How Many Notebooks?

Since I can remember I have had a notebook. When I was in elementary school, I would create mysteries. In middle and high school, I composed poetry. In my writing methods course at The College of New Jersey, I used a notebook to learn more about who I was as a writer, the writing process, and the teaching of writing. Since I started teaching, I have used my notebook to collect ideas and draft my sci-fi story, write alongside my students, record beautiful language from YA novels, and brainstorm professional articles and blog posts about teaching. This blog is one of the few areas in my writing that I do not rehearse first on paper. Dr. Famiglietti, my professor at West Chester University, encouraged me to write off the cuff here–to feel a more informal and less processed aspect of my writing. Perhaps this blog is an online extension of my notebook: Something I continue to reflect on as I consider my middle school students’ writing process preferences.

Anyway, during all of these times in my life, I also had “school” notebooks: places I took notes for various class periods or college courses, professional development meetings and conferences, as well as lesson plans and unit overviews.

The last two summers blurred the lines. As I wrote and read, I collected a hodgepodge of information and ideas, which made it difficult to locate things after the fact. With creating a 2020 summer writing and reading camp of sorts for myself, I had more clearly defined lines of what I was going to be writing and what I was going to be researching.

To help me stay more organized, I have one notebook for academic research, reading, brainstorming, webinars, conversations with colleagues, etc. I title the top of the page with where the new information is coming from, and I add the date. On the right-hand side of the notebook, I take notes. Then, I add my own thoughts, questions, comments, and extensions on the left-hand side. There are arrows, drawings, and reminders scribbled to help me remember my train of thought.

My writing notebook is a place where I rehearse ideas for creative and professional writing. When I come to a crossroads in my sci-fi story or find that I am stuck, I write off the screen. Returning to my notebook to list, draw, and/or quick write gets me going again. Before I write a post for the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project blog, I hash out my ideas and make sense of what I hope to contribute to the academic conversation. While I start writing on the right-hand side of the notebook, my ideas rarely stay there. The pages reflect my thinking as ideas are called forth from my subconsciousness. I have arrows and numbers directing me to additional ideas. I write across to the left-hand side of the notebook, in the margins, and against the structured lines. The ideas shower down onto the page like the embers of fireworks. There is also space on the left-hand side of the notebook for YA novel lines that I want to remember and save for myself and my students–lines and passages that will inspire word choice, style, techniques, and ideas.

I write on one side of my notebook (the right side) to allow for additional notes and ideas to fill up the other side as discussed above. For anyone who is left handed, I invite you to consider making the left-hand side of your notebook your main writing page. A student of mine many years ago taught me this. Ever since I have this conversation and include this option as part of our September “Setting up your Notebook” mini-lesson.

Notebooks are messy–yet amazing–places to live. I show my students my notebooks to model how they might use the space to create, reflect, and grow. Writing, reading, and thinking–when you are truly engaging in the process–are messy. Through the messiness, we make order from chaos. We find the very inspiration we are looking for.

This July and August, I am helping myself stay more organized by keeping two notebooks. I am more present and focused when inspiring ideas and insights cross my path. I am eager and ready like a child patiently waiting for the first glow of lightening bugs on a summer night.

Character Inspiration

This past week, I came to a place in my story where I needed to add characters, and I was reminded of a conversation with two of my students. During our last optional Teams meeting, Nicole (student names have been changed) and Max shared their electronic portfolios and presented their writing process. The conversation led them to reflect on how their pieces originated. As they spoke, they each touched upon the characters in their long-term creative writing pieces. Nicole had been writing her story since December; it followed a teens journey to build her own band: something she hoped might happen in real life. Nick’s writing journey started in September; his piece is a sci-fi story where his main character must save an alien race. Both students plan to continue writing into the summer.

When Nicole commented that she based her main character off of herself, Max said he did the same. They agreed how basing characters off of their own personalities and other people they knew in real life gave them a starting point. Yes, the characters take on their own personalities the more you write from their perspective, but a spark of the real world helped them get started.

Participating in this metacognitive discussion helped me realize that I work in a similar way. I hadn’t given my character personalities much thought. Now, in re-seeing my characters, there are aspects of my main character, Techa, that resemble me and the way I think about ideas and see the world. Her unruly curls stem from my own struggle with accepting my curly hair and my hope to enable my students to feel confident in their own skin.

Since mid June, I have begun transferring my story from notebooks to the computer. I had to revise much of my early drafting because I had not flushed out who my character was: the mental, physical, and emotional aspects of her character. I read that an author should be able to list 100 details about their character–to truly know their character. Writing 100 facts and details about Techa has made all the difference. It also helped me to develop the back story of her father and the microgrogs.

Furthermore, I have recently been working on building relationships between characters. I have gotten to a point in the story in which Techa visits a new planet. After a series of events, she has a falling out with her sister and begins making new friends. I have reached into my own experiences of fighting with friends and loved ones as well as remembering what it feels like to meet new friends and love interests. Not only is my own experience helping me to cultivate more realistic dialogue and interactions, but also I have begun to pay more attention to the way YA authors weave in new characters and build relationships.

I know the time is approaching when I may have to flush out 100–or maybe 50– details about Zed, Kena, or Baco.

Conventions: A Craft Move

My earliest writing memories took place on the couch in my parents’ living room: my mom and I would hunch over my assignments as she directed me to develop my ideas, create sentences, add paragraphs, consider word choice, and correct spelling mistakes. I was no more than 8 or 9.

5th through 8th grade marked a turning point with grammar instruction. The worksheets that tested my knowledge of adjectives, verbs, compound sentences, etc. felt like a Rubik’s cube or Sudoku challenge, intense and exciting. The complexities of the English language intrigued me.

As I grew up, I understood that there was a difference between completing worksheets and crafting writing pieces. Grammar enabled me to convey my ideas and enhance my mood, tone, rhythm, and point. Learning how to study mentor texts–whether published academic articles or young adult literature–helped me to see how authors made important convention decisions.

This became all the more important when I started teaching middle school English. Image Grammar by Harry R. Noden gave me the language to talk about grammar as a craft move and helped me frame mini-lessons that inspired me and my students.

These past two weeks, I looked through my students’ end of year reflections. A handful mentioned how much they appreciated the lessons on grammar. One student said he was excited to have learned how to use the em dash to emphasize his ideas; another mentioned the colon and how this added sophistication to her writing; and another was proud of their use of sentence variation. These students have already begun to see grammar as a technique that will enhance their overall writing.

While I have always loved the writing process and found grammar to be a game of sorts, I was much older before I realized the power and impact of conventions. It also wasn’t until I started teaching mini-lessons for my students and inviting them to take writing risks that I began to play more with grammar.

A few years ago, I recommended Image Grammar to a fellow graduate student at West Chester University, and I recommend it to you today. Revisiting grammar rules and studying mentor texts has enabled me to strengthen my writing and given me the confidence to take risks. I wish the same for you.

Becoming a Writer—with a Capital W

Ever since I started dedicating the time to write Defiance, I have been hard on myself when even a day goes by that I haven’t thought about it or written anything for it. I feel as if I am cheating–cheating myself or cheating on my writing–I am not sure.

What I have come to realize is that I write every day. Now, I am not just talking about emails, lesson plans, student feedback, etc. although I guess that counts too along with text messages and food shopping lists and the kind of writing that gets me through the day.

I am talking about intentional writing: sitting down at the computer, drafting in my notebook, speaking into my phone, or rehearsing as I complete a mundane task. Some days I write professionally, some days I write for graduate school, and other days I write creatively. On a good day, I can accomplish two or all three of these areas. But, I beat myself up when I don’t add on to Defiance.

Thinking about my classroom practices has helped me to reflect and re-see: being a writer is not about what you write but about the very act of becoming a writer with a capital W.

During Self-Selected Writing–a time where students can choose and develop their own writing pieces–they create in many different genres. All genres, topics, and writing pieces are created equal. They are able to raise their voices and speak their truths without seeing one topic or genre as better than the other. This process begins the journey to becoming a Writer. In our workshop, we support each other through the process, eager to catch a glimpse into one another’s passions, heart, and soul.

Here are some student examples from this school year:

  • A poem that asks “What if?” and “What then?” to inspire and incite change
  • An interview of their grandma and mom’s experience with immigration to help us understand what they went through
  • A science fiction book that challenges us to consider how far we would go to save a distant galaxy and species
  • A fantasy short story in which the student used their culture as inspiration for the setting, character names, and story details
  • A book recommendation of Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds with the inclusion of their grandfather’s words to share his experience and raise awareness
  • An article that raised awareness on mental illnesses and the importance of education to stop stigmas
  • A realistic short story which enabled the student to realize their dream of singing on Broadway
  • A personal essay that includes their family speaking in Telugu to help readers better understand their family

Self-Selected Writing is the greatest gift I can offer my students, and the greatest gift that they can share with me and their peers. Through these pieces, we teach each other and learn more about one another while enhancing our creative and critical thinking skills and our writing abilities. This writing and sharing fosters both empathy and empowerment.

The writing-reading workshop and Self-Selected Writing do not simply teach my students how to write but–more importantly–reminds them that they are already writers. They use language to share their stories, raise awareness, and create change.

Finding the reason to write and speaking your truths–That’s becoming a Writer with a capital W. It’s about using language to inspire others. Help others. Make a Difference. Evoke empathy. Discover who you are. Disrupt stereotypes. Question reality. Be the person you were born to be.

Regardless of topic, genre, or mode.

As I reflected on all of this, I realized something that I have always known for my students but couldn’t see for myself. I write every day for many purposes, in many genres, about different topics–sometimes professionally and sometimes creatively. Just as my students have the freedom to create their own writing pieces, I too have the freedom to decide what I write on a given day. Well, unless I have a deadline to meet.

I am not more of a writer when I am crafting journal articles, blog posts, parent emails, or a sci-fi story. I am always a Writer: committing ideas to written language. Composing to make my consciousness visible to me and for others.

Regardless of topic, genre, or mode.

I guess it’s that time . . . I’m going to post this and start drafting Defiance. I’ll remember my re-thinking the next time I decide to write a blog post instead of working on Defiance.

No longer will I feel like I am cheating on my sci-fi story.

Create a Writing Plan Before you Stop Writing

Whenever I hear Tricia Ebarvia (@triciaebarvia) speak, I always leave with a bag full of ideas. Those writing tips have formed the foundation of mini-lessons for my students and go to advice when I am drafting.

The following is one of the most helpful tips she shared and one that I return to day after day: Before you stop writing, jot down a few ideas about where you might go next.

After sharing this writing practice with my students, it became part of our daily routine. At the end of our quick writes, we recorded possible avenues that we might take next if we returned to that particular idea. Each period and each day, I would return to those ideas and continue writing pieces of my Defiance story.

Using this technique for my professional and creative writing, offers a starting place. My brain becomes activated when I read the ideas, bullets, sketches, brainstorming, outlining, etc. I have a place to pick back up where I left off. These nuggets of ideas help me combat writer’s block.

But, I realized something during quarantine. Usually I think about my writing and teaching as an act of rehearsal. What will my lessons be for the week? How will I model those lessons? What texts will I use? What am I noticing about my classroom practices, students, and research interests? Would any of those “noticings” work for a PAWLP blog post or journal article? What do I think about the texts that I am reading for grad school? How might I balance theory with literary criticism? How can I include my writing style and interests into a scholarly work?

Most of my rehearsing pre-quarantine and at the beginning of quarantine focused on professional writing. Now, nine weeks into a radically different way of life, I am spending more of my own time writing both professionally and creatively. Because my Defiance drafting has expanded from short bursts of writing (during class or a few minutes in the morning before I left for school), I am more immersed in the story.

Although this additional time to draft occurs when a grad school semester comes to an end and the summer break starts, Tricia’s advice to jot down a few ideas has been magnified. For the first time, I am thinking and rehearsing what will happen next to Techa. And, I want to return to her story so that I can tell her journey.

Teacher-Writer, Writer-Teacher

One of my student and I have been chatting about writer’s block during this quarantine time period. We’ve emailed and chatted through an online discussion board. Yesterday’s post, got me thinking about my own writing process, some of the things I have shared here, and the insights I see on social media. While I look to Don Murray (whose ideas I share with my students) and Anne Lamott for writing tips from one writer to another, today I gravitated towards the website Writers Write. Below is the note I left for them. I am waiting for their response. I’ll keep you posted with the outcome. I replaced the student’s name with writer.

Hi Writer,

Thanks for letting me know. I would love to read your electronic sheep philosophical rant! My mind wants to hear what you have to say. I am curious if you have a feeling of what you want to write? 

I have some tips that have helped me keep going with my own writing. See what you think–

Oftentimes, I too have ideas floating in my head but have trouble getting my ideas onto the page especially when ideas are loosely coming together. I use the notes app on my phone and speak into it. My ideas flow onto the page as if I am still thinking about them. When I am done speaking, I email the note to myself so I can store the quick write or draft in my writing file. Usually, the writing that I compose on my phone is messy with typos and completely unpolished. But, it helps me so much. This letting go of a “perfect” draft reminds me of Jennifer Neilsen‘s (author of All the Bright Places) advice:

Be willing to write garbage. Don’t worry about being perfect because there’s no such thing. I know many talented writers who don’t finish projects. The reason? At some point they become paralysed by trying to make it perfect. You have to be able to write garbage and leave it alone. Once you’re done with a draft, you can go back, dig in, and make it all sing.”

The  other thing I have to do is force myself to push through. I try to write every day (either professionally about teaching and writing or creatively about sci-fi and dystopian stories). Even when I have no ideas–or I think they are bad ideas–I read a page in a book and force myself to write off of something. I look up writing prompts and force myself to write. 

I looked up some writing tips for you, and Jodi Piccoult‘s 3 stood out to me. I will also remember these:

  1. “Read a ton. Reading will inspire you. It will also help you find out where you belong as a writer.
  2. Write every day. Treat writing as a job. There is no such thing as waiting for the muse. If you want to to be taken seriously as a writer, take writing seriously.
  3. Do not stop in the middle of your first book. Finish it. No matter what. All writers go through this. It’s more of a fear of not being good enough that makes you stop. You think, ‘What if I’m not as good as I thought I was?’ Do not allow it to stop you. If you don’t finish that first book you’re making life difficult for yourself.”

The last thing I’ll share are some writing prompts (Links to an external site.). While you may think they are terrible writing prompts, the hope is that one of these terrible, cheesy writing prompts will get you going and help you  find your own creativity and originality. Whatever you write, you’ve written it! Your SSW is a chance to play with language and to take risks and to have fun. For me–and for you–it’s not so much about what you write, but the process you take to write it. Everything you have shared this quarantine is the true spirit, struggles, and triumphs of every great writer.

Keep going. 🙂  Let me know if any of this helped you or not. I can share additional tips: similar or different. Also, I might be able to pass some of it along to  other writers in a similar spot.


Mrs. Foley

“Close Your Eyes and Look Around”

Today, as I drafted a scene in Defiance, I remembered the advice of a writer: “Close your eyes and look around.” Although I don’t remember which visiting author said this, the words stuck with me.

This morning I needed to be inside the hut where my characters sat. In the story, there is a moment that Techa believes she is being attacked. In a split second, she takes in her surroundings, pivoting a full 360 degrees. As I started to describe what she saw, I had to imagine being inside that hut myself. I had to see the front and back flaps open. The front provided a full view of the White Sea. The back flap revealed endless sand. The inside of the hut reminds me of the recreated tent I saw in a Philadelphia exhibit on Atilla the Hun; however, it is high tech. To the left of the front flap is the radio hook up and metal-electrical work station. Past the back flap continuing to the left is the makeshift kitchen. In the center is a main frame poll with a high top table and stools. While I am still flushing out the finer details, this visual has helped me to begin establishing the scene and movement of my characters. I truly had to place myself in Techa’s position and imagine myself spinning.

Although I don’t know how long ago the advice “close your eyes and look around” had been shared with me, I do know I remembered it at the right time.

Even though we are nearing the end of the school year, and my students have already explored expanded moments, vivid language, imagery, and other tips on developing the details in a piece of writing, I am going to share this additional tip in a mini-lesson before June. Next year I will be sure to include it earlier to help my students develop their creative writing.

Now that I have this tip in mind, I am excited to revise some of my other scenes such as an escape through a hovercraftway tunnel, the navigation deck on Shaban’s craft, and the committee meeting room.

This also has me thinking about my characters. Although I have not created character sketches, I do have notes on each character. I should return to those. While I have a clearer vision of Techa’s personality, I should review her physical features as well.

“Let the Possibilities In”

Today was a good day for inspiration. And, I don’t mean that in the cliche-I’m-so-chipper kind of way. But rather, in a sitting-calmly-outside-with-the-birds-thankful-that-I-have-a-game-plan sort of way. My friend always says something like “open yourself up to the universe and see what she gives you.” Maybe that is exactly what happened.

It started off with revising Defiance. With having three notebooks of drafting, sometimes I find the need to return to the early parts of the story to remind myself of names, plot, etc. At the start of distance learning, I started typing up the draft in Word to enable me the space to play with my ideas and craft. I move between revising and drafting, depending on my mood each day.

What always surprises me is how much my character has developed in the later portion of my drafts. I end up spending the most time revising Techa’s actions, dialogue, and internal thoughts. Today though, I worked with an intense scene. I completely changed the outcome of the scene because it makes so much more sense now that I know the relationship between Shaban and Cadu, two commanding officers. I also focused on building questions in Techa’s mind and my readers’ minds. Knowing who Techa is now, I added details that I did not know previously. I mention her not knowning anyone from the planet Wilgrim, which we find out later is not true. Techa shoots her sister, Juni, a look that captures her thoughts and strengthens the bond between the girls. These details make me believe in who my characters are, so I hope this has the same effect on my readers.

On a completely different note, I received an email from NCTE about teacher appreciation week. I scrolled through the email which had little information I needed, but it sparked my mind to think about their call for proposals. Immediately, I searched up the topics and deadlines. Both sound interesting, so I am going to see what I can do by June 1st and August 1st. Even more importantly, the Mic Drop issue due out May 2021, got me brainstorming for my thesis. Right after reading the call, I brainstormed, speaking into my phone which captured just short of 600 words. With these ideas, I can use the summer to write professionally and also hone my thesis topics. The gears are turning; I’m thinking about what I want to read up on, what I need to research, and who I will need to reach out to.

Yesterday, I reflected on how I needed to push myself to brainstorm ideas and welcome in the possibilities. From somewhere in the universe–or my consciousness–my mind started to piece these ideas together. Perhaps my new mantra will be “Let the possibilities in.”

Oh the Possibilities

It is a strange time of year. I guess I feel it every May/June, but with social distancing and distance learning, I am being hit especially hard.

At this point, the writing projects that have been filling my time are either coming to a close or have shifted. Grad school is done for the semester. I have established and streamlined routines and communication with distance learning. And, I have taken a backseat to writing for the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project’s Distance Learning column, which I created in March. Instead, I am the editor and publisher for this Monday feature. Currently, writers are lined up through the end of June. 

The informal, action research I started earlier this school year on student leadership has been put on hold with distance learning. Although students are still sharing their work as mentor texts and writing inspirations through our learning management system, we are unable to co-teach lessons which had been the main focus of this inquiry project. And so, I am exploring a new idea: what we can learn from distance learning to enhance classroom practices.

This is also a time where I dedicate more energy to my creative writing–make more headway with Defiance. I think I will also begin exploring and narrowing my ideas down for my thesis that I plan to start in Spring 2021.

I guess what this all comes down to is uncertainty. What will I write? Sometimes this looming question can seem daunting. Even though I know I will write creatively and professionally, the specific what and what direction I will take offers so many–maybe too many–possibilities. In some ways the openness is the very thing that can cause me to freeze up and not write.

This is the time each year that I need to push through. That I need to listen to my heart and intuition. That I need to focus on one line. Start small and see where that seed takes me. I don’t have to have everything planned out.

And so, one line at a time, one idea at a time I venture into this new wriitng time.

As I sit in my kitchen in front of the open window with the setting sun barely peeking out from above the apartment building running parallel to mine, my mind floats to tomorrow, another day of distance learning. I still need to send out the email invites to the students who would like to meet for our small-group reading and writing conferences. I am reminded of the advice I tell them when they have finished one writing piece and are looking to start another.

Whether they have writer’s block, need to quick write, or find a seed idea in their notebooks, they all have something in common: the drive to keep going. Of course I am pushing them along, supporting their process, offering tips and suggestions. But, they still need to take the advice and put it into practice. One of my favorite lines is this: When you are deciding where to go next, it’s the most exciting time because you have so many different directions to explore.

Now that I find myself at the same crossroads, I need to take my own advice. I believe the above statement wholeheartedly for my students–now I just have to believe it for myself.

One-Line Challenge

I made it happen. Here is my one-line-shitty-Anne-Lamott-first draft:

“Walking through the sterile-white halls, Techa scratched at the collar of her new jacket. She felt uncomfortable but couldn’t tell if the itch came from the material or what waited for her in the meeting hall.”

And then of course I played with it a little:

“Walking through the sterile-white halls, Techa scratched at the collar of her new jacket. She felt agitated but couldn’t determine if the itch came from the material or what waited for her in the meeting hall.”

And a little more:

“Walking through the sterile-white halls, Techa readjusted her collar. She struggled to determine if her irritation stemmed from the jacket’s material or what waited for her in the meeting hall.”

So, I forced myself to write this at 10:30 pm tonight because I made a promise to myself yesterday. There is something to writing a goal down and committing to it whether it is a high-stakes or low-stakes goal.

Even though it is late at night, I am surprised with how I feel right now. After playing with this line, I am more excited about the prospect of writing tomorrow morning. If my family wasn’t waiting to watch The Lord of the Rings, I would continue writing right now. Perhaps this will be another technique I can use to keep my writing momentum going especially when I hit a patch of writer’s block.