I organize a lot of Known by Heart/Writing Home poetry sessions around windows. There are tons of interesting poems that feature windows (see a couple below). I also like to connect writing to other art forms, so sometimes we write responding to images of paintings —Many students respond especially to Vermeer, whose paintings are filled with windows, seen and implied.
I also like to introduce something painters call a view-finder.
A viewfinder can be as simple as a piece of card stock with a rectangle cut in it. There are fancier adjustable versions. Simple or fancy, painters use a viewfinder to select what scene or slice of the world they choose to paint.
I like to introduce writing and poetry craft elements as things, that once we learn about them, give us more choices. For example, we may or may not want to rhyme or have lines with a certain number of stresses or syllables, but once we know what a line is, we have more choices about how we use them in a poem.
And the viewfinder is an object lesson in what to me is the first element of writing craft:
We get to choose what to write about.
And this is one of those places where art-making and wellness intersect. Making choices is a key aspect of art-making, of finding our unique voice, of honing our craft. And to bring in the mental health or therapy perspective, having a sense of choice and making choices even in difficult times or situations, is a key aspect of emotional well-being.
So back to the writing with a view-finder. When I do this activity, writers often choose to focus on something within the room where they are writing. But it’s very helpful to have a window. It gives writers more choices; for writers with mobility limitations, a window with a view is no small thing in maintaining a connection to the world outside.
I give participants each a viewfinder, show how you can include more or less of a scene by bringing the frame closer or farther away from your eye.
It’s such a treat to hear what an array of images or stories a group of writers write looking out the same window. Suddenly one scene prisms into the individual perspectives of the writers.
But I was a little dismayed recently when I walked into a room I hadn’t taught in before equipped with my stack of viewfinders to realize there were no windows that my writers could look out at. I had been in the space a few years before, new it was a basement, but remembered it had windows. But I had forgotten they were not clear glass. No view to the outside world and not much to inspire in the room: Stacks of chairs, formica tables, drab carpet.
But I shouldn’t have worried. The group dug in with gusto and found thinks to write about I would never have imagined—persona poems from the perspectives of the furniture, internal monologues, a prose poem about a lost loved one.
So what did I learn that day? Trust your writers. If people have made the effort to show up, they will find a way to write something fresh, unique, compelling, from the heart. The writers remind me we have the power of choosing what to focus on in even the most unpromising setting.
That’s something that has a use way beyond that one poetry class.
A Couple of Window Poems:
Alicia Ostriker, “August Morning, Upper Broadway”
One thought on “Learning by Going, #2: You Don’t Even Need a Window”
Reblogged this on teen voices and commented:
Here’s a teaching/prompting device from our friend Naomi Cohn that can be used in many different ways. I hope you are writing–I am! –Scott