Monday, July 23, 2012

Guest Post: Vanessa Ziff Lasdon on The Writer’s Notebook: An Essential Tool for Daily Practice & Creative Survival

By Vanessa Ziff Lasdon
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

So, you’re a writer. But are you living a writing kind of life? Are you writing every single day?

With all we have on our plates, many of us are missing the most essential tool for our creative survival: daily words. Where do you keep yours?

I’m a teacher by trade. My reluctant writers are those who don’t write fluently. They squirm in their seat and struggle with topics, quantities, and details. They fret over getting it right versus simply getting it down.

Recently, I’ve been wondering whether I fall into the reluctant writer category. The habit of generating the daily text I expect of my own students, significant or not, has gotten buried in my bustling life.

Habit is everything to a writer. Not just one who publishes, but one who simply writes. Habit is the process that builds fluency, and fluency shapes significance.

Well, if we want our ideas to spill over, if we want our fingers to fly when we hit the page, we have to prime the pump on a regular basis.

And so, my writer self looks to my teacher self and remembers: the most important tool for living a writing kind of life is a notebook.

It is, as author Ralph Fletcher describes, “A place where words can grow.”

Scrapbook, journal, diary, lifebook, laptop. A writer’s notebook may not be a novel idea to you, but I’d like you to consider a few craft books I use with students age eight to eighteen that provide a wealth of notebook strategies often overlooked by the adults who write for children.

Grab that notebook, organize it to your fancy, and get your hands on these powerful resources by a trio of incredible mentors: A Writer’s Notebook by Ralph Fletcher (HarperCollins, 1996)(RF), Notebook Know-How: Strategies for the Writer's Notebook by Aimee Buckner (Stenhouse, 2005) (AB), and Just Write: Here's How! by Walter Dean Myers (Colins, 2012)(WDM).

Ways to Jump In

Often we just need a way to get writing already. So let’s dive in:

• Daily Pages (AB)

Aimee Buckner adopted this brilliant, no-brainer fluency strategy from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way (Tarcher, 1992). Kick off your daily writing routine with a minimum of one page full of words, before you start any deep-thinking, story-related writing. All topics on deck. The purpose is to “take the trash out […] to clear the mind of clutter,” as Buckner describes, in order to get to our more creative selves.

• Write Small (RF)

Ralph Fletcher believes that the single most important lesson we can learn as a writer is to write small. I tell my students, “Notice what you notice.” Write down those hot thoughts before they cool off and drift away! Stories live within the details, and our daily world is packed with these tiny truths: a gesture, object, anecdote or snippet of sound. Fletcher likens the writer’s notebook to an incubator, “a protective place to keep your infant idea safe and warm, a place for it to grow while it is too young, too new, to survive on its own” (p. 32) Pay attention. Capture a handful of the most important sensory details each day. Crack open the adjectives and reveal the seed examples inside. Then wait…wait for imagination to take root.

• Fierce Wonderings (RF)(AB)

Think of how many questions you ponder over in a given day. How many thoughts, images, themes and memories haunt you, begging to be explored. Whatever you daydream fiercely about, big or small, serious or silly, is worth your time. Write those fierce wonderings down.

• Lists (RF)(AB)

Humans love to collect, categorize, classify. It’s one of our favorite things to do. Words, flavors, facts, places, books, titles, songs. Bests, worsts, firsts, lasts, deadlines, goals, dreams. So many lists! Hop to it!

• 3 x 3 (AB)

Buckner’s “Three Word Phrases in Three Minutes” exercise will get your fingers pumping out fresh ideas quickly. Choose a one-word topic; write it at the top of a new notebook page, set the timer, and go! (A particularly useful strategy for focusing on parts of a larger topic or issue with a character, setting or feeling, since it forces you to be selective with your words.)

• Memories (RF)

What moves you? What’s unforgettable? Search for memories that inspire you, that haunt you; that make you ask questions or make you uncomfortable. Fletcher wisely calls this, “writing that scrapes the heart,” and “writing-as-lifejacket: the writing you do because your heart will burst if you don’t write it” (p. 98). Writing from memory may mean connecting to your own history, facing hard truths, or exposing secrets. Then again, it may also mean collecting things: drawings, artifacts (Favorite pen. Date died: 5/15/92), photos, articles, and so on. Like day-to-day observations, memories fade; so make a habit of getting them on the page.

• Dialogue (RF)

Want to develop great character? Time to eavesdrop! Dialogue is one of the best ways to dive into writing. “Snatches of talk,” as Fletcher calls them, are packed with juicy details that represent the many ways we live and view the world. “Develop an ear for not just what’s said, but what someone is trying to say” (RF p. 62). Pay attention to gestures, expressions, body language, and all that is left unsaid. Notice rhythms and cadences, slang, and patterns of behavior that reflect a person’s character. Searching for more off-the-wall snippets? Catch what people say in their sleep!

• Sketches (WDM)

Walter Dean Myers offers some sage advice for sketching out characters and settings: find photographs and make a collage. Afterward, create detailed word portraits for each character or setting. Through these portraits, answer all the questions you have for that person or place. Remember: complex characters and multi-layered settings are memorable.

• Research & Inspiration (RF) (WDM)

Using part of your Writer’s Notebook to collect inspiring relics and compelling research can lead to some incredible storytelling. Not only that, but rereading these nuggets can keep you going when your energy or direction falters. Nowadays, it’s easy to take a screenshot on your computer or phone and print or send the clip to email, Evernote or Scrivener, for example. This is often the way I collect ideas, dialogue, scene openers and endings, and passages that just knock me out. Research makes our stories authentic. So go ahead: be a word hoarder! Seek out material that will make your stories authentic (WDM) and “find writing that inspires you to grow into the kind of writer you hope to be” (RF p. 119)


Reading Like a Writer

As writers, we read first for pleasure and second to hone our craft. Next time you have a great book in hand, try these quick techniques, which are some of my favorites to use in the classroom:

• Rereading (RF)(AB)

Both Buckner and Fletcher recommend reading through your notebook often and carefully to “dig out the crystals” that, once polished, will spark original writing. Star it, circle it, highlight it, flag it. Eventually, lift each of those special lines and rewrite them on their own notebook page. Now write.

• Writing Off Literature (AB)

Buckner says it perfectly: “Stories inspire stories.” Read through a poem, passage or chapter once just to enjoy it, to be affected by it, and the second time to connect to the story with your own words. Lift a line or an entire scene. Shoot for at least twenty minutes. Go all stream-of-consciousness! Who knows where things might lead!

• Writing From a Word (AB)

Similar to the idea above, only this time, immerse your self in just one word. Start with a noun. Next time a verb, an adjective, adverb, and so on. Explore the word’s sound, its meaning, its subtext, and the stories implicit within its letters.

• Try 10 (AB)

Try Ten is a handy revision strategy for leads, endings, transitions, verbs, dialogue, metaphors, and other short snippets of your work. It’s pretty self-explanatory: write your piece in question ten different ways. Vary the structure, word choice, length; you name it. Every sentence deserves our attention, and often our most creative ideas for a line are buried underneath the more obvious first five on the list. Ten is the magic number. Try it for yourself.

• Poetry & Wordplay (RF)

Poems are magical fruit to the parched writer: brief, intense, bold, intimate, satiating. Paste poems that pack a punch into your notebook and annotate them for the images they evoke, for the rhythms, cadences, and sounds they carry. Now imitate the poem. Experiment! Lose and find yourself in wordplay.

“Notebooks are…well, it’s like you have sparks from a campfire that could start a fire. They haven’t yet, but they could at any time” -- Michael Ciccone, first grade

Final Thoughts

To really understand the power of a writer’s notebook, you have to give yourself permission to experience it completely. Yes, we are busy, so let’s be smart about how we invest our time. Slow is fast. Fast is slow.

While a writer’s notebook may not seem urgent compared to all the other pressing matters in our lives, it is when you consider the magnitude of value it brings to our craft and our soul. A notebook is a foundational element to living a writerly life every single day. It’s our meditative practice, our wellspring of chi.

I urge you to re-prioritize your schedule to fit a writer’s notebook of any kind into your daily blueprint.

Cynsational Notes

Fellow VCFA alumna Cindy Faughnan with Vanessa
Vanessa Ziff Lasdon is an L.A.-based teacher, tutor, writer, and educational coach. A University of Texas, Austin and Teach for America alum, she also holds an M.F.A. in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a certificate degree in Digital Journalism.

When she’s not writing, reading, or managing her biz at W.O.R.D. Ink, Vanessa serves as an in-school writing mentor with 826LA and directs Writing Adventures summer camp. She also loves to cook, garden, and travel, get crafty, go green, play outdoors, make short films, surf the web, tune in to NPR, shop for unique stuff, share and laugh often. Vanessa has written a middle grade novel and is working on a young adult fantasy. She is represented by Sara Crowe at Harvey Klinger, Inc.

Vanessa will be launching her own weekly blog, W.O.R.D.: Write. Observe. Revise. Discover, early this September. She invites you to join her readership and check out her many writing services! Sign up and connect with Vanessa on Twitter @vzlasdonwriter or by email (vanessa@word-ink.net). Visit Vanessa online at www.word-ink.net.

9 comments:

Carolee Dean said...

Wonderful suggestions. I will incorporate them with my students... and in my own writing practice as well. I definately relate to the idea of needing to prime the pump to get started. I leave for work at 6:45 a.m. and I write before that, so there is not a lot of time for a free write. I can see how it would benefit though.

vanessaziff said...

Thanks for your interest, Carolee! Happy to hear these techniques will be useful to both you and your students! I commend you for sticking to your rigorous writing schedule and I know exactly what that's like, because 5:45am used to be my only writing time, too. Good news is that priming the pump doesn't have to take too long. Top it off at 5 or 10 minutes during the weekdays, just so it gives you a "way in" to your writing, like a warm-up stretch. Best of luck! -- Vanessa

Margo said...

Honestly, this is one of the very best collections of tips I have ever read in all my years of writing and of teaching writing. I've tweeted this and posted it on the Blue Boards and have emailed the link to my writer friends. thank you so much for doing this!
Aloha,
Margo :)

Ashley Hope Pérez said...

Vanessa! Yes, yes, yes! I'm the author type who started out as the teacher type, but the National Writing Project showed me how to bring those two identities together. A writer's notebook was at the heart of my transformation--and the transformation of my work with students. I am already an RF groupie, and I even have a "writer's notebook" tag on my blog. Still, your tidbits have enticed me to check out other writer's notebook gurus. Thank you!

vanessaziff said...

Margo and Ashley, thank YOU for your incredible enthusiasm and for spreading the word! I am beyond thrilled that you've found this post meaningful to you! Ashley, I, too am part of the National Writing Project (LAWP), so I identify with your transformative experience. I know both of you will continue to inspire, and I'm excited to stay connected. -- Vanessa

Claire Hennessy said...

Brilliant post. Much to think about and remember, from both a writerly and a teaching perspective. :)

Paige said...

Thanks so much for all the great ideas!

Elizabeth Varadan aka Mrs. Seraphina said...

This was a great share. I used to do pages and/or journal all the time, but this year seem to have gotten out of the habit. This post is a good "re-charge" for me. Thanks so much.

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

So glad to hear the post resonated, Carolee! I'm sure it'll be a boon to your and your students.

Thanks for spreading the word, Margo! Most appreciated.

Ashely, you're an inspiration!

Thanks for chiming in, Claire and Paige!

Here's to recharging, Elizabeth!

And thanks again, Vanessa! Brava!

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