The Science of Teaching Writing

A blog on teaching, with an emphasis in teaching writing.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

From Ditch to Draft

One of my colleagues uses the term “ditch” for her kids writing notebooks, and she talks about the value of going back through to see what they can find in the ditch and turn into something great. I wanted to model this for my kids, so here’s what I did.
My sentence of the day was a passage from the short story Dominion by Mark Slouka, found in the Best American Short Stories collection, the 2006 edition.

Her voice was sanity, bottom, ground. The world corrected itself. “What am I listening to?” she asked.
“I think they’re coyotes,” he said, slipping back inside himself, resuming his place.

“Since when do we have coyotes?” she whispered back.

I also use a Morning Pages question, something to help start them writing if they’re not quite sure what to write about. This particular day I used the following for Morning Pages: What creatures that lurk in the night (both real and imaginary) frighten you?

I liked it right away. Memories came flooding back into my mind of times when I was alone in the dark, or with a friend, and an encompassing quiet hung in the air, thick with ill intentions: the time we had to cut through a field and was certain a dog would bite us; the time we were in an unfamiliar basement and the dampness, drips from pipes, small scurrying noises we swore we heard—they weren’t just rats, but sewer rats, crazed with rabies. Anyway, here’s what I wrote:

I can remember walking through fields and backyards when I was younger and being filling with the feeling that something with large claws, fangs that dripped with drool would leap out of the darkness and attack me. It would rips peices of my clothes and chunks of flesh, baring the bone, perhaps even tendons and ligaments as I tried to defend myself. My sister had a fear of the unknown, some thing she couldn’t name or point to, but something malevolent that would cause some harm, a harm she couldn’t name, but something she didn’t want—this was the girl who wouldn’t jump in the water at the lake out of fear the fish would bite her.

Part of me knew there was something here. I could sense it. I wanted to abandon what I was supposed to do with them and work on what I wrote. I had writing conferences with kids, worked on things for a while, and when it was time to send them to Specials, I wrote a little.


In fields and backyards as a child, filled
with the angst that arrives
from an unseen beast with large claws, fangs
that drip drool and leap
from the unknown. It could attack me,
rip pieces of clothes, chunks
of flesh, baring the bone, perhaps
even tendons and ligaments, and me waving
arms like screaming streamers in a whipping

My sister’s fear
of the unknown, some thing without
name or location for which to point,
but its malevolence as certain as the death she felt
She, who believed
lake fish were carnivorous.

I still lie awake in the dark, but now
my thoughts are scarier: bankrupt
of significant others, my murderous
mouth leaving me alone;
my automobile inoperable beside a field
of stillness, the night sky thicker
than my frustration as I kneel and plead
before a man, name stitched where a heart is not.

Though my demons have changed,
appearing in my sleep, groping
the fears that make my soul sweat,
waking me in the dark, and I assure myself,
it was just a dream.

As I wrote this, I started by directly pasting what I wrote in my writing notebook, on my laptop, into a blank Word document. I read through, found phrases I liked and tried turning them into lines. I looked at my line breaks, tried somewhat to end with strong words, words that with the rest of the line could be some strange phrase, something leading my reader to something, something that with the next line would bring a small surprise as to how I manipulated the words and the line to bring more than one meaning. I can’t do that with every line. If I did, it could lose its effect and become trivial, like someone who uses too many exclamation points in their writing. After messing with the sentences and paragraph to change them into lines and stanzas, I looked through to see where I could make images stronger, how there could be some sort of conclusion to my poem. Not ending: when people try to end a poem, it seems thrown in, like they were done or tired of writing and did the equivalent to writing THE END because they didn’t want to take the time to think of a way to bring things to a proper close.

What is it what scares me? I remember the line from the movie, In the Line of Fire, “What do you see in the dark, when the demons come?” Demons…good word. I still have lots of nightmares because of past experiences, ones that jolt me from sleep where I’m ready to pummel whatever it is that tries to hurt me. Why not use it? The last line came from things my parents have said to me when I’d wake in terror from a dream, something I’m sure everyone has heard and/or had said to them, something we can all relate to—making a connection with my reader as the poem comes to a close. It’s still not done, but where piece ever is?


At 6:59 AM, Blogger Katie said...

I just stumbled upon your blog - I'm an undergraduate student, soon to become an English teacher. I found your blog extremely helpful and encouraging - you're doing great things with your class!

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