Using the Lune to Jump-Start the Essay

A net for new words

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of Teachers & Writers Magazine (Volume 43 Number 3).

New York hustle
2000 word article faces me
magic trick proof

Bite-sized word banks
Build poems, essays, stories, various
Save me now

From poetry to
essay, start with eleven words
Step by step

I hope my self-proclaimed magic trick will save me. It would be shameful after teaching writing for twelve years throughout the hustling boroughs of New York City, that I be found like the phony Wizard of Oz with his emerald-green curtain cast away, just a little man with a big hustle and nothing to show for it. A writing deadline is an emergency, and I’m supposed to be a writer. My students are also facing an emergency: the date of their ELA test is upon them, after weeks of grueling preparation. In the mind of a tender, growing, awkward pre-teenager, this qualifies as an emergency. In fact, nearly everything does: their latest Facebook posts, their raging hormones, their pimples, their Big Mac diets, buzzing and beeping iPhones, Androids, and their teetering self-confidence. With all else that bips and bops and borrows space in the minds of the young, having to write succinctly in complete sentences with a limited set of language skills in response to a passage about some random, ancient scientist or musician can be an overwhelming task.  “Now you want me to identify the main idea?  Can I text it to you? What’s going to happen if I can’t really write my way through this test?”

The magic trick  I’ve been doling out to the stressed-out masses of young writers dealing with writing  “emergencies” is the  ‘’lune” exercise.   It has proven to be like the last-minute trinkets passed out by The Great Oz that helped the seekers to figure out that what they really “needed” already existed deep inside of themselves. The  Great Oz didn’t really need to shell out anything more from behind the green curtain, Dorothy and her companions already had what they needed. The June shows you that the words al­ ready exist inside of you to create that paragraph, that story, that essay. The 2000 words will come, but they will come eleven words at a time. The lune is made up of the words that fight their way to being born from all the chaos we have in our busy minds. The lune says, “If you build it, it will come.” The lune, a simplification of haiku created in the 1960s by an American poet named Robert   Kelly, is a three-line poem, with three words in the first line, five words in  the second line, and three words in the third line. In their book Poetry Everywhere  (Teachers & Writers  Collaborative, 2007),  Jack  Collom and Sheryl  Noethe write that  “in counting words rather than syllables, the lune is more flexible than its ancestor the haiku,”  and describe it as “just eleven words, arranged  3/5/3; anything goes. The subject and mood of the poem can be many things, but must be focused: Collom says a lune creates an image that is like looking through a crack.  I added another restriction to the form with my high school students at Frederick Douglass   Academy in Harlem. They could use any eleven words, except a, an, the, nice, pretty, good, bad, ugly, or very.

These  students had  been  charged   with  writing college  application essays  that  would  identify  a “social  problem” that  affects  teenagers. Their essays also had to describe how they themselves would be part of the solution. I was hoping  the lune would  help them out of the slump  they’d gotten  into  after  two years of essay writing based  on  strict  outlines-an approach used  at  many  schools-had resulted   in  essays  that were  formulaic and  dull.  At  this  point,  I  had  stacks of  their writing to  read,  and  much   of  it  was  bland, flavorless,  rigid,  dry, impersonal, and  had  big  problems  with  grammar   and  structure. Our group from Teachers & Writers Collaborative was there to help these students become more creative and personal in their writing. We were there to “spruce things up” and turn some of the students’ ramshackle beginnings into their golden tickets for the golden gates of college. At that  point, most of these extremely bright  students all sounded like  the  same  programmed robot  trying  to get  into  the  same  college  with  the  same  starter sentences:

“The social problem I would like to identify is (fill in
the blank) ———Blank is bad and terrible to society.

I will help to rid our world of____________ (fill
in the blank) by (fill in with some more boring
blanks) ________________________.

These kids needed a jump-start, so, I offered them the lune. Yes, I know. The lune is a poem. Yes, I know, the   English   teacher   collaborating  with   me  would write  me  off  as “hippy-dippy” for  stealing   valuable time  if I really  tried  to  pull  this  off with  her  “serious, college-bound” students. But  my plan  was  that the lunes  they  wrote  would  morph  into  a word  bank which would be used to create images, and that those images would beget more images, more words, more sentences,  until  their  essays were done, more colorful and better  written than  ever before.

Get to point.
You are losing your way.
What’s your point?

The point is, it worked. Any teacher  who doubted my method  was converted  to the lunacy  of my luneisms  and  continued to  use these  tiny, bite-sized poems to build essays and more developed  writings. This method   worked   because it simplified what was too big to think about into a manageable form. The lune captured the monster of an essay and tied it up, eleven words  at  a time,  until  the  monster  was putty  in  the young  writer’s  hands.  For the social-issue essays, I’d get lunes like this written with the whole class:

Head down, ashamed
Belly hidden, stacks of homework
What will happen?

Together, we would  recreate  a better  beginning to  a social-issue essay  by taking  the  words  and  images of the lune poem, and using them  to enhance  our sentences:

She walked around with her head held down in shame. Her growing be fly was hidden
by a back pack filled with stacks of homework to do. What will happen to this pregnant
teenager?  She is like a score of other young teenaged women In America who find
themselves pregnant and in need of resources and guidance….

The lune brought forth the young writers’ own eloquence and personal voices by allowing them to break free of the monotonous, pre-programed voice they’d slipped into after years of formulaic writing instruction. Every time a young writer would get stuck, my suggestion was to   start writing lunes of the words that were scrambling through their minds and to use these words to create verbal images associated with whatever they needed to write about. The “words” for these pictures would pro­ vide the specifics they needed to start writing in an interesting way about their topic. I found that this exercise worked equally well with younger students.  At PS 4X, I had a group of young writers who needed to write “historical fiction” stories.

To inspire them, I asked their teachers to pick out video clips of highly dramatic moments in his­ tory. Ms. Chaikin and Mr. Vargas showed their students clips about the Middle Passage and about John F. Kennedy’s assassination. We froze the screen on certain scenes and had the students jot down the first eleven words that captured those images. One student wrote an entire fictional account about a slave rebellion by building his vision and story from this lune:

Slaves, take over,
Master, ship, capture, detained, fright,
British, army, control

In  the  dialogue  this  student  created,  he  used words  and  images  generated   from  his  lune  for  his main character, a slave named ”Rick,” who rebels and scavenges the slave ship for its weapons. This slave finds the courage to “take over” after being “frightened. The clip we showed, however, did not depict a rebellion. It was just a clip that showed the horrible conditions of slaves chained in Middle Passage boats. The lune this boy wrote was inspired by the clip and gave him some direction for the story he wanted to write:

We all put aside our fears and decided to take control for once. We knew that some of us
might die. I hoped I would survive. I thought of my family, my friends, my freedom, my
home. Yes, I wanted to go home and be free.

Words  come  to  us in  fits and  starts,  at least  that’s  how they come to me. Sometimes I write from beginning to middle to end, sometimes I jump around.    Sometimes    two   or three words come to me and I sing them like a jingle down the bustling sidewalks of New York just so I don’t forget them. Some of my words, most of them, never make it to a page-they just roll around in my thoughts like different colored marbles. I’m  lucky when  the  muse sends  me an  entire  block of solid poetry and I have a place to write it down or type it in. The lune suits today’s young people, who arc texting, buzzing, tweeting, posting, blogging, iTouching, iPodding, words, words, words. Quick and easy is familiar to them. They like that the lune is something like a little “to-do list.” Despite this proficiency, when these same students have the words “Create a 500- word essay” glaring at them, every word can seem to crawl away out of reach. The words disappear into some hiding place and the June helps to draw them out. The lune says, “Come out, come out, wherever you are!” and then eleven words have the space to appear. For English language learners, the essay form can be even more intimidating. Nothing feels more difficult than trying to manage language without the necessary skills or words. ELL students can stumble like newborn fawns when having to build sentences and paragraphs in English.

Caramel colored skin, black
silky hair, glasses, Spanish
comedy, Yo, Miss.

In my class at a middle school in the Bronx, the students   tease each other with thick Dominican, Puerto Rican, and Mexican accents. They throw wads of paper and poke fun in a carnival of caramel-colored skin, geeky laughter, and screeching chairs. The initial rowdy, rough and tumble of Juan, Guadalupe, and Maria would include “talking about me” in Spanish while blowing enormous pink bubbles and popping them super loud. None of this is permissible in school. They were not “into” me, at first, one of them would tell me. They couldn’t  take yet another  dose of  ELA instruction  and they were suspicious of me because I “looked” like I “should” speak Spanish, but didn’t and couldn’t. They weren’t into me until I showed them my June trick. When I wrote the word “Lunes” on the board, they thought I meant the Spanish word for “Monday.” “What’s Monday got to do with writing, Miss?” But when they tried writing their thoughts out in Junes, they found, to their surprise, that they could do this. “Yo, Miss-this works,” said Guadalupe, “I don’t know why, but it helps.”

Guadalupe watched the June act as a net for the words she knew in English. She was originally from the Dominican Republic but now had to read Walter Dean Myers’ Monster, listen to a passage read aloud about jazz musician Wynton Marsalis, and write a coherent paragraph that answered a question, all in a language still foreign to her. I don’t know about you, but I am eons and palabras away from ever writing a paragraph in Spanish. I can only imagine that kind of anxiety causing me to faint on the spot. I asked Guadalupe the reader’s response question slowly and told her to breathe. “Just write down whatever eleven words come to your mind in a lune. “The lune slowed down the writing process for Guadalupe. The form gives you more time, but uses time wisely. It reminded Guadalupe that her brain was working, that she did know at least eleven words that would point to the answer she had tum­ bling around in her twelve-year-old mind in English and Spanish. The June is like a net for fish, I told these ELL students: you catch a few catfish first, and then bring a whole score on the boat for the fish fry.

At the Learning Tree School in the Bronx, all of Amece’s dreadlocks dangle to the front, as she bends her head, intent on imagining the physical description of the main character in her realistic fiction story.

Yellow, orange hair
Earrings clinking and shaking
Silver jingle bells.
turns into

Christie’s silver earrings were clinking and shaking
like jingling bells against her brown neck.

“The June really is great!” says Amece. “It helped me a lot. Even though it’s just a few words, I learned how to make those words into sentences.” Ms. Juliet, Amece’s fourth-grade teacher, reinforces the use of the lune when writing in her other classes. “The lune is an essential tool for prewriting,” she says. “All students should use it in the planning stage. It really allowed my fourth-graders   to think of words that their readers could visualize, taste, smell, and connect with.”

What will happen to Amece’s character Christie? What sights and feelings will Amece bring forth from the boundlessness of her fourth-grade imagination? We don’t know yet. Maybe Amece doesn’t know either, but she will find out with just eleven words at a time.

World is big.
Something quick I moment to stop
Lune is small.
If eleven words
squeeze out of the clutter
of my mind…
I can build
the tower of my thoughts.
This way, yeah!

Melanie Maria Goodreaux is a playwright, poet, and native of New Orleans who has made her home in New York City since 1999. Her poetry and plays—including Saydee and Deelores; Walter, Bullets, and Binoculars; Mo'Batz' Ride; Controle's  Predicament; and Sometimes It's  Very Much  About  Ownership—have been performed at Yale University, the Lillian Theater in Los Angeles, the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, and the Chelsea Playhouse in New York City, and at the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta.  She is a teaching artist with Teachers & Writers Collaborative, Creative Writing, and the Manhattan New Music Project, teaching creative writing and drama in all the boroughs of New York City.