I have had great success with both of these activities–success, as in, I really love them and my students seem to enjoy them too.


I got this from the writer/poet, Jim Heynen, when he taught a fiction sprint course I attended.  Jim is known for his teaching as well as his writing–if you ever get the chance to study with him, jump on it.

Okay, so his activity is so simple you’re just going to have to trust me on it: ask your students to take five minutes or so and list some crazy things they’ve experienced, heard, or read about.  I usually start with my own examples, like…

*When the guy in the Geppetto costume at Disney world silently asked me to share my Nerds (candy) with him through outrageous Disney costumed hand gestures

*Another student of mine said her father threw Tom Cruise into a dumpster when they were in high school.

You could spend an entire hour and fifteen minute class period trading these stories.  It’s one of the hardest things to cut off, because each story spurs the next.  Make sure you tell your students that it’s possible that you will steal one of their stories for your own work.  And also, optionally, if you are a good person, that they may steal one of yours.


I just came up with this today (on David Foster Wallace day, see below) and I wish I’d had more time for it because this, too, could take up a chunk of college time if you needed it to.  I asked the students to list, in five minutes (again), every single media story they can think of that happened in their lifetime.  These can include:

-natural disasters

-celebrity deaths



-political events

They can be local or global.  The only requirement is that they must have been covered by some kind of media.

After five minutes, we go through the class and each student reads their list.  Much like Boggle or Scattergories, if another student has written down the same event, both or all students must cross it out.   For instance, if you write down 9 /11 (especially if you play this right after you discussed David Foster Wallace’s essay about 9/11), you can be sure that you’ll have to cross it off because everyone else will have that one, too.

I am not a huge fan of playing games with my students–except I am.  I hate it when it feels like a baby shower game, and it’s always possible that pedagogical games will end up being like baby or wedding shower games, but this one, thank God, did not turn out that way.  I think it’s because people weren’t as interested in winning as they were just seeing if other people remembered what they remembered.  Okay, some students were interested in winning.  It was hard to keep them from going off and telling these media stories to each other, which I had to do because we were pressed for time.  This is why I wished I had given it at least 45 mins instead just a half hour.

As a writer who teaches, I love these activities because I hear a lot of crazy stories that I’ve either forgotten or haven’t heard in the first place, and I  can use them in my own writing.

For teachers who just teach–I think these are also great brainstorming exercises.  The students get exposed to a lot of good things to consider writing about.

For humans who don’t teach or write but who like to stay curious–I recommend finding a good group of people to play these games with, especially if you are in need of fascinating stories to keep your brain happy.


It’s David Foster Wallace day in the creative nonfiction class I’m teaching to advanced freshmen.  I just played for my students the (ultra famous) commencement speech he gave to graduates at Kenyon College back in 2005.  If you haven’t heard it, I recommend you listen–especially if you’re feeling kind of sad/frustrated/in your own head lately.

If you would prefer to just read it, you can read it here, though you will probably miss some of the speech’s most charming moments, which come from audience response and interaction.

Here’s one of my favorite quotes (though I left the even better moments to surprise and delight you if you take the time to listen):

[On] most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you what to consider.

Here’s part one:

and part two:


Remember when people on Craigslist got busted for using the website to sell sex?

My writing teacher/mentor sent me this OP-ED by Nicholas Kristof from the NY Times (because it relates to the novel I’m writing for my thesis/breakout into the novel-writing-world).   In summary, Kristof gives a morbid and disturbing account of a teenage girl who has been sold several times on Backpage.com, a classified ads website monitored by Village Voice Media (the same people who put out the paper).  He says that the website,

accounts for about 70 percent of prostitution advertising among five Web sites that carry such ads in the United States, earning more than $22 million annually from prostitution ads…

Here’s an online petition that he gives from Change.com to help put an end to this.   The petition writers say this about the cause:

Sex trafficking of girls and boys on Backpage.com, owned by Village Voice Media, is becoming a disturbing trend.

A Georgia man was arrested for pimping two 17-year-old girls around the Nashville area. Detectives responded to a suspicious ad on Backpage.com and drove to a motel. There, they found the teens and their 37-year-old pimp, as well as a laptop computer, likely used for the online advertising. Just four days prior to that, four people in Denver were arrested for forcing a teen girl into prostitution. They also advertised her sexual services, including semi-nude pictures, on Backpage. And last year, a South Dakota couple was arrested for selling underage girls for sex on …. wait for it … Backpage.com yet again.

Village Voice Media has a moral responsibility to ensure that young girls and boys aren’t being abused in the commercial sex industry with help from their website.

Now, a rising movement of people of many faiths and backgrounds, motivated by their shared moral convictions, are taking action to end this practice.

Please join us in demanding that Village Voice Media – Backpage.com’s parent company – stop selling ads that others use to sell minors on Backpage.com by shutting down the Adult section of the website.

Maybe I am naive, but my mind is shot at the thought that this company/website hasn’t been severely punished yet for this.

Ken Wilson did a fine job teaching about all of the moments when Jesus talks about Hell, emphasizing the connections between references, which I would sum up as namely this: Jesus brought up hell not in order to answer our questions about what happens to us when we die, but to emphasize God’s concern with the oppressed, and to draw his listeners to a perspective about what is important to God verses what’s important to them (generosity verses money; compassion for the poor verses self righteousness).  In the final passage Ken talked about (which is the last time Jesus mentions Hell or judgment in Matthew), Jesus illustrates how God will separate the people like sheep from goats, that all of these people will refer to God as “Lord” but only the ones who “remembered the least of these” will continue on to eternal life.

Some points Pastor Wilson made:

a) Judgment (or God’s Justice) is always good news for the poor and oppressed.  So if we shudder at judgment, especially in the context of this story, we are probably not oppressed at the moment.

b) In this story, Jesus changes the perspective from “sound doctrine” as what makes someone right with God to how they represent Him to other people.

The fact that hell has become a doctrine but feeding the poor has not really perplexes me.  Or maybe they both are doctrines, but one is debated a lot less on the internet; feeding the poor is so painfully obvious and doctrinal debate offers a fine distraction from what is painfully obvious.

As protestants or people influenced by protestantism, we read a teaching from Jesus like this and say, “God must take care of the poor through us because we’re too weak to take care of the poor.”  I definitely need God’s intervention on this one.  I get nervous when I see a homeless person (the last one I encountered started following me and saying that he wanted to get to know me better.  I’m a small woman and so I was freaked).   My guru in Detroit (Dale) says that one of the worst things we can do is pretend that we don’t see people who are asking us for money.  What is more unlike Jesus to ignore a person in need?  But still, I do it.  I’m weak and I’m scared.  At the same time, I don’t get the impression that Jesus is excusing the folks he’s addressing with this story because they are weak and scared.  He does like to invite people to come to Him, find rest in Him while simultaneously asking them to pick up their crosses.

I think we have to be careful what we do with our fear of the homeless/poor (who we fear, as Ken Wilson pointed out somewhere in the series, not as much because they are dangerous, but because they are different).  We have to ask God to tell us who is poor around us and we have to ask for his help to get over whatever keeps us from feeding the hungry.  The same dude who started (or propelled) all of this commotion about hell is also the same dude that said when a Christian moves to a neighborhood, the whole neighborhood should get excited because they are about to have someone on their block who they know will love them no matter what, who will provide for them whenever they need something, and will not judge them under any circumstances in such a way that would prevent them from loving them no matter what.  I really want to be this neighbor.  I think this neighbor represents someone who takes Jesus’ teachings seriously, especially the teachings to care for “the least of these,” which outweigh any explanation about how the afterlife works.  I need to stop getting caught up in “hot-button” issues and start asking God to direct me towards what’s important to him, and to equip me with generosity where I’m stingy, and compassion where I’m judgmental.

The last thing that I want to take away from this series is a nice reminder that Jesus’s words are as textured as a Rembrandt painting (scroll down for my post about Rembrandt paintings)–we can study them our whole lives and see something new about them.  Of course obeying Jesus’ commands starts with spending time with his words.  Of course.

My friend’s mom (who is also my friend) just sent me an album that a married couple made–the couple attends her church in Joplin, Missouri.  The group (or duo?–there are several musicians who play on this disc) is called Ein Blume.  You can listen to their music on their myspace page, here.

The record, Enna Ert Det Hap, Frutc Ahlgren  has a German name (like their band), but most of the songs are in English.  And the songs are beautiful.  I’ll admit that I got kind of worried when I saw the track names: “None is Good” and “We Burn” but both of these songs are examples of genuine, profound, intellectually challenging, and heartfelt music.  I am absolutely crazy about this disc, which has a bit of  Sufjan Stevens or Damian Rice in its style (the male vocalist reminds me of Sufjan. I’m sure he’s heard that before).  The reason I love it, though, is for its levels–these songs rise and fall, ache and rejoice; there’s a harp, a violin, guitar and piano.  It’s fantastic walk-the-dog-early-in-the-Tallahassee-morning music.  There are so many people I’d like to buy this album for.  Unfortunately, it’s not on iTunes.  I hope this band gets ultra famous and comes to a town near you.

Here are some of my other favorite married music groups:

and last, but most famous:


This morning I was in the mood for listening to a teaching about Jesus and so I went back to the Vineyard Ann Arbor website, where I know they post their sermons online.   I trust Ken Wilson’s teaching, partly because he was influenced by the same people whose faith helped shape mine.  This influence is clearest, I think, in his emphasis of Jesus as the central figure and focus of his teachings.  He speaks of Jesus as the person we’re following, worshipping, and getting to know through our prayer life in compliment of what’s recorded in the Gospels.  If it’s been a while since you’ve heard a teaching like that, I think the one I stumbled on today might be a nice refresher.

Back in January, Pastor Wilson taught a series called “Vertigo: A Jesus Perspective on Hell” (Man, I love his U2 references).  I just listened to the first one–if the others have interesting points I’d like explore on this blog, I’ll write about those, too.

First of all, I admired Ken Wilson’s decision to teach this series.  A lot of churches are facing the threat of division over teachings on hell; thanks to Rob Bell’s book, it’s a topic he’s tossed into the Christian arena to be devoured  not just by critics (discernment ministries, in particular), but also by people who read the book and found that a lot of its questions resonated with them.  But you’re reading a blog so I assume you know the “Love Wins” context.  I appreciate Vineyard’s response to this divisive era and tough subject by saying, simply: “Let’s see what Jesus had to say about this.”

I also appreciate that, under the umbrella of Jesus’ teachings, they are using Bell’s book to start a conversation, which was absolutely all that he was trying to do with writing it (okay, maybe I don’t absolutely know if it was, “absolutely”, but that’s what he says in his introduction and how he structures the book).  Pastor Wilson didn’t address the book much in his sermon, but at the end he invites his congregants to participate in two book groups: one that will read The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce, and another that will read and discuss Love Wins.  I thought the idea of reading-groups alongside the sermons was a mighty-fine one.  I wish someone was doing that at the church I attend here.

In this first of four sermons, Pastor Wilson begins by addressing the contexts in which people have asked him questions about hell.  From his sermon notes:

 1. People from evangelical-fundamentalist backgrounds ask me about hell to see if I’m biblically sound. 2. Questions from people drawn to Jesus but troubled by their impression of Christian hell teaching; do I have to believe this about hell to be a Christian? [My question to Brian; MK’s to me] 3. Surprisingly common: Suicide context.

(The “Brian” in that bracket is actually a good friend of my parents’ so I felt kind of special for being able to recognize him.)

Then he contrasts these questions with the contexts where hell actually appears in Jesus’ teachings:

Jesus spoke of hell in a very different context: most of his hell references occur in his conflict with the Pharisees, as a warning about the dangers of self-righteousness or lack of concern for the poor. His teaching on hell discomforted the over-confident and powerful but comforted the religiously insecure who felt oppressed by them.

(His emphasis, not mine.)

After going through some of the different cultural influences that have shaped our understanding of hell, the way we picture the place in our minds, Pastor Wilson defines the three terms that Jesus uses in the Gospels to refer to it: the Greek word, Hades, the Hebrew word, Sheol, and the Greek word Gehenna.  This part was interesting but I’d heard it before (if you haven’t, I’ve linked the Vineyard Sermon page at the bottom of this post).  I was more interested when he started to talk about interacting with Jesus’ teachings and working, through prayer and reading, to understand them.

He says (sermon notes again):

When you love someone, when you’re devoted to them, it’s not enough for you to hear their words as they happen to strike you based on your experience of the world.  You need to learn-enter their experience of the world the sense what the words mean to them.

As I’ve said to my daughters, if a guy says, “I love you” don’t just assume that means the same thing to him that it means to you. He could be speaking with his heart, his brain or different part of his anatomy. You need to know this guy, his background, experience of life and love, over time, to have any idea what he means.

It’s not enough to hang around Christianity, grow up in faith environment, and think you can easily understand what Jesus is saying. You’ve got to give him your full attention, put your time in with him, to understand him.

I think with all of the fear and division that is going around our churches today about who’s too loose and who’s too tight in their Biblical teachings, the reminder to give Jesus our full attention is especially important.  Not just to keep our churches together, but to keep our relationships with Him and each other together.

You can find the sermon here if you scroll down to 1/8/2012.

I just played this video for my students while they free-wrote, responding to one of the two prompts:

1. Give a history of your life  by listing the different books, television shows, movies, songs, bands, or albums you were obsessed with at various ages.

2. Write what comes to mind when you hear this song.

I usually respond to the prompts along with my students and this time was no exception.  I chose the second one.  I’m writing and thinking, do my students know they are listening to a song about resurrection?  Does it at all ring true to them?  Do they yet know how much death is required of them if they want something good to come out of their lives?

I keep coming back to this song (the first time I heard it was in 2002, when I was roughly the same age as my students) because I find it to be a good reminder, true on so many levels–spiritually, materially.  Just today, I met with my professor about my thesis novel and we decided that it really needs to be told in third person limited.  Those who knew me know that I wrote a hundred pages in third limited, switched perspectives from a 30 year old woman to a 10 year old girl, and then switched to first person retrospective, looking back to when the narrator was a ten year old girl.  Each time I make one of these switches, it’s like I have to die to the book again and hope that it resurrects as something better.

The thing that this principle asks (you have to die if you want to be alive) is pretty simple:How much do you want it? How much do you want this book to be a good piece of Literature with a capital L?   How much do you want Life with a capital L?