Book Review: Old Growth

I am pretty sure I heard about this collection from Maria Popova at Brain Pickings (now called The Marginalian and always worth a follow, for sure) and I was intrigued by the mention of essays about trees (particularly when I was engaged in the Write Out project). Old Growth (The Best Writing About Trees from Orion Magazine) is what it says — a beautiful gathering of stories and essays and poems about the forests and trees of our world.

There are personal narratives here, and there are some slightly analytical scientific pieces (but still very accessible), and there are explorations of climate change and there are the discovery of old and wonderful trees in the most inaccessible places.  There are childhood memories, and some pieces are only adjacent in theme to trees (such as a wonderful piece about the writer and his immigrant father pruning trees together). Poems fill the gaps between the prose pieces, too.

I read these pieces slowly, a few each week, in order to savor the substance of the words, and as always, I came away with a deeper appreciation of the trees and foliage of our world, and how much we often taken their natural magic and generosity for granted.

I recommend this collection for anyone who wonders, and maybe worries, about our wood companions on this planet.

Peace (rooted),

On Songwriting Part 3: Annotating Lyrics

(This is the third in a series of posts about writing a song. Read the first post and the second post, if interested)

For years now, I have valued many annotation adventures, either on my own or with friends. With tools like Hypothesis, NowComment, Vialogues and more, it’s never been easier to engage in a text, whether your own or someone else’s. Adding layers of questions, comments or just reflective observations over text and images and other media makes the act of reading more engaging and more interesting, I think.

Here, in this third post about songwriting, I wanted to annotate my own lyrics, for a song I have been writing and blogging about in this series entitled A Million Miles Away (From Finding Me). The lyric sheet is still somewhat under construction — in that, I may still tinker with the phrasings — but for the most part, this is where I am at with the writing of the words of the song and its story of a narrator grappling with some confusion about life.

The annotations – which I did in a text editor — allow me to speak from the margins about intentions, and techniques, and struggles, too, with finding the best way forward with a new song.

Annotated Song Lyrics

I invite you to annotate, too, if you want.  I have created a published Google Doc, which I then popped into Hypothesis.

Peace (singing it),

Slice of Life: The Noise Of Curiosity

(This is for the Slice of Life challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We write on Tuesdays about the small moments in the larger perspective … or is that the larger perspective in the smaller moments? You write, too.)

My sixth graders were working on creating new words as part of our Word Origins unit (and they will be donating one of their newly invented words into an ongoing, 18-year project to build an online dictionary of invented words, called The Crazy Collaborative Dictionary Project, which has more than 1,000 words from students.)

I rarely expect complete quiet when doing this kind of work (and with this year’s antsy social crew, even less so) but the noise of students sharing out loud their words and definitions was a bit of a cacophony yesterday, one I didn’t tamp down on because the excitement and energy level for being creative was just so high, I had to let it go on.

One of my more reluctant young writers was over the moon with this word invention activity, and as I walked by, he turned to a neighbor friend and declared: “This is the BEST writing assignment we’ve had the entire year. I just LOVE doing this!”

I had to smile. You never know what is going to capture the interest of students, and his excitement, along with others, was infectious in the classroom. Heads nodded in agreement with him and then more voices began to float over the room in a strange orchestra of absurd words.

Peace (capturing it),

On Songwriting Part 2: What A Mess I’ve Made

(This is the second in a series of posts about writing a song. Read the first.)

I’ve tried often to fix my handwriting but it’s too far gone at this point to do much about it. My decade as a newspaper journalist — scribbling notes as I interviewed people — ruined my handwriting, which was never great to begin with. Often, I apologize to my students for notes I put on their papers, and interpret what I wrote.

I mention this conundrum with handwritten text because when I am writing a song at my little corner in the house, with my guitar in my hands and a notebook and pencil nearby, I am often scribbling frantically to catch any words or phrases or lines that might be useful, and worth remembering. If I don’t write it down, I am apt to forget it, and often, the first way a phrase has tumbled out of my mouth is the most interesting.

For the most part, I can sort of read what I have written. But not always, and I’ve been frustrated at times when I come back to a lyric sheet in my notebook and can’t make heads or tails of some words or a line. I try to remember before taking a break or quitting for the day to read, and at least try to fix, anything that looks like it might be beyond recognition the next time I read it.

What I find interesting, though, is how the notebook pages are a map of what has happened with a song, as I move parts or change words or scratch out entire sections as the meaning of a song emerges or changes or shifts. I’ll draw arrows, and circle words, and indicate rhythmic emphasis on the start of a sung line.

From the outside, it’s a mess. For me, it’s the thing, the process where everything is made visible to me as a songwriter.

Here, for example, is the paper with my notes for the song that I am currently writing — the song that started me on the creation of this series of posts — which now has a working title of Million Miles Away (From Finding Me). This lyric sheet has more doodles and scratches than most, for I was having lots of problems with some of the ways the lines were ending, and I was working and reworking, and trying to track my ideas as the story of the narrator began to emerge.

Song Lyric Sheet

The following collage shows three versions of the same sheet of paper (wouldn’t it have been cool if I had had the foresight to set up a stop-motion capture of this paper from blank to finished?) where the opening verses and chorus came rather quickly, and then the revision process began with my chicken-scratch of the latest version (see above).

Song Lyric Collage

One I reach a point where I have most of the words and lines in place, I move over to the computer and type up a version to print out, and I put the notebook aside and work with that typed piece of paper. This allows my mind to not worry too much about navigating all the arrows and circles and pencil marks. Once again, I am trying to balance word flow and song rhythm, while staying true to the story of the song (in this case, a narrator grappling with self-doubt and an internal and nocturnal journey to think deep about where life is headed … you know, light stuff.)

Song Lyric sheet typed

Peace (always in revision),

On Songwriting: Open For Inspiration

(This is the first of a potentially periodic post about writing songs.)

I don’t know what this blog post is or what this post will be. But I started writing a song last night and I wanted to document where this particular song might go and how it came to be.

This blogging reflection on writing a song might go nowheres, fast, as the song might go, too. Or the song might become a demo for some other project. Or I might like it all enough to make a recording with instrumentation.

Who knows. I don’t.

That’s one of the beautiful things of songwriting, though — the slippery qualities that allow some songs to remain in the mix of regular playing and others, that just disappear. Maybe the melodic hook isn’t good or something’s not right. Maybe the words and story of the song don’t resonate. Maybe the song’s missing a bridge and there’s something elusive about how to create a connector point between verse and chorus (or maybe you don’t realize a bridge isn’t needed).

Last night’s kernel of a new song — not even named yet — began, as many of my songs do, as an accident. I had fumbled some chords from another song, and found I liked the sound of what I was hearing. I followed it further, as I long ago discovered that paying attention to the mistakes sometimes opens up another door.

I left the other song to the side and began to tinker around with this new chord, and then discovered the next place that chord could lead to. And then I found another chord. Then another, and suddenly, I had a five chord turnaround that sounded pretty interesting to my ears. There was potentially something there.

You can listen to what I stumbled upon:

The mystery for me of writing lyrics is this: I never really know what I’m doing at the beginning. (Or is that just my own singular mystery? I guess those pop music producers know their formula for radio glory). There are times when I have a theme or a turn of phrase in mind, but not often. More likely, I enter a song, cold or by mistake. As with this one.

What I do, myself, is just start singing something, anything, without thinking about what it is at first that I’m singing (some songwriters hum a melody but that never worked for me). I open my ears to listen listen to my voice (and both mouth and ear seem remotely disconnected from the guitar, where my fingers are now mostly on auto-pilot). I’ll hear a phrase, or a word, or a line, and then, by singing it over and over, I let my voice shape the rhythm of the words.

And I am furiously scribbling down words on paper what I can, so I don’t lose it in the moment I am creating it. I am shuffling madly between guitar and pencil and paper.

Interestingly, it’s almost as if someone else is making up the song and I am just paying attention. I let myself wander. I trust my mind. Which is weird when you’re in that moment. Yet it’s powerfully interesting magic, too, as the writer in me is separated from the listener in me which is separated from the musician in me. I think it’s these exact moments that makes songwriting such an inspirational creative experience for me, and why for many, writing a song is so daunting. You have to let the unknown make its way into the world.

Or, that’s my approach.

At this point, as I am playing and singing whatever comes to mind, I’m hoping for rhymes that will string thoughts together, but the rhythms of words also seems fundamentally important here as my ears now work to merge the guitar and voice, and I am editing the lines as I sing them, on the fly, tweaking and tinkering — add a word here, replacing another there — until I come to understand the story, or the character, or the message, and if I get the first line or two down, then the rest of the lyrics often unfold much easier because the opening lines are the map, forward.

I find I often write in first person, even though many songs may not be about me. Even so, the lyrics most certainly have parts of me in them, even when I have another character in mind. My insecurities. My loves. My wonder. My failures. My curiosity. I can pull out a sheet of lyrics and know, myself, exactly where I am in any single song, at any given time. I try not to be too careful in protecting myself, but I am, and if a song is too personal, it never leaves my practice space.

Last night, when I had to leave this particular song, I had two verses and the framework of a chorus set into motion. I had moved the capo up and down the neck of the guitar and found a spot for it (fifth fret). I long ago learned that unless I can come back and play the guitar part and sing the melody at least a handful of times through a day, with gaps of time away from the song, I am apt to lose the inspiration. What I had …  will just disappear.

Here’s what came to my mind as the opening lines on this song:

Sunday morning weather
I don’t even know where I stand

I often record a rough demo on my phone (which I did for this one), so I can listen and remember the next day the threads of what I was working on. (I’m listening as I am writing this morning). When I was younger, I would walk around for hours with a new song and new lyrics dancing in my head, all day long, like some internal pirate radio, but I guess I have too much going on upstairs with school and family and life, and that technique no longer works for me.

These days, instead, I try to be “in the moment” when I sit down in my practice space to write, and to give the creative space my upmost focus, and to hope a song spills out from the consciousness that might even be worth keeping. And then I hope I pick up the threads of anything resonant, later.

A songwriter has to have faith in the creative process, for sure.

Today, for example, I’ll be searching for the threads of the song again, and try to make sense of what I started yesterday. And if a song still emerges from yesterday’s dreaming, I might have a second blog post soon, to continue this reflection on where a song of mine comes from and where it goes.

Peace (in songs),

Book Review: Atlas Of The Invisible

Atlas of the Invisible: Maps and Graphics That Will Change ...

I was not familiar with James Cheshire and Oliver Uberti but now I happily am. Their latest book — Atlas of the Invisible — is a fascinating tour of data representation through mapping and visual graphing, all intended to surface and show – as the title and subtitle (Maps and Graphics That Will Change How You See The World) suggest – the things we don’t see when we first look at a set of data.

Along with some intriguing writing that explains how visualization can offer another view of the stories of our times, the two authors (who worked on the book during the Pandemic) share maps and graphic on a range of topics, from Climate Change (a heat map is both illuminating and alarming); information and transportation flow across global borders, and in the case of airplanes, the pollution flow; the states of mind of people in different countries (indicated by happy to sad faces); the status of bike sharing in the world; and an end section that shows various forms of the maps of Earth, and how each has its positives and biased negatives.

There’s even an interesting textual graphic that breaks down the code of a single Retweet on Twitter, to show how much tracking information is packed inside a single act of retweeting something, and how much a social media company can know about us by gathering and collating the codes of our online activity.

This is a book that I flipped through, and then went back and read the narratives, and then flipped around inside again, and although it is a library book, I can see myself getting a copy for my collection of infographics (I still remember when there was a special collection of Best of Infographics of the Year that I would buy every January, and devour in a single sitting).

Now I am off to see if their last book — Where The Animals Go — is available from our library. (It is. Yeah!)

Peace (at every data point),

Video Game Design: Playing for Assessment

Video Game Design 2021We’re nearing the end of our Video Game Design project and so, my task as a teacher was to play their stories which are video games, and that meant playing nearly 60 games.

Many were very interesting — with cool design features and narrative frames set into levels in meaningful ways. Others were lacking enough story, which was a focus every single day in class as they worked.

I assess the projects along two strands — the design of the game (playability, choices around challenges and tools, flow of the game, etc.) and story (consistency of narrative, the reader is a player in a story, proofreading/editing, etc.)

Overall, I was impressed by how they were able to juggle the Hero’s Journey framework of story with the design of video games inside Gamestar Mechanic. And all of my students were highly engaged in this project, from start to finish.

And as always, we did a lot of writing beyond the game design itself. I made this a few years back for a presentation and most of these writing assignments are still central to this particular project.

Writing Activities in Video Game Design unit (update 2017)

Peace (leveling up),

Slice of Life: The Long Tail Of The Daily Create

(This is for the Slice of Life challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We write on Tuesdays about the small moments in the larger perspective … or is that the larger perspective in the smaller moments? You write, too.)

I start most of my mornings with two acts of art — I try to write a daily small poem and I try to create some kind of art with the DS106 Daily Create.

As my friend and Daily Create mechanic, Alan Levine, brings the new year into a celebration of the tenth anniversary of the Daily Create (which started as part of an online digital storytelling class and then morphed into an open call for being creative), I realized that I have completed 2,170 works of art (a term I use roughly, some days) and how powerful it has been to be inspired and motivated to create something new every single day.

What does that number translate into? It is three hundred and ten weeks. Or nearly six years. Mostly, it’s daily, but at the start, it was sort of hit or miss for me.  I came and did a prompt when I was interested, and then at some point, it became my daily practice. Some mornings, I am making illustrations. Others, I am sharing some writing. Or remix, or music, or something, anything, loosely affiliated with the daily prompts that come on Twitter and at the Daily Create website.

I learned about the Daily Create from a friend, Karen F., who was a collaborator in the CLMOOC experience. Later, I even adapted the concept of the daily prompt to something called The Daily Connector that we used in CLMOOC and other connected learning experiences. Sometimes, a prompt at the Daily Create dovetails and connects with other projects. Others have done the same with replicating the experience of a daily invitation, and the Daily Create has a long tail of inspiration.

Meanwhile, contributors, like myself, feed back into the system — submitting ideas for Daily Creates, as the baton of administration of the site gets passed from one person to another over time (sometimes, it is a college professor who uses the Daily Creates for daily writing for their students, exposing them to the idea of making and sharing work in a social media experience).

I get a real sense of being curious and creative each morning by the Daily Creates, as I work on a quick prompt (they are designed to be no more than 10 or 15 minutes to complete) and that helps me situate myself for other writing activities or for thinking about teaching that day. It also invites me to try platforms and other tools that I might otherwise not have known about.

Peace (making art),

Curated Collection: Silent Sundays

This video gathers together 12 of my favorite Silent Sunday images from the past year (2021)  — one chosen from each month — with an original piece of music as soundtrack. I’ve enjoyed the Sundays, and the days leading up to them, when I am attuned to the world through the lens of the camera lens.

Peace (in the quiet),