Creative Writing

Saying Goodbye the Write Way.

Tonight, Story451 celebrated the conclusion of our five-week creative writing workshop with the kids from Kerry’s Place Autism Services. We said goodbye the same way we said hello: with plenty of activities, discussion, art, laughter and hugs.

The kids were in full-on creative mode throughout the session. Initially, we thought they might be reluctant to share and participate with their parents in the room. But as has been the case the whole time we were together, they defied expectations and even managed to inspire their family to participate and share in the activities as well.

The past five weeks have been a trip. As a collective, we traveled beyond the reach of the human eye, to settle on a new planet and build something from the ground up. We wrote about character and conflict and discussed what the perfect world could look like. We read some Ray Bradbury, short stories, poetry, watched videos and even sang a couple of songs. We created a new planet with new laws, where all would be equal, where outsiders would be insiders, and strangers would be friends.

The kids were happy to have place where they could be safe and respected. We were happy to have space where we could try different things and learn something new. So much of what we did over the past five weeks was about exploring far away places, but what we were really doing was exploring our inner selves.

Personally, the biggest lesson I took away from all of this was this: I learned that we didn’t have to use our imaginations to create a world filled with respect, dignity, magic and art. All we had to do was meet the kids from Kerry’s Place in the basement of the Tweedsmuir United Church.

I’ll miss the kids.

 

 

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Captain’s Log: Week Two

Creative Writing Workshop with Kerry’s Place Autism Services.

We’ve landed and hit the floor running. This afternoon’s workshop was a whirlwind of ideas, readings, blasts (prompts), games of catch, newcomers, outsiders and cupcakes. I was so proud of our group today. We welcomed two new members into the fold, and both were willing to work and share from the get-go. As a group, we managed to come up with a name for our ship (101X). We also agreed upon a name for our planet (Upotia) and a name for the city that we will inhabit and populate (Atleor).

Maybe it was the smell of spring in the air, or maybe it was the fact that the writing group was starting to feel like more than just a group of people that got together to write- either way, something special happened today. Great things happen when you get a group of young people together and give them a chance to speak, to listen, to think and to share. These kids have so much to say, and I’m humbled in their presence. The focus of today’s group was ‘character’ and these kids have plenty of it.

When we talked about how they wanted things to be run on the new planet, they wrote about wanting a place where bullying didn’t exist, where everybody was equal, where people had to write at least one thing everyday. One girl wanted it to be a place where she “could be thirteen years old forever.” Another one wanted it to be a place where “everybody gets a chance to be themselves.” They were writing about what they wanted to see on Upotia, but you know they were writing about what they wanted to see right here on planet Earth.

(I’d like to think we can offer these things- if only for an hour and a half each week)

At the end of today’s workshop, we discovered that we may not be the only species on the planet. Things are going to get real hectic.

Stay tuned.

 

 

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Creative Writing, Literacy

Captain’s Log: Week One

We had a great first shift with our creative writing group from Kerry’s Place Autism Services. My partner, Harry Posner, and I had the privilege of meeting five very talented young girls, each with their own unique talents and interests. One girl admitted that she liked “to draw pink hearts, black hearts and broken hearts.” Another girl couldn’t get enough of her grandfather’s homemade English crumpets.

The theme of our workshop is space exploration. Our goal is to find a place where we can make a new start, to take some of the things we have learned in our lives and apply them to a new planet, a new home. By the end, we’ll take what we learned and share it with others.

Admittedly, getting the kids to focus was a bit struggle. You could tell that they were with us, but not fully. When they did settle, they participated and enjoyed writing about friends, high school and food. They wrote goodbye letters and told us what they would miss and what they couldn’t wait to get away from. They wrote about simple things, and abstract things. We asked them: “What does home taste like? What does home feel like? If you’re home could say something what would it say?” Most shared, and those that didn’t looked to be getting a little closer to sharing.

The kids brought plenty of energy to this afternoon’s meet. I was exhausted when I first walked in; I was ‘over the moon’ when I left.

I look forward to hearing from them all next week.

 

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Dig Your Own Grave- A Short Story

    

“…7, 8, 9, 10”. She wanted to shout “Ready or not hear I come!” but she wasn’t quite ready to announce her presence. Instead, she watched her father from behind the tree, the tree where all games of hide-and-seek started and finished when she was a kid. That was of course when her mother would let her have friends over to the house, which only happened when someone wasn’t being mourned or buried.

Emily found herself counting to ten over and over to help pass the time as she watched her father dig out his own grave. She could see that he was struggling as he stopped every few minutes to catch his breath and wipe his brow.

Emily’s father, BB Jenner, much like her, had grown up around dead people his entire life. He was part of a long line of undertakers and funeral directors dating back to the early days of the 20th century, when his great grandfather, Strom Jenner, had the idea that the only business that could never go out of business was the dying business.

The Jenners were an institution. For the past 103 years they had been responsible for burying most of the population of Palmerston. The family had buried every mayor, every war vet, every victim and every child. The Jenner Funeral Home had survived World Wars, recessions, the do-it-yourself funeral craze, Wal-Mart and even drive-thru funeral parlors. But even the Jenners, with all of their knowledge and experience, could not have predicted the death of the funeral business.

Emily’s mouth was dry from all the counting. She was anxious to get to work. She was relieved when her father had planted the shovel into the ground and left it there like some sort of marker. He walked his way around the pile of loose dirt, but suddenly stopped, looked down at the ground, brought his hand up to his chest and appeared to be saying something. Once he was inside, Emily came out from behind the tree, set down her bags, and grabbed the shovel. There was more work for her to do than she had originally anticipated.

 Emily had been inside the house for over an hour before her father made his way downstairs.

 “I thought it might be you,” he said as he walked over to the pantry to fix himself a drink.

She was looking at a picture on the wall, and didn’t turn around to greet him.

“God, look at all these faces. Do you have any idea how many of these guys are still alive? There you are Mr. President. of the. National. Funeral. Directors. Association. There’s you, and right next to you is Uncle Riley.”

She cursed the memory of her uncle and suddenly felt like spitting.

“Good ol’ Uncle Riley. I just got back from paying him a visit. Took a while to find out where he was laid out, but I found him. He had himself a nice spot, too.”

Emily turned to face her father and was surprised at just how old he looked.  

His face was pockmarked with spots, and he looked as if he was shrinking inside of his robe. His hair was lifeless, and his right hand trembled. Was he scared? Or maybe it was Parkinson’s.

“You know, if mom were still here and saw that dirt you dragged in behind you earlier this evening, she’d bury you herself.”

Claire Jenners was a tough woman. Emily used to joke with her friends that her mother was stiffer than the corpses the family looked after. While her father prepped the bodies for the service, it was her mother that made sure that the proceedings went according to plan. It was said around town that Claire Jenners liked to think that she had more to do with the mood and atmosphere of a service than the corpse lying in an open casket at the front of the room.

 “This place looks real different I tell you. I heard things were bad in the funeral business, but I didn’t think this bad.” She walked over to the chair opposite her father and sat in it.  

“I remember Mr. Johnston’s service taking place in the main parlor. Do you remember how packed it was? You couldn’t move. I remember you beaming over the fact that 103 cars were going to be a part of the procession. We could have charged admission to that one and made a bloody fortune. Could you imagine suggesting charging admission to a viewing to mom? She would have turned in her…well, let’s just say she would have flipped her lid.”

Emily sat silently for a few seconds, and then continued: “It was the same when Uncle Riley had passed. Good ol’ Uncle Riley. The whole world loved him, didn’t they?”

The old man didn’t answer.

Emily didn’t love Uncle Riley. She may have said it to him a few times, but that was because she wanted him to finish with her quickly as possible, so that she could shower and go outside and play hide and go seek with her friends. 

For so many years he had done things to her that she had tried to tell her mother and father about, but they were just too busy taking care of dead strangers to worry about tending to the needs of living family members. When she refused to go to his funeral, Emily’s mother dragged her into the basement and marched her into the room the family had nicknamed “The Icebox”. Once inside, Emily’s mother made her look into the casket of Jeremy Writhers, a classmate of Emily’s that had had been run over by a truck after running out into the street after his soccer ball.  

“Now, you look at this boy, and you be thankful for what you have, you hear me? Bad things happen to people, but you are alive. You remember that.”

What hurt Emily the most on the day of her Uncle’s funeral was having to sit through the eulogy, and listen to her father talk about what a great man his brother was. Emily sobbed uncontrollably as her mother consoled her. The people sitting behind them leaned over in their pews and offered her their condolences. “You must have loved your uncle very much.”

Emily rested her elbows on her knees and looked as if she was about to share a secret. “So I’m going to assume that you’ve seen my face all over the news these past few months, maybe heard the reports on the radio. I’m not sure how I blew up to be leader of the whole thing, but it doesn’t matter. That’s the problem with you old folks-  you can’t visualize something happening without a leader. That’s why you’re in the position that you’re in, right now.”

“I heard. I just I just want to know…” He paused.

“Know what?”

“Know why you and those people out there are doing what you’re doing. It isn’t right.”

Emily rolled her eyes and snickered. Of course he didn’t understand. None of them did. How could they? These people, elders, seniors, baby boomers, whatever you wanted to call them had spent their entire lives looking after themselves that they ended up losing sight of the things that should have mattered the most.

Emily got up from the chair and walked over to the window. “You see, the thing is dad, is that you still think that it’s up to you and your like to determine what’s right and what’s wrong. You just don’t get it. ” She pulled back the curtain and looked outside. “Those days are over for all of you.”

 

The first big story that something was amiss came out of France in 2008, during one of the hottest summers on record. The media had reported that a large number of seniors had been found dead in their apartments and that the next of kin were not claiming the bodies. The government had covered the cost of the burials and after a few short weeks the incidents were forgotten.

The following year, reports started to emerge about an increase of incidents of elder abuse, as seniors were being attacked, thrown out of their houses, even left to die out in the streets. At first people everywhere were confused. Why were the victims older? Why were bodies no longer being buried? (It was around this time that funeral parlors began to see a decline in business). These were not isolated incidents. It started to emerge that something bigger was at hand. It wasn’t a simple case of a grandmother being abused, or a father left to die.

Protesters, large groups of young people, gathered in major city centers, marching and carrying placards that read: “Rest in Pieces” and “I want what I’m owed.” Questions were being asked, and after a few weeks a narrative began to emerge. It went something like this:

Once upon a time, young people got fed up with old people. Young people were tired of old people and their greed. They grew tired of not being able to find a job, tired of not being able to afford their tuition, and tired of having to work longer and harder to simply scrape by.

After years of marching, fighting and lobbying, the young people had decided that enough was enough. There was one way to get back at those who lived off the fat of the land and left the youth, their kids, with nothing but the bones. If the old folks were going to take all they could from this life, their children would ensure that there would be nothing for them in the next one. Kids simply stopped burying their parents.

 The end.

 Emily walked over to her father. He winced as if expecting to be hit. She leaned in, picked up his empty glass, and walked over to the bar to fix him another drink.

“I remember when you came home that day and told us that your retirement savings had been wiped out and that you could no longer afford to send me to college. You blamed the economy as if the economy itself had made real live choices. What I didn’t know then like I do now, is that the economy is people, and people made those decisions that sent the world economy into decline. Two weeks later you and mom were in Turks and Caicos. It wasn’t me or my friends that made those decisions. It was people like you, dad. You and yours raped the economy, put us out of school and work, and now you’re expecting us to pay for it, to pay for your sins? I’m not Jesus Christ. I just can’t let that happen.”

Her father’s face grew tense. “Do you realize how ridiculous you sound blaming me for the way that you turned out?”

Emily could only shake her head. “This is about making things right.  It’s about setting an example for future generations. It’s about accountability. I, we, need you to know that you will never, ever, rest in peace. In pieces maybe, but never in peace. And that includes you and mom.”

The old man’s eyes widened in horror.

“Oh, that’s right. You didn’t think I just came back for you did you? I didn’t know where she was buried until I saw you standing over her grave and speaking to her.”

Emily watched as her father walked over to the window and drew back the curtain. He sighed at the sight of his wife’s broken body laying outside of its grave.

 “And here’s Uncle Riley.” Emily emptied the bag onto her father’s desk. Uncle Riley’s skull was in three pieces, and loose pieces of clothing were mixed in amongst the bone fragments and dirt.

Her father’s face whitened.

“I need you to know that you’ll never rest in peace, dad. I’m sorry, but that’s just the way that it has to be.”

 Emily dropped the empty bag on the floor. Before leaving the room, she glanced over at her father and smirked. “If you need me, I’ll be out back. I’ll be looking for Aunt Susan.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Creative Writing, Education, Teaching

Meet Mr. Ben Driscoll

I thought it might be cool to interview one of my own characters from my novel-in-progress. The book is a made up of nine loosely connected short stories that document the lives of teachers and students of a high school in the middle of anywhere and everywhere.

Stay tuned for more.

_________

Chapter 4: Ben Driscoll; 59 years of age; three months shy of retirement after having taught History for over 30 years.

_________

Interviewer: Will you show up for work tomorrow?

Ben Driscoll: I’m not allowed back in the classroom.

Interviewer: Why is that?

Ben Driscoll: I’d rather not say.

Interviewer: Did you do something?

Ben Driscoll: No. I said something.

Interviewer: And…you’d rather not share?

Ben Driscoll: That’s correct.

Interviewer: Is there alcohol in that thermos, Mr. Driscoll?

Ben Driscoll: Of course.

Interviewer: Do you drink?

Ben Driscoll: Don’t you?

Interviewer: You’ve taught history for over thirty years; are you looking forward to the future? Retirement?

Ben Driscoll: I am now.

Interviewer: You haven’t always?

Ben Driscoll: No. I used to love teaching.

Interviewer: What happened?

Ben Driscoll: What didn’t happen? I spent my whole life looking back into the past that I didn’t see what was coming up ahead.

Interviewer: Do you think you’ll miss teaching history?

Ben Driscoll: No.

Interviewer: Why not?

Ben Driscoll:  Because in this day and age, history doesn’t matter- it doesn’t exist.

Interviewer: Do you think your illness makes you say things like that?

Ben Driscoll: I do. I’m beginning to forget things.

Interviewer: Don’t you think that’s ironic: A history teacher that is beginning to forget?

Ben Driscoll: Perhaps I should have taught English.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“You Don’t Know Me Guy!”

Before we get heavy into studying short stories, I like to remind my students that an English class, and this English class in particular, is more than an English class- it is a lifestyle class. When we examine and study the characters that inhabit the novels and stories that we read in class, what we are doing is studying people that inhabit our planet, and decorate our lives. Macbeth is more than an ambitious king; he is the young intern at an ad agency who will do anything to make it to the top; Jay Gatsby is much more than an ambitious young man who designs his life so that one day he can get the woman that he wants; he is the young boy in grade seven biology that will sell out his best friend just to look good in front of the girl that sits behind him.

One of the first activities that we do when meeting a new character is to create a character profile. We look at the things they say; they things they do (actions); we describe important features of their appearance; and finally, we take into consideration what others say about them. I ask the class to first complete a character profile of themselves, and then, time permitting on a person in their life. Students like this activity because it challenges them to think about their identity and their relationships to the people around them. They unplug their headphones, put their PED’s away; they stop listening to other people and are forced to listen to themselves. I want them to know who they are before somebody has a chance to tell them first. I want them to be able to stand in front of a crowd and say: “This is a poem called Me, written by Me”. I’ve included a video a of Alicia Keys reciting one of her poems for Def Jam Poetry. After you watch it, I think you’ll see that she certainly has a good understanding of who she is.

I think it would be cool if you created your own character profile.  Use the template below to organize your information. After you come up with four examples for each category (your appearance; things you say; things you do; what you think others say about you) examine the data and sum yourself up in one sentence; or better yet, share your profile with a friend and let them sum you up- WARNING: THIS COULD GET UGLY. Good luck. Feel free to post your results on my blog.

character profile pic

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Pickles and Milk

Any time you can incorporate food into a lesson plan you know you’re going to catch your students’ attention and leave them drooling at the mouth. In my creative writing class today we discussed the role that food plays in our lives. Each student was threatened ( i mean, gently encouraged) to bring in a food item that they either made themselves or purchased. The spontaneous menu would have made Michael Smith proud. It included : short bread cookies, jell-o, pasta salad, figs, plantains, meatballs, soft muffins, hard muffins, muffins with green icing, bacon (yes, bacon) cookies, brownies, sunflower seeds, fruit in a cup, chocolate cake, cod cakes, but no damn pickles! It was a feast for the ages.

We discussed the relationship between taste and everything that we do in life, in particular the role that food plays in our sensual exploration of the world around us. We talked about, how has children, the first thing we wanted to do when we found something new was put it into our mouths. The tongue is an explorer that introduces us to many new and wonderful, and perhaps not so wonderful, things throughout our lives. We listened to Buck 65 do his thing on one of my favourite tracks of his. Listen to the track below:

We read from Salman Rushdie’s “I Grew Up Kissing Bread and Books” and discussed some of the more famous passages in literature that involved food. Here’s one of my faves:

“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”

—Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

I particularly enjoyed hearing their ideas for The Perfect Menu, and the food metaphors that they concocted to describe the people in their lives.

If you’re interested in learning about the role that food plays in literature PBS has put together a wonderful web doc that explores the relationship between the food that feeds the mind and the food that feeds the body.

http://www.pbs.org/opb/meaningoffood/food_and_culture/food_and_literature/

If you have any of your favorite stories involve anecdotes with food please feel free to share. I can compile a list and share them with those of you who may be interested in devouring them-  Roald Dahl’s “Lamb to the Slaughter” is a personal favorite.


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