This exercise started off because I needed another “something extra” to keep in my teaching bad. I’d had a run of bad luck with getting the kids to write and all the warmup exercises kept falling down flat. If I couldn’t get them to warmup, I couldn’t get them to do much of anything else. So I started opening and shutting (okay, maybe slamming) the drawers in my desk and file cabinet thinking I would find an answer in there somewhere. And I did. Sort of.

In my stationary drawer I had a stack of envelopes that didn’t go with any cards or notes. Just a bunch of mismatched extras. And I started to wonder what the kids  might do if they received an envelope that obviously had something in but they wouldn’t know what and they wouldn’t be allowed to open the envelopes. I took a stack of the envelopes and filled them all with something. Sometimes just a single Post-it note. Sometimes several sheets of paper (blank but they didn’t know that.) Then I sealed all the envelopes and proceeded to write on them, decorate them, drop them in the dirt, get them wet, crumple them up like they’ve been in someone’s pocket. All sorts of things to give them character.

In class I let everyone pick an envelope and I tell them that they can either be the person who just got this envelope in the mail or they are getting ready to send it.

I ask them to brainstorm 6 things about the envelope, simple story questions, WHO, WHAT, WHERE, WHEN, WHY and HOW.

And then to write a poem using those answers. I ask them to go back and revise with using the 5 senses. And for those that are really digging in about it’s “too hard” or “I don’t know what to write” I tell them they can do an acrostic if they like using the word LETTER or ENVELOPE.

I always tell the writers that they can make it all up. It doesn’t have to be real. But they almost always end up writing about something that actually happened to them.

There’s something that seems to happen when you are holding an envelope you know you can’t open. It usually gets people writing. (By the way, this is a great general creative writing exercise too.) It’s a little hard to do with just a photograph but let’s see what I can come up with. I’m picking that white envelope at the bottom with the phrase “Why won’t you talk to me?” on it. It’s crumpled and has been scuffed in the dirt a bit.

My brainstorm:

I’m thinking I just got the envelope and I’m trying to get up the nerve to open it. None of this is true. I’m just making it up as I go along.

– WHO?  I’m pretty sure it’s from a neighbor who lived across the street from me years ago. She was always leaving little notes in my mailbox
– WHAT?  It’s a yearly plea that comes, oddly enough, not at Christmas, but on my birthday.
– WHERE? I’m sitting in my car because I just picked up the mail at the post office
– WHEN? It’s my birthday. Early morning before the day has really gotten started
– WHY? We had a big fight over something horrible and I just can’t seem to forgive her, no matter how many times she asks.
– HOW? How am I going to get past this big rock in road?

Here’s my 10 minute poem. It’s very rough but I can see some things I like I might want to develop further.

Birthday mail
should make me smile
but a single envelope with
that familiar loopy handwriting
I used to try to mimic
makes my heart jump to a not-so-happy place.

A can near the door of the Post Office beckoned,
your offering would have been
a perfect gift to the garbage gods
but I couldn’t let go
anymore than I could
forget or forgive.

Neighborly notes of love
landed up in my mailbox
near every day
for the seven years
you lived across the street from me
thanking me
for blueberries
and listening to you cry
when your mother died
until the day came
when I couldn’t listen
because everything you said
was a lie.

I hate your lies
but more than that
I hate what you stole
from me
the friend I thought you’d
always be
the smile I thought I’d
always have
every time
I saw your name.

–Susan Taylor Brown, all rights reserved

Your turn, if you care to play along.