Dawn Wink: Dewdrops

Writing, Teaching, Language, Landscape, Life

Words to Write By – for Writers, Teachers, and People Experiencing Life

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Words to Write by Quilt- One card from each student

I stumbled across this treasure of an essay, “Words to Write By,” written by Susan J. Tweit, as I explored the Women Writing the West website. As a writer and a teacher, I immediately thought of  both my undergraduate Reading and Writing students, as well as my post baccalaureate students studying to become licensed teachers.

Sheer magic happened.

First – the essay, then what happened next in my classes…

“Words to Write By” by Susan J. Tweit

Last August, on the morning my husband and I were to begin a two-week join artist-writer residency at a remote cabin in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, he began seeing birds—hundreds of them. Birds crowding fence lines and utility wires; birds perched on every blade of grass, shrub, and road sign. Instead of the peaceful “time out” we had imagined, those hallucinations sent us to a Denver hospital for weeks of tests, followed by surgery to remove a tumor, and a brain cancer diagnosis.

As the weeks wore into months, I searched for tools to help me keep my mental and emotional balance. I remembered an exercise I teach in my creative writing and life-path workshops, “Words to Write By,” using key words on a ring. It’s a simple and effective way to harness the power of intentions and remind yourself of the values you want to express in your writing and life. I adapted the idea from an exercise friend artist Sherri York uses. The words found in this exercise steadied me in our unexpected journey.

Here’s how it works: You’ll need a notebook ring or key ring about two inches in diameter, a stack of one-inch by three-inch cards or manila tags with a hole punched in one end (see photo), and an assortment of fun writing and drawing tools including colored pencils, markers, glitter pens, and stickers.

Gather your materials at your writing space, and you’re ready to listen for your words. Sit comfortable, take a deep breath, close your eyes, clear your mind, and be attentive. What word emerges that exemplifies the values and aspirations you want your writing to express?

As you write that word on a card, let your inner artist out. Play with the letters, use a bright color, find a glitter pen, and embellish the card anyway you choose. Make it something that’ll catch your eye and remind you of what that word means to you.

Then sit back, close your eyes and listen for the next word. Write it on another card, embellishing appropriately. Continue until you’ve got at least half a dozen words.

Put the cards on your ring, and hang it where you’ll see it every day, as a reminder of the words you’ve chosen. Some people clip them to a purse of pin them to a bulletin board. Mine hangs from one of the pens in the pen jar on my writing desk.

use these words to inspire your writing, and to remind yourself of why you write. I look at my word ring as I begin my day, and turn it so the word that speaks to me most that day is outward. To keep that word from becoming rote, to renew its power, I speak it aloud, savoring the sound. Or I look up its definition and etymology, considering its meaning and origins anew. Or I write it in my journal about why I picked that particular word and what it means to me.

What words are uppermost on my ring now?

* Courage—because I need courage to walk with my husband on his journey through brain cancer and to take my writing wherever it needs to go

* Tenderness—to remind me to balance strength with the tenderness of honesty

* Patience—toward myself, as I struggle to find a writing routine in a life that is much too full of worry and distraction

* Heartful—as a reminder of my vow to write “with my heart outstretched as if it were my hand,” paraphrasing a line in a song by Mary Chapin Carpenter

* Generous—so that my words and stories embrace the community of life

* Restorative—for me and those whose hearts my words touch.

The word “courage” was uppermost on my word ring for months. But as we shift from crisis-mode with Richard’s brain cancer to long-term treatment, and as I begin work on a proposal for a new book on growing a healthy meaningful life, I’ve flipped the ring over so that “restorative” hangs outward.

Words have great power. They guide us through difficult times, remind us of who we are and what we’ve experienced, they summarize lessons learned and aspirations not yet realized. They are the symbols we use to tell our stories, sing our songs, entertain and inspire—to communicate our lives, feelings, concerns and wisdom.

What words will you put on your Words to Write By ring?

* * * *

My English 107 Reading and Writing students at Santa Fe Community College are an amazing bunch. They range in age from just out of high school to a grandmother coming back to school. Many of my students speak other languages (Spanish and Navajo) as their primary language. Through their writing I’ve learned that we have one new baby on the way, and babies who were lost and are mourned. We have students who love to sing, ride horses, and work on cars. One of my students has been left alone most of the time, because his parents need to work. “It makes me stronger.” We include anxiety attacks and hearing difficulties. We include soccer, assisted living homes, and Lord of the Rings. In essence, we are a small slice representing the whole of life.

While a few of my students love to write, the majority do not. On the first day of class when I asked about their writing experiences, I heard more than one, “I hate writing.” What I see – their writing has been so judged in schools for grammar, punctuation, and spelling, that this squashed any sense of the real nature of writing, of voice and identity.

When I read Susan’s essay, I immediately thought of my students. I wondered…

I gathered all the materials mentioned in the essay—notecards, glitter glue, metal rings, and markers. I set up the computer so Enya played quietly in the background and visuals of landscapes moved across a large screen in front of the classroom. I hesitated playing music at first, I didn’t want to interfere with their own discovery of words. I found the music and visuals helped students to sink into their own creativity.

In class I read only specific sections of the essay aloud:

“Gather your materials at your writing space, and you’re ready to listen for your words. Sit comfortable, take a deep breath, close your eyes, clear your mind, and be attentive. What word emerges that exemplifies the values and aspirations you want your writing to express?

As you write that word on a card, let your inner artist out. Play with the letters, use a bright color, find a glitter pen, and embellish the card anyway you choose. Make it something that’ll catch your eye and remind you of what that word means to you.

Then sit back, close your eyes and listen for the next word. Write it on another card, embellishing appropriately. Continue until you’ve got at least half a dozen words.”

Then I was quiet for the next 45 minutes.

Students sunk into writing their Words to Write By. If they finished, they wrote in their journals about the words they chose and what those words mean to them. Then, they pulled their free reading books out of their backpacks and read.

The students words speak for themselves:

At the end of the class, we stood in a circle, each student holding a single card.

I read aloud, “Words have great power. They guide us through difficult times, remind us of who we are and what we’ve experienced, they summarize lessons learned and aspirations not yet realized. They are the symbols we use to tell our stories, sing our songs, entertain and inspire—to communicate our lives, feelings, concerns and wisdom.”

We went around in a circle and each student spoke the word aloud.

We let each word hang in the air.

* * *

Thank you, Susan J. Tweit, for your work in creating Words to Write By and for allowing me to share here.

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Author: Dawn Wink

Dawn Wink is a writer and educator whose work explores the beauty and tensions of language, culture, and place.

13 thoughts on “Words to Write By – for Writers, Teachers, and People Experiencing Life

  1. Greate pieces. Keep posting such kind of information on your page.Im rewlly impressed by it.

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  2. Pingback: One Year of Dewdrops | Dawn Wink: Dewdrops

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  4. This is wonderful.

    • Hi Elizabeth – Thank goodness for our community of Women Writing the West. Susan’s piece was in our newsletter. This was an incredibly powerful experience for my students and for me. And, through this I met Susan – who is such a gift. And through WWW, you and I connected – another incredible gift.

  5. What an inspiring post! The story, oh so sad, but moving and filled with hope. And how you went about applying the practice with your students. I LOVE the pictures of them with the words. Words are so powerful when we give them time, space, and creativity. Abrazos! Lauren

  6. Oh Dawn….I truly loved reading this! Thank you for sharing!

  7. Dawn, Thank you for sharing the story of your students and my “Words to Write By” exercise. What a beautiful result! Your students are indeed lucky to have you…. I’m looking forward to meeting you at the Women Writing the West meeting in Albuquerque next month. Blessings, Susan

    • Susan, Thank YOU for creating this work. Truly. It was simply magic in that room. So much healing and growth. I, too, look forward to meeting you next month. Thank you for the magic. Smiles, Dawn

  8. Oh Dawn, your students are so lucky to have you!!

    And, regarding Mary Chapin Carpenter.do you remember when you were living in the Turlock apartment and I loaned you a video cassette tape of a television program called, I think, “Women of Country” and Mary CC was on it along with Patty Loveless, Trisha Yearwood, Dolly Parton, Emmy Lou Harris? They sang a bunch of MCC’s songs and it was an absolutely wonderful show. I still remember how impressed I was with it, and knew that you would love it, and you did! Her concert last week was so intimate.she’s gone through a really bad patch the last few years and shared many songs regarding those trials and tribulations..it felt like she was standing naked in front of us.so touching. Her song writing skills are so amazing, but she’s also a fabulous guitar player.

    Hope you are well, my long time friend. susan

    • I absolutely remember that, Susan! I loved thinking about you at her concert. I also loved how you described her latest work, “Her concert last week was so intimate�.she’s gone through a really bad patch the last few years and shared many songs regarding those trials and tribulations�..it felt like she was standing naked in front of us.” What courage as a writer and an artist. Thanks so much for sharing this beauty, my long time friend. xoxo

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