The Catalyst

A Writing Teacher Writes (plus some writing prompts and recipes)

Friendly Ghost August 22, 2017

Filed under: Grief,Teaching,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher DeLorenzo @ 11:04 pm
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This time the prompts were:           

Not a very pretty kitty

Once upon a time, there was a woman who had had enough

“Your soul pulls toward the canyon and then shines back,”

(from “How to Regain Your Soul,” by William Stafford)                                                          

What I wrote is below.


You: pop up in MS Word, a document without your name in a philosophical message that makes me think. Or sometimes a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye, or Mary Oliver. You both loved and laughed at “Wild Geese“: You do not have to be good/You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles in the desert, repenting. That was advice you might have given too, perhaps not so romantically.

You: come to me in inner dialogue. One day I said, “It sucks that you’re dead,” and I heard your voice reply, “It sucks being dead. It’s so boring!” I laughed then, but I worry that your spirit is tied to those splintered souls you left behind: the old friends and lovers, the ones who try to comfort one another now, like Rebecca, today, who bought me lunch and then invited me upstairs for coffee made with an old Pavoni hand pump espresso. I worry that we won’t let you go and so you still have work to do, I worry that you are still weary and that you need to rest.

But here we are now, in that familiar territory of a relationship between the living and the dead, you and I, after all those conversations we had about our dead loved ones, talking to their photos like I talk to yours now, asking, “Where are you? Where did you go?” A child’s question. Unanswerable. But I suppose you’re still here, in the circle of writers, in the chocolate cake with real flour and real sugar, glutinous flour, processed sugar. “Oh, fuck!” you used to say. “If you’re going to eat cake, eat cake!”

You: still cracking jokes, still holding up a mirror that says, “Look at your beautiful self. You are a great teacher. You are MY teacher.”

Oh, you. How lucky I was to be chosen, to learn from you how to really be a friend. How lucky I still feel having known you all these years.




All in a Day’s Work March 4, 2016

Filed under: Poems,Teaching,Writing Prompts + — Christopher DeLorenzo @ 11:36 am
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imageI wrote the first draft of the following poem in one of my evening workshops.

The prompts were:

Just another day at the office

Out of the mouths of babes

I’ve got good news and bad news

My poem is below.


Teaching Composition

It’s a wave crashing,

falling over itself

coming down hard.

It’s the week ahead

rolling toward the shoreline of work, work, work

nothing but work, pulling me in, in, into the undertow

It’s work.

Lists and obligations and student papers and meetings

and phone calls and emails

that never-ending stack of essays

young minds struggling with verb placement and the reason for a comma

introductions to hook the reader.

Meanwhile, they’re distracted by acne and fantasies of stardom

the latest music videos, hip-hop tunes, bling, bling, and bling

how to be sexy and slutty and still respectable,

to maintain agency,

when they don’t even know what agency means.

Agency? What’s that?

An agent is someone who gets you into a movie, right?

Agency. Or the lack thereof. That’s my concern, anyway.

Conviction: the self on paper.

How do I teach them about the self on paper?

When I’m buried in deadlines and reply-to’s and notebooks,

When the list of personal errands I can’t get to grows so long

I’d have to take a leave of absence to buy a sofa, have a massage,

because of all the work, the homework, the workplace work that comes

with this territory, this territory of counting absences and asking people

not to interrupt, and helping someone literally young enough to be my daughter

spell misogyny. “What’s that mean?” she asks.

What’s that mean? “That’s the hatred of women,” I say.

She writes it down. Shrugs. “That sucks,” she says,

a white light coming on in her head.

The lists and the obligations are stacked so high between us,

I almost can’t see the light, but it’s there. It’s there.

And for a moment

that’s everything.





The Imperfect Teacher February 5, 2016

Filed under: Humor,Teaching,Vignettes — Christopher DeLorenzo @ 11:30 am
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The prompt this time was an excerpt from a long poem by Ron Padgett, “How to be Perfect.”

That prompt, and what I wrote in response, is below.

How to be Perfect

Get some sleep.

Eat an orange every morning.         ING_19043_06216-paper-pile-funny-guy-big-glasses-1024x678

Be friendly. It will help make you happy.

Hope for everything. Expect nothing.

Take care of things close to home first. Straighten up your room
before you save the world. Then save the world.
Be nice to people before they have a chance to behave badly.

Don’t stay angry about anything for more than a week, but don’t
forget what made you angry. Hold your anger out at arm’s length
and look at it, as if it were a glass ball. Then add it to your glass
ball collection.

Wear comfortable shoes.

Do not spend too much time with large groups of people.

Plan your day so you never have to rush.

Show your appreciation to people who do things for you, even if
you have paid them, even if they do favors you don’t want.

After dinner, wash the dishes.

Calm down.

Don’t expect your children to love you, so they can, if they want

Don’t be too self-critical or too self-congratulatory.

Don’t think that progress exists. It doesn’t.

Imagine what you would like to see happen, and then don’t do
anything to make it impossible.

Forgive your country every once in a while. If that is not
possible, go to another one.

If you feel tired, rest.

Don’t be depressed about growing older. It will make you feel
even older. Which is depressing.

Do one thing at a time.

If you burn your finger, put ice on it immediately. If you bang
your finger with a hammer, hold your hand in the air for 20
minutes. You will be surprised by the curative powers of ice and

Do not inhale smoke.

Take a deep breath.

Do not smart off to a policeman.

Be good.

Be honest with yourself, diplomatic with others.

Do not go crazy a lot. It’s a waste of time.

Drink plenty of water. When asked what you would like to
drink, say, “Water, please.”

Take out the trash.

Love life.

Use exact change.

When there’s shooting in the street, don’t go near the window.


Let the piles of essays sit. Make excuses. Say, “I need two weeks to grade these.” Then take three weeks.

Make them feel guilty when they ask. Say, “I was sick,” or snap at them, saying, “I haven’t finished grading all of the essays yet!” Don’t say you’re sorry. Later, apologize in an email.

Organize the essays into two piles. Make a schedule: seven hours of grading. Two hours on Tuesday night, three hours on Wednesday night, then finish on Thursday. When Friday comes, and they still aren’t graded, get stoned and watch Orange is the New Black. Revise grading schedule, then spend the weekend grading essays with resentment.

Realize you shouldn’t grade essays while you’re angry. Several studies have shown this. So take a walk. Give yourself a pep talk. Say, “I make the rules; I’m the teacher.” Feel guilty and drink coffee at the local Starbucks. Charge your phone on their magic tabletop. Stare at the married man and lust over his hairy forearms. Then feel like a perve. Think of him naked and on top of you. Then leave, saving the image for later.

Arrive home and stare at the two piles of essays. Apologize to the essays. Say, “I’m sorry I’m neglecting you.” Then eat lunch.

Feel guilty.


Then sit down, sigh a big sigh, and begin.




This is Water June 7, 2013

Filed under: Teaching,Videos,Writing Prompts + — Christopher DeLorenzo @ 2:34 pm
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A few prompts for you this time, plus a video that will inspire mindfulness.


Beach, beach, and more beach

What is it about sadness that can be so fulfilling?

He was a thrill seeker

My advice? Save the prompts for later, and watch the film now (it’s nine minutes, but worth every second).

While you’re floating in the space that the film leaves you in, take pen to paper, and see what comes out.

(Note: The film’s narrative is built around an excerpt from the late David Foster Wallace’s famous commencement speech.)




Comrades in Cyberspace May 13, 2013

Filed under: Craft,Recipes,Teaching,Videos,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher DeLorenzo @ 4:55 pm
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This prompt is one I call, “Absurd Modifiers.” Everyone begins with a sheet of notebook paper folded in half lengthwise, creating two columns (one in front and one on the back). On one side, I ask everyone to write down ten nouns (a person, place, or thing).

Then everyone flips over the folded sheet and passes it to the person on his or her right, BLANK side up. On this blank side, I ask everyone to write ten adjectives (colors, texture, size, speed, attitude—bitchy is an adjective I often suggest).

I ask everyone to pass the folded sheet to his or her right one more time, and for the person who receives to open it up: now both lists are visible. Finally, everyone takes the two lists and matches up the nouns and adjectives in the most absurd combinations.

Examples of the resulting pairs look something like this:

Red Dachshund

Obnoxious Broccoli

Jealous Fire Escape

Bitchy End Tables

Exuberant Cream Cheese


What I wrote is below.


There were many nights during the spring semester when a stack of student essays sat on my kitchen table waiting impatiently for me to grade them. And although I knew an eight hour marathon grading session was worse than chipping away at them a few hours a day, my resistance seemed to mount the longer they sat there.

This went on day after day.

I wanted to do everything else: watch Dynasty reruns with a close friend, clean up my iPhoto library, read The Huffington Post, see a drag show—I even chose ironing once, a chore I detest.

Who gave them this assignment? I sometimes wondered as I read about human rights violations and environmental disasters. But of course, I knew the assignments were my own creations, foreign to me now in ways I couldn’t articulate.

Another stack consisted of short essays that asked ESL students to summarize, to quote, and to paraphrase. The students also had to construct argumentative theses and integrate outside sources. I looked forward to their repetition the way I look forward to a trip to the gym: with a lack of enthusiasm and a fat dose of guilt.

I had to grade those essays, but I wanted to do everything else: drink white wine from New Zealand, perfect the lemon bar recipe, bake a champagne cake, whip up a double batch of chocolate peanut butter cookies.

Instead of grading papers, I poured over photos on Pinterest and got lost in recipes and food blogs. I dreamt about coconut loaves, cream cheese chocolate chip cookies, Greek macaroni and cheese. I read the bios of business men and women who became food blog celebrities, who survived painful divorces, years being single, and dead end jobs. They all seemed to find a path out of hopelessness that was lined with peppermint cupcakes, pesto-stuffed halibut filets, and mascarpone mashed potatoes, piped into an enamel-coated cast iron baking dish, beautifully browned.

I left the essays behind for awhile and entered this edible world instead.

It gave me hope.


Falling in Love with my Mother Tongue February 22, 2013

Filed under: Poems,Teaching,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher DeLorenzo @ 9:17 am

Two poems worked as prompts this time: The Invitation,” by Oriah Mountain Dreamer, and the poem, “Harlem,” by Langston Hughes.

“The Invitation” is a live link; “Harlem” is below. What I wrote follows.

Harlem                                                                     LangstonHughe_25_2_2

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore—

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over—

like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?


The first week of class, I ask them to highlight words from the poem, The Invitation, words they aren’t familiar with. Ahmed goes first, as always, his gold eyes bright and eager. “Shriveled,” he says. Violeta quickly follows, “Accusations.” Ling offers, “Sanctuary,” and Lam wants to know about “Longing.”

We spend quite a few minutes on longing. How do you describe that word? An ache for something you desire, something you hope for, something you miss?

“Is it like sadness?” Mai asks.

“Yes,” I reply, “But it’s different. It contains elements of hope, and sometimes fondness. Desire. Wishfulness. Like losing something and wanting it back.” Their pens scribble out notes onto notebook paper. “Sometimes, you can long for something you’ve never had,” I offer, still struggling to define a feeling I’ve had so often in my life, but now cannot put into words.

“Like what?” Kiko asks.

“Like a great love. Or a different body. A parent or a grandparent that you can’t really remember knowing.”  Zhu-zhu has her head in her notebook, then looks up at me.

“I know this word,” she says softly. “I have longing for home.”

“That’s it!” I say, remembering how on the first day of class I found her lack of eye contact and her bored expression a kind of silent rebellion. Now I see she is somewhat shy, and smart, and homesick. Lonely for anything familiar in this strange country.

“Have them write in class every single day,” my colleague Sonia replied when I sent out my “Help” email. With thirteen years of teaching experience under my belt, I haven’t been challenged by a class quite this way. I’ve been comfortable with the syllabi I’ve used over and over for previous classes. But Rhetoric 108 is a transition class, a class that takes international students from ESL Department courses into the undergraduate college writing program. I’m not exactly qualified to teach this class; I’m treading in unfamiliar water. But because of a scheduling SNAFU, it landed in my lap, and I’ve been pushed out of my comfort zone. “And have them keep a vocabulary log,” Sonia wrote. “They are still acquiring language.”

In the second week of class, I give them the poem, “Harlem,” by Langston Hughes. What happens to a dream deferred?
“How many of you have read a poem in English before?” I ask. Not one hand goes up.”No one?” I am truly incredulous. “Well,” I say, “I’m honored to give you your first poem.” Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?

“Write about a dream you have,” I tell them. “Not a literal dream when you are sleeping, but a dream you have now, in your heart, while you are awake.” I ask myself the same question. What’s your dream? And I return to thoughts of teaching English in Mexico, of writing about architecture, of learning to Salsa.

By the middle of the third week, I’m gathering ideas for how to get them to discuss their challenges and triumphs learning a new language. That Friday, we discuss Amy Tan’s essay, “Mother Tongue,” and we meet her mother on the white page. I ask them questions about what it feels like when we speak another language, and how I don’t find the words “broken” or “limited” helpful when we discuss how people who are still learning a new language sound. I use stories about my own struggles learning Spanish as a way to connect, to relate.

“How’s the new class going?” Sonia writes on the fourth week, and I surprise myself.

“I really love it,” I reply. “I’m learning so much.” I want to write: I am driving a car at night without headlights. That’s what it feels like. Every day I’m navigating my way through new territory.

Thankfully, I have the enthusiasm of my students, the language of poets, and the beauty of words as my guideposts.


What I Learned at School Today November 11, 2012

Filed under: Teaching,Videos,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher DeLorenzo @ 11:54 pm

For this prompt, I played, “I’m Going to a Town,” by Rufus Wainwright. The video is below, and I love Rufus, but the visuals are out there a bit. I suggest listening to it without the visual the first time around. See what you write in response to the lyrics or the mood of the song, without the visual distraction.

What I wrote follows.



Three of my students are writing about LGBT issues for their Human Rights essay, and I think two of them are straight, but who knows? They probably don’t even know yet.

For those who need a reminder, LGBT stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender—the acronym I belong to—and don’t think it hasn’t crossed my mind that they’re writing to me directly, hoping to get a good grade. (Once, when I asked a student to consider his audience,  he said, “My audience is you, right?” And I said, “I don’t want to be your sole audience member.”)

Sometimes it’s hard to get them to think beyond what’s right in front of them.

Even so, nobody writes about LGBT issues if they’re a homophobe, and that’s what gives me hope: these kids give a shit. One student was inspired to do research because he hated seeing Reverend Phelps’ church assembling at public events carrying signs that read, “God hates fags.”

“That just makes me so fucking mad,” Jason said at our first draft meeting.

We talked about freedom of speech, and hate speech and epithets, and using God as an excuse for hatred. Then Jason pulled the Giants cap down tightly on his head and said, “I know where I need to go with this essay.”

Erica is writing about denying same sex couples the right to marry. “Degrading the sanctity of marriage?” she gawks at one of her sources. “Give me a break! With 60% of all marriages ending in divorce? Where’s the sanctity in that?”

And then there’s Laura, an openly bisexual woman in her early 20’s. “Did you know Wyoming still hasn’t included sexual identity in its hate crime law?” she asks me. “It’s disgusting.”

I knew, but I was hoping her research would inform me that something had changed since my last student ally wrote about that state, a state known internationally for the atrocious murder of Matthew Shepard.

Then she adds, “Oh, by the way, here’s that post-feminist manifesto I told you about.” She pulls out a fat paperback with the c-word printed on the cover in the center of a Gerber daisy. “I think you’re going to love that book. Keep it as long as you want,” she says.

What are they up to in that class, you must be thinking. Hetero guys writing about homophobia, and young women offering their teacher radical books that reclaim the derogatory word for female genitalia? Arguing for justice in an unjust world? They’re teaching me, of course.

It’s a tough and terrible world out there in so many ways, but they remind me that it’s also a very different—and much more accepting—world than the one I grew up in; so much has changed.  If you listen to the news too often, you might not believe that. But because of these students, I know it’s true.

And once again, I’m thankful.