Accidental Poetry: Improve Your English Through Creative Writing

Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture

I recently discovered a GENIUS book that offers a new way to teach English. Penned by Lisa Lieberman Doctor (one of our editors here on Wandering Educators!), this book is both simple and complex. Why is it so genius?

Teaching English isn’t easy, and languages are fickle creatures, full of idiosyncrasies, twists and turns, and odd rules. But learning languages is so important – perhaps one of the most important things (in addition to travel) we can do to learn about people, cultures, and the world. By adding creative writing into the mix, this method of teaching English opens doors to learning about each other – and ourselves. It makes learning fun instead of tiresome (raise your hands if you remember those hours and hours listening to tapes in the language lab at university. Yes. See? This book is genius.).

I love this book for many reasons – the beautiful Japanese art, the hundreds of thoughtful questions/writing prompts (good for anyone, really, in any language – it’s about thinking and expressing yourself), but most of all, the concept. For learning a language doesn’t have to be boring or hard – it can be interesting and engaging, as we see here. Lisa Doctor brings her years of experience to the world with this book – and I am grateful. This book? It can change the way we teach languages. It’s that powerful. Highly recommended.

Accidental Poetry: Improve Your English Through Creative Writing

We were lucky enough to catch up with Lisa and ask her about the book, inspiration, the art, and more. Here’s what she had to say…


Please tell us about your book, Accidental Poetry: Improve Your English Through Creative Writing.

Ten years ago, I was invited to teach English grammar and idioms at a university in Spain. I had little experience with ESL; my experience as an instructor had always been with native English speaking screenwriters, novelists and memoirists. I brought with me to Europe the writing exercises I used at home that helped authors deepen their characters. Questions like, “How has compassion for others changed your life?” or “Where do you sabotage relationships?” While teaching in Spain, I discovered that creative writing is not typically used for language learning, but it surely is effective! I used the exercises with my students with extraordinary results, then returned to Spain five more times, thrilled at how well the method worked to increase language skills. This book contains 237 of those writing exercises, designed to allow new speakers of English—and other languages—to communicate from the heart, without the fear of “getting it wrong.” The prompts are divided into sections, each one containing a theme. Two of my favorites are the darker emotional colors and the lighter emotional colors that swirl within us. Like night and day, they’re of equal importance, and equally rewarding to explore through writing.


What inspired you to write the book?

Whenever I led a workshop with new English speakers, I was invariably asked to leave with them some of my writing exercises. For a long time I hesitated—it wasn’t that I didn’t want to share the prompts, I simply wanted to be in the room to hear every response. But I can’t be everywhere, so why not let those people I’ll never meet try their hand at it, too? With this in mind, I chose a variety of my favorite exercises and assembled them in a book, and I have no regrets! I called it Accidental Poetry because the lovely writing that emerged from my students is the opposite of that awful expression, “broken English.” Here’s an example: “She has a mouth filled with gratitude and kind words.” Such poetry!


How can ESL teachers best utilize Accidental Poetry?

My dream is to see the method used in ESL classrooms around the world. Instructors can give each student in the room a different exercise to work with, and have them share their work aloud. With the prompts divided by topic—observations about parents; childhood memories; evolution and epiphanies, for example—instructors also have the option of choosing one topic for everyone in the room. After the students share their work, a discussion can follow about what was read. This allows students to experience the joy of communicating their thoughts and feelings with only a limited vocabulary.


How can ANY teacher or parent use Accidental Poetry to get people writing?

In addition to deepening fictional characters or improving English skills, the prompts have several other uses. Those who want a deeper understanding of their own thoughts and feelings can find therapeutic benefits. New speakers of languages other than English can respond to the prompts in those languages. And one reader told me that she and her daughter used the book as a way of connecting deeply with each other. It’s been very gratifying to see the many uses of these exercises!


Please tell us about your amazing illustrator, Pami Ozaki (gorgeous work!)...

I’m honored to have Pami’s original drawings enhance the book. Pami is a renowned landscape designer in Los Angeles, in addition to holding an MFA in creative writing. She’s also a fine artist and, as a third generation Japanese American, her particular passion is Japanese brush art. I gave her the list of prompts, and she used black watercolor ink to illustrate the feelings they invoked. She also designed the cover art, which I believe describes perfectly my sentiment that communicating from the heart and sharing universal feelings can unite us as humans.

One of the beautiful illustrations by Pami Ozaki in Accidental Poetry: Improve Your English Through Creative Writing


What would people be surprised to know about Accidental Poetry?

I’d been thinking about writing the book for a long time, so when I sat down to assemble the exercises, along with annotations and an introduction, it took only a week before it was complete. The amazing Pami Ozaki did more than forty illustrations in even less time, and our talented cover designer, Rachel High, presented her design ideas within a few days. So after a week of concentrated work, I had a book that was ready to present to my agent! As a writing instructor for novelists, I know it takes years to complete a book that’s ready to present to the world. It seemed odd, if not downright embarrassing, to admit how quickly Accidental Poetry came together. But this is a collection of writing exercises, not a novel. All of the elements existed. They just needed to be assembled.


What’s up next for you?

I love what I’m doing in Los Angeles—teaching novel writing classes at the UCLA Writers Program; instructing television writers on the basics of fiction writing at the TV Writers Fund For The Future; and leading weekly ongoing workshops for novelists. Additionally, I’m working on a novel, and I will be leading workshops for new speakers of English in Europe this fall. After thirty-seven years working with writers in LA, I’m eager to take my method of teaching on roads I’ve traveled, where I can re-unite with former students, and new roads, where I can share the method with people I’ve yet to meet. Traveling is a huge part of my life, and Accidental Poetry has brought a focus to my travels.


Is there anything else you’d like to share?

One of the most exciting events as a result of Accidental Poetry’s publication is my recent affiliation with Wandering Educators. I’m thrilled to be working with Dr. Jessie Voigts as the Traveling Creative Writing Editor, and I look forward to being part of this community of like-minded wandering educators. 






Note: We received a review copy of Accidental Poetry from the publisher - thank you!