You can listen to Judith Ortiz Cofer as she introduces the activity.
Listen to the audio.
"One of the things that people always ask a writer is how do you motivate yourself to write when you don't have a teacher saying, 'Your assignment is due in a week.' How do you make yourself write things like poetry. I'm not talking about articles where some editor might be saying, you know, 'Well, there's a check waiting for you,' but actually the kind of works that I do which is self-fulfilling work, work that I need to do, that I want to do, and yet, it's not something I get up in the morning and say, 'I think I'll write a poem. It's so much fun.' Actually, it's the opposite. Writing is very difficult. What I like is having written and most people won't admit that, but I have been doing it for long enough to admit the fact that I have an idea in my head and I wish that it would just put itself on the page without me.
"And so one of the things I want to start discussing is how to get through this, especially the younger students to understand that there is fulfillment in writing, but it only comes after the discipline and the work of the writing.
"The first thing in sort of writing is to cancel that internal sensor, the voice of your mother or your third grade teacher or whoever saying, 'You can't write.' You know, 'You better learn your grammar first,' you know. 'Who do you think you are?' and that sort of thing. It is very important to cancel that voice. It doesn't mean that you suspend the rules. It just means that you don't have that nagging voice in your head.
"What I want to talk about is, first of all, the idea that writing, like yoga, requires, you know, a sort of relaxation into it. You have to believe that you can do. And secondly, that no one starts out by thinking, 'I am going to write a three hundred-page novel.' We start out by thinking, 'I think I will write one page today and then another one tomorrow and then another one the next day.' And actually, I have a novel coming out that's under two hundred pages and it took me five years, and it doesn't take a mathematician to figure that if I had written one page a day for five years, it would be a little longer than two hundred pages. And so, there's also the concept of you have to learn to throw away and to revise.
"The way that I have found to do that is to think small. There's a wonderful poet named Richard Hugo who has a little book called The Triggering Town and my favorite quotation in the book is 'Think small. If you have a large mind, it will show itself.'
"And so the exercise that I would like to discuss with you . . . I'd like to illustrate is the idea of segmenting the work so that instead of presenting a huge assignment to the students, it's [smaller] subjects uh, such as we are going to do-the autobiography of my body. Take a body part instead, a body part per week. And the reason that I chose that subject is because I was involved in such an assignment myself. I was asked to contribute on a book on body images, and I had one month to write the essay so I gave myself the assignment of writing about some aspect of my body image, a little bit, one paragraph a day or a mini essay. And so I usually start out even my prose assignments by thinking about them as poems, because to me a poem is concentrated language. It gets everything you want to say in an economical a package as possible, and a lot of my poems have actually come from my own need to think about a subject in a very concentrated way. So even before I read to you my example of the body part assignment, I'd like to read a little poem that . . . I assigned this poem. . . the subject of the poem to all of my classes, and, of course,
everyone is afraid of poetry especially when they take a class called Fiction Writing from me, and I'll say, well, we're starting the class off with a poem, but I tell them that it doesn't matter how bad the poem is. The point is to concentrate a memory, to concentrate it, to make a snapshot, and so because I want them to make a snapshot, the title of the poem is always, 'Here is a Picture of Me.'
"And so I wrote this poem about myself as a young teenager in Paterson, New Jersey and my memory was of . . . one of our neighbors had one of the first Polaroid cameras. That's how old I am, you know, and everyone was amazed of the fact that you could get a picture out immediately, and so of course, this was me posing. It's called 'Here is a Picture of Me'."