Modalities and Me and You (A Continued Conversation)


This is interesting … a conversation criss-crossing Twitter and Blogs about writing and composing … it reminds me of a conversation that Anna Smith and I conducted a few years back after we both participated in Digital Writing Month … but now it is with Yin Wah.

I am reading her latest post right now. You read it, too. As a backtrack to the story here, this all began with her asking me on Twitter about which modality I most enjoy writing in, and I responded with a blog post about songwriting, and she responded to that post with her own post, alerting me on Twitter.

We’re zigzagging here in an interesting way … You are invited to join the conversation, or just peep in … We’re having a public conversation in a very connected way.

Dear Yin Wah,

Thank you for responding to my post with a post of your own. (Oh, by the way, I teach sixth grade, not music. I’d love to be a music teacher, though. My two favorite teachers when I was a kid were my elementary and high school music teachers. I don’t know what happened in middle school but he did not have much of an impact on me, apparentely) I appreciated your writing about your own views on creativity and composition, and the ways you struggle with the various modalities. Me, too. All of us, right?

You wrote:

Powerful emotions move me a lot to write some (crappy) poetry sometimes, mostly prose. I used to want to write a play and stage it. I like singing too, but haven’t sung in a choir since I arrived in America. Theatre moves me powerfully. I paint sometimes, not enough. I doodle, not enough. I take photos, and sometimes, I can say I feel that the image is almost incredibly perfect at conveying a mood.

You also wonder:

One question you didn’t answer is a related one. In daily life, you aren’t and can’t be composing songs to sort out ideas, right? So do you think often in words without music in everyday life? Or words often appear somehow with music? Or does a tune often go on in your head?

What an interestingly-phrased question you have there, Yin Wah: So do you think in words without music in everyday life? Yes, of course, words are always pushing inside my head.

Most days, it is lesson plans and the ways I am going to engage my students in writing. How will I explain this? How will I reach that particular student? Or it is the family stuff — who is going to drive which kid where and how in the world will we get there on time, and who is making dinner …

But when I am in the midst of writing a song, or a poem, what I find is that the rhythm and melody becomes this force — silent to others but loud as heck to me — that I am unable to shake. It’s as of the piece of writing has taken on a life of its own and is forcing its way out. I have to listen to it. Maybe that is the “losing yourself” flow that you wondered about, too. It’s the demands of the writing itself on the writer. In my head, I tinker with words choices, with inflection points, with how this would sound with that and what if we added this here and that over there. I could be talking to you, in this moment, and still writing that song or poem in my head.

I realize, in writing that, that I sound like a crazy man, hearing voices and words. I suspect this is where one modality (the explanation in writing of the process of writing) fails the other (the writing of music or even poetry from the artistic sense), or perhaps it is my own limitations as a writer to fully explain how completely immersive the experience becomes.

Years ago, when I was a journalist for a regional newspaper, I used to take my breaks by walking the neighborhoods around the office, using the rhythm of the walk to write lyrics in my head. I’d sing silently to myself, trying out words and phrases. I’d quicken or slow down my pace. The sidewalks became the drum machine. Over and over and over again, I’d work it out, until the song was embedded in my brain. I would never bring a notebook. Then, I would rush back to the office and quickly try to write it all out (and if you see my handwriting from the other post, you know this is a tricky endeavor … my hand does not keep up with my mind … perhaps this is another post another day ….)

You talk about taking photographs, Yin Wah, and you wrote, “I take photos, and sometimes, I can say I feel that the image is almost incredibly perfect at conveying a mood.

I wonder, Yin Wah, how do you know when you have reached that point of thinking, this is the image I had in mind? What is your process like when using image to convey meaning? How do lenses and filters and other technology either help or hinder that creative process?

I look forward to your responses. Thank you for taking the time to engage in this discussion with me.

Peace (from here to there, and everywhere),

Which Modality? Making Music

Interesting question … and it feels like the 140 character limit on Twitter just won’t cut it. Or, it will cut it too short to respond with depth. Yin-Wah, if I think of which modality I most like to create in, it has to be songwriting. I do love the other kinds of creating — making comics, writing stories, remixing media. But there’s something about working on a song and music that pulls me in deeper than all of the others that I dabble in.

And I am not ever claiming that I am some professional songwriter, or ever will be, nor do I think that the songs I write will become the soundtrack of the world. It’s a personal thing, this songwriting that I do, although some songs do become used in the band I am in, Duke Rushmore. As I was writing this, I remembered once writing a post (I see, from 2009) entitled Why I Write Songs.

Just this week, I was working on a new song, perhaps for the band, and in a break in the writing (and even in breaks, my brain keeps working on lyrics and rhythm and parts …. when writing songs, I can’t turn it off), I found myself writing a second song. It emerged from an old scrap of a guitar riff, and then the first line came, and I found myself writing very quickly, this song of losing a friend, and in little time at all, I had the structure and the first verse and the chorus.

It’s odd how sometimes the writing flows like that, something coming out of nothing and utterly unexpected, Yin-Wah. So, for a few days, I found myself toggling between two new songs. For me, if I don’t play the song over and over, and over and over, I lose the nuance of it. I have to practice it into the ground (my poor family) to understand what the song is, and what the song is about. My fingers ache, Yin-Wah, from playing guitar so much this week.

But I can look at what I wrote, and hear it as I play it, and know: this is something worth keeping. That might mean just stuffing it away into my guitar case, or it might mean sharing it with my bandmates. I’m still unsure. Last month, I dug out a song that I write five years ago and never shared, and showed it to the band, and now we are working on it. You just never know. Songs are like messages in a bottle. The bobble on the surf of the mind.

Maybe you want to hear the demo of the song I have been writing about?

First, here is my lyric sheet. You probably can’t read much of it, Yin-Wah. I’m a word scratcher. But you can see the general ideas I was developing, the ways I identified rhyming and verses and choruses, and how one word gets changed, erased, changed again, returned to the original, changed again. I revise more with songs than I do with other writing. I admit it: I am terrible reviser. But with songwriting, every word is a rhythm, and every beat is important.

Come in close lyric sheet

Here is a demo I recorded quickly yesterday. I hear the flubs. You may not.

Thank you for asking me about my writing. This is probably more than you expected, but in answering your Tweet, you gave me an excuse to be reflective. That’s a gift in and of itself.

Peace (in the muse you find),

Six Word Memoirs, Comic-Style

Six Word Memoir Comic

I have a challenge activity going for my sixth graders: create a six word memoir on our comic site. I shared mine with them yesterday, showing how narrowing the focus can give power to the idea of the six words. A fair number of kids were working on theirs yesterday, as they were finishing up another project.

Peace (in the words),

What My Writing Looks Like When I Freewrite

Freewrite with Students Oct2013
I am going to use this image for another post in another space, but I thought it gives a pretty good view of what a page of my writing notebook looks like when I am freewriting over the course of a day, which is what I was doing with my students the other day.  There is a poem in the middle, some funny notes making fun of myself along the edge, and then the sketch when I got lost and didn’t know what to write. You should have heard the gasps and laughter when I shared this page with students. They expect that I write perfect, every time, but no … my writing is often a mess and a stew of ideas that sometimes coil around a theme.

Not always, but sometimes ….

Peace (from the writer to reader),


Final Reflection: Writing, Poetry, Audience and Online Networks

This is one of those posts where I am not sure where I am heading. Bear with me.

Throughout April, each morning, I was writing poems. Inspired by images put up by Bud Hunt at his blog site (Bud the Teacher) and by Mary Lee Hahn at her blog (A Year of Reading), I worked to be inspired by the media they had chosen to write poetry, every day.  I’d sit down with my cup of coffee, stare at the image chosen for the day and just write, and see where it took me. Some of the poems were magical; Most were just ordinary and quickly forgotten. You just never knew, and that was part of the gift of it.

I’ve been doing this with Bud for a few years now. Mary Lee just started her month of media this year (I think) as part of lessons around how to use Wikimedia Commons in the classroom. I know, and admire, both Mary Lee and Bud, I should add. Both are wonderful educators and writers, and I am grateful to have them in my network and community, and as friends.

In years past, at Bud’s site, a small group of others, including Bud, would be writing poems each day, too, so I always felt like I was part of a writing cadre, and I held on to this vision of us, in different places in the world, looking at the same image that Bud had chosen and writing from different viewpoints. It is a fascinating thing to read what someone else has imagined from the same photo that you just used for your own imagining. There grows this thread between writers.

This year, for whatever reason, no one else wrote at Bud’s site. (Not true, Bud posted one or two poems early on). But for the most part, my words and lines were the only poems on the page. It felt rather lonely, to be honest, but I kept writing because I was writing for myself as much as for Bud and the world. I even did some podcasting with Soundcloud of poems, but then realized through hit counts that only four or five people were listening. (It’s possible that other folks were writing in other places, but I never saw where).

I came to Mary Lee a few days late into the mix, and joined in a bit reluctant. Did I really want to write two poems every day? I did. And I did, and it was wonderful. Here, with Mary Lee, there was a small writing community in play, and the very things that I missed at Bud’s site this year – other writers — was in bloom at Mary Lee’s. A handful of poets were using Mary Lee’s inspiring media (images and videos) to write poetry, and even offer up some reactions to each other (I didn’t do enough of that every day, but I did some). It was lovely to come back later in the day and see how the post unfolded, with Mary Lee moving poems from the comment section to the main post as a showcase of sorts. I felt very connected as writer. There was an audience and a gathering of friends, all rolled up into one experience.

I can’t say I did not enjoy writing with Bud this year. I did. I always love the images he pulls out, and I appreciate that he does it, even if this year it felt like he was only doing it for me. (Thanks, Bud!) But it didn’t emerge as a writing network and by the end of the month, I was less inspired than at the top of the month. Mary Lee’s project did have those elements of connections, and that made all the difference in the world for me as a writer. I am thankful for both of my friends, but I wonder where all of the writers with Bud went to.

I told you I was going to meander, and so I did.

Peace (in the reflection),

Collaborative Writing with Dead Authors

(Thanks to Larry Ferlazzo for this one)
I know this may be little more practical than the “cool” factor but this is .. pretty cool. Google has released an automated version of its Google Documents that allows you to collaborate with dead writers. As a story unfolds, you’ll see Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Emily Dickinson and William Shakespeare and a few others pop into your writing, adding a phrase or word here and there, and maybe even an entire sentence. They might even remove some of your words and do a bit of editing. I found it interesting, if not a bit unnerving at times, to try to keep up with them (such as “they” are) and end up with something a bit coherent. (And I have no idea how the site actually works.)

If you want to see my document on Google, check out this link:

Read Writing with the Ghost Writers

But I also grabbed a screen capture as Google “previewed” my (our) story.


Give it a whirl and see what you can create as you write with The Masters.

Peace (in the ghostly collaboration),


Inspired to Write by The Sunday Funnies

(from Boolean Squared)
 (This post is also a podcast)
I remember well the ink-stained fingers. On Sunday mornings, before anyone else received their delivery of the New Haven Register, I would sit on top of the red newspaper box where the bundles would get delivered. First, I would open up the pack by slitting open the plastic wrapper with my pocket knife, and then I would open up the first newspaper on top, turning quickly to the colored comic section. The rest of week wa black and white, but on Sunday, it was full color. It was early enough in the morning that there was often not much traffic along the main street of my town, and in some seasons, I’d have to use the streetlight above for a reading lamp.

But there I would sit, enjoying the first look at Sunday comics before anyone else. And my fingers would turn a rainbow hue from the ink coming off the news, the black of the front page mixed with the colored ink of the comics. My reading done, I would pack up the bundle and begin my methodical journey around the neighborhood, delivering the newspapers. All the while, though, my mind would be replaying the antics of Calvin and Hobbes, or the adventures of Spiderman, or nutty ideas of The Far Side, some of which I still don’t get.

I was thinking of those Sunday mornings the other day because I have a book collection of the comic, Zits, and along with many great strips that appeal to the comedy of being a father of a teenager, the book includes many short narratives of famous comic creators about their memories of comics as a child. Some write about their parents forbidding them from reading the funny pages, which only made it more enjoyable. Others write about where their inspirations as a writer come from, or where their drawing styles emerged from.

For me, the comics were part of childhood, and when I became an adult, I realized that I wanted to try my hand at creating a comic. I chose the classroom as my setting, and technology as the wedge, and created Boolean Squared. The art is minimal at best (I wish I had a partner) but I loved the writing challenge of a comic, and for a year, it ran in the online edition of our local newspaper, The Springfield Republican. I published about 150 comics during my two-year stretch and then retired it. Writing and publishing Boolean Squared was an incredible joy, and a whole lot of work.

The experience made me think of writing and creating in a whole new way, and I still bring comics into my classroom on a regular basis for teaching writing craft and for students, to write. They may never experience the ink-stained fingers of my own childhood (kids don’t deliver newspapers anymore, do they?) but at least they can experience the genre of comics, and who knows? One of them just might be a budding webcomic creator and they just might remember that teacher who valued comics as a piece of writing and art.
Peace (in the funnies),


I’ve Given Up … Stories

(Note: This is a response to a writing prompt by my friend Jeremy Hyler at our National Writing Project iAnthology writing site. The prompt was to write about something we have given up. I chose stories. By the way, you should consider voting for Jeremy for his blog at the Edublog Awards for best new blog. At the least, you should add him as someone to follow as he reflects on teaching, writing and, particularly, reaching middle school boys as readers and writers.)

Take a listen to my response as a podcast.


I’ve given up more stories than I can count, and each time, I feel as if I have lost someone dear to me. But they just had to go. I’ve given up stories that started strong and ran out of something by the middle and either fluttered to the end, or never even made it there. I’ve given up stories that seemed to go one way, only to veer another way, and then I could not find the strings to tangle them back together. I’ve given up stories because I have forgotten the story I wanted to tell in the first place, which is about as much of an awful feeling for a writer that you can have. I’ve given up stories because of the opposite, too: I told the story I wanted to tell and that story was for no one else but me. I keep those stories in my heart. So, maybe they aren’t completely given up. I’ve given up stories more often than I have not given up on stories, and I often wonder: what does that say about me as a storywriter? Do I give up too easily? Can’t I focus, for god’s sake?

My 11 year old son was writing a story the other day on our computer and then last night, he told me he had run into a wall and decided to delete the whole thing. No, I almost shouted. Don’t do it. At least save it for another day, another year. Save the story for another time when another version of yourself can pick it up and keep it going. I think I was talking to myself as much I was talking to him.

I’ve given up lots of stories, but somehow, I know where they still are.

Peace (in the lost and not-so-lost stories),


Fiction Contest Honorable Mention: Connecting the Dots

On a whim, I submitted this short story (if you can call it that) to the local newspaper’s annual Fiction Contest (which pulls in hundreds of stories from our valley, which is home to many writers and artists). I didn’t expect my piece to get very far. It is nontraditional in the sense that the story is buried inside of it, as the format it a series of biographical blurbs from the end of a book collection. I first shared it here on my blog and worked through some versions over at our iAnthology writing site. I liked the way it came out and figured I would give the contest a shot.  At the least, it would break up the reading of the reviewers, right? (Another story from two years ago got honorable mention, too, so I have a positive experience with the contest).

Yesterday, I opened up the newspaper to find that this story — Connecting the Dots: A Story of Contributors — received an Honorable Mention in the fiction contest. I am quite proud of this strange little story. You can give it a read, if you want.
Connect the Dots a Story of Contributors


Peace (in the sharing),


Writing with My Students: Earth as Experiment

I have been trying to work for more content-area related connections to our mostly-daily writing prompts in class as part of our shift into Common Core writing, and of course, as they write, so do I (and so should you). One resource that has been making my life easier is the blog  simply called Writing Prompts but which is completely made up of visual prompts. Many of them connect nicely with science, math and social studies. And most are very thought-provoking. It’s a wonderful site.


On Friday, we used this one about earth as a science experiment, and it tied in with their recent work in science around the Scientific Method. We talked about what the alien might hypothesize, and then what kind of data collection it might do, and what conclusions it would discover. Then, they had a choice: they could create a fake science experiment write-up, a dialogue skit between the alien and a teacher, or a short story. I wrote this short story with them, using humor to tell my story.

“I can’t stand these planetary science experiments,”  I grumbled, pushing another nebula galaxy towards my best friend, Zingledoop. “It’s so … meaningless. Like, when will we ever need to know how to make a planet?”
”I know. And it always ends in disaster,” Zingledoop replied. He took the galaxy and popped into his nutrient chute. “Remember the last one?”
Of course, I did. I still have a vision of that flattened planet, all smooshed because Zingledoop had sat on it accidentally. We’d thrown that planet away into the intergalactic trash bin, just like the others.
“Maybe this one will be different,” I said hopefully. “What do the instructions say?”
Zingledoop pulled the instructions out of his left nostril and looked it over. “Create a planet with life forms that are destined to destroy the planet. Come up with a hypothesis, data collection and be prepared to write a conclusion of your experiment.”
“Great,” I said. “We’re just going to let them destroy it?”
“Unless we do it first,” Zingledoop said, and we both laughed.
We quickly got down to work. In some ways, we were old pros at this. We’d created our fair share of planets and done plenty of intergalactic science experiments. With this planet, we decided that we would see what happens if we incrementally increased the planet temperatures. With ice caps and large oceans, the place would soon be flooded out. Or at least, that’s what we predicted.  We’d be speeding up time to see if our prediction came true or not.
It was sort of boring. We’d “done” planets. What we wanted were Universes, but our teacher kept telling us “first things first.” So, here we were, creating this planet called …
“What’s this place to be called?” I asked.
Zingledoop looked at the instructions. “Earth,” he answered.
”Earth? That’s a pretty lame name.”
“Yeah. But on the bright side of things, it won’t be around for long.”
We both laughed again.

Peace (in the experiment),