Note: I have set up a private Facebook Group for people participating in the daily prompts to share their work and receive constructive feedback in a safe space. Please click HERE if you would like to take part.
Good morning. We’re traveling the timelines today for a visit with Saturnino Herrán.
A Mexican painter and muralist from the late 19th and early 20th century, he is among those of the indigenismo movement who worked to celebrate Latino culture as the precursor to the revolutionary spirit of mid-century Mexican art, including having taught greats such as Diego Rivera.
The piece I share with you today, La Ofrenda, hangs in Museo Nacional de Arte INBA in Mexico City.
Painted in 1913, it exemplifies Mexican modernism with its allegorical allusion to life’s journey. A punt boat in a canal is filled with zempasúchitl flowers (a marigold that is traditionally associated with death) meant as offerings for the dead. This is a reference to ofrenda, a tradition deeply connected to Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos. Each character is represents a different stage of life.
Of course, your interpretation doesn’t need to follow Herrán’s intention.
Instructions: Allow the mood and colours of the painting to influence your writing today. What is the story of those in the boat? Is there one character through which you can convey all of that rich emotion? Do they ponder? Or is this a quiet moment before the business of the city? Let whatever comes flow from your emotional reaction to the painting and write that. Don’t edit.
Are you longing for a bit of a solitary creative refuge in the middle of this quarantine?
Many of us continue to remain holed up in our homes across the globe. These many weeks of solitude (or sharing space without any breaks) leave us struggling with our sense of peace each day.
One of the ways I work with my writing groups to help ease anxieties and create space right now is through flash fiction using famous artworks as inspo.
My obsession with beauty, passion for museums, and love of storytelling led me to it, and students have adored the combo.
So, in celebration of art, support of museums, and an offering of solitary creative space, I’ll be posting a visual writing prompt each day along with light instructions to help guide you in this sweet process.
To kick things off, let’s go with Thomas Cole’s The Journey of Life: Youth. I love this painting for its ethereal quality and room to create your own interpretation. It hangs in the American National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
It may still be 15C out in the middle of August here in Vancouver (we’ve had what amounts to five days of truly hot weather this season), but the kids are out of school, the pool is open, and we are in full summer mode for a few more weeks.
That also means that my creative writing classes were PACKED (and I mean packed) with young authors who knew they need to keep reading and writing during the long break but also didn’t really want comma worksheets and book summaries.
My secret plan to keep them going was to bribe them with pizza. They received long reading lists and daily writing tasks at the beginning of the term. The pizza at the end of the Summer Reading Challenge Rainbow proved the key to getting them to read more than 100 novels this summer.
The way we kept track of it all was a bit sentimental, a bit creative, and a bit old-school community building.
We made a Summer Reading Story Quilt.
Over the course of eight weeks, the kids got to make a quilt square every time the read a new book. Around the edges, they had to come up with symbols that stood for the theme, the characters, or a literary device used in the novel. Then, in the middle, they drew their favourite scene and captioned it.
Admittedly, there was a wide range of engagement, but they had fun using their brains in a different way, setting reading goals, and achieving them.
For me, this was also a demonstration of how much can be accomplished by taking learning one step at a time. When we started, the wall looked pretty sorry and everyone wondered if we could ever fill it.
Within a couple of weeks, the quilt started to take shape.
Kids would pile in to see what others had read. They named their teams in order to identify which squares belonged to them and counted to make sure they were in the race for the pizza at the end.
Yesterday, the final square made it up onto the wall.
The kids couldn’t believe how much they accomplished and we all marveled at the 100+ books read over the course of the Summer.
Good morning. I haven’t posted much writing from my young authors this summer, as we have been heads-down working on the Summer Reading Challenge and discovering literary elements through the close reading of fiction.
However, this piece by Grade 6 young author Bonnie Xu needed to be shared with the world.
In class this week, I asked her to write a story about being someone’s shadow. Her take on it gave us a startling and moving peek into the shadow world.
English is Bonnie’s second language, yet her ability to transform ideas into provocative stories blossoms with every assignment.
I got up this morning planning to work on an article for a corporate client. This is pretty straightforward work, crafting a piece based on an interview I did last week about a technical topic I’ve done a fair bit of reading up on.
Segmenting my days into mental spaces is something I attempt to practice with some level of religious commitment. It’s a serious business to go from corporate article to fantasy novel writing to lesson planning for creative writing classes. I need to keep a clear head to stay clear on my goals.
However, my devotion to schedule-related doctrine wanes with embarrassing regularity, especially when I get distracted by a digital rabbit hole.
Welcome to my morning, where I got up and went to YouTube to put on ten hours of cello music. Instead, a video on an ancient religious order called The Scarlet Council appeared in my feed (I feel like I’m stating the obvious, but I love a good historical conspiracy theory). How could I refuse such an offer to delve into ancient mysteries?
Well, it’s 2.5 hours later and I’m back into corporate mode – black turtle neck and hair up in a bun ready to bust out some business-focused material.
The reward is I wrote thirteen pages of The Woman On The Wall (1500 words or so) while listening to the 70-minute video despite the fact I’m getting a later start than I wanted to on the other work.
This is my life, trying to balance curiosity and the need to create with my more intellect-based writing projects.
I’ll shift again in about two hours, prepping for an evening teaching creative writing classes.
Despite the chaos, it’s satisfying to know I’m quite capable of connecting my deep calling to write to everything I pursue in life.
Lately, people ask me why I write and I just tell them, “For me, writing is the mother blood. Everything else manifests as a result of it.”
I’ve been REALLY quiet on the blog and social media this past week as I am a bit low on energy. The last couple of weeks of school are always a challenge to get my family across the finish line, and I am—well—a bit of a grump.
However, nothing warms the soul like some fan art from your students.
This appeared after my all-girl Saturday class. I love it so much.
I admit it, I’m a bit of a romantic. If someone truly wanted to win my devotion beyond imagination, a pile of handwritten letters detailing our moments together and our deepest connections wins.
Sadly, letter writing careens quite close to the dead art category. With e-mail, texts, Snapchat, and Twitter, it seems no one recalls the magic of eloquent storytelling in the form of a hand-written personal narrative which connects two people and their shared experience.
However, ditching the romanticism for a moment, I do believe the craft of letter writing holds a slightly secret place in the realm of mastering the art of written communication. It also gives you an edge in competitive academic as well as work environments.
A well-crafted thank you letter in the proper situation can launch you from just another person to thoughtful friend, colleague, to a top candidate. It is the key to becoming memorable, which is so much of the battle in life.
In fact, university admissions teams from NYU and Columbia stated recently that a well-crafted letter following up with them can take an applicant to the top of an application pile. Fortune 500 CEOs have already said that, all job candidates being equal, they will take the one who communicates best in writing.
Knowing how to reach people matters.
That’s why I love to teach it in my writing groups. Students usually come into class thinking, “Well, this is going to be an easy couple of hours. Boring.” and leave thinking, “Mah ghad, that was crazy hard and I loved it.”
It blows their minds.
As challenging as most people find it, they also end up discovering pieces of themselves along the way.
Here’s how I hook them on letter writing:
First, I set the tone and mood with a sweet short film, “Joy and Heron” by Passion Pictures:
Thank you letter writing is all about bringing joy to someone else. If you can start with that, a special quality comes through in the writing.
Now, on to the actual writing:
Creating emotional connection through an introduction or hook.
This is my favorite part. Students are usually stumped big-time by this little bit, thinking they should be able to start with “Hi” or “Thank you” right away.
I get them to think about a memory between themselves and the person they are writing to. How can they spark that, start the fire of service or family, devotion or love which drove the other person to connect in the first place?
I call this the big warm hug, where letter writers wrap their arms around someone and say, “I remember. This meant something to me.”
Tell the reader why they got this little gem.
A transition in its most grammar nerd form, this part of the letter really serves to set the reader up for all of the goodness to come.
“I’m here to say thank you for. . .because . . .”
The letter is getting so good now.
The middle of the letter is where most of the energy either builds and creates a truly meaningful experience, or it dies in a wimpy “so what?”.
When I ask students to provide thoughtful details about how a person has influenced their lives, it goes beyond the typical “You have helped me in so many ways.”
“What ways?” I ask, much to their frustration. “This is a person you know well, with whom you have personal experiences. Share those experiences. Help them understand why they made a mark on you.”
GAH! Everyone is erasing like crazy and cramming in details, realizing they are going to have to re-copy this letter rather than just write it once and be done with it.
They think I’m evil for a moment until they see how those personal details make the letter sparkle.
Pull it all together.
Everyone loves a bit of dramatic flair. Use those thoughtful details to build to a joyful culmination where everything comes together and you explain to the reader how each detail lead to their greater impact on your life.
Usually, kids are blown away by this detail when they read it back to me. Even they had no idea, until writing that paragraph, the level of impact a person had on their lives.
There’s some real magic happening by the time they choose their closing salutation and sign their names.
However, there is one final part which I think happens too often when beautiful, emotional letters are written—you can’t forget to drop it in the mail.
Now, imagine yourself after a long day at the office. You climb your front stairs and retrieve a beautiful, hand-written letter from the mailbox.
Inside, a student, friend, or family member carefully crafted a letter sharing their warmest memories of your time together. Then, they thanked you for the experience.
Before that moment, you may not even have known those moments mattered.
Note: Today’s story is from Grade 7 student Joanna Fu. This funny tale was written during a flash writing session where young authors got fifteen minutes to write a story from the prompt “A dog was walking through a park when . . . ”
It’s also really exciting to note that, before this story, Joanna’s writing had been really struggling and she was performing well-below her grade level. She has been in my writer’s group for about a month, and reading this story out loud to the crew was a real achievement for her. I love it.
My Dear Bone by Joanna Fu
A dog was walking in a park when he saw her. He’d never seen anyone so beautiful—her pearl white skin, her hard attitude, and her radiant looks.
He wanted her so bad and had never felt so eager, wanting something this way.
She was a . . . bone.
Dog must have her.
He ran toward her, grabbed her firmly in his mouth, and he ran.
He never ran faster than now.
He ran faster than a cheetah, fast than a jet.
Now, Bone was all his.
He absolutely loved her.
Suddenly, a crowd of people was yelling and chasing Dog. They were wearing black and they did not look happy.
Dog thought, “Are they taking Bone away from me? No, I must protect her!”
Dog barked, jumped, and attacked these evil people.
“Noone can take my dear Bone away from me,” he yelped.
A woman said, “Please Doggie, give back my grandma’s bones. Today is her funeral, and you just stole her bone.”
Note: Grade-4 author Grace Jiang has the story of the week this week, enjoy.
It all started on a breezy day in August.
“Maya, come up! It’s time for lunch. We are having spaghetti with garlic bread and fries,” my mom said. “I’m pretty sure you do not want to miss it.”
“Mom, I’m almost done. Can you please bring down my food?” I asked from the basement.
I could not wait for my project to finish! I was making a time machine!
Suddenly, my big brother charged into the room.
“Where are my headphones?” he asked.
“Oh, I sold them for pieces of metal,” I told him. “I thought you said it was okay.”
“Mom, Maya sold my headphones for pieces of . . . whatever, I don’t care!”
He was so annoying since I’m 13 and he is 18.
“When is Cassie coming over?” I asked. She’s been my best friend since I was two.
Oh right, I haven’t introduced myself yet. I’m Maya Spinner and I’m a “science freak” as some people like to call me. My dad is a doctor and my mom is a lawyer.
Just then, the doorbell rang.
“Cassie!” I shouted.
A moment later, she ran downstairs. She looked simply beautiful with her silky blonde hair and stunning green eyes. People say the pair of us are like angels. I have smooth and silky hair that is just below my shoulders, but my hair is like polished obsidian. I have warm, brown eyes that Cassie says are beautiful.
Suddenly, the machine starts buzzing.
“Set the space light destination thing to the 4000’s,” Cassie said excitedly.
“Okee-dokey,” I answered.
After five minutes, we found ourselves in a factory of the FFAP two-thousand years from now and ordered ice cream.
The Bonflear ice cream was so good! It tasted like the best flavors in the world—chocolate, vanilla, marshmallows, and raspberry vanilla swirled together.
The funny thing is, it looked like the yucky gelatin. It also tasked like mind and black currant for Cassie. Yum.
Next, we went shopping.
We bought special fabric. You just drape it around yourself and it transforms into your outfit of choice.
We visited La Bon Cafê and ordered macrons, croissants, and hot chocolate. The waitress looked just like me.
“Bonjour,” she said. “My great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandfather’s sister went missing with her best friend. He was never the same again.”
“Did he die?” I asked.
“Ninety-five years later.”
We ate quietly (mostly because it was so good). Then, we went outside.