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Writing Workshop #31: Chance Operations for Fun, Challenge, and a Different Kind of Expression

An update from our thirty-first Writing Workshop (and the first of 2021)!

A summary of the workshop held on Saturday January 23, plus some of the output published below

To start our first season of classes in 2021, William focused on the idea of chance: the idea–or even the fact–that life and art is filled with twists and turns, and we don't know the whole story until it's over. He used several examples from the work of composer John Cage to explore the idea of chance in composition, the idea that the composer decides on a range of permutations that the performers and audience then use to produce the piece. Similarly, he talked about change ringing, the British tradition of church bell-ringing in repeating yet varied patterns, where mathematics chooses the notes, but the musicians choose how the pattern is heard and Maddie (piano) and William (clarinet) played some patterns. We developed some random word lists, and a numeric system for choosing 6 at random from them, and then everyone wrote for half an hour incorporating those words into their poem, prose or story.

The Writing Challenge: Select your 6 random words using a system that truly allocates them at random(!), and use them in your writing at various points to move, disrupt, change or direct the action. Everyone had slightly different words to work with, but the master list included: guinea pig, and, dragon, destroy, watermelon, wolf, jello, global warming, cat, tree, happy, flame, whisper, cinnamon, green, basket, running, moderate, fall, hat, boat, suddenly, skull, mythology, stream, sing, soundlessly, furious...

The Participants: Maddie, Peri, Julia, Helen, Leo, Eve, Lindsay, Lina K, Elbert, Kaidyn, Georgia, Reese, Simran, Katie, Samantha, Lucy K, Maggie, Yasmine, Lucy R, Julia A, Rachel, Ava, Margaret, Emma, Madeline, Nami, Siri, Pranjoli, Lena, Charlotte K, Anya, Anna, Aelin, Charlotte M, Grace, Alice, Liam, Sierra, Tilly, Olivia Z, Angela, Jonathan, Julia W, Hera, Louis, Enni, Elise, Nova, Emi, Sadie, Anya.


Lena Aloise, 11
Harvard, MA

The Evolution of an Author

Lena Aloise, 11

I remember standing at the very top of the jungle gym.
While two chestnut braids swayed down by my hips
And bangs, in need of a trimming, fell down over my eyes.
And little dollhouse people bustled about below.

I remember quietly,
Quizzically surveying my domain.
As a ravenous confusion gnawed away
At a corner of my consciousness.
Why did those surrounding me take such pleasure
In filling meaningless shapes with garish crayon colors
And standing at the front of the line?

I remember opening the pink lunchbox
My mother had lovingly filled that morning.
And taking out a bunch of grapes
Pretending I was a hungry dragon
Going grape picking.
Do dragons like grapes?
I giggled at the thought of a bloodthirsty beast
Eating a fruit salad.

I remember
Suddenly pointing to a thick novel,
Collecting dust on an overhead shelf.
Pulling it down
And hoisting the cover open.
Harry Potter
I read
And the Sor----cer----ers Stone
“Maybe when you’re older.” my mother reassured me,
Tentatively placing it back up on the shelf.
But later that night
Inevitably destroying my five-year-old innocence
Hauling the book to my bedroom.
Letting myself slip beneath the surface
Into a place where words formed a perfect melody
And the story rolled off my lips
Sweet as spun sugar.

I remember.
Picking up that despised crayon box.
Pulling out a shade of sparkling blue
And making the words
Once upon a time. . .


Sierra E., 11
Mountain View, CA

The Guinea Pig Left Behind

Sierra E., 11

The guinea pig shuffled around, pacing in her cage, and padding about on the soft scraps of wood beneath her paws. She had been waiting in a lonely, desolate classroom for nearly a month now, wondering if anyone would ever return. Blasts of scalding heat would occasionally float through an open window, and the soft, comfortable evening breeze would come along after. This guinea pig was quite a sociable one, always grateful to have the students and teachers around when they were, but now that there wasn’t a human in sight, she found herself bored from morning to night.

It was a sunny, summer Sunday afternoon. A child sat in his backyard on the cool grass under the shade of an ancient willow tree that had been planted long before his birth six years back, playing joyfully beneath the chirps of cheerful birds. He lived right beside the local elementary school, where there were often mysterious whistling sounds echoing out of it. Today’s noise was especially loud, and the boy was also in the mood for adventure and mischief, so he sprinted around the bushes of his yard and past the school gates one building down the street.

The guinea pig whined as loud as she could. Still? Still no one? Why did all of the usually friendly ones at the school suddenly want to starve her? She was always well-behaved. Up until now, at least. Gnawing on the bars of her cage which suddenly felt like a prison cell, she broke free, and took a flying leap off of the dresser that she had sat on for so long. She fell painfully onto the gray-speckled tiles of the classroom floor, whimpering harder than ever.

The boy ran faster. And faster, into his classroom he had spent so much time in the previous year.

“Patches!” he shouted, “Patches? Is that you?” The child burst through the door of Room 302, shocked to find the beloved class pet lying abandoned on the ground. “Patches!” he cried, worried, as he kneeled down to lift the creature into his hands. The tiny guinea pig turned up its small, piebald-colored face to view the child with its own dark eyes. The creature smiled the best she could, feeling comforted at last. With that, the boy took off running again, and disappeared down the school halls and all the way back home, ready to care for the guinea pig that would be his for the remainder of summer.


Lindsay Gao, 9
Dublin, OH

Untitled

Lindsay Gao, 9

A small orange shape padded through the forest, barely making a sound. He entered a clearing, skirting the edge of a cliff. Wind ruffled his fur. He walked to the edge, and glanced down at the rapidly flowing river beneath him. The cliff was only one foot above the water. “Cursed global warming.” he muttered.

As if responding, the water shifted, and the wind carried faint cries towards him. A flash of grey fur caught his eye, and before he knew it, he had jumped into the water. He fought and kicked his paws every which way, hoping to touch something. Finally, the cat felt something on his leg, and he dove down into the water, grabbing the strange grey creature, and tugging it to the surface The water crashed around him, but he paddled as fast as he could, fighting against the river, not believing that he would meet his watery end.

The river soon got tired of fighting his resistant, straining body, and spat him out onto the river bank along with the mysterious creature. He laid there gasping for air and finally he looked at the animal. It was grey with pointed ears, sharp teeth, long claws, and a bushy grey tail. The creature looked too.

The cat and the wolf stared at each other, then the cat squeaked: “ You’re a wolf!”

The wolf replied, “You’re a cat!”

They both stared at each other and then ran in opposite directions screaming, “HELP!”

They ran squarely into two watermelons. One was crying and wailing. The other was scowling at the crying watermelon. She had on a tiara, was wearing two diamond necklaces, and a pair of high heels.

The watermelons froze. The cat froze. The wolf froze. And all fainted dead away.


Anya Geist, 14
Worcester, MA

What And Is

Anya Geist, 14

and
and
what is and?

and is between
even though is is between between and and
and is walking and talking
and is cause and effect
and is so and so
it isn’t its own
you don’t say and
by itself
because it is the link
through which everything goes

and is
falling and falling
through the ground
and lights glaring
and a dragon rearing its head
and then waking up in a flash
and realizing it was all a dream

and is
family
aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents and vacation and food and avocado brownies and  e v e r y  single thing that makes up a minuscule moment of life

and and is
when a little kid
keeps on telling a story
and then this
and then that
until you are exhausted
but the ands and the twists and the turns just keep coming

and is everything
and and is nothing
it is change
it is crucial
a conjunction that goes between everything in life

and this poem is and


Enni Harlan, 14
Los Angeles, CA

A Fallen Blue

Enni Harlan, 14

The sky was furious. Smoke drifted up, up, up into the blue. Her voice, so intoxicatingly sweet most days, could not be heard from beneath the haze of gray. Gray and red, anger and torment swarming the horizon. The hills that usually pierced frayed clouds seemed to foreshadow danger as red and pink loomed above. High up in the sky that no longer seemed to me the heavens, somewhere in my imagination, I heard a wolf howling for home. The cries of the suffocating sky were not piercing. Not pounding, not an un-ignorable shriek of threats– no, it was much more silent. Singing, almost, crying pathetically for a homeland that no longer existed. I heard the noise through the pane of glass, glass that separated hazardous air from home. I heard the pining as the wolf of the heavens cried, soundlessly, so soundlessly, high above the world. Cried. Crept into my soul, slowly. I heard the noiseless cries for home. I heard it. Yet it was silent. Life seemed a fairytale. A myth, no longer in existence. The sky seemed a villain but in reality it was a mirror. A mirror, reflecting the horrors of the world. A mirror, swarmed with the smog that was our breath, the toxic breath of humanity. Of global warming. Climate change. Burning air. Air of gray. The sky was a mirror; a tormented prisoner. Begging, begging, pleading to return to blue. A mirror of reflective glass, fogged up by our breath. Our breath. Our breath, which never seemed to cease. Somewhere, through the pane of glass, I heard a wolf, crying in the distance. The wolf of the heavens somewhere–somewhere. . .  it was gone now. But somewhere, I heard an echo, soundlessly pining as the sky began to sing. Sobbing, heart wrenched and broken. My heart was dull. We had killed the sky.


Lina Kim, 10
Weston, FL

Cinnamon and Jello

Lina Kim, 10

Cinnamon the dragon loved jello,
Cinnamon ate jello every day.
Jello on toast, jello spaghetti,
Jello in April and May!

Cinnamon’s favorite jello was green,
He ate it most of the time.
But one day he realized he couldn’t afford more,
As he had not a dollar nor dime!

He searched in his basket, and under a book,
Under his bed and under his chair,
He doubted that it could have been a crook,
Since he couldn’t find fingerprints here or there.

Now I must go back to hunting, he thought.
And dine on a feast of meat.
He did so, but oh, how much he missed
His jello, so tasty and sweet!

He sang of the loss of his jello green,
He sang of the meat he now ate.
Eventually he earned more money to buy
Some jello, and now he moderates!


Rachael Lippe, 10
Long Island, NY

No Way to Escape

Rachael Lippe, 10

It’s just me. The only one left. Global warming is unforgiving. Bones and skulls litter the ground. Every time one crunches under my foot, I wince, like the angry soul will come get me. Maybe that’s comforting though, something left, from the rubble, from the heat. Nothing left, no dogs, no guinea pigs, no cats, no crows, no people. I need a boat, a boat to sail far away from here. But what good is a boat, what good is a boat without water? All I can do is run, run and hope, but what good is running, what good is running if there’s no way to escape?


Eve McAlister Munford, 11
Raleigh, NC

Untitled

Eve McAlister Munford, 11

A large gust of wind seeped through the growing cracks of the old shack. A feeling of fear ran through Lilliana’s body and brought chills down her spine. She smoothed out her worn plain brown skirt for the thousandth time, for it was the only thing that seemed to distract her from the outside world, swirling in abrupt motion. Lilliana pulled the tattered quilt up to her chin and adjusted her weight in the old cot she slept in. Just then, the fierce breeze managed to slam open the already-broken window with a loud bang and leaves started to pile in at outrageous speeds before Lilliana could even get out of bed. As the window creaked shut, she tried to process what had just happened. What if one of the soldiers outside saw me?  Lilliana peeked through the curtains, only to find branches banging against the window causing quite the racket. Lilliana drew the curtains and looked around the old musty attic to find something to entertain her until the storm died down.


Kaidyn Robertson, 11
Sooke, British Columbia, Canada

Of Skulls and of Queens

Kaidyn Robertson, 11

The skull dragon had never expected to be separated from his magic. But it had happened anyway. The skull dragon and almost all fantasy creatures were against the Cat Queen – it seemed to the inhabitants of Adrastax that the Cat Queen had become invincible to all powers but her own. The Skull dragon let out a puff of smoke. The Cat Queen had not taken his fire, only his magic. The Skull dragon now hid from the battles outside. But he knew that the Cat Queen would find him, and he would be done for. Never to see the rest of his Hatching again.

But that day won’t come. The Skull dragon told himself. I will not fall before the Cat Queen.

And so there in the dark and dank cave the Skull Dragon sat, determined to bring an end to the Cat Queen’s rule.

The next day, before Morning Fall, the skull dragon left the cave, crawling through the forest of Darlac. His instincts led him forward, he knew not when or how, but he knew where he would find his fellow kin. Only an hour after departing the cave, the Skull dragon sensed danger in the breeze. He looked deeper into the tale of the wind and he found his suspicions were true – the Warriors of the Cat Queens guard were scouting the land.

As long as there aren’t many of them. Thought, the Skull Dragon hopefully.

He heard them coming.

Now!

He looked around nervously as he climbed a tree. Once he reached the top, he could her voices below.

I’m free now, it’s just me and the sky, he thought.

The Skull dragon opened his wings and soared into the air.

Don’t worry fellow Hatchings, I’ll see someday.


Pranjoli Sadhukha, 11
Newark, OH

Weeping Willow

Pranjoli Sadhukha, 11

The old oak tree swayed ever so slightly in the playful summer breeze, one that was like a young child oblivious of its own strength. Under the rustling tree, a young girl danced, carefree and happy. The stars twinkled and glistened above, joining her in a joyful jubilee. She smiled as the whooshing breeze twirled her hair around and tickled her rosy cheeks. She breathed in the sweet scent that could only ever linger on a windy night in the peak of summer. The little girl ran gleefully through the overgrown grass and landed in a meadow filled with blossoming plants, weed and wildflower alike.

Then suddenly a bright blaze appeared in the distance, looking a thousand times brighter than the fireflies, the stars and the crescent moon, merely a sliver of light in the vast dark sky. She eagerly ran towards the light, wondering what lay ahead of her and what beautiful thing could possibly possess such a bright and lovely glow. When she arrived her delight and peace were shattered.

The lovely oak tree that had rustled and stood over her, giving more wisdom in its silence then a million words ever could, was coated by flames. They licked at its strong trunk and turned the branches she had hung from in delight so many times into ash. Her lovely companion that had listened to her more than any human ever had was gone and soon the blaze would spread to the rest of the wood, engulfing her treasured fairyland in flames. She was too dazed to do anything for a few lingering moments but then reality washed over her and she raced towards the nearby stream, not caring about her own safety.

When she reached the stream, she stopped short. If she jumped into it the stream would keep her safe but if she tried to help her forest then she would risk her own safety. Suddenly, she felt as though the wind was whispering a message in her ear. A rhythm of three consistent words: “Save your forest, save your forest”. Forgetting all fear for herself, the young girl found a new determination inside her heart, and she made the decision that changed her life. She grabbed her bag that she had spent many laborious hours weaving out of the weeds in the meadow, filled it up with water and unfettered, she ran into the blazing forest.

She ran back and forth again and again, giving bag after bag of water to her forest. She was too slow. Every flame she doused would soon be replaced by four new ones before she returned from her trip to the stream. She was ready to give up hope when suddenly, a miracle happened. The one tree that was still untouched by the flames, a young flimsy fir tree, stretched out its branches and repetitively carried her to the stream and back. Finally, she managed to suppress the last flame, one that had lingered on her precious oak tree, with a single tear. Her friend that she had given her heart to was gone. Her silent tears fell, glittering on the ashes that were all that remained of the wise old oak tree, the oak that had been her best friend. Then, suddenly, she noticed something tucked in the ground beside the ember and ashes of the mighty oak. A glimmer of hope flickered inside her as she curiously brushed away the ashes to reveal a tiny sapling unscathed by the ruthless blaze.

She devoted the rest of her life to mending the forest’s broken heart. However, her solace was the sapling. She nurtured it and watched it grow, believing that it might be her friend, reborn and young again after years of life and wisdom. When she died, peacefully of old age, she joined her dearest friends, and was reborn as a small sapling, growing next to the tree she had grown herself. She always graced the world with her gentle beauty and love, having grown past the grief for her dearest friend, though it still lingered in her heart. She was the very first weeping willow to grace this world. Her friend, the old oak, always knew her as Willow.


Olivia Zhang, 9
Allen, TX

A Pair of Eyes

Olivia Zhang, 9

The flat bottom of the gondola sliced through silent yet disturbed waters with the smoothness of silk and the quickness of a little bird. As Eva trailed her finger along the brim of the boat, she saw the same red eyes that had been following her, the same padded footsteps in her reflections. She turned around suddenly, so suddenly, the boat bumped and nearly tossed her and the boat conductor out into the water. At the same time Eva turned around again, to apologize to the conductor, at the same time a flash of black and a beating of wings captured her attention again, the eyes were gone, and nothing – nobody seemed to have changed or noticed anything from the usual. Eva sighed in frustration. Every time the red eyes would appear, she would try to find out who or what they were – and every time she tried to, she failed.

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