Writer’s workshop is fundamental in my teaching. A writing teacher and colleague of mine, Vic Kryston, explains perfectly why it works so well: “Vic Kryston is the most interesting person in the room.”
Nancy Atwell, author of the seminal 80s how-to In the Middle and now a brand unto herself in education circles, can fairly be called the mother of writer’s workshop, at least in terms of using it with kids in the classroom. From her I’ve borrowed a term now in wide currency in writing instruction, “writing territories,” asking my students this year to write about and then “map” five such territories. In the spirit of fair play, here are five things I know a lot about and can explore further in my own writing.
1. Two years ago on his 73th birthday, my dad almost drowned in a pond. Oddly enough, nearly a century before, his father also almost drowned. The man who would become my grandfather was nine when he fell into a quarry. I have a tattered family scrapbook recovered from my dad’s office: the first item in it is a yellowing news clip describing Jay’s near drowning. That scrapbook, and those eerily parallel near misses, are dark waters into which I feel compelled to dive.
2. Bikes. Jack’s grandparents just got him a new one for his 7th birthday, which he now rides with some confidence up and down the street. 3-year old Will is still on training wheels but jealous. As a boy, I grew up riding bikes all around my neighborhood. We rode from our house to the pool, on dirt trails we made in the woods across the street, over ramps built with bricks and scraps of plywood. I remember most of my bikes in the order that I owned them, and think I could write an autobiography based on that progression.
3. My time there started with the death of dogs. There, I wrote it. The first sentence of my Great American Novel, or at least, of a memoir I could pen about the time I spent, when I was 21, living with Eskimos in rural Alaska. First I went for a couple summers as a camp counselor and swimming instructor, and eventually I stayed in one village to run dogs and check out village life. I never thought I’d play in the village rock band or start a forest fire along the way. Or change my name or have my heart broken, for that matter.
4. Running … past the local elementary school at the heart of our neighborhood which sits on the site of what they say was once a race track way back when; down Four Mile Run, on the banks of which, according to the fading historical marker planted next to the Jeff Davis overpass, a bustling carnival midway used to sit last century; along the Potomac River on an asphalt path that covers the route of the canal that once ran between Old Town and Georgetown in the mid 1800s, a single lock from which still exists as a scenic waterfront feature near a high end office complex north of Old Town… Running through history as I make my weekend four mile loop. Could that bluff overlooking the power plant be the site of a forgotten Native American burial ground?
5. I took a gap year before they had a name, after high school spending a ski season in Colorado as a lift operator (and night watchman, and ultimately a wine-and-cheese guy). Skiing the glades of the 14,000-foot Loveland Pass by moonlight and boycotting the French chefs in the Club Med kitchen with the use of a small portable typewriter are two memories that come floating back. Out of Bounds might be a good name for a memoir on this phase of my life.
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