Recent­ly, I’ve been think­ing back on a time when my focus was riv­et­ed on help­ing to care for a fam­i­ly mem­ber who was deal­ing with seri­ous med­ical issues. It’s been stress­ful to have this large “life moment” dis­rupt my nor­mal rou­tine, but it also brings with it a cer­tain kind of clar­i­ty. It’s kind of like dri­ving at night on a coun­try road, when the only thing you see clear­ly is what is illu­mi­nat­ed by your head­light beams; you’re aware of the shad­owy shapes of oth­er objects flash­ing by along the road­side, but the illu­mi­nat­ed area in front of you is what gets your pri­ma­ry attention.

Focus can be a handHeadlightsy plat­form for a writ­ing exer­cise for young authors, too. I love col­lect­ing small, unusu­al objects, often from the nat­ur­al world — inter­est­ing stones, seashells, a strange­ly life­like stick — and I keep a bas­ket of them on hand. For the pur­pos­es of this exer­cise, it’s best to choose objects that can stand up to han­dling. I place them in a grab bag and cir­cu­late through the room, allow­ing each stu­dent to choose one “sur­prise” object from the bag by touch alone.

Then I ask them to exam­ine their object in minute detail. What does it feel like? Look like? Smell like? Can they hear the ocean whis­per­ing from inside the secret curves of their seashell? Does the life­like stick “speak” to them? (Some of them, of course, can’t resist actu­al­ly tast­ing their object, although I nev­er explic­it­ly encour­age this.)

Using the sen­so­ry data they’ve col­lect­ed, I then ask them to write a poem about their object. They can give the item a human voice and per­son­al­i­ty, or sim­ply address it as an intrigu­ing object; the goal is to stay intense­ly focused on that one thing until the poem that it has hid­den inside begins to emerge.

The voic­es of even small things can speak loud­ly when, for what­ev­er rea­son, they have become the cen­ter of our universe.

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David LaRochelle
5 years ago

What an excel­lent idea, Lisa. I bet young writ­ers love this exer­cise. The mys­tery of reach­ing into the grab bag alone must be very appeal­ing! Who could resist?