Consider the hummingbird: a reading and writing exercise

Today I met with Karma, an MIT employee and adult student whom I tutor in English once a week through a pilot program. We have a grammar workbook that we are going through rather doggedly, and we like to break up the formal exercise with reading, writing, and speaking activities.


Last week we read out loud together one of my favorite short essays, “Joyas Volardores,” by Brian Doyle (The American Scholar, Autumn 2004). Read the full text here: link. It is about the hummingbird, and more. The essay is full of beautiful facts and therefore new vocabulary, so it is suitable for an ESL student. There is also a curious passage about the blue whale and a meditation on the human heart. There is much to puzzle over.

Today, we did some free writing based on the nature of the essay (i.e., facts lead you to ideas and even strong emotion) and its first sentence:

Consider the hummingbird for a long moment.

I proposed to Karma that we generate more concrete nouns, in place of “hummingbird,” for things we had knowledge about that could be described.

Consider the __________ for a long moment.

microwave oven
maple tree
Bobcat (small truck)
… and so on

I suggested that we each take the first sentence, put in a concrete noun of our own choosing, and free write from there, trying to emulate some of Doyle’s declarative style and building paragraphs on sentences with the simple subject/verb structure, which is used lavishly in the essay.

We wrote for 15 minutes. We read aloud to each other the first and last sentences of what we had written, to see how far our ideas had come. The noun Karma had chosen was “computer,” and the one I had chosen was “kitchen.”

I wrote a lot in 15 minutes, yet felt unhurried the entire time. (See below the jump for the full text of my free write.) I really was following my thoughts. Karma wrote less than me yet seemed contented also. This is a good way to get writers to excavate what they know from experience and observation; this exercise could be followed up with a research assignment to start to develop material from the free write into an essay.

I noticed, when Karma read it aloud, that his last sentence has the word “unimaginable” in it. A word in my last sentence is “unconscious.” We seemed both to have traveled from concreteness to the cerebral. To get to an idea is the goal.

What will we do with what we wrote? As we parted, I told Karma there is no real homework, but that I hoped he would think about his last sentence, and I will think about mine. We will start there next week.

Keep reading for my free writing…

Here is the transcript from my handwritten free writing from today’s exercise. In typing this out, I have preserved spelling, grammar, indents, and line and stanza breaks. I didn’t really have a form in mind. This looks poem-y, but doesn’t quite sound so.

Consider the kitchen for a long moment.

A kitchen is the place in the house that is
used the most.
A kitchen is where we keep food, cook food, and
eat food. It keeps us alive. The bedroom and
bathroom are important, but they do not sustain life.
A kitchen is also where tools are kept. Even in
homes where there are no hammers or screwdrivers,
there are still tools: knives, spoons, coffee maker,
and rolling pin.
Two elements important to life — fire and water —
are also in the kitchen. Or, if your house uses
electric or oil heat, the “fire” on the stove
may be generated by electricity and not a
gas flame.
In the kitchen there is soap.
In the kitchen there is pestilence —
from microbes — and waste.
We can be happy in the kitchen:
when we are sitting alone in the
morning quiet, drinking black coffee at
the polished table.

We can be angry in the kitchen: when
we are on our hands and knees scooping
up the macaroni or cereal dropped to
the floor by the children during a
chaotic meal or when we are on our
feet at the sink washing dishes at
10pm long after a dinner that satisfied
everyone but the tired cook.
The tired cook can feel like the family’s servant.

The kitchen is a place of service. Consider
that for a long moment.
The kitchen is a place where the same
labor is repeated daily, hourly — as long as
there is light.

Who sits in a dark kitchen?
The kitchen dark is incomplete. The light
from the neighbor’s porch, left on for their
outdoor cat, shines ins. The shapes of the
kitchen are pulled from the shadows:
refrigerator hulk, faucet stem, paper towel roll.
The numbers on the microwave’s
digital clock always glows, of course.
The mice prefer the kitchen dark. We do not see
them, although we see their traces: turds left
in drawers and under the sink.
The mice are quiet. If they do make sounds —
tiny feet padding — we do not hear it upstairs
in our beds.

We could sleep in the kitchen if we had to.
Some huts in fact are all kitchen — fire, food,
warmth — with pallets around the edges.
Our kitchen is for sitting, standing, or
passing through.
We save our unconscious hours for another room.

kitchen freewrite

Image (top), “Ruby Throated Hummingbird,” by Eric Kilby on Flickr, via a Creative Commons license. Image of my handwriting by me. It’s evidence.

3 thoughts on “Consider the hummingbird: a reading and writing exercise

  1. The reason I posted the above was because your draft reminded me of it in terms of the repetition (“In the kitchen there is . . .” and “A kitchen is a place . . . ” ). Maybe listing is somehow inherently connected to the “consideration” of a topic.

    • Yes. Listing helps us document what is known (about topic), yet I also found it helped me discover, dig up, etc.

      There is a really good listing exercise which prompts the writer to think of a moment and then generate a bunch of sentences that all begin, “I remember.” As one writers, one remembers more and more. I also interject the predicate, “I don’t remember,” when I hit a block, and what I don’t remember also becomes rich material.

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