Literary Arts

Why I keep a journal

Yesterday I had a Skype visit with high school students.  Their teacher had asked me to talk about my writing process and to listen and respond as her students read their “Where I’m From” poems.  I enjoy teaching in this new way, and it makes author visits more affordable in a time of shrinking school budgets.

I began, as I always do, by asking the writers if they kept a journal.  One person raised her hand.  Somebody called out, “We do blogs.”  I asked the teacher how this worked, and she explained that she’s the reader for their blogs but she guessed anyone could read them if they wanted to.  I’m not sure whether she meant anyone in the class or the school or the world.

Perhaps a blog seems cooler than a journal.  Perhaps it’s exciting to post your words knowing that you just published them.  What I’m writing right now is intended to be a blog, the first I’ve ever done.  Though I may change my mind, so far I’ve not started a blog because I’m afraid it would take energy away from my journal.  And I don’t want to do that.  Here’s why.

A blog is public, even if you limit access to it.  A journal is private.  A blog imagines an audience.  A journal has the writer for its audience.  A blog is about communicating with the world.  A journal is about communicating with yourself.

You don’t have to choose.  You can do both.  But let me tell you what you will miss if you skip the journal and go straight to the blog.  At this moment in our culture we have so many voices—in person, in advertising, on all our screens—telling us who we should be, how we should act, what we should want, own, wear, feel, that it can be almost impossible to hear our own voices.  And if we can’t hear then, we don’t know what matters to us, as opposed to everyone and everything outside us.

A journal is a place to listen to yourself.  To calm yourself.  To know yourself, to take care of yourself.  It’s a tool to connect with the deepest part of yourself and learn who you are and what matters most to you.  If you don’t know those things, how can you choose your path?

In your journal, you can write down your dreams, hopes, and fears.  What makes you mad or curious or ecstatic.  If your life feels out of control, you can write about that, too, and while it won’t change the outside situation, it can change you inside because you found words for it.  It’s not all bottled up.

When I look back through my journals—I’ve got more than a hundred and twenty now—I realize I use them primarily for four things:  collecting, reflecting, connecting and creating.  The collecting phase is what I just talked about:  setting down what happens and how I feel about it, copying quotations, keeping a list of books I’m reading.  And I collect things besides words that relate to my life at the time:  I tape in concert tickets, photographs, newspaper articles, postcards, leaves, feathers, rocks, bark, even seashells if they’re flat enough.  If an article is too large for the page, I just fold it so that it can accordion out when I want to read it again.  Recently I was speaking at a school and one of the students noticed that my journal wouldn’t quite close.  “How did your journal get so fat?” he asked.  “I fed it,” I told him.

dinnerware, green, orange, red, yellow

George Ella Lyon’s Journal Shelves

And it feeds me, too, because I’m not just taking an inventory of my life: I dreamed this, I did that, I felt another way.  I’m reflecting on it too.  What was it about the sandy-haired guy on the elevator wearing a black suit, red tie, and flip-flops that made me afraid?  Why wasn’t he funny?  Why did he give off such weird vibes?

Or, written under a sandwich wrapper which is taped in, why did this pimiento cheese taste like San Francisco when I got it in the Detroit airport?

Why did it make me so mad when Libby called me Jelly-Belly?  I thought I was a grownup.  And so forth.

Answering these questions helps me make connections and understand myself, the person I really am and not the one I may want to be or feel expected to be. When I asked why it felt so good to lie across the car seat looking for a CD underneath, I discovered that it felt like hanging upside down from the elm tree, which I loved to do as a kid.  Upside down, the sky became the ground, and the backyard was a green sky interrupted by spiky iris and the coal pile.

Sometimes this reflecting and connecting leads me into creating a piece I might want to share.  For example, writing about the guy on the elevator, I might imagine what he could have been thinking, and out of that could come a poem or story in which we are each afraid of the other.  Or he could turn out to be the son of the woman who invented Peeps.  I don’t know.  But I could imagine.

Keeping a journal lets me decide if something I’ve written might speak to other people—and if I would want to share it.  If I do, I type it up and begin revising, working to let the reader in on my experience.  Many poems, picture books, stories, plays, and novels have begun this way.

But they wouldn’t have happened if I’d been writing for an audience all along.  I would be too self-conscious, too external and self-critical to get to the deep place where creation begins.

As a teacher, I understand the advantage of the blog in that it’s evidence that students are writing, and it provides a piece to be read and considered.  When I’ve had students keep journals, I’ve asked them to show me a certain number of written pages, just so I know they’ve been done, and then give me one excerpt to read.  That way the writers have privacy but also accountability, and I have examples of their work to read.

I know some folks keep journals online, which is fine if it works for you.  If you do, you could scan or photograph special objects that you want to include.  You could embed video, too, of course.  But you wouldn’t have an actual leaf to touch, the impress of a writer’s hand on a note you’ve saved, the silk of a jingle shell to transport you back to the beach.  A journal is a gift you give yourself.  A gift of yourself.  Give it a try.  Someone wonderful is waiting for you.

George Ella Lyon

George Ella Lyon

George Ella Lyon is the author of four books of poetry, a novel, a memoir, and a short story collection as well as thirty-seven books for young readers.  Her honors include an Al Smith Fellowship, fellowships to the Hambidge Center for the Arts, numerous grants from The Kentucky Foundation for Women, a Pushcart Prize nomination, and a feature in the PBS series, “The United States of Poetry.”  A native of Harlan County, Ky., Lyon works as a freelance writer and teacher based in Lexington.  For more information, go to georgeellalyon.com 

Categories: Literary Arts | Tags: , , , ,

What I’ve learned from Kentucky writers

Our state has phenomenal writers. Is it the beautiful landscape which inspires our stories? Or is it really something in the water? Some will tell you it’s the supportive literary community found here in Kentucky. Whatever the reason, Kentucky has a number of writers topping the bestseller lists and winning national awards.

I’ve been fortunate to learn from several of them through readings, workshops, and conferences at the Carnegie Center where I work. I’ve gained an education on how to be a better writer, and thought I’d share some of my favorite writing advice with you.

At the Books-in-Progress Conference last year, Pulitzer Prize Finalist Barbara Kingsolver said that the first draft of a novel is always “crap.”  Revision is “making it less crappy.”  Do you know how much better I felt hearing this woman who can write such eloquent and well-crafted words share her honest opinion of her own drafts? There’s hope for us all if we revise, revise, revise!

New York Times Bestselling thriller writer Will Lavender teaches intense workshops on how to start your novel. For many writers, finding where the story really begins and how to begin it is one of the most difficult parts of writing. He recommends studying how successful writers begin their stories. None of them did an information dump or included pages of back story. Often, the first sentences alone provide the hook that makes the reader want to discover what happens next in the story. (Just pull out a novel by former Kentucky Poet Laureate Sena Jeter Naslund; her first sentences always strike me as perfect).

I’ve seen more than a couple of published authors use national award-winning author George Ella Lyon’s “Where I’m From” poem to inspire workshop attendees to write and write well. The trick is to add specific details that both tell the reader what kind of person your character is and what the character’s life is like. It’s a list poem that tells a story, and teaches us that details add spice to our writing.

Affrilachian poet Crystal Wilkinson knows about characterization. She says if you don’t know what your character would eat for breakfast, then you don’t yet know your character, even if you think your novel is finished. For ideas on building characters, she suggests we take note of the people we see while we’re sitting in rush hour traffic, standing in a crowded room, or passing someone on the sidewalk.  The little details that stick about the people we meet “are the details that were meant to be stuck,” she says. And those details are what breathe life into a character.

At any stage of our writing and writing careers, there is always something to be learned about the craft. Sign up for the Kentucky Literary Newsletter to learn about literary opportunities across the state. As many published writers have said, make time to hone your craft, and no matter what, keep writing!

Jennifer Hester Mattox, Carnegie Center development director & coordinator of the Kentucky Great Writers Series

Categories: Literary Arts | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Ekphrastic Poetry: Inspired by Art and Structured According to W. C. Williams

For the past six years, I have been conducting ekphrastic poetry workshops in classrooms throughout western Kentucky, guiding students in grades 3 – 12 to write original poems inspired by works of art that are recorded and broadcast on our public radio station, WKMS-FM, every weekday in April to celebrate National Poetry Month. Response to the program has been overwhelmingly positive, not only as stimulus to writing and listening to poetry, but also as motivation to appreciate public radio and its role in the cultural life of the region.

Typically, one class period is all the time available for the workshops. Because of time limitations, I use short poems by William Carlos Williams as structural models, and images from “Picturing America,” a program of the National Endowment for the Humanities, to inspire the writers. In 2011-12, we used images from the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum on Main Street program, “Journey Stories.”

Williams’ short works (most notably “the red wheelbarrow” and “this is just to say“) offer permission to break some rules and focus on economy of language without sacrificing meaning. Especially with younger students in grades 3 – 6, the short poems are useful to review common core poetry concepts regarding stanzas, line breaks, word choices, imagery, etc. Between the images and the model poems, students of all levels are able to complete the assignment: to write a minimum of one poem before the end of the class.

A simple organizer guides writers in the number of stanzas and words per line of the poem. Students are urged to write, not to ponder too long over any aspect of their poems. Once they have a draft, it is easier for them to see where adjustments are needed. We dive right in and work fast, but there is always time allotted for students to read their poems aloud, with emphasis on reading loud and clear. Feedback focuses on specific strong points in each poem. (There is always something positive to say, now isn’t there?)

Some sophisticated concepts that are readily discussed in relation to the work include things like word choice, imagery, near rhyme, rhythm, line breaks, stanza breaks, point of view and parallel structure. Grammatical concepts sometimes arise — verb tense, subject-verb agreement, active voice — and, all are discussed within context. Kids beg to write more, and even after the bell has rung, they clamor to share their work.

Here are a couple of my favorites from this year’s batch:

Constance Alexander, faculty scholar, college of education, Murray State University, calexander9@murraystate.edu.

Categories: Arts Education, Literary Arts | Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Can a poem still change anything?

On January 22, 2013, the day Alexandra Petri asked this question in an article titled “Is poetry dead?,” seven people in Lexington, Ky., were tattooed with words of their choice from a poem Bianca Spriggs had written as a love letter to, about, and for Lexington.

On the pages of the Washington Post, Petri responded to her own question without skipping a beat: “I think the medium might not be loud enough any longer.” In Lexington, Andreea McClintock and Sonya Sisk showed up at Charmed Life Tattoo at 3 p.m. after carefully rearranging their work schedules in the ER. Because they are friends, they wanted to get their poetic tattoos together.

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Can a poem change anything?

Titled “The _______ of the Universe: A Love Story,” Bianca’s poem challenges the belief that poetry is outdated, irrelevant, and useless, that you might as well put it out of its misery by donating the whole genre to a book drive to be shipped some place where no one speaks its language.

Bianca started her poem by inviting everyone to write with her on her Facebook page. Asking people to fill in the blank of “Lexington is the ______ of the Universe” was like offering free tickets to the opening day of Keeneland, take the grandstand seats and remember the sunscreen!  (“the opening day of Keeneland” became part of the poem when Bianca asked folks to tell her their most beloved places in Lexington.)

At 496 words, including the title, Bianca’s poem is already spread across 247 bodies, soon to be 249. Each day, Bianca’s words stretch, go for a brisk morning run in the dark, carry a newborn, bake chocolate-bacon cookies, drink buttered-rum flavored coffee, and do all the things that make up our daily lives. On January 22 at 2 p.m., Kate Hadfield got tattooed with “and were so busy,” a phrase that reminds her of her ever-busy life as a poet and dancer. When Kate dances, Bianca’s words refuse to sit still; they absolutely refuse to die.

Reading Bianca’s poem is, more often than not, a public act: one that takes place in public and makes it necessary to look at skin, ink, and hair, not yellowing pages. “Hello, fried delicacies!” we shout to Hampton Fisher whose tattoo might just be the funniest. At 8 p.m. on January 22, Mikey Wells got “from” — a word he chose to remind him of where he comes from. Like many others who received Bianca’s words as tattoos, Mikey does not hesitate to take his right shoe off, revealing his part of the whole. His tattoo makes you wonder, “from where?” Mikey is from Lexington.

Can a poem still change anything?

Bianca’s poem—spread like a city-wide mural over 249 bodies—changes our ideas about poetry, tattoos, art and love. “The ________ of the Universe” changes our ideas about a city large enough to adopt so many willing to sink deep roots in Bluegrass soil.

Kurt Gohde and Kremena Todorova

****Note: This blog entry is 496 words long, the same length as Bianca’s poem. Reading “The ________ of the Universe” after this blog entry should make it clear that poetry can get a lot more mileage per word than prose.

Categories: Literary Arts, Other | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

My Journey Through a Storytelling Apprenticeship

Thanks to a Folk and Traditional Arts Apprenticeship grant from the Kentucky Arts Council, I started on a journey in July that has taken me to worlds I had never before visited. It’s a journey through storytelling. Although I’ve just traveled a short way down the first trail, I’m amazed at what I’ve learned. I’m enjoying this expedition with my friend and guide, Appalachian storyteller Pam Holcomb. She has shown me the way to places I never would have visited on my own. Worlds of fables, imagination and creativity are all ready to come into your life if you open your mind. With Pam’s guidance, I have learned that anything is possible through stories. Teaching youth the truth about difficult topics, talking to an audience about complicated issues, or getting the attention of those you never thought would listen to you; they’re all possible through storytelling.

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Pam Holcomb and Gwenda Adkins during their apprenticeship site visit

A spur off our main trail has taken me into an unlit land I never realized was so amazing and misunderstood. Sometimes dark places appear evil and forbidden, but if you conquer your fears and enter the passage, there may be a bright spot waiting for someone to find it. This life event has opened my eyes and my world to a condition that approximately 10,000 babies born in the United States each year will develop. Its name is cerebral palsy (CP), a group of disorders that can involve brain and nervous system functions such as movement, learning, hearing, seeing and thinking.

Why did Pam lead me to CP? It wasn’t just the condition that took us to this place, it was the person. She was born in January 1972 and weighed just a bit more than two pounds. She tried to come before Christmas, but the doctors talked her into waiting a bit. Even so, she was born two months early. She, like Pam, is a native of Harlan County Kentucky. Her name is Kristy “Bee” Barrett, one of Pam’s very dear high school students.

Kristy’s mom felt her daughter’s growth and development wasn’t on time with other babies. The doctors kept saying, “Its because she was a preemie. She just has to catch up.” Kristy didn’t catch up; she was diagnosed with CP at 18 months old. She and her family also began an amazing life journey. Although she didn’t “catch up” with age developmental expectations, Kristy has flown past most people her age when it comes to lifelong achievements.

Kristy is now 41 years old. She and Pam are very close friends. Kristy refers to her CP as her gift from God. She says,”I am the way He wanted me to be.”

Pam tells a story titled “Three Steps.” Through emotional words and expressions, Pam explains how excited Kristy was when she took three steps without the assistance of a walker, wheelchair or other device. She couldn’t wait to tell Pam and all her other friends at school. Just three steps, that’s all she has ever taken. But the races she has won are countless. Those races—along with Kristy’s attitude toward life, people and her gift—encouraged Pam to ask me to join her in telling Kristy’s story as the culminating project for my storytelling apprenticeship.

So this unknown land called cerebral palsy is more than something to pass through. Its a place to pause and reflect, a place to learn and share, a place to listen and grow. I have learned about CP, but my short time with Kristy really taught me about life and how to live it to the fullest. From her, I learned you have to conquer your fears and take chances. Kristy has done both. She can show the world that a person is not defined by a condition, the person defines the condition. Kristy has chosen “Bee Still, Embrace My Gift” as the title for her life story.

I have written four short stories about Kristy and have a couple of others in my mind. I fear there are way too many great things to tell than 90 minutes will allow. What I hope is that Pam and I can wrap our arms around Kristy’s many accomplishments and relay them to the public as an inspirational production that makes her proud and celebrates her life and her gift.

The CP spur is only one pause in my journey, it certainly didn’t stop it. On February 23, I joined my mentor and other Kentucky storytellers for a program in Harlan, Ky. Harlan County extension agents Jeremy and Theresa understand the importance of storytelling, so they host events for the public and invite storytellers to participate. I helped with the Storytelling in the Mountains” spring event and also told a story for the first time to a public audience. Learning by doing is wonderful, but learning by watching Kentucky’s great storytellers perform…priceless.

Only half of my storytelling apprenticeship journey remains. Where will it take me…I dare not imagine because my guide is creative and doesn’t mind to enter untamed territory. Perhaps you and I will bump into each other on the trail. Thank you, Kentucky Arts Council, for the opportunity to blaze a new life trail.

Gwenda Huff -Johnson, storyteller

Learn more about he rjourney on her  blog “Gwenda’s Storytelling Trail”

Categories: Folk and Traditional Arts, Literary Arts | Tags: , , , , ,

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