Teachers Write – 7/12 – Thursday Quick-Write

Today’s Thursday Quick-Write is courtesy of guest author Gigi Amateau, the author of the young adult novel, A Certain Strain of Peculiar, a 2010 Bank Street College Best Children’s Books of the Year. She also wrote Chancey of the Maury River, a William Allen White Masters List title for grades 3-5. Her debut novel, Claiming Georgia Tate was selected as a New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age. Come August, Come Freedom, a work of historical fiction for young adults, will be released from Candlewick Press in September 2012. Connect with Gigi at www.gigiamateau.com <http://www.gigiamateau.com>  or on twitter: https://twitter.com/giamateau

 Good morning, writers!  First of all, thank you, Kate Messner, for organizing TeachersWrite! What a great opportunity to learn from and grow alongside all of you. Today, I’d like to share a practice that I use almost daily to improve my observation skills and to tune in to nature and the natural world. I find that these exercises help me draw more vivid settings, see beyond the obvious, and heighten my sensory experience of the environment.

As writers and teachers, you already know that two of your greatest skills are your strong sense of curiosity and your keen superpower of observation. Curiosity and observation team up to help us understand our thoughts and feelings about the real world; curiosity and observation are the foundation upon which we write new worlds – whether through fiction, poetry, essay, or song. Asking questions, noticing details, and identifying patterns begin inside a writer’s heart or mind then, with practice, make their way down the arm, into the fingertips, and onto the page or screen.

  Can we really train ourselves to become more curious? Is observation really a superpower?


 To me, the greatest gymnasium or auditorium or home field for a writer to train and practice is in the natural world. In his little book Walking, Henry David Thoreau wrote that “all good things are wild and free.” The outdoors is our wild and free writing laboratory – a place to conduct experiments with language and punctuation, a place to explore new territory in our thinking, our feelings, and our storytelling.

 So, let’s begin by heading outdoors. That’s right! Set down your tea and walk outside. Just for a couple of minutes, I promise. If it’s nasty out or you’re just snug as bug, go ahead and practice right where you are.

 To get started, shake up your body a bit. Take a quick scan up, down, and all around to notice where you’re holding tension or whether you feel stiff. Give those places that are begging for it, your permission to relax and a pathway to let go. Roll your shoulders back; now roll your shoulders forward. Inhale. Exhale. And, if that felt good, repeat!

 Now, look around. Don’t alter the way you’re watching the world, but notice how you’re watching. Chances are that you’re focusing in on one section of the panorama before you. This is good! As your gaze adjusts to what you’re seeing, notice how you slice up the landscape in order to process what you see. Good job.

 Let’s bring a different type of concentration to the act of observing. What happens when you try to take in the whole landscape without focusing on any single image? What changes within your field of vision?

 I find that it’s difficult to hold keep panoramic lens going for very long; I naturally seem to return to observing one piece of the picture. That’s okay! Notice when you’ve lost the wide-angle and simply return to it. A little trick to help if you’re having trouble: keep your gaze straight ahead, but bring your peripheral vision into focus. Then, keeping the wide view, go exploring.

 As I write this, I’m sitting on the front porch of an antebellum house in Norwood, Virginia, facing the Blue Ridge Mountains. When I practice these magic eyes, I see this place differently than when I’m focused on the butterfly bush that drapes the front walkway. Looking out toward the mountain ridge, and taking in the whole panorama, I see: a red-tailed hawk riding the current, a dappling of shadow and sunlight across the canopy, a savannah of cumulus clouds against a watery sky, and an old chestnut hound lost in puppy dreams beneath my feet. Each image urges me to turn my glance only upon it, but what else will I see if I keep my wide eyes? The ties of the awning slapping against the porch post, the loop-di-loop of a bumblebee, the zig-zag of a dragonfly, an empty white rocker resisting the breeze, and swallows dipping in and out of the treetops, down near the river.

 Record your own experience with wide-angle watching. What did you observe in your wild and free writer’s studio?

 Let’s switch it up. Which of those images from the landscape would you like to know more intimately?

Now, form an O with Pointer and Thumbkin, as if you were signaling, “okay!” Bring the O to one eye and close the other eye. Turn your attention to your subject, and shrink the O by curling your index finger down your thumb to toward your palm. Now, really examine your subject.

Here’s what I see: The dog is not entirely chestnut, only in the darkest places like the top of her back, the outsides of her thighs, and the points of her ankles. Her belly is almost white. She rests her head under the shade of the bench where I’m sitting. She sleeps with her front and back paws crossed, all-ladylike. Her breath rises and falls in an easy cadence. Not even the coal train passing by at the bottom of the hill causes her to stir. The old napper is tired for good reason, I think.

Pollen and leaves and dirt are strewn across her back, her belly, and her haunches. She’s been on an adventure today.

 Record what you observed with your tiny finger-monocular.

Experimenting with different lenses is a fun practice all on its own. You may find a trail of breadcrumbs leading into new ideas or realize that you really enjoy one lens more than the other. You could also use these practices to examine and inform a specific scene of your work in progress by closing your eyes and shifting your mind’s eye back and forth between the panoramic and narrow lenses of that scene.

41 Replies on “Teachers Write – 7/12 – Thursday Quick-Write

  1. How? How does he farm with that sitting in the middle of field? The red fire hydrant sits boldly in the middle of the cropped winter wheat. A sign of the change to the land. The future planned out for this field. Homes for food. But for now, I wonder how he will plant the next crop with a red fire hydrant as I walk back into home that sits on part of the same field.

  2. Jamey, what a delicious surprise, that red fire hydrant. The image is a powerful conveying of a collision about to occur and a surrender. Thank you for trying the practice and sharing this bit!

    1. Thank you for reading and providing the exercise this morning. I like the physical aspect, both getting outside (like Emerson) and the focus view.

        1. Agreed. I actually have student try to write outside at different times, when we read The Outsiders and when we read “The American Scholar” by Emerson. I did my writing early this morning and wanted to describe the “loneliness” of the red fire hydrant.

  3. I cheated because the third-floor window next to my computer overlooks the natural world. I’ve rolled out my shoulders, and I’m simultaneously gazing and typing. I see a tree canopy: four stacked rows of hawthorn, catalpa, maple, and oak. The leaves fiddle lightly with the dawn breeze. They are lushly green, thanks to recent rains breaking a long dry span. Farther in the distance, Green Mountain rises like the back of an elephant, the red-brown slabs of the Flatirons warming like ears in the sun. The sky is clear, cornflower blue. Tucked among the trees is one street light, only its top visible — a sleek black neck and pearl canopy. The day’s now bright enough that the light is off. Below, a cyclist whizzes by on the sidewalk. City sounds creep in, cars and trucks beginning their business with rough, reluctant sighs.

    1. Brian,
      Your elephant-eared Flatirons and cornflower-blue sky brought your scene right into an Albuquerque hotel room where I read them. But, “the leaves fiddle lightly with the dawn breeze”, was the line that pulled me in and made me want to slow down enough to really absorb your piece. Thanks for sharing your writing.

    2. Up until these sentences – The day’s now bright enough that the light is off. Below, a cyclist whizzes by on the sidewalk. City sounds creep in, cars and trucks beginning their business with rough, reluctant sighs. – I truly thought that you were in the country. But it was these sentences that pulled it all together for me as I was reading. Excellent!

  4. Hi Brian! Thanks for sharing this waking up view. Wendi and Diane totally hit on the lines that got me, too. I also really love the image of Green Mountain as an elephant’s back. So engaging!

  5. The city is surrounded by a rolling landscape of hills and trees. There is a lone water tower off in the distance, but otherwise the land is uninhabited by signs of urban living. The rising sun that is burning off the cool, moist morning air captivates the scenery and provides warmth to the earliest risers. From the water, the piercing rays reflection leaves a blinding glow that goes unnoticed by the early morning swimmers. The splashing water, which creates the effect that the reflective light is bouncing along the top of the pool, is the only sound that can be heard throughout the park. This blazing sun is a symbol of summer, but also captures the setting in its beautiful morning glory.

    Gigi, thanks for this activity. Luckily, I checked the blog before heading to the pool this morning. This is my eleventh summer swimming at this city park, but today was the first time I truly noticed its scenic beauty.

    1. Hi Andy! Thanks for making time to do these practices. I love what you said about noticing your park in a different way. I find the same thing with this kind of intentional looking (or listening!). This phrase of yours “beautiful morning glory” is just right to my ear and my internal eye.

  6. Been away…no writing…feeling rusty…

    After spending three weeks on the road, roaming the Wild West, dreaming of becoming a Wyoming cowgirl who fancies horses and four-wheelers or a Montana-transplant hipster who hikes the Rockies on weekends, I find myself back in New England on my 12 peaceful acres. Goats gently mutter in the background, and my yellow lab embraces the hot sun. The peas have grown, the clover has monopolized our yard, and my list of to-dos is so tall, I can barely peer up at it. Leaning over to swat at a fly, I knock my hand against a heart-shaped rock from PEI: another place I dreamed of moving off to–where I would be surrounded by seals and lush red sand.

    Montana, PEI, Vallodolid, Cinnamon Bay, the San Bernadino mountains…I’ve made plans all along to escape and live a life of denial in each of these destinations, but as I bask in late morning sun, I recognize home. It has a rough lumber chair in the yard and chickens squawking in the backyard. It boasts birches that Frost himself would envy and blackberry bushes that invite bears from miles around. It is not much, but I can easily walk out the door to a beach or to a mountain. Escape can always be right around the corner from here. It feels right.

    1. Angie, I agree with Diane: NOT RUSTY. The way you juxtaposed the do list and the long clover is awesome. And also how, your knock into another dreamy place leads you to recognize home. Thank you for sharing your writing!

  7. Panoramic: Trees, shrubs, and beach grass cascade down the hillside to the sandy shoreline. The summer drought is reflected in the bronze and rust colored grasses. A red-winged blackbird tussles in a shrub while a white butterfly meanders through some flowering Queen Anne’s Lace. In the distance the white lighthouse at Wind Point stands guard at the edge of the shore that juts out into Lake Michigan. The water is deep blue against the powder blue sky but gradually fades into lighter shades of turquoise as it reaches the shore. A breeze off the lake is cool and refreshing as it combines with sudden wafts of sun-warmed air from the land.
    Small focus: Tufts of drought browned grass sway in the wind as a lone bee buzzes through them. The seedheads are dried tightly as if to keep any possible moisture inside. The olive green weeds next to them are curled and dried in the morning sun.

    1. Kristina,

      We are feeling the impact of no rain here in Central New York. The playing fields are dirt and hay (a definite fire hazard) and my lawn hasn’t been mowed in weeks.

      A red-winged blackbird tussles in a shrub while a white butterfly meanders through some flowering Queen Anne’s Lace. In the distance the white lighthouse at Wind Point stands guard at the edge of the shore that juts out into Lake Michigan. The water is deep blue against the powder blue sky but gradually fades into lighter shades of turquoise as it reaches the shore. – WOW – Excellent description! It sounds like a beautiful landscape.

      Thanks for sharing!
      Happy writing!

    2. Kristina,
      I echo Andy’s response. Your panoramic view with the red-winged blackbird, the Queen Anne’s lace, and white butterfly offers a vivid blast of yellow and red against the black of the bird and white. Nice! I think your panoramic and focus bits are great together. Thank you!

  8. I went and sat on a bench at the neighborhood playground/park early this morning while the sun was still behind the trees and the air was not quite uncomfortable. My eyes saw the swings, the towers and slides, the field of drought-crisped grass…but it was my ears that I couldn’t ignore. There was a woodpecker on a pine behind me, the crows in the field cawed their ownership, starlings squabbled…and then the locusts got started. My focus (listening focus, not looking focus) narrowed to the sound of the locusts. I’ve got a page of notes, and hopefully a poem will come of it. Great exercise, Gigi! And the take-away for my classroom writing workshop will be to make sure my students always understand that the quick-write topics are invitations, not commands, and that they should follow wherever their own writing leads them!

    1. Mary Lee, I LOVE that you went with your writing and made the spirit of these exercises work for you! That’s so awesome. I agree, the prompt is a doorway…a tool to get into that part of your mind or heart or spirit that has something to say and is eager to say it. I’m excited a poem may be brewing from your listening practice today. I hope you will share it!

  9. Wide lense scene: Bit of conversation drift from unseen yards: “That’s all I have!”, “Hold on!”, “Annnnnnnnnd…GO!!” Fancy-house neighbor has an unkempt backyard. Bannana trees are swaying gently while alley neighbor, surfboard strapped to top of car, starts honking. Oh wait, is he honking at me because my car is blocking his exit? “Sorry!!” No prob, he seems to say without words. Peace again. Fog horn, bottle brush tree and prickly cactus. Brand-new, boring lawn chairs sit in a semi-circle, waiting for a party to happen.

    1. Diane, I totally get the vibe of the neighborhood AND your sense of humor. I love the unkempt fancy-house yard. The whole scene already looks and sounds like a party! Thanks for trying the practices and sharing your writing.

  10. So I went out to my front porch and sat on the steps for a while and just took in the world from the porch. Hot and heavy air fills my lungs as take my deep relaxing breath. Still leaves hang on the lazy oak. The white puffy clouds blend in to gray knowing there will be no curtain call for the sun today. As hot and hazy as it is, the birds are still singing, twittering, reminding us the work day has not ended for them…

    Small focus…the freshly dug patch of sun-crisp grass is pushed aside by the squirrel’s paws revealing the dry, brown Earth. The spry little creature timidly but quickly paced its way across (hop hop hop HOP hop hop HOP hop hop hop HOP) the yard. Then it moved on to the stoney gray drive and scurried over into the next patch of sun-crisp grass, with more work to do…
    I appreciate this idea! Changing the focus of the writer’s lens opens up opportunity for more detailed observations from different vantage points. It will also help to think about how different characters might see the same scene…but both in the same place…
    Thanks! Amy

    1. I like hanging out on your porch with you. That is something I really noticed, too, the sound of the birds. The sounds are as important to the scene as the sights. Did a rabbit really hop by? How serendipitous!

      1. No, it was a squirrel. We have some very crazy squirrels around here! The famous black squirrels that escaped from a research lab @ Kent State (as legend goes) and then the gray squirrels now seem to be blending together. They are crazy busy right now and constantly make a mess by digging up the yard. Also I had no idea they are carnivorous but actually saw one take a baby bird from a nest as I sat on my friends deck a few years back (maybe just a fluke)?

    2. “Still leaves hang on the lazy oak.” Wow. That sentence makes me happy.Makes me wish I had a hammock beneath that tree! Thank you for trying the practices. I’m glad you shared both lenses!

  11. So. Here’s the deal. My favorite reading place was supposed to become my writing place too. But I just cannot do it here today? Why? Well. Because my sons, from here on out referred to as “The Teenagers” have taken over my front porch and the evidence of their takeover has become a distraction. I can’t write from my quaint little porch/reading place when I am side tracked by two pairs of football cleats. I should be glad that the odor has been left outside, right? The saw that was used to cut down the tree… Why put it in the garage when it can cut through Mom’s concentration as she tries to see beyond the cord and the teeth. Hedge clippers. Heck! We are just going to have to use them again. Someday. They are certainly easier to track down right here on the porch. And tomorrow morning there are going to be more Japanese beetles, so the broom might as well stay out. The cooler? You know, it is heavy. It is sure is easier to bring the ice and stuff out than to carry the whole darn cooler through the house. Well at least I have my porch chair. It is quite comfy and most often nobody knows that I am sitting here reading and… well yes… writing too.

    1. Kelly,

      I love it! My favorite part – “I can’t write from my quaint little porch/reading place when I am side tracked by two pairs of football cleats. I should be glad that the odor has been left outside, right?” I actually laughed out loud because it reminded me of being a kid that left my equipment all over the yard and house.

      Your porch sounds like my yard. Lacrosse sticks, Razor scooters, bikes, coolers (I smiled because there is one sitting next to the garage – no idea why?), and basketballs litter the yard. My wife says that someday I will miss it – NO, I don’t think so! 🙂

      Thanks for sharing and making me smile!

    2. I laughed out loud, too! I love the part about the saw doing its job, cutting through your concentration. Nice. Now, I think we should all meet over at Diane’s for that party. Kelly, you bring the cooler, Andy the basketball. 🙂

    1. Margaret, thanks for sharing your poem Morning Walk. The poem really does convey that distinctive first light of day when so much is still unseen and yet for you and your dog, even the shadows of your landscape are familiar. Thanks for sharing the Poets and Writers prompt, too! I agree these work well together.

  12. I didn’t get time to finish the closeup look at the ash tree before my daughter woke from her nap, but here’s what I have so far:

    I see a sweeping meadow; though this is New England, I can easily imagine a lion crouching in the tall grass. A few trees dot the meadow, evidence of seeds dropped here and there that found patches of fertile soil. The meadow backs up to power lines and suddenly to a dense stand of pines and oaks. The meadow is held back, just barely, by an old paddock fence struggling to stand upright. Inside the fence is a summer green, freshly mowed lawn. The huge ash spreads its branches over the patch of lawn, sending waves of shadows across the grass.

    The ash has a split trunk about six feet from its base. A bit of meadow grass has managed to plant itself in the nook.

    1. Melanie,

      Isn’t it so frustrating when you’re on a roll and your son/daughter wakes up from a nap? I feel like it happens to me everyday.

      The meadow is held back, just barely, by an old paddock fence struggling to stand upright. – Vivid detail that I can picture in my head – AWESOME!

      Keep up the good work!

    2. Hi Melanie,
      What a scene you’ve drawn! The presence of a lion in New England, even if only in your imagination, is fantastic. Both a reminder that the meadow is wild and a question mark: what else is out there? Thanks for doing the practice and sharing! What would you write if you tried the close up practice by watching your daughter nap?

  13. Y’all, I so enjoyed sharing this practice with you and sharing in your writing today. You’ve helped me think differently, too, by bringing sound, smell, and touch into the wide-angle and close up attention. What a privilege to be transported by your words to your places! Thank you thank you. And, thanks so much, Kate, for having me as a guest!

  14. Gigi,
    If I didn’t have to go get ready for the dentist, I’d try this right now as I am perched in the shady spot of my deck sipping coffee, catching up on some reading here at Kate’s blog. Loved reading your suggestions.This is an activity that I will definitely try with my students too. It will be fun to try this on different types of days, in different seasons, and also to see how each writer’s observations are unique. MANY thanks! ~ Theresa