The Art of Writing

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Before I was a full-time instructor, over twenty years ago, I presented at my first national conference–the National Conference of Teachers of English. It was in Denver that year, and I paid for the conference myself because I craved professional development, even though I was a lowly adjunct, only teaching three or four large college classes each semester.

In a round table session, I  presented  an exercise that I had created for my developmental English courses called “The Art of Writing.” The students took a reproduction of a famous piece of art (I had many pictures for them to choose from) and told them to brainstorm about what they saw, using a handout I gave them.

One side of the paper was marked “Concrete,” where they wrote what they saw in the picture or what they could imagine that they could experience with their other senses. On the other side of the paper, I wrote “Abstract,” where students wrote words and phrases that represented how the painting made them feel or what memories, or thoughts in general, the painting helped bring to the surface.

After they brainstormed, the would develop some sort of prose writing based on the art and their brainstorming, combining the concrete with the abstract. I used as an example a short piece I wrote that was based on the iconic painting American Gothic by Grant Wood. Here is the painting and the creative piece I wrote based on it:

Grant_Wood_-_American_Gothic_-_Google_Art_Project

American Gothic

I remember marrying him.  We stood together in the country church, farmer’s son and farmer’s daughter, too poor for ought else–too much a part of the land anyway.  My family sitting on those hand-hewn, hard-backed pews, witnessing.

That night I didn’t utter a word or a cry.  Closing my eyes, I imagined I was lying in the distant fields of my home, daises tickling my face and hands and feet.

I worked hard, learning not to expect any praise for the clean floors or hearty food. My greatest joy, to get all of the chores finished in time to head for the fields, to hold the soil of our land in my hand, to feel its moisture and smell its mustiness.

He did praise me once.  After three daughters, who were mine to raise, to teach, to find husbands for, I bore him a son.  I sweat and strained and screamed no less, but somehow it was different, and he thanked me.  Then, my son was gone, no longer mine.  So soon he learned not to cry.  So soon he became a man.

Now, in that same country church, as my youngest daughter gives herself to a farmer too poor to leave and too much a part of the land anyway, I sit in a hand-hewn, hard-backed pew, witnessing.

**

I quite like this little character study, which went on to be published by the way, but more importantly, the piece inspired my developmental students for over a decade. Some of my students’ writing was published in our yearly literary magazine–one even winning a cash prize as  the top fiction piece in that year’s journal.

Another student picked a famous photograph of an American flag on a front porch and wrote an amazing creative non-fiction piece about the meaning of liberty. That student was attending our school under the GI Bill, having served during Operation Desert Storm. I’m telling you, he had a heck of a lot to say about liberty that the younger people in the class needed to hear.

Were they inspired to write or did the assignment just help them feel free to use their creativity? Did the painting give them something to write about, a story already there that they just fleshed out? It was more than likely a combination of things, but whatever it was, many of my students, developmental students, did their best writing when writing about art.

In recent years, the state where I teach has discouraged creative writing or the study of literature  in writing classes, especially in developmental classes. The trend is towards more “practical” writing, utilitarian, without flair or heart or life. Surprise! I am bucking that trend. I don’t use my art assignment any more, but my students engage with and write about music, film, theater, literature and art, and their writing is better for it. They are better for it.

In 1938 Winston Churchill, said, “The arts are essential to any complete national life. The State owes it to itself to sus­tain and encour­age them….Ill fares the race which fails to salute the arts with the rev­er­ence and delight which are their due.”

Maybe the State, as well as college administrators and curriculum developers, should listen to him.

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If you are, or were, an English composition teacher, do you have a writing prompt that you have used in class and would like to share like I did at the conference? If so, I would love if you would submit it to my literary magazine Teach. Write. 

In the magazine, I have a feature called “Write Your Own” where you do like I did and write your own creative piece using a prompt that you have once given your students. Accompany your piece with a brief explanation of the prompt or the purpose for the assignment.

I am also accepting general submissions of poetry, flash, short stories, and essays through March 1 for the spring edition. Click for complete submission guidelines. I look forward to reading your work!

Happy New Year!!!

And Merry New Semester!

 

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Proverbs

Mom and Dad

Mom and Dad on their honeymoon in New Orleans–December, 1955

I miss my dad. He died three years ago, May 6, at age 80. He always said he would make it to 80, and he did. Dad did most things he put his mind to.  Sometimes I called this characteristic stubbornness, especially when I, like all children, became fiercely angry at him. Other times, like in the last years of his life when he was fighting the debilitating effects of type I diabetes, I called it persistance. Now I call it courage.

By profession, my father was a soldier, a preacher, a singer, a teacher, but above all, a courageous leader.  Here are some memories, things he did, said and wrote, in no particular order, that have helped shape me into the person, the teacher, I am today.  Some of them may seem cliche, but when I heard them from Dad, they were fresh and new because his actions and his character stood behind them.

  • Once, when I was about 13 or so, my dad hit a dog and killed it. He went across the road and knocked on doors until he found the owner of the dog to let them know, apologize and help in any way he could. Afterwards, climbing into the truck to drive away, he said, “You have to go through your problems. Meet them head on. You can’t go around.”
  • “I’m not going to retire. I’m going to refire.”
  • “Do everything you do out of love, and you can’t go wrong.”
  • In answer to the question, “What word best describes your life?” Dad wrote this:
    • Integrity. I believe that we all need to be people of our word. I don’t believe we can go wrong if we adopt this word to live by. I heard of on Indian. A banker was once asked how much money he would loan that Indian. “I’d loan him as much as he wants,” said the banker, “because he will die rather than not pay it back.” That’s integrity. That’s what I want. I want to live by that word.
  • “It’s hard to be a Christian–a true Christian.”
  • “The three most fantastic changes that have taken place in my life time are
    • 1. The advances in medical science. If we had not had the advances in medical science , I would be dead because of my diabetes.
    • 2. The advances in education. If we had not had the advances in education, and I had not taken advantage of my opportunities, I would have been retired from the cotton mill by now.
    • 3. The advances in technology. If we had not had the advances in technology, my children and grandchildren would not be having this abundant life, being blessed and being a blessing to others.
  • I describe success as
    • S–Sharing
    • U–Unity
    • C–Cooperation
    • C–Compassion
    • E–Endurance
    • S–Speaking the Word
    • S–Suffering long
  • ” Love is ever ready to believe the best in others.” Dad said he learned this from my mother, one of the other great teachers in my life. (I will write another blog post about her in the near future.)
  • “That’s the name of the game–helping people.”

    Dad and Rob

    Dad helping my brother Rob tie his shoes, mid-70’s

  • “I like to travel. Travel is a part of education. Learning about different peoples, countries, children, religions is a part of education. I’m glad that all of our children have gotten to travel. I believe all of it has contributed to the positive attitudes they have now about different countries, cultures and peoples.”
  • “Never do anything half-ass.” Mom taught me this too. She just said it in a more refined way: “Anything worth doing is worth doing well.” Same sentiment and one that has served me well.
  • After Dad retired from working as a representative of a large ministry, he went back to teaching. He worked for the county office, taking long-term substitute assignments. This was in the 80’s at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic when there was still a great deal of fear and misinformation about the disease in the country. There was a little boy with hemophilia who had contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion. The school would not let the little boy attend school and could find no one to teach the boy at home–until my dad volunteered. He taught the boy until he was too sick to study, but Dad became more than a teacher to that boy and his family–he was a friend. Years later, the boy’s mother posted under Dad’s obituary, “Mr. Whitlock was a wonderful man….He meant the world to us.”
  • Dad was principal of a Christian school in Georgia. Although the school was started as a dodge around integration, my dad did not pay any attention to the racist’s views of some board members and enrolled the first African-American student. “Do what you know is right,” Dad said, and did.
  • Some of Dad’s favorite scriptures that he counted as important lessons he learned in life:
    • I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
    • Whatsoever you do in word or deed, do it all for the glory of God.
    • All things work together for good to those who love the Lord, to those who are called according to his purpose
  • Dad recorded ideas on what it takes for a husband and wife to maintain a healthy marriage:
    • Love each other
    • Pray together
    • Be in unity
    • Put Jesus first
    • Attend church and have all of the family go together
    • Have a spirit of forgiveness toward each other
    • Be patient with each other
    • Build each other up, not tear each other down.
  • “I love everything about your Mom.” Dad called Mom his “little hummingbird.” He loved her fiercely, and their relationship has taught me more about having a successful marriage than anything else could ever do. When two fallible people can live together, for the most part happily, for 58 years, they must have done something right.
    house after tornado

    My parents’ home after the tornado in April, 2011. My brother Rob endured and persisted during this time. His efforts made it possible for my parents to move back in less than a year after the tornado. 

     

  • Although it was so hard to watch Dad go through what he went through the last years of his life, I learned so much about perseverance, determination and courage from him during that time. Through the death of his oldest child, a devastating tornado, his own failing health, leading to two amputations and eventually succumbing to heart failure, Dad endured much discomfort, pain and embarrassment but rarely complained, usually about not being able to have salt on his food. He continued to be an inspiration to those around him by learning how to walk again with one prosthetic, losing the other leg, then learning to walk on two prosthetic legs. Knowing how athletic and active Dad had been most of his life made it even harder to watch as he struggled to do basic tasks,
    Dad on Prosthetics

    Dad, learning to walk again–December 2012

    but Dad persisted and endured with courage and dignity. The last time I was with Dad, about a week before he died, his heart severely weakened from the effects of diabetic neuropathy, I watched as he tested his own blood sugar and gave himself his own insulin shot. The last thing he ever said to me was, “I love you.”

Two weeks after my dad died, I was diagnosed with Type II diabetes. It was hard to hear as my doctor spoke of possible nerve damage leading to blindness or amputation, especially after watching my dad go through what he did.

But I am his child, so I have determined that this disease won’t lick me. Dad, I’ll do what’s right, won’t do a half-ass job, won’t try to go around.

Life is worth doing, so I’m going to do it well.