October 16, 2014 by Ray Yanek
I run a Creative Writing Club at the high school where I teach and I’m always looking for fun, quick activities that we can finish during our hour meetings.
It’s also the Fall, dark and dreary; and it’s October, creepy and eerie.
So I was looking for an activity to meld the above two things.
Then I remembered an old, old, activity we used way back in the days of ore…
But of course I couldn’t find the son-of-a-bitch.
I did find a couple of examples though, and with a little reverse engineering, I created a reasonable facsimile of the project.
The idea behind the project was to show students how multiple meanings, structures, tones, images, etc could be created simply by shuffling words and phrases, by using different line breaks, and creating connections between words and images.
We would collect a common set of words and phrases and then each student would arrange those words into “poems”.
I was dumbfounded by the poems my students created way back when–and I was just as amazed with the new creations.
Procedure (that’s a big lesson plan word!)
The first step was to collaborate as a group and collect those common words and phrases.
Because of the season (and because I’ve been obsessing with the Fall and Halloween) we decided on the general, abstract topic of “FEAR”. Students partnered up and then used the following prompts to create the word and phrase bank
1.) Two words that describe fear
2.) One thing to be feared.
3.)Two words describing how it feels to be afraid
4.) A simile; “Fear is like___________”
5.) A sensory image associated with fear.
6.) One fear of your’s
7.) A symbol of fear.
When the students gathered their info they were asked to come up to the white board and write down the material they came up with.
The board ended up looking like this:
We were running late on time, so I took executive privilege and chose a few words or a phrase in each column. You should be able to see what ones I circled.
With the words chosen, I went on to explain that we could actually take the words and phrases as they appeared on the board, put them in that exact order, with each group or words or phrase being a line and turn those words into something like a poem.
It would have looked like this.
Panic and Terror
The Unknown Imperfection
Fear is like the shadow behind your back
A wound that never heals
The black eyes of the clown
The howl of the midnight train
Next, students were to take the exact same words and phrases, mix them up, combine them, cut them, and lay them out whichever way they saw fit in order to make a poem that made some semblance of sense. They could add a few small words here and there, but nothing major.
Below are a few examples:
The black eyes of a clown
Show panic at the howl of the midnight train
The shadow hiding behind his back is
The unknown imperfection
A wound that never heals
Terror in the unknown
Fear is like the shadow
Behind your back
A Wound that never heals
Like the black eyes of a clown in the howl
of a midnight train.
Panic of the unknown
Terror of imperfection
Fear is a wound that will never heal
The black eyes of a clown,
Are like shadows behind your back
After every howl of the midnight train
A couple of things my students and I learned from this:
- Look at how important tiny words and prepositions are to meaning. They connect things, they aid flow and rhythm and they allow us to see the black eyes of clown in the howl of the midnight train. I loved that line.
- We noticed how every poem ended with the one word: silence. We decided that ‘silence’ sounded like the word to end, which shows, I think, our natural ear for conclusions. Secondly, think about the image that gets left in the reader with that one word, especially when it comes after the howl of the train. I see a man standing in shadow, maybe near the tracks more than likely at a vacant train depot where the faintest of yellow light crawls out through pained glass. I see this man looking down the tracks and into the darkness as the silence sits heavy around him. Maybe he shudders in the silence that remains–or maybe it was only me who shuttered.
- Finally, what I think we should all see is that the word ‘imperfection’ was the word they used when asked to describe what fear felt like…
Give this exercise a try! I bet you’ll have fun!
P.S. I honestly don’t remember where this idea came from. I don’t remember if I stole if from somewhere, or if I created it myself. If I did steal it and you recognize this from somewhere, send me a message and I’ll give credit where credit is due.