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),


How Publishing Slows Down Time

I was very happy to receive an email this week, informing me that a poem I had submitted for a local poetry anthology collection had been accepted. A contract/agreement was attached to the email and I dutifully signed it, and sent it back. I happened to glance at the date of publication for the poetry book: October 2012. That’s an entire year away.

The poem itself is a loving tribute to the old railroad bed in our neighborhood that has been given new life as a rail trail. I called it “Ghost Train” because I often imagine the trains running in the background of the woods as we ride our bikes or walk the trails during the warm seasons. The book is a collection of poems that capture the city where I live, a place I am proud of and love raising my family in. There’s no compensation for the poem, just a copy of the book.

What’s interesting is that when I tweeted that my poem would be published, a number of folks began asking me where they could find the link. They assumed it was online, and immediately accessible. It’s not.  We’re still a year away from the book form of the anthology. And it got me thinking through the day how odd it is for me to think about having to wait another year to see the poem in print, and even then, it may not be online anywhere. In fact, I submitted the poem many months ago and forgot all about it. I had to dig the poem back up and look through the lines again to remember what it is that I wrote, and remind myself why I liked it in the first place enough to submit it to the anthology.

I guess I have settled into the world of immediate publishing, like so many of us writers who use technology for publishing. I write it, I edit it, I publish it.  I get feedback. I revise, if necessary, and re-publish. I move on. This particularly anthology is forcing my poem to slow down. These conflicted feelings about the poem — about my inner push to publish against the need to accept the natural progress of book publishing — strikes me as a metaphor for the transition that the world of publishing is in these days (and why there are questions about how it will survive).

What will it be like to rediscover my poem in another year, when the writing of it will be almost two years in the past? Will I even like it anymore? I hope so.

Here are the first lines:

Ghosts of freight trains
ride these rails,
sound asleep beneath the bed
of fallen leaves.

The rest you will have to wait a year to read …

Peace (in the poems),


Sharing the Page with Writers I Admire

Book cover

I still can’t believe it.

I opened up a package the other day and in it was a huge textbook, Modern Literature: Rhetorical and Relevant, and there, on page 505, is a graphic novel review that I did for The Graphic Classroom. The review is for the book After 911: America’s War on Terror, which I liked but found to have some shortcomings. What gets me is who else is in this textbook collection broken down into themes of social justice, identity,  global issues and more. I am squished in this tome with some of my favorite writers, such as Billy Collins, Dave Barry, Annie Dillard, Gary Soto, Sandra Cisneros, Sherman Alexie, Marjane Satrapi and even Ray Bradbury.


To be honest, I almost turned down the request for the article because, eh, I wasn’t all that interested in being used by a huge publishing company trying to sell textbooks. But I wanted to get some good PR for my friend, Chris Wilson, at The Graphic Classroom, and I was able to work out a small financial deal from the company. At least, I told myself, I was getting paid for the writing gig.

If only I had known who else would be in the pages, I might not have resisted so much. (ha)

And then I was reading the foreword to the textbook (which I think is mostly targeted for California, but aren’t they all? Or Texas?), and I realize that one of the advisors behind the book is Kathleen Rowlands, who is the director of the Cal State University Northridge Writing Project. I am always happy to see writing project connections to any work I do. And I don’t even know her.

Finally, I started reading the textbook. I know. Who does that?  Who reads a textbook unless you have to? But there is some fine stuff in there, and while I mentioned a list of famous folks, there is an entire collection of some incredibly powerful student writing, poems and stories that showcase some amazing talent. Plus, there are comics and other non-traditional texts. That made me happy, too, to know some high school student somewhere has a chance to explore many kinds of text.

I can’t say I would run out and buy the book (it probably costs an arm and a leg) if I weren’t in it, but I am quite happy to have it on my bookshelves, knowing my words are sitting comfortably close to some wonderful writers. I hope they don’t mind a little riff-raff in the neighborhood.

Peace (in the book),

PS — a version of the review that I got published here is still over at The Graphic Classroom.


Three Stories I Wrote Yesterday ….

Some days, the stories just unfold.

Yesterday, I wrote four 25-word stories and I really liked three of them. The fourth was, OK, but not great. Interestingly enough, two of the stories were directly inspired by tweets in my Twitter stream. I read what two of my friends (Bill Ferriter, @plugusin; and Brian Fay, @brianfay) posted, caught a glimpse of a story and wrote it out. The third story just came out of nowhere, but it turns out to be the one I like best of all.

First of all, Bill was posting some thoughts about using a Livescribe pen, which is a nifty transcription tool that can create podcasts from writing and more. So, I wondered, what if the pen didn’t do what it was supposed to do, but did something a little … odd (I may have had Twilight Zone in my mind.)


She realized the Livescribe Pen was writing something other than the transcription. It dawned on her then what was happening.

Then, later, Brian was writing about using his wife’s computer. He has been experimenting with the new Google Chrome netbook, which is entirely cloud based, and he was noting how odd it now felt to be living off the desktop instead of in the browser. I like the double meaning of cookies here, and wished I could have played off that a bit more. The constraints of the story didn’t allow that.


Near the bookmarks, inside the cache & just out of reach of the cookies, she made a little nest & went to live in her browser.

But the story I really thought I nailed was this next one. I think an NPR story about Wikipedia I listened to the other day was still rolling around in my mind. And I had this idea of connecting a wiki to tattoos, for some reason (I can’t remember the connection I was thinking of now, so I guess it doesn’t really matter). With 25-word stories, remember, it is all about what is not being said, and trying to get a little “kicker” in there. It’s difficult to pull off. I think I did it with this one that, in just a few words, says all you need to know about this relationship. I think the word “tartly,” which I added only in the last moment, makes all the difference in the world here, don’t you?

“What if my body and spirit are nothing but a living wiki,” he wondered. She replied tartly, “You’d have a lot of edits.”

Peace (in the hint fiction),

PS — The story I didn’t like so much, even though it hit closer to home?

The taxi rolled up, on schedule. Their eyes never left the cell phones. They opened the door. “Home?” “Duh. Of course, dad.”

A Writing Experiment: Connect the Dots

I am one of those readers who enjoys the biographies of writers who have contributed to a book collection. I am always curious, and when the editors (and writers) have fun with the genre of mini-bio (is it a genre?), such as with The Best American Non-Required Reading series, I get a chuckle. The other day, I was finishing up a collection called Hint Fiction (25 word stories), and the bios were pretty amusing. One even mentioned that he was writing a story of bios in the back of books.

So, that had me thinking. What would that look like?

Here’ s what I came up with. I had a good time writing it, trying to work some common threads across the piece and also explaining what it is, as part of the piece itself. I hope it amuses you, if only slightly.

Connect the Dots:A Story of Contributors
A story of parts by Kevin Hodgson

Tucker Abbott went to school in Florencedale, Arizona, but he swears he was never with a woman until his 27th birthday. He even took a lie detector test a few years ago to prove it. He denies that he was on sedatives at the time of the test. He writes short stories in his spare time, usually at night when he ends his shift with the Styrofoam Packing Plant, where his job is to sort out defective packing noodles. You can find his work at www.tabbott.com. He has been known to break the tips off pencils at the bank while waiting in line. It’s a habit that he can’t explain.

Crystal Allistair was once accused of theft. She swears she didn’t do it, but the bracelet still fits like a charm, even 20 years later. When she’s not writing editorials about cruelty-to-animal issues (such as Michael Vick’s illegal dog fighting scandal) for her local newspapers, including The Tempe Tempest Online News, she stacks rocks in rivers as sculptures. Her nemesis is a kid named Ralph, who likes to knock the sculptures down as soon as she puts them up. It drives her crazy. She lives alone with her dog, Charlie, who appeared on her doorstep one day. She denies any charges of dog-snatching and Charlie the dog backs her up on it.

Samantha Beam was the editor of her high school newspaper in a small town in Arizona, managed her high school drama club and basketball team, received an English Degree from an online college and is now unemployed. Actually, she has never been employed. She spends her days writing flash fiction on Twitter, hoping she can get the attention of a publisher. In her spare time, which is most of the time, she sells stolen jewelry on the streets of nearby Tempe, Arizona. It’s a living.

Stewart Chase lives in California but spends part of the year in Alaska, working aboard a fish trawler. He’s one of the “hook men.” It usually takes him at least a week of scrubbing to get rid of the smell, but the money is good. Cats seem to like him. His latest play is entitled “In the Net” and it tells the story of three childhood friends who lose track of each other but then reconnect years later, only to deeply regret it. The moral is to let the past lie dormant, for god’s sake. The play is dubbed a cyberthriller-romance-downer. He is now launching a crowdsourcing venture to raise enough money to produce the play. Go to www.passmethecash.com to donate via paypal, and get your name on the playbill.

Caitlin Meade grew up in a small town in Arizona, but had to leave due to an unfortunate incident that embarassed her family. She now lives in California with her mildy-gifted son, Curt, who is old enough by now to have left home but hasn’t. She is an independent filmmaker, and you can find her work at www.abandonedbydad.com. Previews of her latest film are available for download at a reasonable price. Any resemblance to actual people in her past is very intentional. If you recognize the person in the film, please call them and guilt him into child support payments. Curt needs new video games.

Paul Mutterer writes stories about his life’s adventures on Chinese Restaurant napkins, and then sells them on ebay. Surprisingly, he makes a pretty good living at it. He began this kind of writing while in juvenile jail, where had been sent as a teenager after being falsely accused of theft. He never really got back on track after that experience and still wonders how he got fingered for that crime. His parents still shake their heads and wonder about “what happened to that boy.” His parents figure prominently in his Chinese napkin stories.

Thomas Pearl has created more online spaces than you can shake a stick at. Really. It has become a sort of obsessive hobby of his. His latest venture — Six Degrees — uses a complex algorithm that invites people together as writers based on the faintest of past connections. The writers don’t even know they know each other and they only have a vague sense of the connections. Once a year, he published a book by the writers who are connected. This book is one of those. He is now working on another site called Ripples that extends a single musical note out to multiple compositions. He’s already bored with that, so, who knows what he’ll be doing next. In his spare time, he buys odd pieces of writing off ebay and then burns them in his fireplace. He has often been accused of having a bit too much money, technical expertise and free time. He doesn’t deny it.

Philbert Yoog has written five short novels about a dog that has gone missing. He really loved that dog and now suspects someone may have taken it, perhaps for those dog fighting rings he reads about in his newspaper. His replacement dog, Grendal, isn’t half the dog his old dog was. His latest story is entitled “In the Time of Charlie” and it is a bit too sad to even read. Even for him, and he wrote it. You can find it at www.yoog.com. If you want.

Chance Zilk once won first place in an ice sculpturing contest in Fairbanks, Alaska. His design of a Defective Human Genome was “delicate, intricate and oddly beautiful,” according to the judges.He enjoyed destroying it afterwards. He is sorry for also destroying the second place sculpture of Atlas holding up the World, but things got out of control, quickly. His $10,000 prize has allowed him time to pursue one of his life’s passions: acting. Now all he needs is a play or movie. He can’t wait much longer. The money is running out.

Peace (in the bio),

Considering ‘The Folding Story’

foldingstoryThe other day, I came across a link to a collaborative story writing site called The Folding Story. It’s a clever  online variation of the activity in which one person starts a story, folding the paper just so the next person only sees one or two lines of what has been written. The second person continues the story, folds the paper and passes it on to the third person. Repeat. In essence, the writer never sees the entire story, so they are inspired by only a small part. The result is a very odd, and usually funny, story that goes off in all sorts of directions.

The Folding Story website is like that, too, only now the audience is potentially vast and even odder than the people in the room with you. Trust me. Thanks to a bunch of friends on Twitter, we’ve been experimenting a bit with the site. I have started three different stories, which are still open for collaboration. Not one of them even remotely has gone in a planned trajectory.

This is one of those sites that has value for me as a writer, but I would not bring my students there, given the language and content of the writing added by the various users. Stories can instantly veer into inappropriate directions, and even the creator of the story has no way to edit or change what someone else has added to your story. You write something and hope for the best. I can live with that, but not as a teacher. (The Folding Story folks say that they are developing private rooms for stories that might have applications for the classroom. We’ll see.)

The basics of the site are:

  • Each story needs to have ten entries before it is “done.”
  • Each user can only add one entry per story (so once you start a story, you can’t add to it anymore).
  • Each entry has a limited character count (180 characters) and a time limit (four minutes).
  • When a story is done, the entire fold then gets published on the site, where folks “vote” on individual strands of the story. This apparently gives the story a total score, which then ranks the story for its prominence in publishing at the site (I don’t have a good handle on this).

Care to join in? Here are links to my three stories, which still need a few folds to be complete. I am including the first line of the story I created, which you won’t see because you will be working beneath the fold.

Peace (in the writing),

Deconstructing a 25-Word Story

car 25 word story juxio
I’ve been tinkering with 25 word stories over at Twitter for the last few months, and find it interesting to pack a punch in such a short amount of space. Someone called this “restrictive writing” but I find it challenging to find a way to leave out as much as you leave in.

Yesterday, I wrote the above story (recast on Juxio) and as I was driving my sons to their various basketball games, I started to think about all that was going on with the sentence. Later, I found that a bunch of people had retweeted it on Twitter, which made me think it was one of those small gems that strike a chord with folks.

So, a little deconstructive reflection:

  • I’m not sure where the story concept itself came from, since I have never really been stuck on the side of the road and my father doesn’t talk like that at all. And he’s no mechanic. I started with the idea of winter (my 25 word stories seem to reflect the seasons) and snow and went from there. In my mind, I saw a car off the side of the road.
  • I can see the character — a man, maybe in his 20s, still young in years — sitting alone and cold on a stretch of wintry road, stuck in his car and suddenly remembering his father’s warning. I imagine the character to be resentful of the advice, and also kicking himself for not heeding it.  There’s some inner conflict going on in the silence of the car. It turns out his old man was right all along. But that doesn’t help him one bit right now.
  • The father is one of those “I told you so” characters, for sure, and he is always spouting off one bit of advice, told harshly, after another until all his children hear is white noise. I can see the father as a bit rough around the edges (the use of language is my giveaway) and yet, he wants to impart knowledge on his kids. Too bad they don’t listen.
  • The interesting thing is that we are in the present with the story – the man remembering his father is stuck — but how did he get there? This is where inference has to come into play, and imagination. I imagined he hit some black ice, and stalled out on the side of the road. His heart has finally stopped racing and now he has to come with the grips with what to do (where is his cell phone?)
  • And then, the aftermath: after he is found and helped (probably by AAA or something) does he tell his father that the advice was right all along or does not say a thing? It all depends on the trajectory of their relationship, doesn’t it?

OK, so I plunged deeper than I probably needed to go here, but I find it useful to flesh out the story beyond 25 words. The 25 is only the start; the real story unfolds outside of our field of vision.

Peace (in the words),

PS — Are you on Twitter? Search for the #25wordstory hashtag to read more stories and add your own.

Celebrating Veterans with 25-word-stories

vets day 25wordstories 1

vets day 25wordstories 2

vets day 25wordstories  3
As some of you know, I have been tinkering with 25 word stories on Twitter as a way to narrow storytelling down to its bare essentials. You have to leave more out than you put in. Yesterday, on Veteran’s Day, I got inspired to write a bunch of 25 word stories to honor the stories about veterans.

Peace (in the writing),

326 Words in 9 Minutes: Defeating Dr. Wicked

I had a friend turn me on to this odd site called Dr. Wicked’s Write or Die, which gives you a time period to write and then prods you forward with your targeted word count with electric cattle prods, zapping hand buzzers … well, not quite. But the site does use colored backgrounds to let you know you are staring at the screen a bit too long, and then begins to remove your words one at a time until you start typing again. At least, that’s what it did in the category that I chose — you can be more forgiving on yourself, or more harsh, too.

(There is a desktop version of this, which costs a requested donation of 10 bucks, and a modified online version that is free. I did the free online version. Some folks are using this as part of the National Novel Writing Month projects to spur them on.)

This could be a killer for some writers who stress over every word but not for me, who writes quick (too quick?) and is happy to plow forward in the draft stage. I actually found it was a neat experience to know I better get things going. I had to move my story forward, and fast, or face the wrath of Dr. Wicked, and I didn’t even know what I was going to write when I started at the site.

I wrote the first line that came to mind because I was writing early in the morning and sleep was not far away  — By night, she was wide awake .. — and began.) The story unfolded in literally the ten minutes I had on the clock as I imagined the scene, this character and a possible backstory. I threw the cat into the mix for good luck.

So, I kind of liked the experience. The site let me know that I wrote 326 words in 9 minutes, so I beat the clock (10 minute limit) and exceeded my goal (300 words). Take that, Dr. Wicked!

My Story:

By night, she was wide awake, knowing that her anxiety would not let her sleep. Her day tumbled over her, weaving some strange magic. Her cat purred at her feet. She gently moved, not wanting to disrupt him, too, with her wakefulness. He barely stirred. She felt a bit of resentment now, and poked him with her toe. The cat just rolled over, stretched, and fell back into canine slumber.

She pulled on her slippers. Her toes wiggled to create warmth. The stairs were dark, but she knew every step. The light was unnecessary, although it would not have awoken anyone. It was only her now. Her and the cat. Still, she kept the light off, feigning some sleep pattern that she hoped would eventually lead her back to bed.

The newspaper was folded up on the kitchen table. The headline was no longer visible. She reminded herself that she had done this on purpose. Yet, she could not resist. She took the newspaper and unfolded it out, spreading out the entire two pages on the table before her. She bent over the news, elbows on the table, and read it again. She searched for any clues to the real story behind the story. A former reporter, she knew what to look for in what wasn’t being said.

Even so, the story in the story remained a mystery. She ran her fingers over his headshot and thought how funny it was that he seemed so contained in that little square box. He looked younger than she remembered, and figured the newspaper had grabbed some old headshot of his from its files.

“Developer Disappears, Money Taken,” screamed the headline. She sighed, telling herself again that he would not likely be coming back anytime soon. Something brushed again her leg. She reached down and scooped up his cat, the one thing he had left behind.

“Sandy,” she murmured, scratching the creature below the chin,”I guess it’s just you and me now.”

— The End

Give it a try. If you dare …

Peace (in the fast pace of writing),

PS — I tried to create a podcast with Cinch of my story but Cinch is having some technical difficulties, I think. If it comes through soon, I’ll add it in.