistent ‘who cares?’, all combine to crush self-expression. One of your first tasks, then, is to ask yourself: why do I care about this? The answer will make you feel entitled to tell your own story – to accept that it is not worthy of being written down but material for literature – something you want to revise and craft until it is beautiful (35). 

I don’t want to crush self-expression before we even get started; I need my writers to be invested. Lists and quick writes prep. rather than intimidate. They’re ready to write.

4. After quick-writing, we share. Some writers read. Others summarize what they wrote about. We discuss the “emotional truths” and moments that music connects us to. Then, I give them excerpts from the first two chapters of Barrington’s book. I ask them to read carefully, annotating for takeaways (I define takeaways as anything we, as writers, should know going forward).

And that’s how we begin memoir: we use music as a time machine. And I’ve everything I need from that class period: 1) student investment 2) a few pages of writing ideas 3) memories of 8th grade dances and Montell Jordan’s “This is How We Do It.”

Read on. Write on.

Writing the Memoir – Chapters 1 and 2

In Music and Memory Part Two, I’ll share mentor texts and mini-lessons I use to move the memoir writing forward.