Friday, October 29, 2021

1 Way I Play: Poem Making!

 Howdy, Campers, and Happy Poetry Friday

In this round, we TeachingAuthors are tossing around the idea of PLAY.  Carmela started us off Playing with Poetry Snowballs; Zeena took a look at Play Deprivation During the Pandemic; Bobbi introduced us to a fascinating book called Story Engineering in My Kind of Play; Mary Ann writes about what's been taken away during the pandemic in I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic (Creative) Blues Again; and now it's my turn.

We had house guests last week! It was SOOOO good to see my longtime friend, Bruce and his wife Alene who have been sailing around the world for over 15 years! It hasn't been 15 years since we've seen them...but it was the first time my husband and I have lived with other people for over two years...

At first it was weirdly scary. Gradually, very gradually, was fine. One night, we brought out the 1960's edition of GO TO THE HEAD OF THE CLASS (remember that game?)...

I choose the token of the red-headed boy named Butch.

...and laughed our heads off at the antiquated questions. 

What a relief play provides.

I build play into my 10 week beginning picture book class, especially the class on rewriting, because it's the session I dread teaching the most. Why? Because I lift the curtain to reveal the long, painful path some picture books trudge. Using my book NEW YEAR AT THE PIER as an example, I show them its depressing nine-year timeline.

Then, to dispel the nasty fog of despair in the room, my students play...with Play-Doh! 

Can you remember that Play-Doh smell?

In an older post, I included a step-by-step description of the Play-Doh exercise. To my surprise, this exercise also works well on Zoom, so I also describe how to modify it for a virtual class.

But how do I personally play these days?  Well, not so much with Play-Doh, and for the time being, not with my folk music friends and my fiddle in our cozy livingroom. :-(

Most days I'll either exercise, hike with friends and dogs, or walk by the beach. But every day I take my vitamins and every day I dive into Poem-Making (I borrowed this word from my mentor Myra Cohn Livingston's book of the same name.)

Some days I try different poetry forms, some days I write adult poems or poetry on a particular topic. Other days I'll goof around with In One Word poems...or simply play.  Here's an example of playing with a poem I sent to Bruce in 2011. He sends me a poem every day, too.. Below the poem is the backstory I included when I sent it...and his comment.


Cameron Scamper

baked glue-crayon cake.

“Yum,” said his brother.

“Yawn,” said the snake.


Cameron Scamper

taught their dog how to fly

“Wow,” said his brother.

The snake closed its eyes.


Cameron Scamper

stopped talking for weeks.

“Gosh,” said his brother.

The snake went to sleep. 

Cameron Scamper

hid the dog in a drum.

“Oooh!” said his brother

The snake said, “Ho-hum.”


Cameron Scamper

made soup out of dirt.

“Yum,” said his brother.

Snake said he much prefered chocolate yogurt.

I sent this backstory to Bruce:

Always listening for odd names, I thought I heard "Cameron Scamper please report to Gate 14" at the Los Angeles International Airport...but later I heard it as a slightly tamer name.

I played with it below...and played and played and ran out of steam! 

Bruce replied: We liked this poem a lot… except for the last line (which, as you said, did run out of steam). Fix it and keep it.


Writing and sending a poem a day for the last 11 years has made us even closer friends than we were before. Try it and see: gGrab someone you love who loves to write and dive in!

Thank you, Linda at TeacherDance, for hosting Poetry Friday this week!

posted by April Halprin Wayland (before I've written today's poem) with the help of  Meredith and Derek our 10-month-old tortoises, Sheldon, our hibernating 28-year-old tortoise, Kitty, our most excellent pandemic adoptee, and Eli our elder statesman dog. (for pix of them scattered among other posts, see FB or Instagram)

Friday, October 22, 2021

I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic (Creative) Blues Again, Mama ( with apologies to Janis Joplin) by Mary Ann Rodman

If I could turn the last two years into music, it would be the bluesy wail of Janis Joplin. Pain, bewilderment,'s all there. The whole country has been in a funk for five years, regardless of political persuasion. Already teetering on edge, the pandemic sent many of us into a downward spiral that affected every aspect of our lives. That included our ability to create, to lose ourselves in writing. 

 When the lockdown appeared to be nothing more than an extended "snow day," I thought, "Oh boy! Cleared calendar! I'm going to finish that first (or second or final) draft. Start a new picture book! Maybe two picture books! All this solitude." And some people actually did. I'm sure they did. I wasn't one of them. Each time I opened my laptop, my brain turned to sludge. My thoughts slogged along as if through ankle-deep mud. As for new ideas...I could hear the wind whistle though my vacant brain. Maybe once a month, a tiny thought would flitter through. I'd chase it down to my notebook, ...a desiccated micro-thought. My notebook from 2020 has such entries as "dead butterflies" "dog walk" and "garbage trucks." No notes scribbled around them. Just blank space where a chain of continued thought should have been, but wasn't. 

We say that writing is a "solitary" occupation, and it is. But "solitary" doesn't mean writing in a hermetically sealed bubble. Sure, some of the great works of literature were written by hermits and prisoners: Thomas Merton, O. Henry, Nelson Mandela, Defoe, Thoreau, Malcolm X, Emily Dickinson. I am no Emily Dickinson. I need more than my own brain (and in Dickinson's case) a pretty amazing garden, to get my creative motor running. What do I need? I need music. Normally, I have music playing all day, the genre changing according to what I am writing. (My family got burned out on the Beatles and Motown while I was writing Yankee Girl and Benny Goodman and Doris Day during Jimmy's Stars.) However, my husband moved his "office' to the kitchen table where he is on Zoom or conference calls hours a day. I need my writing buddies. Sure, we Zoom, and email and Facebook and every other way of connecting remotely...except you never really feel connected.(And that's why it's called "connecting remotely.") 

Maybe it's the lack of spontaneity. Natural conversation is not like a ping-pong game. You talk, then I talk. No interrupting or laughing while talking. Conversational chaos ensues if you do. The conversation devolves to a series of "I'm sorry, you talk first." "No, you talk first." I also don't hear that well...and Facetime/Zoom doesn't have closed captioning. I can attend writing conferences and workshops virtually. But watching a screen for a couple of hours, after which you might run a load of laundry or walk the dog, is no replacement for schmoozing with friends over a glass of wine. 

I miss teaching kids. They are always my best inspiration. This has been the second summer in a row without a Young Writer's camp, the high point of my year. Shoot, I miss kids, period! There's no one shooting hoops in my cul-de-sac, or riding bikes down my steep front yard. (I never thought I'd miss kids tearing up the turf!) No kids chasing after the Mr. Softee truck. No teens hanging out at night, sitting on their cars. 

Most of all, I miss encounters with complete strangers. Some of my best ideas come from standing in the checkout line at Target, eavesdropping on random conversation. Noticing the nametags of the store employees...then scooting into the bathroom to scribble down future character names like "Santa Fay" and "Fouzia." I didn't set foot in Target for 10 months. When I did, I charged through the store as if I were on Supermarket Sweep, trying to get in and out as fast as possible. I even went through self-check to avoid the line of "complete strangers." 

My post was supposed to be about "playing" as a writer. What I've just written is a lament that most of my "toys" have been taken away. Until I get at least some of them back, writing will continue to be a slog through my barren imagination. This empty and sometimes angry life can't last forever. Some day the world will be different. Not the world as it was March 2020, but a better, kinder, more thoughtful world. A world in which creativity will once again flourish. Or so I hope. There is a great scene in a The Simpson sepisode,where television has disappeared from the world. To the strains of Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony, children stagger outside, blinking and rubbing their eyes. They then engage in Boomer era activities; hopscotch and jump rope, playing pirate in a tree house. Riding homemade scooters. Sandlot baseball and marbles. (Simpson's creator Matt Groening is three weeks older than me, both of us born in the middle of the Boomer years.) I imagine that some day, Janis' blues will be replaced by Beethoven, as we stagger from our homes, into the sunlight, rubbing our eyes. Meanwhile, I slog on. 

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman

Friday, October 15, 2021

My Kind of Play

Another MFA class begins, and once again I’m deep diving into story structures. I have to admit, this is my kind of play. And, it so happens, I came across a new book that is my perfect cup of tea.

Considered “a master class in novel writing,” Story Engineering,  by Larry Brooks (Writer’s Digest Books, 2011), takes a deep dive into story architecture. As Brooks offers, “…in their execution, stories are every bit as engineering driven as they are artistic in nature.” In other words, the technicality (or criticality) of the story is as fundamental as the creative.

Exploring the ongoing debate of pantsing (otherwise called organic writing) vs. plotting, Brooks offers that both strategies serve the same function: to find the heart of the story, the one that begs to be told. Pantzing tends to take the scenic route, going through revision after revision (after revision) to eventually and hopefully find that essence of story. As such, pantzing tends to be inefficient, as the writer stumbles  through various drafts that too often miss the mark.  What if there was a way to identify the core elements before  you dive into the deep end?

 Brooks calls these elements the six core competencies. Concept. Character. Theme. Story Structure. Scene Execution. Voice.  These are the essential ingredients to a successful story. 

Every creative cook understands that the “most delicious of ingredients require blending and cooking – stirring, whipping, baking, boiling, frying, and sometimes, marinating – before they qualify as edible…” It is the delicious sum of these ingredients that turns your story into a “literary feast.”

Story engineering is that recipe that brings these ingredients together in a cohesive , satisfying dish. It differs from formulaic writing in that the process of story engineering serves to bring clarity to your story, but you bring the art. A pinch of this, a dash of that, stirred not shaken, and you make the story your own.

Brooks’ detailed explorations into each of these competencies decode the abstract. He provides a practical model that gives writers a profound new understanding of story structure that is accessible, and doable. One of my favorite passages in his definition of story:

“A story has many moods. It has good days and bad days. It must be nurtured and cared for lest it deteriorate. And it has a personality and an essence that defines how it is perceived. Just like human brings.”

As Books explains, a body cannot function without a heart. So it is with stories. These certain competencies support  the heart of the story. To continue with the analogy of cooking, if an essential ingredient is missing, or soured, the resulting dish leaves behind a bad taste.

Brooks is quick to admit that a writer can have all the right ingredients, perfectly stirred, and it turns out bland. Or, to put it another way, it’s possible to assemble in perfect order that perfect body. But without that creative spark, there is no life. Think Frankenstein’s monster. 

Now that we’re all hungry, I highly recommend this book. 

 May you create the perfect feast!

--Bobbi Miller

Friday, October 8, 2021

Play Deprivation During The Pandemic


TADA...The winner of our giveaway of What the Cluck?  is Dorothy W.

14 years ago, I wrote this statement as part of my education philosophy.

“I believe in the power of play (think of anyone you know who has lost their passion for life and they’ve probably forgotten how to play.)

I believe in learning through wonder, exploration, and discovery (think of anyone you know who is a lifelong learner, and they’re probably driven by wonder, exploration, and discovery rather than thinking of learning as a task that must be completed.)” 

Indeed, play has always been a driving force in my life as a teacher and a writer.  As I reflect on my journey through education, I realize that I am not the stereotype.  I did not come to teaching because I thought I could change the world. I was not particularly fond of children.  I did not feel like I had ideas to impart on young minds. I realize that I am drawn to teaching 5-year-olds because I love to play.  I am Peter Pan and the students that frolic and romp  along with me are the “lost boys (and girls)”  

I have spent the past 30+ years avoiding growing up.  Instead, I arrive each day to the spontaneous joy, enchantment, and wonder of those who are experts at playing.  Don’t get me wrong, it is hard work to preserve this quality and protect it against those who might squelch it. 

This year I have watched as my students have struggled to find their footing.  I’ve noticed that it is taking longer.  They are less mature than years past and I wonder how the pandemic has affected their opportunities to play. 

 I imagine that the impact has been great.  

They came into the shutdowns when they were 3 ½.  Just when play with their peers was becoming prominent.  

I have noticed a lag.  

Much of our day is spent playing together. There is much healing to be done and I believe in the power of play.  

Recently, I find that I too have been deprived of opportunities to play for the past 19 months. There are few, if any gatherings.  Many of my friends are not venturing out spontaneously. I have attended countless meetings, conferences, and workshops on Zoom.  I spend many more hours than I ever have, in my apartment with the television keeping me company.   I have forgotten how it feels to wander aimlessly in lands unknown.   

With this loss of adventure, my creativity has waned noticeably.   Days go by and I am resisting sitting down to write.  Ideas are blocked,  a big, giant void. The joy is just not there. As I write this, it is taking me great effort to hear the words to put on the page.  It’s painful.

I wonder, why am I struggling to write? Where has my creativity gone, and will it return? Why does the sun shine a little less brightly? Why are my senses dulled?  

And then it dawns on me.  I have ceased to play as an artist.  I have stopped answering the call of spontaneity, wonder, and curiosity. I have ceased to explore and discover. 

Where is my passion? Is this my new normal? Is this what the pandemic has left in its wake? Can I pull this back from the brink and restore my imagination?  Is it me?  Are there others around me? Are there others out in the world? Are we experiencing a collective lull? Will we recover and heal? 

Yes, I believe we will. I’m hopeful that the opportunities of joy and delight will return and bring creativity back with them. For those of us whose inspiration has been affected by play deprivation, I believe that eventually we will find the power of play…again.

Posted by Zeena M. Pliska

Author of :

Hello, Little One: A Monarch Butterfly Story Illustrated by Fiona Halliday  Page Street Kids

Egyptian Lullaby Illustrated by Hatem Aly Roaring Brook Press (coming Winter 2023)

For more info about me click here


Friday, October 1, 2021

Playing with Poetry Snowballs

Happy Poetry Friday! Today, I kick off a new series on the topic of PLAY and share a related poem. It's also the last day of our current giveaway, so if you haven't entered yet, be sure to check out the link at the end of this post.

When we TeachingAuthors were discussing our next topic, April Halprin Wayland suggested "something light, such as, how we each play with words." The idea felt perfect, especially because I'd recently read the following Tweet from Nir Eyal:

 Personally, I have been doing a lot of playing lately--with poetry!

Photo by Jasmin Schreiber on Unsplash
Back in December of 2020
, I'd shared:

"one of the things I'm looking forward to in 2021 is becoming even more steeped in poetry, both reading and writing it."

I'm happy to say that I followed through on that intention. I've been not only reading and writing more poetry, but submitting it for publication, too. I'm thrilled to announce that several of my poems have been accepted and will be coming out in two new anthologies. I can't share the details yet, but will provide them when I'm able. 

One way that I've been playing with poetry is by writing in new-to-me forms, particularly math-based ones, such as pi-ku, Fib poems, and Etherees. I recently learned about snowball poems, developed by the OULIPO. If you aren't familiar with the organization, here's a description of OULIPO from

"Although poetry and mathematics often seem to be incompatible areas of study, the philosophy of OULIPO seeks to connect them. Founded in 1960 by French mathematician Francois de Lionnais and writer Raymond Queneau, Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle (OULIPO), or Workshop of Potential Literature, investigates the possibilities of verse written under a system of structural constraints. Lionnais and Quenuau believed in the profound potential of a poem produced within a framework or formula and that, if done in a playful posture, the outcomes could be endless."

While writing my first snowball, or boule de neige, as the OULIPO call it, I definitely tried to keep a "playful posture." Here's what I came up with:

Background photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

This snowball poem is an example of one that grows, which is called a boule de neige de longueur. Such poems should resemble a right triangle. The text I've quoted in my poem is taken from this page. There, you can read more about the various types and shapes of snowball poems.

As I worked on this poem, I realized I have written snowballs before, in the form of nonets and Etherees. So technically, this isn't really my first snowball poem, though it's the first containing twelve lines. 😀

I'm wondering how many of you are familiar with snowball poems. Have you ever written one? Do let me know in the comments. I also wonder: Is there a name for a poem that describes the form it's written in? I think there should be.

You can check out more poetry at this week's Poetry Friday roundup hosted by Catherine Flynn at Reading to the Core. Before heading over there, though, don't forget to enter our current giveaway if you haven't already done so. Details are at the end of Esther's Student Success Story interview with Gwen Neiman Levy about the release of her debut picture book, What the Cluck?

Happy writing!