Teachers Act Up!

Thoughts on Teaching, Language, and Social Change from Melisa "Misha" Cahnmann-Taylor

Writer’s Block, Creativity Fitness, and Teaching

Dear Students and Teachers of Poetry (Language ARTS), Theatre, and Creativity,

I didn’t write a new poem with you last week and I have not written a new one yet this week.  I might chuckle and refer to “writer’s block” but then you know how I feel about cliché! My teacher Michael Waters said the cure for writer’s block is to writeWrite it! as Bishop says in “One Art.”  No, I am not blocked, I’ve just lost –momentarily– poetry’s priority in the hours of these last two weeks.  Grading your beautiful essays, children, the Jewish holidays–I can think of many deterrents to finding time to write a poem but honestly, I just didn’t write one.

Not-writing spells used to scare me (if I’m honest, these spells still mildly haunt).  Will I ever write again? Can I ever write a poem as successful as the last one seemed to be? Will I ever find the time or drive to write without an assignment, a deadline, a writer’s group, a teacher, a grade?After many years of dry runs alternating with writing intensity I have come to see this is my pattern, a regular sabbatical I take from poetry writing and one which reminds me of how essential poetry is for my happiness–though not always on a daily basis.  This is not a universally shared pattern.  Other writers I know have committed schedules, waking up daily at dawn or writing with bats and mice as a nightly routine–writing every day, 365 days– or close to it– a year.  I admire that rigor just as I admire people for whom tidiness is a natural regularity.  Alas, my patterns are different.  What are yours like? As my Yiddish literature professor in college used to say, “Are you an underwear dropper or an underwear picker upper?”

Whether I am picking poems up off the floor routinely or not, I exercise my creativity muscles regardless.  For me, being a creative thinker, writer, and pedagogue goes beyond writing poems.  When I’m not writing poems, I read them or I read good fiction or non-fiction, I attend a documentary film, chant a holy prayer, take the long path through the art museum or local gallery, fill my eyes and ears with others’ creations.  I write myself quick & dirty email notes–I remove the pressure of calling them “poems” and simply put them in what Maxine Kumin calls “my bone pile” notes to return to when I am ready to craft a poem.  In other words, I must remember that when I am not producing art, I can still be thinking, acting, and teaching like an artist.  I exercise my attention muscles; I listen to my son who describes our pine-needle strewn front lawn as a big bowl of spaghetti with meatball leaves.  I cast my own figurative net to describe a second grader’s braids–I come up empty.  I read a few more of Bishop’s poems.

Creativity –whether it’s writing poems or reading them, playing chords or attentively listening to them– is a muscle.  Muscles strengthen and refine when in training and slacken when idle.  When we’re in creative “shape” we can draw on that strength when constraints in our professional and/or personal lives weigh us down.  Creative logic is something every teacher needs access to, heightening our skills at improvisation, flexibility, and out of the box thinking.  How might I write my role as educator differently, in way that feels fresh, vital, and alive? How might I pay attention to the language I’m recycling vs. the language I’m creating anew in the classroom? Does this blog count as creative output or bone for my bone pile?

I am a better writer and more creative teacher in a group–thank you for your inspiring company.

2 responses to “Writer’s Block, Creativity Fitness, and Teaching

  1. Alyssa October 19, 2011 at 2:00 am

    Hi Misha, in looking at the link that you sent me I started exploring your other blog posts. I love this one because it is so honest and sincere. It really demonstrates to me that in order to understand the struggles that our students might face, we have to experience them firsthand by working right along with them. I so appreciate that about your class and the poems that you write inspire and motivate me to pick up the pen. I am definitely an “underwear dropper” which sometimes makes it harder to produce before I have yet had a chance to do some cleaning/re-arranging in my mind. The good news that you point out, though, that creativity is like a muscle. Based on muscle memory, it’s easier for people who have been fit to get back in shape. In an analogous manner, it’s easier for those of us who have been in creative shape to pick it up again because we never really forget and it’s always in us waiting to be released when the time comes. I love the idea of a bone pile and yes, I definitely think that this blog counts as something to add to the pile! Thanks again for writing and inspiring!


    • teachersactup-Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor November 2, 2011 at 3:48 pm

      Alyssa, that’s funny that we share the “dropping” in common! I am inspired by all you have bought to the class table and I’m honored to read your comment. I am still trying to understand how the blog works and if this becomes public? I’m glad to know there are readers out there with whom to be in dialogue and stay in writing shape!


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