More on the Fence and the Field: an Exercise for Advanced Students

By now it must be apparent that writing about visual imagery often leads to an exploration of self.  As we explore our own mental landscape, we become more proficient at creating characters with their own ways of looking at the world.   For instance,  many of Anton Chekhov’s characters are linked in some way to the medical world with which he was conversant, and, indeed, an integral part of.  So let’s go back to the fence and the field and see what happens.

When we study the wooden fence more closely, we notice it is full of knotholes and more rotten planks than we saw before.  The gate is still locked, but it has shrunk.  The old man is still telling us we’ll never achieve our goals, but he is less intimidating than before, and we deny his conclusions.  Our inner healer supports our actions.

We decide to go into the field once again through a gap in the fence that has grown larger.   Skipping through the emerald green field, moving at a rapid pace, we arrive at the spot where the thick grass  thins and turns yellow-green with dandelions at every side.  Straight ahead is the gap.  But, surprise!  The gap has shrunk, and the carpenter no longer appears.  Why has the treacherous gap shrunk?  Perhaps, because we are in love,  or have gotten the job we coveted so ardently.  Or there may be some other reason for the shrinking of the gap.  Sure, the boulders at the bottom remain, but now we can take a broad step to reach the other side.  Ahead we see a clear dirt path and the inviting spires of mountain peaks.  Our hearts are carefree, nary a worry do we have.  The peaks get larger.  Then suddenly, we are enveloped in a thick mist of darkness.  We can no longer see what’s ahead.  We’re not even able to make out the path on which we’re walking!  What has happened?  Why this sudden blindness?

Try to return to the scene several times to answer the above questions.  Try to make out the components of the darkness.  What does the darkness suggest to you?  How would you describe it?  What feelings arise when you’re immersed in it?  Do you see a way out?  If so, what is it?   Incidentally, many writers use this technique of moving from a calm, confident state to a seemingly insurmountable obstacle, and out again.  L. Frank Baum and Ruth Plumly Thompson of the Oz books delighted in such a technique.  Incidentally, Lewis Carroll was quite the opposite, because nothing really gets solved in Alice in Wonderland!  So join the famous writers, and find your own way of getting out of the darkness.  Good luck!

The Fence and the Field(cont.)

Now imagine that when you take a closer look at the wooden fence, some of the boards appear to be loose.  You push on the boards with all your might, and a few begin to bend forward, and eventually give way.  At first, there is only a narrow opening,   But after several attempts,  you are able to create sufficient space to crawl through.  Your clothes are somewhat torn, but you are on the other side!  Now you focus your eyes on the green field which spreads out before you.  When you start walking across the field, the grass is so thick it comes up to your knees.  As you walk, all you can see is a panorama of green.  You continue to walk until you notice that the grass is much thinner.  The green has turned to a yellow-green, and you notice star thistles you must dodge.  You begin to see dandelions on either side of you… And what’s this?  Just ahead is a wide chasm with menacing boulders at the bottom.  You gaze down into the maw, and realize, if you fell,  that your journey on earth would be over.  Straight across from the gap, the grass disappears completely, replaced by a clear path that ambles between two mountain peaks with the bluest sky you ever saw.  But how to get across?  Just when things seem hopeless, an old carpenter appears with white straggly hair and a raggedy grayish-white coat that is full of pockets out of which peer hammers and nails.  The carpenter is carrying a few wooden boards as he realizes you are staring at him.  “Excuse me, Sir.  Do you think you could build a bridge across this gulf?”  “I don’t know.  That’s a mighty wide breach.  I don’t know.  In the past it would have been much easier.  But, over time, erosion has worn away both sides, so it is much more difficult to cross.  I only have these few pieces of wood with me, and they aren’t sufficient.”  The carpenter shakes his head, and walks away through the needles of grass.

How would you solve this dilemma?  What does the carpenter remind you of?  What is the significance of thinning grass?  What might the peaks and the clear path ahead represent in your own life?   Try to finish the story in your own words, adding extra characters if you need to.  Good luck!

The Fence and the Field: An Exercise for Intermediate and Advanced Writers

The fence and the field:  two metaphors for the mysterious process of life.  Add a nay-sayer at the fence, and a healing presence, and you have a description of life itself.  The fence, which extends as far as the eye can see, is a symbol of obstacles that keep us from living in the field:  the spacious unknown that calls to us through excitement, and the possibility of discovery.  The no-sayer is the part of us that says we cannot enter the field; that we are doomed to live on a small piece of space with limited possibilities.  The healing presence is a person, image, or being, that encourages us to go on, to explore and seek new worlds.  The presence is reassuring, accepts us as we are, and gives us the energy to strive ever forward.  There is a gate, which is locked.  It is up to us to find the key!  Oh, if we only could!  What untold secrets and wonders might we find!  But, not only are the fence and field metaphors for parts of life, they are metaphors for the writing process, which is a subset of life!  Now you know what writing is:  it is one way of expressing the struggle that occurs in each of us to attain the infinite, ever expanding space of the field.  We can project our own trials on to protagonists that have their own problems to overcome.  We follow the hero or heroines’s  attempts to overcome obstacles, because they reflect our own life conflicts.  From Homer’s Iliad to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, from the fjords of Norway to the rocky peaks of the Andes, the fundamental principle is the same:  the human need to grow and strive in the face of countless obstacles.

In the following exercise you are required to delineate the fence and the field.  How does the fence appear to you?  What kind of material is it made of?  What color is it?  What does it feel like?  Where is the gate that opens out to the field?  What kind of latch does the gate have?  What would the key look like, if you had it.  The more details you can add, the better.  Try to fill in the weather, or any other aspects of the surroundings.

What about the nay-sayer? What does s/he look like?  Try to think carefully, as you examine your own life.  And the healer?  What about it’s presence?  How do the healer and the nay-sayer interact in this time of your life?  Which has the upper hand?  How do you resolve the conflict between them, or can you?

If this exercise is successful, not only will your writing improve, but you will gain a clearer awareness of your own life.  That is my wish for you all at the beginning of the year 2014.  Happy New Year!

How to open the gate?
How to open the gate?
Now that it's open, what path do you take?
Now that it’s open, what path do you take?

Cast Your Net in a Pool of Memories: An Exercise for Writers of all Levels

Having difficulty finding a topic for writing?  Then cast your net in a pool of memories.  Dip into your life.  Ruminate about your many experiences and choose!  What is your fondest memory, and why?  What is your most exciting memory?  What is your most embarrassing experience?  Could you string these incidents into a story?  Besides yourself, who would be the characters?  What would they look like?  Are the characters easy to depict, or are they hazy like mist?  What does the surrounding environment look like?   Learn to focus on details, so that your reader gets a feel for your characters.  Above all, make the story captivating; one that the reader will want to return to.  And good luck with your writing!

Interlude: Dream on, Dream on.

Dreams are a great help in writing.  Capturing dream images on paper can be quite rewarding.  I find it useful to classify my dreams to gain a better understanding of myself.  What do dreams mean to you?  Have you ever written about dreams?  From my list below, do you see any dream categories that are familiar?  Any dream categories that you would add?  If you have a striking dream, try to describe it, and see where the writing takes you.

1. Examination dreams.  I’m taking some kind of exam, and often parts    are missing or I forget to fill in certain parts.  I usually do poorly on exams.  I often wake up disturbed wondering why I need to take such exams, because I was at the university for fifteen years!

2. Dormitory dreams.  I often find myself in a dormitory with other residents.  Sometimes I talk with old friends, but I usually feel uncomfortable, and want to leave.  There is often a feeling of being boxed in.  Then I wake up and think, “Aren’t I past all that?”

 3.  Travel dreams.  I sometimes learn that I am on a trip to someplace, often a foreign country, but sometimes between California and Oregon.  I usually think about food, and whether there will be enough and what kind.  The more I think about the journey, the more I dislike it, and often return to starting point.  Or if I’m in another country, I generally want to leave after some time has passed.

 4.  River dreams.  Very common.  I often see rapids that are different from ones I remember.  I am surprised and sometimes scared.  Waves are sometimes huge, rocks large and menacing.  Many times I try to get out, and mostly succeed.  Sometimes I give advice to others; I’m usually not alone.  Often my Dad is with me.  Sometimes the river is dried up, and I feel frustrated.  Maybe the river is my mind’s symbol for obstacles.  I do love rivers, and this makes it a natural choice.

 5.  Book and Record dreams.  I sometimes dream I’m in a store that has records and books I’ve been looking for.  The records are often 78 albums of children’s records, which I love to collect.  However, when I approach the desired books or records, they seem to disappear or turn into something else. The stores that exist in my dreams almost never refer to stores that actually exist.  But there is a kind of dream logic in that stores in one dream will occur in another dream.  This is also true of other kinds of dreams.  In other words, in my dreams, certain stores, rivers, countries, dormitories, and exams seem to be recognized by my dream state as real.

 6.  Lecture dreams.  In these dreams I try to explain to others the meaning of certain ideas or philosophies.  Such dreams are often populated by known personages.  Sometimes when I awaken and recall some things I said in lectures, they seem absurd.  I often get the simplest number calculations wrong.  My thoughts don’t seem as rational.  But in the dream I am center stage, and feel I’m doing something significant.

 7.  Missing Car dreams.  These are quite common and disturbing.  I look for my car, but am unable to find it.  I feel sure I know its location, but it isn’t where it should be.  Sometimes I find the car, and sometimes I don’t.  Perhaps a better title for this section would be Lost Items dreams since I occasionally lose shoes, parts of apparel, keys, and so on.  But cars predominate, and hence the title.

 8.  Getting Lost dreams.  These are also quite common, and seem to last for a long time.  I’m often tired and restless after such dreams.  At some point in the dream I turn down the wrong road, and I try through many obstacles to get on the right path.  Sometimes I wake up when I’ve succeeded.  Needless to say, many, if not most of my dreams combine elements from the different categories.

 9. Losing Car Control dreams.  These dreams involve situations where I can’t slow the car down, and it appears out of control.  I become frightened when a curve comes, and often the car flies off the road and drops down speedily resulting in destruction.  Sometimes I manage to gain control of the car and avert destruction.

 10.  Wishful Thinking dreams.  In these dreams I feel I can do just about anything;  sing like an opera singer, dance like a great dancer, jump several feet off the ground and move forward by waving my arms.  These are empowering dreams; they are always positive.

 11.  Chasing Dreams.  These are perhaps my most menacing and frightening dreams.  In them familiar personalities often become transformed into ruthless killers.  The sudden transformation often elicits terror.  I sometimes feel that when I try to run, I move ever so slowly.  Most of the time I escape, though not always without injury.  It seems that I feel the sharp pain when I am struck.  When I wake up, however there is no evidence of a struggle.

 12.  Confinement Dreams.  I often find myself in small spaces that I must get through to proceed on my way.  I feel I must squeeze through tiny openings.  There is a feeling of claustrophobia.  Sometimes my body is turned around, and there is a distinct feeling of discomfort.  However, I almost always move on.

 13.  Appetite Dreams.  In these dreams I have a great appetite, which is not satisfied.  I am in restaurants, cafeterias, or other places that sell food.  I watch myself eating with gusto, but am disappointed to find out I’m just as hungry as before.  I often wake up with a decided appetite.

 14.  Relationship dreams.  This is the most complex category of all.  Intimacy, fear, affection, rejection are all combined in sometimes hazy, but often quite vivid images.  However, there are times when the dream is so reassuring and cozy that I don’t want to get up!   



Which Emotion am I?: A Writing Exercise for Elementary School and Middle School

Emotions are tricky things.  They are even trickier to describe in writing.  It has been said that the mark of a good writer is one who doesn’t tell what a character is feeling, but one who shows what a character is feeling.   That is not an easy task, but it is an excellent writing exercise.  Emotions abound, are sometimes overwhelming, occurring in places we wouldn’t like them to, so…  Picture a feeling you are having and try to convey it through description.  Write down the specific emotion on another paper as a reference.  Then have students in the class try to guess on paper what your emotion is!  If you want, you can turn this exercise into a game with teams and points given for each valid answer.  The person describing the emotion enters into the game by receiving points for each correct guess, and losing points for incorrect guesses.  This is a great game to play at home, too!  Through this exercise, emotions are recognized instead of being bottled  up, and the atmosphere of fun and play comes to the fore.  It is helpful to have an adult leader as supervisor, especially if the game is played at home!  And the exercise does help to develop descriptive writing.

Do you see the colors?: A Writing Exercise for Elementary School

The following exercise is taken from Ukrainian educator, Vasilij Sukhomlinskij.  He was Principal of a village school in Pavlysh.  He called his pre-school(year before 1st grade) The School of Joy.  Sukhomlinskij recognized that to prepare children for study, it was necessary that they experience the joy of learning.  Writing would be inspired by what the children saw in their surroundings.  He would take children on nature walks, and get them to focus on things that interested them.  Then he would have them try to describe what they saw in writing.  As much as possible, Sukhomlinskij wanted children to see and experience what words denoted.  So such words as mountain, tree, sky, hill, valley, meadow, breeze, would be perceived as concrete entities to be enjoyed, and to wonder at.

Take a group of children outdoors to an inviting space.  Ask the children to see how many colors they can find in their surroundings.  Then have the children write down as many colors as possible.  How do these colors make them feel?  Sad?  Happy?  Playful?  Joyous?  It might be interesting to have children share their experiences of colors with other children?  Make the fascinating kingdom of color dance and sing before their very eyes!sc00022275

A Triangle, A Square, A Circle: A Writing Exercise for Middle School

A triangle, a square, a circle, don’t they belong in the mathematics class?  Not necessarily.  Have students make up a story or scene with the triangle, square, and circle as characters.  When the students are finished, let them read or act out their exercises.  The triangle, square, circle exercise often brings out the true storytellers and actors in the class.  The exercise also enables them to relate to mathematical shapes in a concrete way.  Who knows?  Students may see mathematics from an entirely new perspective!

Some Stagecraft and Some Psychology: A Writing Exercise for Advanced Students

The following exercise is inspired by the teaching of Dr. Rod Newton, the Director of Hidden Springs Wellness Center in Ashland, Oregon.

Imagine a barren stage lit only by a full moon, which slides across the sky.  The feeling is one of immense space, which stretches into the infinite.  The Director is the first to appear, combing the stage for his actors.  “You’re never going to find them all, you know.”  “Ah, Depression.  What would I do without you?”  Slowly the actors begin to appear.  Here is Loneliness, small even for a dwarf, yet he casts a broad shadow whenever he walks across the stage.  A child, tugging at the Director’s sleeve is Parental Approval.  “I don’t think we should perform without Daddy’s permission.”  “It’s o.k. young fellow”, the Director responds.  Then Reason appears with his hands in his pockets, followed by Mr. Expression, who is wearing a purple-red tie, with shoes that don’t match.  His long hair is a veritable rainbow of colors, which he tosses about.  He doesn’t walk, he leaps across the stage.  The Romantic Idealist is alone at the edge of the stage, with his eyes downcast, yet expectant.  Anxiety looks about him as if checking that his path is safe.  “Where is Obsessive Compulsive?”, queries the Director.  “He’s probably still counting the steps”, laughs Mr. Expressive with an enormous grin.  “What’s that distant noise?”, Anxiety asks with a shudder.  All the actors begin to look grim.  “It’s the Evaluator.  He will be the ruin of all of us, wails Anxiety.  The exercise is to describe what this Evaluator looks like.  What is his purpose in this night drama?  Are there any actors missing?  Can you identify with any of these actors?  If so, why?

Rod Newton believes that one must use the subconscious to summon the different parts of our being to find out which of them are not in balance.  This exercise enables you to deal with your unconscious self to find out which actors have”overstepped” their roles.  Good luck.

Be a Restaurant Critic!

Be a restaurant critic!  Try to review a meal you’ve eaten out with a critical eye.  Remember to make your description and evaluation easy for others to read.  What words can you use to describe the service and the food?  Don’t say that it was good or bad, but try to show why it was good or bad.  Was there a dish you really liked?  What about the interior of the restaurant?  How did it make you feel?  Was there a view of something unusual outside?  What kind of clientele does the restaurant cater to?    Let’s look at a sample of the wit of Oregon restaurant critic, Gloria Russakov:  “German chocolate meringue can only be cured by ten laps and a tube of Clearasil…  No rabbi blessed the executive sandwich, a tower of turkey, ham, and swiss cheese on rye…  Just smile, because if you are well-behaved, applaud each course and compose rhymed couplets to the steak, Jimmie Harper, the chef and co-owner, will appear from the kitchen and play the organ.”  Now you try to write something that makes your restaurant experience come to life in vivid, gripping description.