Wednesday, my husband and I hit the road to visit family in Florida, and to help keep us awake and alert during our ten-hour stint on 95 South, we listened to the seven-chapter podcast, S-Town, by Serial and This American Life. It was thought-provoking, emotional, entertaining, and worthwhile. I laughed, cried, and marveled. It’s the kind of podcast that stays on your mind for days–probably weeks–popping up in your day-to-day when something seemingly inocuous inspires a memory of an emotion, thought, person, or question brought up in S-Town. It brings up big questions, like: What is fulfillment? How do different people achieve it? What does it mean to live a meaningful life? How can people achieve meaning in their lives? Do familial relationships trump relationships with friends, though in some cases, the friends are closer than family? Should familial relationships be given legal priority in every case? I could compose an entire post consisting solely of questions S-Town makes me ask myself, but I’ll spare you (listen to it yourself, if you haven’t already, and find out what questions it brings up for you). Besides, this post isn’t actually about the effect S-Town had on me personally; it’s about the connections I can make between it and my career as a writer and English teacher (though to be honest, the personal musings are far deeper than the professional ones).
The Mad Hatter
As a child, I enjoyed the cartoon version of the story Alice in Wonderland. As an adult, in a children’s literature class for my graduate degree, I had to read the full-length book–and I enjoyed that, too. Like me, you’re probably familiar with the story and its characters, including the Mad Hatter. You might also have heard the term, “mad as a hatter.” In listening to S-Town, I learned where that phrase comes from: In the 1800s, hat-makers (hatters) used a dangerous chemical compound to turn fur into felt for hats. Inhaling these chemicals on a regular basis caused many of them to go crazy, and even die prematurely.
“A Rose for Emily” and “The Masque of the Red Death”
One of the short stories I read with my students during our Gothic literature unit is William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” one of John B. Mclemore‘s (only click that link if you don’t mind a spoiler alert) favorites. The theme song of the podcast, “A Rose for Emily” by the Zombies, which I’d never heard before, alludes to the story and helps elucidate the meaning of the title, and the story, to a degree. I’m currently working on the best way to use it to A) enhance my teaching of the story and B) boost my students’ understanding of the literary device, allusion. In addition, my honors students complete a Literature Portfolio project throughout the course of the semester, requiring them to write short essays (Connections Essays) connecting a work of art, a piece of music, a work of literature, or a current event to the work of literature we are reading in class. Connecting the song “A Rose for Emily” to the story by the same name would perfectly exemplify the expectations for this assignment, as would connecting the short story to S-Town itself.
On a similar note, another Gothic author mentioned in the podcast is Edgar Allan Poe. One of his stories my students and I read is “The Masque of the Red Death,” in which the hourly striking of a large, black clock in a room of crimson and ebony provides a constant reminder to a group of revelers that their time is running out, and their hours are numbered. John B. Mclemore was an antiquarian horologist who built sun dials and restored old clocks. Herein lies more potential for a stellar Connections Essay.
At the risk of spoiling everything for you, I will just say that S-Town also provides an excellent example of paradox: time as both a punishment and a gift. (In addition to spoiling things for you, I risk going way too far into my musings on the concept of a lifetime and time if I continue!)
At least three new words jumped out at me as we listened:
Although some might see the sometimes racist characters in S-Town as the farthest possible thing from anything relating to Zora Neale Hurston, two similarities stood out to me. First, Hurston lived part of her life in Eatonville, Florida, which the earliest residents helped build from the ground up. Janie, the protagonist in Hurston’s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God(which I read each year with my students), also lives in Eatonville, and is there for its incorporation, her husband having become the mayor and working hard to incorporate the town. John B. Mclemore played an integral role in the project of
putting Woodstock, Alabama (originally North Bibb), on the map as an actual town. Second, Hurston had a deep appreciation for folklore, and for spoken language and culture. While many African-American writers were attempting to create characters and narrators that sounded like, well, white characters, narrators, or writers, Hurston’s characters spoke in the vernacular of the people she knew, to the chagrin of many of her contemporaries, who perhaps saw her as proliferating negative racial stereotypes. Hurston, though, seemed to see herself as advocating for the beauty of these speech patterns, rhythms, and nuances. To learn more about this (and then some!), check out this audio guide by the National Endowment for the Arts. Like Hurston’s characters, the people in S-Town often speak in artful and unique phrases–without even realizing it; it seems to come naturally. They speak in clever metaphors without consciously crafting the comparisons, and use figurative language without even trying or, perhaps, realizing. Consider these two examples:
“He may have had a little sugar in his tank” as a way of saying someone might be gay.
“He’d drank enough Wild Turkey to make anyone gobble” as a way of saying he’d had enough alcohol to make absolutely anyone drunk.
These aren’t direct quotes, but they’re pretty close, and good examples of phrases that stood out me as particularly unique, amusing, or clever. Hurston’s characters, too, often express themselves in equally eloquent and creative terms.
One of the surest ways to support retention and critical thinking is helping students make connections between what they learn in the classroom, and the outside world. I found that as I listened to S-Town, I was experiencing what I hope my students experience when we read, discuss, and write: direct parallels between my own experience and education, and the real world.
For the last three days, the school where I teach has been closed due to snow. While I have indeed gone sledding, made snow angels, napped, taken my dogs for snowy walks, and even taken two snowy runs, I have also spent the last three days crafting a letter to the Virginia Department of Education regarding an insidious policy up for discussion later this month–a policy similar to legislation already vetoed by our governor, but that pro-censorship groups are attempting to push through the VDOE as a sort of backdoor approach. Below, read my take on the issue, and if you live in Virginia, please join me in writing to:
Emily Webb, Director for Board Relations
P.O. Box 2120
Richmond, VA 23218-2120.
Better yet, if you are free at 9:00 on the morning of Thursday, January 26, attend the public hearing on this issue.
Dear Ms. Webb:
I am writing to make you aware of my strong opposition to policies reminiscent of House Bill 516, wisely vetoed by Governor McAuliffe, and currently up for discussion by the Virginia Department of Education, specifically the potential requirement that schools “provide policies on the use of sexually explicit instructional materials to parents or guardians with the copy of the syllabus for each high school course and to include a notice to parents identifying any sexually explicit materials that may be included in the course, the textbook, or any supplemental instructional materials.” While I will be unable to attend the public hearing on this matter, as I, like many of my equally concerned fellow educators, will be on the frontlines in the classroom with my students that morning, it is very important to me that my voice on this matter be heard.
Let us give our students the opportunity to learn about, discuss, and study the effects of the darkness and the light in a safe, nurturing space where they can learn how to handle them in a healthy, productive manner. Do not let them leave the public school system without the tools needed to cope with what lies beyond the doors of their high school.
Though the language reproduced above seems innocent enough, it could very easily act as a catalyst for future censorship that would prove detrimental to our schools. I have been in the classroom for eleven years, and hold a Master’s degree—during the earning of which I wrote a lengthy, research-based paper on the problem of unwarranted censorship (as most censorship is). The regulations and policies that will be discussed on January 26 border on dangerous and senseless censorship (as most censorship is) that in no way helps, and in fact hinders, the intellectual, emotional, and moral progress of our young people. Censoring the literature they read based on minimal “sexually explicit” or otherwise “offensive” content or language—that may appear on merely one page of a much larger work—unnecessarily shelters students from reality and does not help prepare them to function as well-rounded, productive adults in the real world. Furthermore, the interpretation of “sexually explicit” is far too broad and subjective to be of any real value, and would allow for many relevant, artistic, classic, and important works to be excluded from a child’s education.
Censorship stems from fear, and is rarely anything more than a bid for control. Tell me–what are we afraid of, and what are we trying to control? The answer to the first question is perhaps less insidious than the answer to the second.
The intellectual development of our students lies primarily in their ability to think critically. One of the most effective means of teaching children how to think for themselves is to present them with various viewpoints, circumstances, situations, cultures, and people different from their own and from themselves—to help them learn to ask the right questions, see problems from various perspectives, and consider other points of view. Based on the policy under consideration, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men would likely be considered for banning based merely on the brief mentions of cat houses and the fact that Lennie’s innocent petting of a dress was once mistaken for attempted rape. Many years, this is the only book some of my weaker students actually read—and love. Their focus does not rest on the cat houses or the non-rape; it rests on the characters, the emotions, the situations. They love to discuss the ideas of companionship versus loneliness, tolerance of “the other,” friendship, and sacrifice that the book brings up. The infinitesimal role of sex in this novella does not distract or demoralize them; instead, books like this encourage students to think about multiple perspectives, and expose them to time periods in which they can never live, places they may never visit, and people they are likely never to meet.
Only open, uncensored access to literature and information can help combat the creeping cloud of thought control I see on the horizon. We can take a step into its shadow by allowing these policies to move forward, or a step into the sunshine of enlightenment by adopting more progressive and productive policies regarding the literature read in our classrooms.
Books like this broaden their understanding of the world, and the human condition—thus helping to make them into more adept thinkers, able to consider different ideas and viewpoints, as well as to ask meaningful, insightful questions. What a shame it would be to deprive students of that opportunity simply because a cat house or glove filled with Vaseline is mentioned in passing once or twice in the course of the story.
In addition to helping children develop intellectually, reading books that this policy would likely deem inappropriate, such as The Great Gatsby for its (extremely subtly implied) sexual content, helps students develop emotionally. Reading books that contain challenging content matter exposes children to topics they will encounter in their adult lives, and gives them a safe, nurturing, and neutral place to discuss these topics before they must handle them on their own in the real world. Giving students the capacity to imagine what it would feel like to be in the multiple moral dilemmas Nick Carraway faces or to be so lovesick so as to engage in criminal activity just to get the girl, as is the case with Jay Gatsby, gives them an emotional foundation on which to stand when they themselves face real-life difficult decisions and moral dilemmas. In addition, asking them to put themselves into the shoes of various characters in these novels helps them develop the ability to sympathize and empathize, thus fostering in them a sense of compassion and emotional intelligence that I would rather nurture with “provocative” literature than stunt with senseless censorship.
I can think of very few instances in history when censorship has ever been looked on in a positive light or yielded positive results. In fact, quite the opposite: Censorship stems from fear, and is rarely anything more than a bid for control. Tell me–what are we afraid of, and what are we trying to control? The answer to the first question is perhaps less insidious than the answer to the second.
Literature mirrors life, and life is as full of gender discrimination, sexism, lust, and other depravities as it is of gentleness, love, acceptance, justice, and goodness. How can we teach true self-sacrifice without also teaching its opposite, selfishness? How can we teach the value of true loyalty without also teaching infidelity?
As a final point, I will simply say that if every work of literature that contains a scene, a sentence, or a situation that someone somewhere in the state might construe as “sexually explicit” were removed from the classroom, I cannot imagine what would remain at the secondary level. I would be hard-pressed to find a single novel that is devoid of any hint of sex. Literature mirrors life, and life is as full of gender discrimination, sexism, lust, and other depravities as it is of gentleness, love, acceptance, justice, and goodness. How can we teach true self-sacrifice without also teaching its opposite, selfishness? How can we teach the value of true loyalty without also teaching infidelity? Students need the emotional intelligence, the moral basis, and the critical thinking skills to face all of these issues and more. Let us give our students the opportunity to learn about, discuss, and study the effects of the darkness and the light in a safe, nurturing space where they can learn how to handle them in a healthy, productive manner. Do not let them leave the public school system without the tools needed to cope with what lies beyond the doors of their high school. If we do, we—and they–will certainly have more to fear than the mature content—expressed in prose so poetic, I would grieve to see my students deprived of it–of Their Eyes Were Watching God or Romeo and Juliet. We do our students no favors, no kindness, by shielding them from real life issues and experiences presented in works like these.
I ask you not only as an experienced educator, but also as a devoted aunt, a writer, and a concerned community member to please block these pro-censorship policies that will only foster the preponderance of ignorance and bigotry trying to take hold in our world. Now, more than ever, a student’s ability to think for himself or herself is critical, and limiting a student’s access to literature in any way only limits his or her capacity for compassion and critical thinking. Only open, uncensored access to literature and information can help combat the creeping cloud of thought control I see on the horizon. We can take a step into its shadow by allowing these policies to move forward, or a step into the sunshine of enlightenment by adopting more progressive and productive policies regarding the literature read in our classrooms.
I am (still) reading Roberto Bolano’s 2666, and during my sofa session Friday afternoon, came across this sentence on page 323:
“The oneiric wind whipped grains of sand that stuck to their faces.”
The word “oneiric” (oh-ny-rick) was a new one for me. The “Look Up” feature on my nook told me it is an adjective that means “of or relating to dreams; dreamy.” Merriam-Webster confirmed the definition, and informed me that the word rests in the bottom 50% of word popularity (what a shame). What a whimsical word to add to my vocabulary.
In addition to its inherent whimsy, the word applies to my own writing experience: The oneiric state I find myself in just before sleeping or just before waking seems to generate my best writing ideas. The only problem? Whereas I often remember my dreams, I only rarely remember the words I wrote during the course of them.
Other contexts in which I can imagine this word:
She waited impatiently for the oneiric effects of the medication to wear off.
He thought about the oneiric nature of his earliest memories, which might be memories, but might just as likely be imaginings based on stories he’d heard from his parents and grandparents and siblings hundreds of times, his imagination indistinguishable from reality.
The sight of the couple walking arm-in-arm down the cobblestone street summoned an oneiric sense of a life he felt he had never lived, though the photographs he had not yet removed from his walls told him otherwise.
She stepped off the plane and into the oneiric landscape of paradise.
Lastly, I am quite sure that the male protagonist of my current writing project, a novel in its seventh draft titled Goodbye For Now, feels an oneiric sensation at waking up in a stranger’s body, and viewing his life as an outsider.
Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and following close on its heels is Black Friday. If we haven’t already done so, it’s time to start thinking about the thoughtful, meaningful gifts we can give to our loved ones–or perhaps the thoughtful, meaningful gifts we hope to get from them. Whether you’re focused on finding the perfect gift for someone else, or on crafting your own wish list, here are some ideas.
The first literary magazine I ever read was the result of a gift subscription from my aunt and uncle, who signed me up for Cicada Magazine, a young adult literary magazine put out by Cricket Media. Subscription costs range from $4.95-$59.95, depending on the duration of the subscription. This gift was of paramount importance in my writing life. Not only did it introduce me to the concept of what a literary magazine was, but it also led me to begin submitting my writing for publication. Cicada was the first non-school-related publication to which I ever sent work, and it was the first not only to publish several of my poems over the course of a few years, but also to pay me for them. I doubt when my aunt and uncle subscribed to this magazine for me, they could have imagined what an important role it would end up playing in my passion. The vindication I felt upon receiving my first acceptance letter and contract from Cicada was lasting and immense. Gifting a reader/writer with this magazine may open the door not only to memorable and fascinating works of literature, but also to her own opportunity for publication.
Gifting a loved one with this magazine may open the door not only to memorable and fascinating works of literature, but also to her own opportunity for publication.
My father, a fellow English teacher, was the person who first introduced me to OneStory, an aptly named and phenomenal little literary magazine. Each issue features only–you guessed it–one story. I love this magazine, because I am an exceptionally busy person whose time is always at a premium. I rarely have time to finish a novel during the course of the school year (though I devour them in the summer months). I do, however, have time for one story now and again. OneStory arrives once a month, so I know I always have about four weeks to finish the story, which can usually be read in one sitting (the challenge becomes finding time for the sitting!). A one-year subscription costs $21.
The best thing about OneStory is that even someone as busy as I am can usually find time to read just one story a month.
If your loved one likes a little board game fun, I highly recommend you consider one of these family-friendly, literary, board-based competitions as a gift.
For Writers, in General
When I was about half-way through the first draft of my novel (I am now working on the seventh draft of my novel), my sister and brother-in-law gifted me with an engraved pen and pen case from Things Remembered. Not only is it elegant, beautiful, and practical, but it was also one of the most meaningful and thoughtful gifts I have ever received; it showed me that they believed in me and in my dream, and that vote of confidence in the form of this pen still motivates me today. Every time I see the case and open it to retrieve the pen, my faith in my dream is renewed, and my motivation to write is revived. I am reminded that someone thinks I can do it. The pen is a manifestation of their faith.
The engraved pen and case showed me that they believed in me and in my dream, and that vote of confidence in the form of this pen still motivates me today. Every time I see the case and open it to retrieve the pen, my faith in my dream is renewed, and my motivation to write is revived. I am reminded that someone thinks I can do it. The pen is a manifestation of their faith.
Engraved pens and cases run between $5 and $300 at Things Remembered. I recently spent just shy of $50 on a pen with both the pen and its case engraved, and the recipient, an aspiring children’s book author, loved it.
Membership to a Local Writing Organization
Joining James River Writers was one of the best moves I ever made regarding my writing. In fact, it’s safe to say my novel would never have been finished had I not joined this group and begun participating in their many Writing Shows, events, and conferences. Membership to a local writing group yields many benefits, including reduced fees for workshops, events, and conferences; networking; exposure to agents and other literary professionals; motivation; regular newsletters; education–just to name a few. Paying for a loved one’s membership would no doubt be a welcomed gift.
One of the newest digital magazines for writers, writeHackr Magagzine, features author interviews and information on writing, craft, branding, ideas, the writing industry, the publishing industry, etc. To get a feel for the magazine, check out their blog. You can also find them on Instagram. I subscribe myself, and have even written a few pieces for the publication. I highly recommend it for all writers!
Membership to a Poetry Society or Organization
If you are local, buying a beloved poet membership to the Poetry Society of Virginia would be a practical, thoughtful, and meaningful gift. Benefits include a regular newsletter; reduced rates for attendance at the annual festival and other events; and participation in workshops, readings, and open mic events–to name just three. Other outcomes are motivation, inspiration, networking, and support.
I recently heard an interview with the famed memoirist Mary Karr on NPR. In 2015, she came out with a new book called The Art of Memoir, on which the interview focused. Listening to the interview, I wanted not only to read the book (I myself have listed it on my own Christmas Wish List), but also to be her friend. She was so genuine, honest, and raw–things I am often afraid to be when writing nonfiction. I feel I could really learn something from her–and her book. She was painfully honest in the interview, as I expect most memoirists must learn to be, at some point or another–particularly about herself. She did not shy away from saying about people things that might upset them. She was unabashed. To listen to the captivating interview, click here.
For Writers Aspiring to be Published
Subscription to Writer’s Digest
Writer’s Digest purports to be the #1 magazine for writers, and features publishing tips, craft tips, information on techniques, etc. There are three subscription options: A one-year digital subscription costs $9.96; a one-year print subscription costs $19.96; both digital and print combined cost $21.96 for one year.
The 2017 Writer’s Market
There are lots of options concerning The Writer’s Market books, so you can really tailor your purchase to the writer you’re buying for. Options include, but are not limited to: Novels and Short Stories Writer’s Market, Writer’s Market Deluxe Edition, Writer’s Market 2017: The Most Trusted Guide to Getting Published, and Guide to Literary Agents. On Amazon, they range in price from $9.90 to a digital edition of Writer’s Market 2017: The Most Trusted Guide to Getting Published, to $34.79 for the print version of Writer’s Market Deluxe Edition. Writer’s Market books also exist for poets and children’s books authors and illustrators.
For Dog Lovers
Richmond Animal League 2017 Calendar
What animal lover wouldn’t like to greet each new month with the photograph of an adorable rescue dog or cat–and the knowledge that the purchase of that calendar helped to find forever homes for even more loving animals? Each year, Richmond Animal League (RAL), a no-kill shelter in Virginia, hosts a calendar contest as a fundraiser. Contestants compete to see who can raise the most money for the shelter. The top twelve fundraisers’ pets are then featured within the calendar’s pages. To raise even more money in support of homeless animals, RAL then sells the calendars for about $15 each. They make a great gift!
Richmond Animal League Luminary
To honor the memory of a pet, or to celebrate the life of one still with you, as well as to help raise money for homeless pets, you can purchase in your loved one’s name (and/or their pet’s name) a luminary for the Richmond Animal League Operation Silent Night event. Luminaries start at only $20 and can be purchased here. Gifting an animal lover with a luminary not only honors him or her, as well as his or her beloved animals, but also helps provide hope for a homeless pet.
I have made some very meaningful memories and spent some high-quality bonding time with my dogs through training classes. My sweet beagle who, it turns out, hates “doggy school,” has still completed a basic training class, and my whippet-jack russell mix, who is quite the little scholar, has completed basic training and earned his Canine Good Citizen certificate at our local Petco. He and I have also participated in agility classes at levels A, B, and B/C at the Richmond SPCA. These classes not only enrich a dog’s life, but also strengthen and enhance the human-dog bond. When you gift someone with a training class, you are improving communication and understanding between the person and his dog; enriching the overall relationship; providing stimulation and, in some cases, as with agility, physical fitness for both dog and human, among other positive outcomes.
Doggy Swimming Lessons
One wish-list item that appears on my personal Christmas list this year is swimming
lessons with my whippet-jack russell, who, over the summer, discovered an absolute passion for swimming. He swam in the bay. He swam in the creek. He swam in the river. He swam in the sound. But it’s too cold to swim in the winter. Unless, that is, you enroll in lessons at Alpha Dog Club, or a similar organization near you, that has an indoor swimming facility for dogs. Swim sessions at Alpha Dog Club range from $25-$60 after a mandatory $60 introduction/evaluation session.
You can’t go wrong with light-up, reflective, or glow-in-dark doggy gear for safety. Many companies make collars, leashes, harnesses, vests, and collar charms that emit or reflect light so your canine companion is visible on those night-time or early morning jaunts.
Someone with a particularly energetic and agile dog, as well as a large enough yard, might find agility equipment, such as tunnels, ramps, teeters, and jumps, an excellent gift. Training on the equipment together is not only stimulating for the dog, but also good exercise for humans and dogs alike, and a great way for humans and dogs to bond.
Canine Life Vest
For those dog lovers and dogs who love to boat, fish, or swim, a doggy life jacket could be just the thing. It makes a dog’s aquatic adventures that much safer, and also assists him when he swims. You might also check out Ruff Wear‘s waterproof and wear-and-tear proof products. Click on the photographs below to enlarge them and read the captions.
Sadie’s swim is made easier with a canine flotation device.
Jack stands proudly on the bow of the speed boat, sporting his neon green life vest.
Safe in his canine life vest, Beans plays fetch in the waves.
Beans is king of the canoe in his canine life vest.
Donation in a Loved One’s Name
If you have a loved one who has no need of or want for anything, and whose pet is also already aptly provisioned, you might consider making a donation to an animal rescue organization in his or her name. Last year for Christmas, I donated to a bird rescue foundation as a gift for my dear friend who has always loved and kept birds. I was able to give him an information card on the bird species his gift was helping to support, as well as a few other mementoes to commemorate his gift.
Canine First Aid Certification Course
Just as with donating to an animal rescue organization, paying for a loved one’s enrollment in a Canine First Aid and CPR course could be a useful, practical, and life-saving gift. The hands-on, three- to four-hour course offered at Alpha Dog Club in Richmond, Virginia costs $75, a fee which then helps fund scholarships for shelter dogs who could benefit from the aquatic services offered at the facility. The certification lasts for the participant’s lifetime, and participants receive a canine first aid book to keep on-hand, as well as a few first aid supplies.
If any of these ideas helped you, please help me by sharing this post on Pinterest, or to your own social media accounts! In this season of thanksgiving and always, I will be very grateful. 😉 Happy Thanksgiving and gift-giving!
There is, I think, a general consensus in the writing world that writing necessitates reading. To be a good writer, you must also be a reader. Many well-known adages advocate for this. “And when you cannot write, read” and “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write,” the latter by Stephen King, to name just two. Writing courses also perpetuate the idea, especially beginner courses or courses for elementary-aged students, which often recommend as a starting point the imitation of a certain writer, style, or genre. Truth be told, even in my Master’s program, I was once assigned a certain poet to study and imitate. We are all familiar with the famous works of Anne Lamott (I have my College Composition students read her essay, “Shitty First Drafts,” each semester), Stephen King, and other experts in the field when it comes to our craft. Here, I share in no particular order some perhaps lesser known but nonetheless worthwhile reads for writers. Some I received as gifts. Others I stumbled upon. Still others were assigned reading in various undergraduate and graduate courses I have completed.
2. Room to Write: Daily Invitations to a Writer’s Life, Bonni Goldberg
I recommend this book for anyone who finds herself in front of the blank page or glaringly white computer screen asking, “What do I write about?” only to remain seated, staring, paralyzed, at the same blank page or screen. Every page of the book presents a new writing prompt, for a total of just shy of 200 prompts. Each page is broken into three parts: a brief explanation or introduction, the prompt itself, and a relevant and often enlightening, inspiring, or encouraging quote from well-known writers like Zora Neale Hurston, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and Emily Dickinson.
3. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, William Zinsser
My favorite thing about this book when I read it as a graduate student a few years ago was its easy-to-read and conversational tone. To this day, I often use Chapter 14, “Writing About Yourself: The Memoir,” to help teach my high school students vital lessons about writing about themselves in the context of the college essay. The writing is accessible and easy to relate to. It is broken into four parts: Principles, Methods, Forms, and Attitudes, with each part further broken down into individual chapters. I recommend this work for writers of fiction or nonfiction. Though it is clearly geared towards nonfiction writers, the lessons presented could benefit any writer.
4. 642 Things to Write About
As with Room to Write, I recommend this book for anyone who thinks he is at a loss for material. It is the perfect weapon against writer’s block. This book is full of blank pages, which might sound intimidating, but on each page is a prompt–or in some cases, multiple prompts. Sometimes, when I feel the urge to write but don’t think I have anything to say, I page through this book until I find a prompt that inspires me, and begin. If your main interest is simply to write, without necessarily studying the craft in depth, this book will help you see exactly how much subject matter you really do have at your fingertips. Your job is to just get it onto the page.
5. The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative, Vivian Gornick
This book provides commentary and instruction on craft, as well as examples of various writing to help illustrate when and how a certain effect or goal is achieved well. It also discusses how to craft yourself into a character/narrator, among other topics pertinent to those trying their hand at personal narrative. It begins with an introduction, and from there breaks off into parts: the essay, the memoir, and the conclusion.
6. Writing Creative Nonfiction, Carolyn Forche and Philip Gerard (editors)
This fascinating book (partly because the genre around which it is centered is so intriguing to me) includes explanations, examples, and exercises in each chapter. The explanations are enlightening; the examples are entertaining, informative, and illustrative (I particularly enjoyed “A Braided Heart: Shaping the Lyric Essay,” by Brenda Miller, a piece that, years after my first reading of it, influences my writing); and the exercises are thoughtful , demanding the participant to do more than just write. For example, one of the first exercises, on page 13, consists of three steps:
Write a short poem about a real-life event, personal or public, that interests you deeply.
In the above poem, identify the Subject that was triggered by the writing.
From the poem, write a piece of creative nonfiction about the same Subject
The completion of this exercise requires much, not the least of which is experimenting with genre–writing about the same topic using two very different genres, poetry and creative nonfiction. You will be amazed at the different lives a piece can take on when written in various formats.
7. Your Life as Story: Discovering the “New Autobiography” and Writing Memoir as Literature, Tristine Rainer
This book, broken into 22 chapters, does exactly what its title claims: Provides an understanding of how to turn your own life into a readable, publishable story.We are all the star of our own plot. This book aims to help you structure it and express it in an artistic, deliberate manner. In addition, it touches on difficult subjects, such as how to write about others, in Chapter 10, “Portraying Others: Casting Your Story From Life.” And, of course, very few writing books would be complete without writing exercises, which this book also includes.
8. Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film, Seymour Chatman
This was one of the most eye-opening books I read during my time as an undergraduate at Michigan State University. I still remember the first epiphanic moment in great detail: I was curled up on a love seat-sized piece of furniture in a sort of common area in one of the science buildings on campus, in between classes. There was not enough time to go home; too much time to go to my next class just yet. My books and backpack and brown-bag lunch were sprawled out on the floor around the over-sized chair where I sat, still wearing my winter coat. In true sophomoric style, I was reading the assigned chapter only so I could check it off my academic to-do list, and not in expectation of gaining any true insight. But the reading I accomplished that day was extremely engaging and educational. It was the first time I truly understood the difference between the author and the narrator. I believe it was Chapter 4, “Discourse: Nonnarrated Stories,” that had this eye-opening effect on me. What impressed me was how Chatman managed to break down and explain invisible elements–things I had taken for granted–of the experience of reading, elements that as writers writing for readers and as readers reading critically, we need to be aware of.
9. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, Janet Burroway
This book, which contains quotes, explanations, advice, examples, and exercises for fiction writers, consists of nine chapters, beginning appropriately with “Whatever Works: The Writing Process” and ending equally appropriately with “Play it Again, Sam: Revision.” Sandwiched in between are discussions about world building, character building, story form, point of view, time, etc.
At 854 pages on my nook, Roberto Bolano’s novel 2666 is the lengthiest on my summer to-read list. This post may be slightly premature, as I am only 76 pages into the 854 pages that comprise this novel, but I felt the need to provide my observations as they stand thus far.
One of the first things of note is that one of the many reasons I wanted to read this book is actually mentioned in this book: Salman Rushdie is described as “an author neither of them happened to think was much good but whose mention seemed pertinent” (75) . The narrator tells us this during a scene where two main characters, Pelletier and Espinoza, are brutally kicking a Pakistani cab driver who has insulted them and the woman with whom they are both in love. The irony in all this for me is the stance taken on Rushdie. When I heard an NPR story about 2666, it sounded reminiscent of Rushdie’s novel, Midnight’s Children, which I thoroughly enjoyed and studied, and which consequently contributed to my desire to read Bolano’s book–yet Rushdie is somewhat disparaged, albeit in passing, on the pages of the book.
A similar irony occurs regarding the role of translators to world literature. They are viewed somewhat disdainfully–or perhaps pitifully–by the main characters, and yet the English version of the book I am reading is a translation from the original Spanish. I can’t help but wonder what the translators thought as they transcribed less-than-complementary lines about their profession.
On page 70, Bolano makes a delicious use of ambiguity. Two characters, Liz Norton and either Pelletier or Espinoza, are discussing the possibility of a menage a trois with either Pelletier or Espinoza, whichever character isn’t the current conversation partner.
“‘I don’t think we’ll ever suggest it,’ said the person on the phone.
‘”I know,’ said Norton. ‘You’re afraid to. You’re waiting for me to make the first move.’
‘”I don’t know,’ said the person on the phone, ‘maybe it isn’t as simple as that.'”
Of course, by referring to one of the speakers simply as “the person on the phone,” there is no telling if said person is Pelletier or Espinoza. I’ve been wondering about the purpose for this ambiguity, and so far, all I can come up with is maybe it simply doesn’t matter who is talking–an effort to show us how insignificant the individualities of the two men may be to Norton, who is romantically involved with both of them.
While Bolano employs ambiguity in the dialog above, he employs wit and rhythm in a delicious example on page 68, when Pelletier and Espinoza have both come to visit Norton, only to find her with another man, a young stranger (to them) named Pritchard. As you might imagine, the situation is tense:
“‘Are you insulting me?’ Pritchard wanted to know.
“‘Do you feel insulted?’ asked Epsinoza….”
I just love Espinoza’s response.
A third way Bolano creatively expresses conversation is with a deliberate lack of dialog. It sounds counter-intuitive, doesn’t it–that you could write a conversation in which absolutely no dialog occurs? But when Pelletier and Espinoza talk on the phone about their relationships with Liz Norton, Bolano presents the conversation like this:
“The first twenty minutes were tragic in tone, with the word fate used ten times and the word friendship used twenty-four times. Liz Norton’s name was spoken fifty times, nine of them in vain…. The word love was spoken twice, once by each man. The word horror was spoken six times and the word happiness once (by Espinoza)…” (44).
Dialog with no dialog, forcing the reader to infer the use of the words and imagine the conversation.We have to fill in the blanks ourselves, use our own imaginations.
In addition to various treatments of dialog, the book so far has been rife with allusion–to Medusa, Perseus, Rushdie, and Napoleon, just to name a few.
I’ve also noticed some juxtaposition that precisely expresses the paradox of life, such as this example on page 61: “Couples or elegantly dressed single women passed briskly, toward Serptentine Gallery or the Albert Memorial, and in the opposite direction men with crumpled newspapers or mothers pushing baby carriages headed toward Bayswater Road.”
Finally, as little of the book as I have so far read, it has already provided me with six weeks’ worth of Words of the Week. Look for them in September (I can’t promise I’ll have a free Sunday before then!).
Basic conclusion so far: It’s worth the read (at least, the first 76 pages are).
Yesterday afternoon, I spent some time sitting out on my back deck in the sunshine, flipping through the Sunday Richmond Times-Dispatch. I was pretty excited to find that the week’s edition of Paradewas dubbed the summer reading issue, and featured an article listing the best 75 books from the last 75 years. The article categorized the books by decade, listing the best books from the 1940s through the 2010s, with as few as four and as many as fifteen books listed under each decade (the 1940s fared the worst, with only four books listed, while the 1960s and 2000s performed the best, each with fifteen books listed). I’ll leave it to you to read the list in its entirety, but below are those I have read, as well as those I would have included had I been given the task.
Books I Have Read from the List
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty smith (1943)
I read this delightful coming of age novel a few summers ago, and enjoyed it so thoroughly that the following summer, I offered it as an option for my incoming honors students’ summer reading assignment
Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury (1953)
What can I say about this book except, though I have not read it since late middle school, it is one of my favorites?
Night, by Elie Wiesel (1960)
I taught this book to high school sophomores during my first year teaching. Of all the books we read, this short, readable, and factual book written by a Holocaust survivor was a favorite among my students–even the ones who didn’t like to read. (John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men usually has the same effect on my high school juniors.)
To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee (1960)
I haven’t read this book since I was in high school, but I remember enjoying it, and feeling a particular sympathy for Boo Radley and a particular admiration for Atticus Finch. I am told the latter might change when I begin reading Go Set a Watchman this week, so I am curious as to what my own reaction will be.
A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle (1962)
My father read this to my three siblings and me when we were elementary-aged. All four of us loved it. I have fond memories of sitting on the floor around my dad, either by the fireplace in our family room in Cheyenne, Wyoming, or in the bedroom my little sisters shared, listening to him read until it was time for bed.
Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak (1963)
Of course I’ve read this one. My brother even had the stuffed animal monster.
Maus, by Art Spiegelman (1980)
Maus is one of just two graphic novels I’ve read. I didn’t expect much, as it was a “comic book,” and I’m not really into “that sort of thing,” but Maus, written by the son of Holocaust survivors, is really something artful.
The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien (1990)
I read this book during the summer of 2013, as Tim O’Brien was one of two authors (the other being Ernest Hemingway) I studied for my Capstone project to complete my Master’s of Arts in Liberal Studies degree with a Creative Writing major from University of Denver. I cannot rave enough about this book. It is raw, it is gripping, and it is honest, though at times hard to read for these very traits. Even in its most difficult-to-stomach areas, I had a hard time putting it down. It left me thoughtful and reflective for months, asking myself questions about the human condition, our capacity for kindness, our capacity for evil, and what I could realistically expect of myself if put into situations like those described in the book.
(Some of) the Books I Would Add to the List
1. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck (1939)
This book is incredibly moving and touching. One of my favorite characters is the genuine and conflicted Jim Casy. I also admire the way the book is structured, some chapters told in an almost stream-of-collective-consciousness fashion, and others narrated clearly and directly about the Joad family.
2. Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl (1946)
Written by a Holocaust survivor in part about what he believed allowed some people to survive the miseries of concentration camps while others succumbed and perished, the book is a philosophical and psychological examination of the human spirit. Despite its many references to the Holocaust, the book is uplifting, encouraging, and inspiring.
3. East of Eden, by John Steinbeck (1952)
When students ask me what my favorite book is, my answer is East of Eden. I’ve heard Steinbeck himself cited it as his masterpiece, and it’s easy to see why. The characters and story are enthralling–rich and complex. I have read it three times, and each time come away with a different impression, a new insight, or a new idea to ponder–if not all three.
4. The Giving Tree, Shel Silverstein (1964)
Next to The Velveteen Rabbit (which can’t be included in this list, because it was published in 1922) and The Ugly Duckling (1844), The Giving Tree has to be one of the most emotionally involved children’s books I have ever read. Despite its seeming simplicity (simple language, simple illustrations), the book discusses the complexities of human relationships–the give and take of love, the meaning of sacrifice, generosity, gratitude, loyalty, etc. It is one of the few children’s books that still moves me to tears, and I still remember how affected I was the first time the book was read to me in a classroom when I was in elementary school.
5. Midnight’s Children, by Salman Rushdie (1981)
A few years ago, a friend of mine suggested we read this together. I don’t think my friend ever got around to it, but I ended up reading the script, as well as the novel. It. Is. Fascinating. I would go so far as to label it epic, actually. The book is about as thick as East of Eden or The Bible, but don’t let that deter you. You’ll love every page and be disappointed to find you’ve arrived at the last one. I enjoyed it so much, that I conducted a deep enough reading of it to create a sample project for the Literature Portfolio assignment my honors students are required to produce for each piece of literature we read.
6. Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card (1985)
Next to East of Eden, this is quite possibly one of my favorite books. It is also the only book one of my most difficult students enjoyed reading, and may have been the only book he actually read during his time in my classroom. This book begs the reader to question the ethics of warfare and survival, as well as brings up questions about “The Other.”
7. Room, by Emma Donoghue (2010)
A fellow English teacher let me borrow this book from her last summer. The imagination of Ms. Donoghue is truly enviable. She tells her story from the perspective of a young boy whose whole life has been lived in a small backyard shed, which he calls Room, with his captive mother.
8. And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini (2013)
There are two things I remember clearly about this novel from my reading of it a year or two ago: 1) It left an indelible emotional imprint on me; it was incredibly poignant, and 2) It did an exceptional job presenting various perspectives of the same situation, illustrating expertly the complexities of human dealings.