A Moment with Tom Petty

When Tom Petty died I was suddenly 19 again, wearing headphones and slumped in the backseat of a rented minivan.

Dad is driving, Mom is riding shotgun and my two younger brothers are tucked in the middle bench watching Home Alone on a TV/VCR combo dad had strapped to a milk crate to entertain the kids on our first family road trip — a traverse through New York state and into Canada.

To pass the time, I brought a pen and notebook, a discman and a binder with stuffed CDs.

 I’ve forgotten large chucks of my teen years but I remember, with absolute clarity, the songs that soundtracked the most confusing, polarizing, contradictory, painful and fun years of my life.

On that trip, I listened the contemplative “Time to Move on”, the third track on Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers” album over and over and over again, convinced it was written for me.

“It’s time to move on, time to get going
What lies ahead, I have no way of knowing”

I remember, as the New York tree line flicked by, writing out scenes for what I thought was going to my first novel. A fictional yarn about a rich 19 year old kid who declined a scholarship to Princeton so he could make a year long transcontinental hike from New Jersey to California. Of course, his hard-boiled father disapproved and his mother was too busy stroking the pool boy to care. It was a massive idea. Too massive for me then. Maybe too massive for me now.

When you’re 19, life gets complicated.

Choices become harder, they have more gravity and greater consequence. Time is suddenly finite. Reality is tangible. You realize you need to do something with your life. And as sad as it is, you realize your on the verge of comprising your dreams to appease the status quo.

At the end of my freshman year of college, I was 19 and had a growing awareness of how hard it was going to be to become a writer. It was a life of discipline and sacrifice and deep examination only to be rewarded with self-doubt and rejection.

When it was convenient, like in the back of a minivan in upstate New York, I would scratch down stories but I wasn’t committed. I grew frustrated by the amount of work being a writer took and I remember being 19 and concluding that writing was a cute dream, but ultimately a dream for other people to entertain.

“Broken skyline, which way to love land?
Which way to something better?
Which way to forgiveness?
Which way do I go?”

At 19 you’re wedged between the adulthood and childhood. You’re letting go of romantic ideas of adulthood and submitting to reality —  the one with time clocks and car insurance and parties that end at 9 pm. At 19, I didn’t want that adult life. And, in a way, I still don’t want.

“It’s time to move on, time to get going
What lies ahead, I have no way of knowing
But under my feet, baby, grass is growing
It’s time to move on, it’s time to get going”

When Tom Petty died, like when all great musicians die, the alchemy of music twists time and somehow the past becomes present.

And suddenly you’re 19 again, slumped in the backseat of a minivan, rolling through the mountains of New York. You’ve got your headphones on and a scruffy guitarist from Gainesville, Florida is singing out your secrets. There’s a fear swirling in your chest. A fear that will settle, take its shoes off and rest heavy in your chest for years to come.

Because you’re afraid to move on.

You’re afraid to get going.

Be well,

Jay

This One Simple Tool Will Make You a More Effective Writing Teacher

Teenagers are notorious for their lack of attention and internal busyness– especially in a classroom. They live in a chronic state of unawareness and have a cantankerous yearning to be somewhere else.

“I want to go to sleep.”

“I want to go home.”

“I’m starving, when’s lunch?”

And in these modern times of computers and smartphones, the teenage attention span is quite slim (and seems to be getting slimmer by the day).

As writing teachers, this wandering teenage mind is one of the greatest challenges we face.

So how do we tame the teenage monkey mind? How do we get a classroom of unfocused students focused and prepared to write?

The answer, is a surprisingly simple one. (And yet took me many painful years to figure it out.)

A timer.

In recent years, a timer as become my most important and effective teaching tool to tame the wild teenage mind.

 

The use of a timer in the classroom creates three things…

  1. focus
  2. urgency
  3. a goal

Experience has shown me that students actually enjoy the demands of the timer. It teaches them that in brief, focused bursts they can overcome procrastination and actually accomplish things.

Lesson Plan

Let’s say you want to have your students write a narrative piece on failure.

Here’s a simple 3 step, 240 second process you can implement to get students started, focused and excited to write…

Step 1 (180 seconds)

  1. Have students write the heading “Times I failed today…” on a blank page.
  2. Set a timer for 30 seconds.
  3. Beneath the heading, tell the students that when the timer begins, to scratch down all of today’s failures (these can be internal and external). Tell them they’re not writing sentences. Just a word or phrase (Alarm clock) that indicates a failure. I call this word or phrase a “working title”.
  4. Ready, Set…Go!

Prior to and during Step 1 it’s vital to stress that students are not to worry about spelling or grammar. This worry will only slow them down and restrict the process. Encourage students write messy. Tell them that this activity is not for a grade and that their list only has to make sense to them.

I would then repeat Step 1 two more times, each with a new heading, “Times I failed this week…”, then “Times I failed this year… “. I would also expand the time– 60 seconds for the former, 90 seconds for the latter.

Step 2 (30 seconds)

Have students evaluate all three lists. Have them mark three moments of failure that they still think about. That if they had the power, would turn back time and do over. 30 seconds. Go!

Step 3 (30 seconds)

Finally, evaluate the marked three failures. Which one still keeps you up at night? Which one has changed you the most? Mark that one. 30 seconds. Go!

This one failure will be the focus for the narrative writing assignment on failure.

Collectively, the three steps are 240 seconds of focused brainstorming that, when completed provide each student with a powerful, personal moment that harbors all the intimate ingredients needed for a good writing piece.

Furthermore, after just 240 seconds, the page should be littered with ideas. For students, this littering is rewarding. Students can be messy, not be judged (which is a natural confidence booster) and in a brief time realize that they’re lives are worthy of writing about.

Note: As the classroom teacher, you’re the expert on your students. You’re encouraged to modify this strategy to meet the age and level of your students.

Takeaways

  • A timer is essential for a writing classroom since it helps create focus, urgency and a goal.
  • Brainstorming should be structured.
  • Eliminates the “I have nothing to write about” problem.
  • Students can accomplish much more in quick focused bursts, then a long meandering brainstorming session.
  • Students enjoy a focused brainstorm activity.
  • This activity allows students to fill the page with meaningful experiences that can serve as great writing subjects.
  • This “messy” activity provides apprehensive writers with confidence.

Teaching is tough business. Sign up. Get help.

Receive Write on Fight on’s weekly post along with strategies and ruminations on how to transform your classroom into an authentic learning environment.

 

What I Learned from My Year of Writing

This week marks one full year of writing and publishing at least one original blog post a week.

I’m proud to announce that this act of showing up and writing stands as a personal milestone.

See, for years I wanted to be a writer but convinced myself that the time wasn’t right to undertake such an endeavor. So I found often frivolous ways to busy myself, to lie to myself.

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Call it maturity, call it a fear of living an unfulfilled life but for the past year I have shown up and wrote almost everyday.

Now please understand these sessions were not carnivals of creativity where I tore through sentences with wild, Shakepearean abandonment. No. Often these sessions were slow, painful exercises. Equivalent to a literary Tough Mudder or shoe shopping with the wife.

Sometimes it took cups of coffee, bowls of Fruity Pebbles and every ounce of energy to grind out a few terrible, ill-fated sentences that never came close to sniffing the sweet air of a final draft.

However, sometimes with the proper balance of caffeine and high fructose corn syrup cartwheeling through my veins, I found a groove. And in these groovy moments the writing came easy, naturally. And writing was well, fun.

Either way, a year of consistent writing has been a tremendous teacher. A teacher of both powerful writing and life lessons.

Lesson# 1-  “Too busy” is simply too convenient of an excuse.

When I was 18 I told a friend I wanted to be a writer. Then I blinked and I was 33. For 15 years I was always “too busy” to write. For 15 years I was hoping “writing” would just magically happen. It saddens me to think how many ideas, how many stories were ultimately lost and will remain forever unwritten because I was “too busy”. Commitment to writing required me to quell my excuses and take ownership of my life.

Hope without action is a meaningless exercise.

Lesson #2- Even in our desensitized world, people still like to feel things.

The internet is saturated with nonsense (Clearly, any knucklehead can start a blog). And sometimes I like reading nonsense. But over the year my most read posts were To Robbinsville, New Jersey, The Day I Learned I Could No Longer Jump, and Bowling with God.  All three posts were described as a “tough reads”. All three explore death and the fragility of life. Not that I necessarily like the gloom (hell, a bowl of Fruity Pebbles is one of go to writing fuels) but I learned that people want to be moved. They want to be entertained and informed yes, but people want their emotions stirred. I believe people secretly enjoy entertaining the big, scary, unanswerable questions about life and death for awhile.

We can say we understand another’s pain but no matter how accurately we articulate, our words fall tragically short of what is swirling in our heart and head– further exposing the flawed nature of the human design.

Lesson #3- Writing allows me to better understand myself.

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Here I am looking pensive, slightly pretentious as I try to understand myself.

There’s something about turning intangible thoughts into tangible words that deepens your understanding of yourself and the world at large. A few months ago I wrote a piece called, “In Good Company” and explained how, when I write, I imagine that I’m sitting down with an old friend in a local bar and how the magical mix of alcohol, dim lighting and a familiar songs rolling out the jukebox coax me to let my guard down, strip away layers of pretentiousness, question my core and gain a deeper perspective of myself.

It takes more courage and less energy to say “I don’t know” than pretend you do.

Lesson #4- Writing can be done anywhere, under any condition.

As I’m writing this sentence my two sons are speeding around the kitchen table dribbling basketballs. For years I thought I needed optimal conditions to write. A big mahogany desk sitting quietly in a quiet room. Turns out this “perfect condition” was just another excuse. I’ve learned that the conditions for writing (or for anything else) will never be optimal, there will always be chaos and distractions and waiting for the “perfect” time to start anything is our way of procrastinating everything. Part of the challenge and excitement now is finding the focus to work through those imperfect conditions.

It’s as if life is daring me to write. That’s why I treat every writing session like a snarling act of defiance.

Lesson #5-Do you.

For years I was concerned about what “they” will say about me and my writing. This is destructive thinking. It’s guarded and soul-sucking and cowardly. This year of writing has taught me that to write authentically I have be willing to expose and expound upon my fears and insecurities. I have to invest in myself. I have to be me.

The easiest way to ruin your life is to allow other people’s opinions of you become your reality.

I’m truly humbled and honored by all the support I’ve received over this year. I simply hope that my writing, my story has improved your day, your life in some way.

Thanks for reading. Thanks for listening.

Be well,

Jay

The Most Important Thing Writing Has Taught Me

The other night, at a little holiday shindig, I got into a discussion about writing with a Kindly Stranger. When K.S. learned that I write, K.S. engaged me in a spirited exchange about our favorite authors, favorite books and why writing can be as therapeutic as island sand between your toes and an umbrellaed drink in your hand.

Our conversation weaved through a few more literary topics when K.S. reached for a cucumber wheel, dunked it in their very own “homemade” ranch dip and asked me, “So what has writing taught you?”

Good question.

I sipped my drink and attempted to conjuncture up something profound. Something Fauklner-esque.  Something that would knock K.S’s Santa socks off.

But all I could come up with in that moment was, “Umm…Umm… this “homemade” dip is pretty good.”

Then the tide of the party rolled to the appetizer table and K.S. was lassoed into another conversation about of all things–cowboy hats.

Such is the nature of parties.

I lingered around the appetizers. Working my way around the veggie tray, questioning the “homemade” authenticity of the ranch dip and turning over the question.

So two days later, K.S. I have your answer.

What has writing taught me?

Writing has taught me the importance of daily practice.

writing-828911_960_720Look, in our fragile human hearts,  I think we know that to fundamentally improve, at anything, we need to put in the work. The daily practice.

We live in the age of the the hack, the cheat, the easy way. We want to believe, that we are the chosen one who will find the mythical short cut that everyone else–in the history of the world–has failed to find.

The daily practice rule for writing holds true for becoming a better person. Not saying that writers are great people, in fact a lot of great writers are pretty shitty people but self improvement, like writing requires daily practice.

And the daily practice of being a good husband, wife, father, mother, friend, student and colleague. Of compassion and listening. Of empathy and tolerance and mindfulness and commitment to a goal takes knuckle-splitting work.

Self-improvement, like writing, is a hard daily commitment. It’s a process you must learn to trust consisting of a million little baby steps often without producing any noticeable milestones.

It helps to remember that even the experts, the Goliaths in any field– Dickens in writing, Gates in computers, the Dalai Lama in life were at one point novices in their respective fields. These experts only became experts through perseverance, through the art of daily practice.

My daily writing habit has made me a better more confident writer. It has instilled a certain courage ( or lunacy) needed to toss my words and guts and ideas on your screen. A courage ( or lunacy) to chase dreams. A courage ( or lunacy) I severely lacked before I started writing everyday.

So K.S., great question!

It was nice to meet you and I hope the cowboy hat conversation was just as scintillating as ours.

And your “homemade” ranch dip, was delightful!

( Psst… I know it was Hidden Valley straight from the bottle… but no worries, your secret is safe with me.)

Be well,

Jay

Passing Through: A Reflection

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Last Thursday night, after I finished the final edits for “The Day I Learned I Couldn’t Jump (or Learning to Fly)” I couldn’t sleep.

While writing that story, I felt like a guest at a reunion of sorts. Bill and Denise and the two chatty Cathys on the treadmill were in attendance. Although brief, it was comforting to have people from my past  back in my life again.

As I laid in bed, working my head into the pillow, watching the ceiling fan spin, I wondered what Denise thought about the Giants chances this season. I imagined how her eyes would light up when she talked about Odell Beckham’s athleticism.  What she would say about Carson Wentz? Does she believe he’s destined to bring the Eagles their first Superbowl title?

Though physical therapy was hard, humbling, ego-shattering work I miss the camaraderie,  the challenge, the little triumphs. Like on the afternoon when I learned I didn’t have Huntington’s Disease, how Denise high-fived me and how later that same afternoon, I successfully walked heel-toed along a 10 foot length of blue tape without using a handrail.

I remember, on the second to last rehab session at St. Lawrence, I entered the activity room and the chatty Cathys were chatting and walking on the treadmills. Denise wasn’t around. Neither was Bill.

It was January. Everything was in deep freeze. From the sky to my bones, the entire universe seemed to be low on light, low on energy.  I dragged myself to the elliptical machine and set my feet on the oversized pedals.  My legs were tight and heavy and with Denise not around, I worked the pedals with little enthusiasm.

After a few uninspired minutes, Denise entered the activity room and I straightened up, like a kid caught misbehaving and pedaled faster. She walked toward me holding her clipboard close to her chest.

“Hey Denise, Eagles-Giants this weekend. Hope you’re ready lose?

She offered a curt little nod and looked as if she wanted to say something but simply couldn’t find the words.

“Denise are you ok?”

Her eyes filled as she spoke, “Bill fell last night.”

I stopped pedaling.

“Is he ok?”

“Last I heard, no.”

Bill’s brother found Bill lying in a pool of blood on the bathroom floor. Fracture skull. Doctors gave him a 50% chance. Denise, the forever optimist, was 100% certain he would survive.

On my last day at St. Lawrence,  Denise and I walked out into the cold ache of a January afternoon exchanged a final barb, hugged, and went back to our lives.

A few months ago, a student told me she was going to miss class because she had to drive her father to physical therapy. He had a hip replacement and was rehabbing at St. Lawrence. The student said at first her father resisted physical therapy, but now he actually enjoys it. Looks forward to it even. She tells me her father’s therapist is really nice.

“Is her name Denise?”

“Yeah! How did you know?”

“Long story.”

“She’s awesome.”

“I know. Do me a favor. Tell her Jay say hi and that the Giants stink.”

It was reassuring to know Denise was still doing her thing. Still telling bad jokes, still smiling, still inspiring.

Unfortunately, I don’t know whatever happened to Bill.

“The Day I Learned I Couldn’t Jump” is a hard story to put to rest. Maybe that’s why I’m still writing about it this week.  Writing the story made me think about how we’re all just passing through each others lives. Of course, some pass slower then others yet nevertheless, it’s impossible to understand the depth of the impressions we leave on each other..

Some people pass through us like medicine. Like magic waters. They heal us, strengthen us, fix us.

Others are hurricanes. They break our windows, unhinge our doors and crumble our foundations. Forcing us to rebuild, rehab, or quit.

It’s nearing midnight.

Cindy just stole the comforter, the ceiling fan is spinning and though I’m sure he’s a page and spine man, I imagine Bill alive, somewhere, reading this post. His steely eyes tracing my words, his mouth remaining straight and strict even when he realizes that he, just a traveler just passing through, inspires me to write on, to fight on.

Be well,

Jay

 

In Good Company

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A student recently asked me, “Hey Mr. Armstrong, what do you think about before you write?”

I curved my eyebrows inward, adopted a deep, contemplative look, held a silence for a second too long and replied,  “Words.”

The student rolled their their eyes, shook their head as if to say “Sorry I asked, you pretentious jerk” then turned away and moved on with their life.

Writers are often considered guarded, cantankerous folk. Often aloof and indifferent while sitting cross-legged in Starbucks, wearing tweed jackets and sporting wire-rimmed glasses.

So what do I think about before I write?

Well, I thought it might be interesting to unlocked that world for you. To share my mental geography. A geography I often disappear in while driving, coaching soccer, eating Golden Grahams, sitting through meetings or digesting the news that my 6 year old now knows the “f” word.

For me, the process is pretty simple. It involves a bar, Brenda, fried mushrooms and most importantly, you.

So, before I get more pretentious, let us go then…

You and I are at a bar. A local bar. A simple place with a simple name. Pat’s Pub or Mike’s Tavern. They serve American draft beers in thick handled mugs. The menu is limited to deep fried and pickled foods. The walls are dark wood paneled. The bartender’s name is Brenda. She is divorced, has a son in prison, a smoker’s cough and a faded rose tattoo on her forearm. 

There is a pool table in one corner and a jukebox that plays mostly southern rock in the other.  In the windows hang neon beer signs. Miller High Life. Coors Light. We are on our first beer and watching a 30 minute replay of Superbowl XXV on ESPN 2 when you ask me how I ‘m feeling. I tell you  I have good days and bad days. I don’t tell you good days are when I don’t think about dying until lunch.  I don’t tell you bad days begin when I think about dying before the coffee meets my morning mug. You ask what it’s called. Cerebellar Degeneration. You ask if there is a cure. No. You ask if the degeneration will stop on its own. Maybe. But the brain damage is permanent. You ask if I should be drinking beer. Probably not. You ask how I have been dealing with this. I drum my fingers on the bar. I want to cry. But I muscle it down. I look at you and smile and say I write stories. What kind of stories? My stories. Stories of my success and failure. Of my disease. Of my childhood and adulthood and fatherhood. Funny stories. Sad stories.  Embarrassing stories. Stories to remind me that I’m still alive.

I take a drink.

The Buffalo Bills kick off under a burst of a million flashbulbs. You know some nights, when Cindy and the kids sleep, I sit at my computer and stare through the words and watch my life play out on the screen like a movie.  Through stories we can make sense of the past which somehow alleviates the pain of the present. Because writing is easier then forgetting. Because writing is now a  therapy for me. More than any pill I have been prescribed, I have found real, human comfort in the re-imagined past. It’s like each story I write is a puzzle piece to my life. But the healing power lies in the fact that I can dull or sharpen the edges to each piece to fit my design.

I take a swig of beer and squint at the TV. We watch Phil Simms march the Giants down the field on their opening drive and kick a field goal. Giants 3 Bills 0. When the TV cuts to commercial you ask if I would share some stories I’m writing. I’m flattered and a bit unprepared but we’re friends. Sure. You smile, motion to Brenda and order  another round. I tell you that these stories are true. For the most part. memory is never completely accurate and that over time stories change shape. And with the fusion of time and repetition, and now alcohol, some of the facts may, at times, dissolve into fiction. I assert that I’m not a liar. I may inject hyperbole but that’s only for your entertainment. You concur.  I remind you that you asked me to tell a story not report the news. You concur. I tell you that though I may bend the truth, the themes of the story are true. You tell me to stop being an English teacher.

We get our beers and you pick at your fried mushrooms. You take a drink and I tell you that stories are like bookmarks to our lives. Stories remind us of where we have been and how far we have to go. I tell you that when we retell a story the past collapses into the present. And when we experience that collapse, we can learn deep and profound things about ourselves. Stories inspire us…

You wave your hand.

You tell me to shut the fuck up and get on with it already. I don’t take offense. We are old friends remember. We’ve been telling each other to shut the fuck up for years. I smile. You smile. We both take a swig of beer. I put my mug down and clear my throat and look at you and smile and say, “Ok, here is a something I’ve never told anyone before…”

Be well,

Jay

Why I Write with Blake Kilgore

WoFo is honored to have writer and teacher Blake Kilgore participate in the “Why I Write” series. Blake’s writing has been featured in various literary magazines such as Stonecoast Review and Forge. Please check out Blake and all his writings at.blakekilgore.com.

“Why do I write?

I teach history, and this requires me to read stories almost incessantly. I am blakeoften surprised and almost always delighted. Some of the accounts make me angry and others break my heart. And I find inspiration in the courage of the dutiful, who faced death rather than turn a blind eye to injustice.

Yet most of the adventures are about the rich and powerful, the winners. Sometimes arch-villains are set up as marks to be taken down. But the common, poor, illiterate souls who lived in quiet, sustained dignity below the gaze of the scribes, well – we know little about them. In the last half century, some historians have tried to uncover the patterns of simple folk living in the depths or along the edges of society. Nevertheless, we often don’t even know their names. I want to hear their story.

Much of my writing starts there, telling stories of the unnamed.

My writing is also about the struggle to believe. There are simply too many questions, and I know that I will find too few of the answers. Yet my soul continues in faith. There is deep illumination waiting beneath our thoughts and cravings. For me, writing helps stir that part, and a little wonder rises, and I find the hope to press on. I know that I am not alone. Many are wandering, buoyed by faith yet throttled by despair. I pray my writing might be a balm for those skeptics who still believe.”