Today is already a good day. It’s Friday. The sun is shining. My honors students are going to write their own Gothic stories, modeled after Poe, Faulkner, or Gilman, later on this morning. In addition to all this–it’s also National Day on Writing, sponsored by the National Council of Teachers of English. All week long on my Instagram account, I’ve participated in their #whyIwrite campaign, posting one reason each day for, well, why I write. This blog post is the culmination of my daily musings on why I write.
Reason 1: I love to write.
This one is probably pretty obvious, but I figured I’d elaborate, anyway. I have been compelled to write since the day I was physically able. Boxes and boxes of journals, begun when I was in just third grade, occupy a significant amount of the storage space in the eaves of my attic. I love to write articles, diary entries, poems, stories, narrative essays, novels, blog posts. There isn’t much I don’t like to write. The feeling I experience when I know I have written something just the way it needed to be expressed is the same satisfaction produced by the sound of a softball smacking a glove in a perfect catch. That sense of achievement and precision is priceless.
In addition to the simple satisfaction writing provides for me, I find the act of writing therapeutic. Writing provides a physical, mental, and emotional means to let go. It allows me to process my emotions and thoughts, and offers a form of catharsis.
It also reaffirms for me my place in the world, and my identity as “writer.”
Finally, I find flow through writing. There is nothing quite like the sense that the piece I am writing–the very words pouring from my pen or fingertips–stems from some secret source I have magically tapped into. I am just the conduit. It is effortless. Finding myself in this state is truly a spiritual experience, one I have not achieved through any other activity.
The feeling I experience when I know I have written something just the way it needed to be expressed is the same satisfaction produced by the sound of a softball smacking a glove in a perfect catch.
Reason 2: I write to remember.
One of my favorite things about writing is going back, sometimes years later, to read things I have written. Many times, I find I wrote about things that, had I never written about them, I would have forgotten them. They never would have resurfaced in my mind. I love rediscovering scraps of experience that, without writing, would have been lost to my consciousness.
Reason 3: I write to be remembered.
Writing offers a form of immortality. It helps me preserve something of myself for future generations–for my nieces, for my nephews, maybe even for their children and their children’s children. Often, when I write something, particularly diary entries or personal narratives, I wonder who might read them decades down the road, and think about me–and know a little more about me, about herself, about the world as it was when I was here, for having read it.
Writing is a handshake, a hug, an invitation to empathy and understanding. It is one way to strengthen the bond of the human family.
Reason 4: I write to get perspective.
Writing helps me get my thoughts in order, helps me sort myself out.
Reason 5: I write to connect.
One of the most rewarding aspects of writing is when people tell me a piece I wrote resonated with them. People’s reactions to what I write about my family and marriage, the lessons I have learned through my mistakes or misconceptions, or the effect nature seems always to have on me are so touching–and encouraging. Writing is a way to reach out to humanity as whole, across oceans and mountains, to cry out into the abyss, “I am here! You are here! And we are not alone!” Writing is a handshake, a hug, an invitation to empathy and understanding. It is one way to strengthen the bond of the human family.
Most people have no trouble understanding the simple, surface difference between a simile and a metaphor. They both serve to make comparisons, but similes use comparison words such as “like” or “as,” whereas metaphors do not. Two examples of simile from my second novel-in-progress, The Experiment, are:
Maybe he could make more of the next 23 hours … if he weren’t so aware of the minutes peeling away like sheets on a desk calendar.
Her pen moved slowly, like her morning thoughts.
To help express the character’s sense of time passing too quickly, the first example draws a comparison between minutes passing and the sheets on a desk calendar being ripped away and discarded. The second example compares the pace of the writer’s pen to the pace of her thoughts–both slow in the early morning hours.
An example of a metaphor from the same work is:
…the sky had exchanged its vibrant afternoon blue for a pale lavender nightgown.
In the above example, dusk is compared to (almost equated with) a “pale lavender nightgown” the personified sky dons before nightfall.
When a writer employs a simile, she allows for a degree of separation between the items she compares. They are similar, alike–but not the same. By contrast, a metaphor essentially equates the items it compares. When a writer uses a metaphor, she is implying a much closer comparison than if she uses a simile. As a reader, paying attention to this subtle difference can help you ascertain author’s purpose and better comprehend a character, scene, and so forth. As a writer, be aware of the fact that making comparisons through a simile or a metaphor can produce different effects. A metaphor creates a more direct comparison than does a simile. The choice you make as a writer depends on how close a comparison you intend to draw, or how close a relationship you want to create between the two subjects.
When a writer employs a simile, she allows for a degree of separation between the items she compares. They are similar, alike–but not the same. By contrast, a metaphor essentially equates the items it compares. When a writer uses a metaphor, she is implying a much closer comparison than if she uses a simile.
To see a visual representation of the subtle differences between simile and metaphor, please see this Venn Diagram.
Lauren and I sit in her Jeep in an alley across the street from the building where we take a writing workshop together. It’s dark, almost 9:30 at night, Lauren’s face illuminated by the glow of her car’s dashboard, street sounds filtering through our open windows. The
night air is warm and still–and electric with the nightlife of nearby VCU, the students energized from their summer hiatus, enlivened by reunions with sorority sisters and roommates and classmates.
“One thing I struggle with,” Lauren tells me, “is feeling like my emotions aren’t valid. Like, I have it so good compared to other people. What do I have to complain about–to feel sad or angry or upset about?”
I get what she’s saying. I mean, how do I dare say I’m overworked or overwhelmed or stressed out when, somewhere in the world, someone else spends 12 hours a day toiling in a sweatshop for pennies–and feels grateful, maybe, just to have a job? How could I dare complain about missing my sister, who lives 10 hours away, when somewhere in the world, someone else’s sister lives even farther way–or maybe isn’t even alive anymore at all? How dare I feel sad or stressed when my biggest problems are wishing I didn’t have to get up for work Monday morning; not getting enough sleep; and trying to figure out how to cram a full work day, a trip to the grocery store, a run, and a family dinner into one day? Especially when I compare those worries to the much more burdensome concerns of people around me? How ungrateful am I? If my problems were more extreme, wouldn’t I find myself saying, “I wish my biggest problem were finding time for the grocery store. If only my biggest concern were having to work Monday morning.” Wouldn’t I see my old troubles as trivial, silly? Yeah. Probably. In all honesty, yes.
If my problems were more extreme, wouldn’t I find myself saying, “I wish my biggest problem were finding time for the grocery store. If only my biggest concern were having to work Monday morning.” Wouldn’t I see my old troubles as trivial, silly? Yeah. Probably. In all honesty, yes. But that doesn’t necessarily make my stress or sorrow or dread any less valid.
But that doesn’t necessarily make my stress or sorrow or dread–or Lauren’s, or anyone’s–any less valid. (And, on a side note, how interesting that we beat ourselves up over the validity of only negative emotions. I’ve never heard anyone say, “How dare I be happy when someone else has it so much better?” but I’ve heard time and time again, “How dare I be sad when someone else has it so much worse?”) Your sorrow might result from X; mine, from Y. But we both experience sorrow, regardless of the cause. My anxiety might come from this; yours, from that. But we both experience anxiety. The experience of the emotion makes it valid, not the cause of the emotion. It’s the emotion that counts, not always its cause–not all the time.
Think about it like this: I’m currently working on an article about the ingredients and “superingredients” (think: super foods) you should look for in your dog’s food, and one thing I’ve learned in my research is that more important than the individual ingredients, are the nutrients found in those ingredients. So, while you might want salmon or chicken to be included on the ingredients list, what you’re really after–and what your dog’s system is really after–is the protein (or the omega-3 fatty acids or the omega-6 fatty acids–but you’ll have to read the article for more on that) the salmon or chicken (or dried egg product or oatmeal or lamb…) provides. Just as the nutrient is more important than the ingredient that provides it, so the emotion is more important than the experience that causes it.
When we read, we feel familiar emotions in unfamiliar circumstances. It is the emotion we recognize, not necessarily the situation, not the emotion’s cause. We understand the emotional experience, even though the circumstance prompting it is foreign.
Our conversation put me in mind of two things, the first, something I read recently: Reading makes us more empathetic people. If we know what grief feels like–even if the only cause of it in our own lives is the impending fade of summer vacation into another school year–we can understand what grief feels like when it’s caused by a situation we have never experienced–a divorce, the loss of a beloved friend. When we read, we feel familiar emotions in unfamiliar circumstances. It is the emotion we recognize, not necessarily the situation, not the emotion’s cause. Perhaps you’re reading Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. You’ve likely (SPOILER ALERT!) never had to kill your best friend to spare him a worse fate–that has probably never been the cause of your sorrow, grief, or loneliness (I hope!). But you likely have lost a best friend, to one situation or another, and thus are capable of empathizing with the character’s sense of sorrow, grief, and loneliness. You understand the emotional experience, even though the circumstance prompting it is foreign.
The second is this: a fellow writer’s assertion that writers feel more deeply than, well, non-writers. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but if it is, than we creative writer types, well–our sorrow over the death of yet another glorious summer might feel akin to the sorrow someone else feels over something others might deem much more worthy of sorrow. And, as a writer, having known sorrow, you can now transfer that sense of sorrow, however trivial its cause, to your characters, who might be likely to experience it as a result of whatever circumstance they’re in.
In any case, reading, writing, and emotional experience are intimately and inexplicably intertwined. Whether your emotion is triggered by something even you yourself deem trivial, or something almost anyone would deem worthy of the resulting emotional reaction, pain is pain, love is love, anger is anger, joy is joy. Emotions are part of the human experience. We do not all share the same lives, the same experiences, the same situations. What we do share, though, are the human feelings these lives, experiences, and circumstances cause. We all know love. We all know vengeance. We all know fear. We all know gratitude. We all feel, no matter the source of the feelings.
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.
Recently, I got to spend some time with my niece from Florida, who, just having reached the age of five, will begin kindergarten in about two weeks. She knows my husband and I collect sea glass, and as we were walking down a sidewalk in town, she picked up a broken glass bottle and held it up, exuberant.
“Look! I found some glass for you!” she exclaimed, impressed with her find.
My sister, her mother, quickly told her to put it down.
“But she gathers glass,” my niece said, clearly confused about the difference between sea glass and any old glass you might find in the street. After we cleared up the confusion, and her protest echoed in my head, I thought, “‘Gathers?’ What five-year-old uses a word like ‘gathers?'”
Other words I heard her use over the course of the next day or so included “scurry,” “scuttle,” “scamper,” and “scepter,” all of which she would casually and correctly use–just as if she were using the word “run” or “walk.” I started keeping a list. My niece knew about this list, and a few days after she returned home, I got a call from her.
“Hi, Aunt Amanda,” she said. “I have another word for you to add to your list.”
“Oh, you do?” I said, amused–and touched that my list had made such an impression on her.
“‘Glimpse,'” said my niece.
“‘Glimpse,'” I repeated. “Can you use it in a sentence?” My niece knew that in order for one of her words to qualify for the list, she had to use it correctly in a sentence. A few days prior, I had denied the inclusion of “humiliated” on the list, because although she had used it in a sentence, it hadn’t made any sense. (Though I must admit, I was impressed at her attempt, and told her as much.)
“I could barely see the bunny–I only caught a glimpse of him,” she said.
“Very good! You’re right–another one for the list.”
My sister’s voice came over the phone.
“Where does she get all these words?” I asked her.
“Well, we read to her all the time,” my sister said, matter-of-factly. And of course she’s right–the regular reading sessions every night and at various points throughout the day, as requested, no doubt play a significant role in my niece’s impressive and ever expanding vocabulary.
Read. If you want to learn, read. If you want to escape, read. If you want to relax, read. But, most especially, if you want to write, read. Words are the most powerful tools we writers wield–and we can acquire more of them simply by opening a book.
My niece’s enthusiasm for her growing vocabulary reminds me of my own experience with words. I can remember in third grade learning to use and spell the word “conservatory.” I felt so important, possessing such a large, polysyllabic word. Later, I can remember encountering the word “alabaster,” specifically in the phrase “her alabaster brow” (I think it was in an Anne of Green Gables book), and using it in my own writing every chance I got. It was exhaustive, really. The number of times you’ll find that phrase in my early writing is laughable.
When I first started this blog, I was rather good about composing a weekly Word of the Week post, and though I haven’t been very consistent with that recently, I still keep my eye out for new words, many of which I find in my reading. Currently, I’m (still) reading Roberto Bolano’s 2666, and in my last sitting alone, I became acquainted with the following new words:
impecunious–habitually poor (a word I can, unfortunately, employ regarding my own circumstances!)
philatelic–having to do with the study of postage stamps
crepuscular–relating to or resembling twilight (which might be my favorite of these newly acquired words),
just to name a few.
And, as it past my bedtime (my niece might say I should have scurried to bed long ago; I might say I should have started my crepuscular routine before allowing myself to grow this tired and the night to grow this old), I’ll wrap this up simply by saying: Read. If you want to learn, read. If you want to escape, read. If you want to relax, read. But, most especially, if you want to write, read. Words are the most powerful tools we writers wield–and we can acquire more of them simply by opening a book. The stronger our individual words are, the stronger our overall writing, and the more striking our impact, will be.
Few will deny the many values of continuing education for all professionals–especially for educators. After all, how can we prepare our students for the world and the workforce of tomorrow if we as teachers don’t continue to learn, grow, and adapt? Technology is constantly changing. New teaching techniques are constantly surfacing. New information is constantly becoming available. It’s imperative for us to keep up with, if not ahead of, these changes. Naturally, attending workshops and conferences and enrolling in graduate level classes can help us learn about the latest technologies, techniques, and tools–but that is only the most obvious reason to continue our education.
Recently, my Instagram buddy and fellow teacher and writer, Kathryn Fletcher (check out her blog, Quill and Books), posted about a class she is taking, and the fact that being a student again helps her to be a better teacher. I, too, have noticed this phenomenon. From 2009-2013, I was enrolled in a graduate program at the University of Denver, and last month, I completed an accelerated graduate course on gifted and talented students through the University of Richmond. While my classes provided me with the traditional benefits of education–knowledge, information, skills–they also made me a better teacher simply because I was reminded of what being a student is like–of what being a student is.
Providing Examples to Clarify Expectations
I’ve heard two schools of thought regarding providing students with examples of projects, papers, or assignments.
The first school of thought seems to be that providing examples can be helpful to our students’ understanding of our expectations for their work, and is in fact integral to their ability to meet our expectations. Those who ascribe to this school of thought might feel that to not provide an example would be unfair, withholding information necessary for the students’ success.
The second school of thought seems to be that providing examples limits students’ creativity, imposing upon them a sort of template. In short, providing examples at best encourages students to think inside the box and at worst, fosters plagiarism.
Having recently been a student myself, I find I fall somewhere in the middle. As a student, I find access to examples at the very least a source of peace of mind. They help me understand my instructor’s expectations, and put me at ease. They also give me a basis of comparison. Is what I have completed so far up to par, or do I need to up the ante? They eliminate a lot of the stress associated with a weighty project or paper, and can make concrete what might otherwise feel like an abstract task. They do, indeed, provide a sort of template.
As a teacher, however, I understand the fear of boxing my students in, of limiting them to the standards set by the example–when perhaps they are capable of more. To help satisfy both teacher me and student me, I recommend providing several, different examples, all exemplifying different strengths and suggesting different ways a student could successfully complete the assignment. In this way, I hope the examples will inspire my students, acting as a jumping-off point instead of as a single route to successful completion.
This seems obvious, but really, having been simultaneously a student and a teacher for four years, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of clear directions. List them in bullet points; create numbered, step-by-step lists; draw one of those concept map things that visually explains the steps students need to take to complete the assignment. Make yourself clear to your students in any way they need.
That said, it’s impossible for us as teachers to anticipate what every single one of our students will need for clarity–so be approachable. Encourage students to ask questions if they don’t understand, and when they do ask questions, make sure to answer with patience and understanding. Teacher me knows that can be very challenging, especially when you feel like you’ve already answered the same questions five times in the last five minutes. Sometimes, though, teacher me has to remember that if I have had to answer the same questions five times, maybe my directions weren’t clear enough the first time. In teacher me’s defense, maybe the students didn’t read the directions carefully enough the first time (or at all!), or maybe they weren’t listening carefully enough the first time (or at all!)–but student me always feels warm and fuzzy when an instructor answers my question as if I am not, actually, an idiot.
This is perhaps the most important lesson I learn (again and again) when I take a class. I teach writing, so I am constantly picking apart students’ written work. My intent is always to help my students become stronger, more effective writers, but I must admit that after reading dozens of research papers, my comments grow a bit more terse and a bit less forgiving. It’s completely unintentional, but I’m sure that’s no consolation to the student who wrote the twentieth research paper I read.
But guess what? Student me had to write three papers for the most recent graduate course I completed. And they weren’t perfect. But my instructor’s feedback was gentle and helpful.
And freelance writer me just got a rejection notice from Crowd Content–so clearly, my work wasn’t up to their standards (their feedback, which was less than constructive, wasn’t up to mine).
And blogger me knows this blog post, too, will have its flaws (especially since I’m writing it way past my bedtime). And I won’t particularly like it if someone points them out (though, depending on how it’s delivered, I may feel grateful for the advice after my ego recovers).
And what does teacher me take away from all of this? Teacher me is reminded to bear in mind that when students turn in their writing to me, be it a journal entry, a research paper, a short story, or an essay, they are turning in a little piece of themselves–and it’s personal, however academic it may be. And so, whether a paper is the first I’ve read tonight or the thirty-first, I must treat it with the utmost respect and tenderness. I am indeed responsible for helping to improve it–or rather, for helping its author improve it–but I am also in a position to either build up or tear down another writer. I am partly responsible for the way a student writer will feel when he gets his paper back from me. Will he feel empowered, or downtrodden? Part of that depends on how I deliver my suggestions for revisions, as well as how helpful and specific my feedback is.
One of the most helpful tools for student me when I am writing a paper, completing a project, or working on any academic task is a clear understanding of how the instructor will evaluate the final product. What criteria will be used? How much weight does each element of the assignment carry? Where should my priorities rest? Student me likes a good, straight-forward rubric. I use it as a checklist and a guide.
Really, though, what is the most important lesson I have taken away from all the classes I have completed? A reminder of what it feels like to wear the students’ shoes. I’ve been wearing primarily teacher shoes for the last eleven years. It’s good, every now and again, to step back into the classroom as a student. As a teacher, it can be so easy to get bogged down in the to-do list of the teaching day, which often extends long after school hours: take attendance, run copies, grade papers, input grades, print progress reports, set up the bell ringer, update the curriculum map, fix the typo you just found on next block’s quiz, update the bulletin board, turn in the lesson plans, change the seating chart (because clearly Sarah and Jimmy can’t handle sitting so close to each other), and, for heaven’s sake, please find a few seconds for a potty break somewhere in there. Taking a class helps me remember that my students need me more than my to-do list does. This year, when school starts again, I hope teacher me can remember what it feels like to be student me–and teach accordingly.
As the title of her blog post makes plain, Charlene writes about universal truths in our own writing. When I was in AP English Literature as a high school senior, my teacher refused to use the word “theme,” instead demanding that we discuss universal truths. I embraced this idea. To me, it made the literature more relevant–more real. I wasn’t searching for some obscure (to teenage me) author’s message, which, I was sure, wasn’t really his message, anyway, but some critic-imposed theme originating in academia; I was looking for truth, a pursuit that seemed much more noble.
Our ability to discern the universal truth in the writing of others directly correlates to the value we will or will not place on that writing. It directly affects our ability to understand a work of literature beyond its surface elements (characters, plot, setting–that sort of thing), and to instead see those elements as tools used to communicate a truth about the human condition. At the same time, as Charlene explains, while our ability to discern that universal truth does not depend on our having had the same life experiences as the writer or characters, it does depend on our having had the same emotional experiences.
Life experiences equip us with the emotional capacity to better understand universal truths expressed in literature.
For example, the first time I read Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, I was unimpressed. Really. It was, as they say, “meh.” I was unmoved. It was my fourth year teaching. I had just been assigned the honors classes, and the book was to be the students’ summer reading assignment. I read the book from cover to cover–all the introductory material, all the acknowledgments, everything. I took notes in the margins. I read carefully. But I didn’t like it. It was a chore. A year or two later, we changed the summer reading book, and Their Eyes Were Watching God collected dust on the shelves of the English department work room for several years. Two years ago, though, we reintroduced it as part of the core curriculum for both the honors and academic level classes. Since several years had gone by since I’d read the book, I decided I’d better read it again. Sigh…
The second time around, I loved it. What had changed? It was the same book with the same introduction, the same acknowledgments, the same notes in my same handwriting. Certainly, the story hadn’t changed. The writing hadn’t changed. Even the universal truths hadn’t changed.
But I had.
While I had not been married off by my grandmother to a man three times my age; while I had not run away with a man who swept me off my feet only to find myself stuck in a loveless marriage; while I had not nearly died in a hurricane or (spoiler alert!) shot my one true love in self-defense, I had a deeper capacity to understand the emotions these situations elicit because I had had my own life experiences that had deepened my understanding of what it means to be human–of love, loss, friendship, and self-actualization.
Yesterday, my husband and I celebrated a decade of marriage. The experiences we have shared helped open me up to the truths expressed in Hurston’s novel. Our marriage, and the sense of love and commitment I feel for my husband, expanded my emotional capacity, and helped me feel what Janie feels, though our situations are very different.
I had a similar experience with one of my all-time favorite books, John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. The first time I read it, I was an undergraduate at Michigan State. I. Loved. It. The complexity of the characters’ relationships, and of the characters themselves, fascinated me. It all seemed to so novel, so shocking, so eye-opening.
Several years later, having graduated and been in the working world for at least as much time as I’d spent in college, I reread it. I still loved it–I still refer to it as one of my favorite books–but my love wasn’t as enthusiastic the second time around. I was older. Maybe a little wiser. Maybe a little jaded. Whatever it was, somehow, the book’s impact wasn’t as powerful.
A book is never the same book twice, because you are never the same reader.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby has also affected me very differently at various points in my (emotional) life. When I read it as a junior in high school, despite my teacher’s assertions that Daisy was shallow and flighty, I really admired her. I wanted to be like her, or, more accurately, I wanted to be loved like her. Now, 15 years later, I’m far more fascinated with Nick and Gatsby’s characters, and with ideas like personal responsibility (or lack thereof), the American dream and how far one is prepared to go-should go–to achieve it, what it means to be American and how this book fits with our national identity, among others.
Life experiences equip us with the emotional capacity to better understand universal truths expressed in literature. We don’t need to have had the exact same life experiences as the writer or characters, as long as we have had life experiences that allow us to have the same emotional experiences. You may never have lost your spouse to a car wreck, but you may have lost him to another woman, and thus experienced loss and grief (among other feelings, no doubt!). A book you may have genuinely related to as a teenager may seem trite when you reread it as an adult. Something you may not have grasped in a book when you were a bachelor may be crystal clear when you read the same book after you’ve been married for fifteen years and have two children. For these reasons, and others, rereading is valuable. A book is never the same book twice, because you’re never the same reader.
But I Already Know What Happens
I’ll admit it. Sometimes I dread rereading a book I’ve already read multiple times. Even if I’ve actually read it only once. Even if I really liked it. Even if it’s been years since I read it. I mean, I already know what happens.
But the fact is, I’m an English teacher, so sometimes (lots of times), I have to read the same book more than once. Besides the fact that reading the same book twice (or more than twice) can prove a different experience every time, every time I reread a book (and as an English teacher, I reread many books, many times), I find something new. Students sometimes marvel at the way I can read aloud and write notes in my book at the same time, without missing a word. Here’s the trick: When you know the story line and characters and setting–the basic stuff–your mind is free to notice deeper elements like motifs, author’s purpose, writing strategies–or even universal truths. The more times I have read a book, the more familiar I am with its fundamental parts. The more familiar I am with the fundamental parts, the more literary elements I am free to notice and attend to.
While you may know the plot like the back of your hand, and have certain sections of dialog memorized, rereading a book can still prove an enlightening and surprising experience. Instead of waiting for just what happens next, you’re waiting for what revelation dawns on you next. What will you notice about the author’s word choice or rhythm? What epiphany will you experience regarding theme or the use of setting? What literary devices have you somehow missed the first (and second) time you read the book? What cunning turn of phrase has escaped your notice–until the fifth reading of Huck Finn?
“Oh! Look at this!” I said upon receiving an unexpected e-mail from Turtle Island Quarterly this evening. “One of my pieces is going to be published–again!”
“Are you gonna be famous or something someday?” my husband responded. His question probably sounds a little extreme–delusional even, and I’m sure my response sounds equally so:
“Well, it would be kind of lovely, wouldn’t it?”
For a moment, I let myself bask in a little limelight at the kitchen table while I ate my ice cream sundae, imaging all my literary dreams coming true someday.
“I mean, it’s kind of insane,” my husband continued. “It’s never been like this before.”
I don’t really advertise the rejections–not because I am ashamed or embarrassed or disappointed (though I am always disappointed)–but because they are so frequent that telling you–or anyone else–about them would get old. Fast.
By “it’s” he meant my writing. By “like this,” he meant the sudden and recent success of my writing. Over the course of the spring and early summer, I’ve experienced:
a sudden influx of freelance writing assignments (hoping for more!)
several accolades from one of my freelance clients
“Well,” I said, “I wasn’t really trying before.” Which is basically true. I was writing. Or not. I was submitting my writing. Or not. Whatevs. There was no concerted effort on my part. I was sporadic, unfocused. It’s only been in the last year or so, inspired by a desire to ultimately see my novel (and novel-in-progress) published and for sale (and selling!), that I really began to put myself and my writing “out there.” I haven’t met with all the success I would have liked, at least not yet–my novel remains unrepresented, my novel-in-progress is still in progress, my submissions spreadsheet was near-decimated when the file somehow got corrupted–but I’m making strides, and that feels really, really good.
Rejections are part of the writer’s life. They just are.
What I haven’t told you yet? I get far more rejection e-mails than acceptance e-mails. But I don’t really advertise the rejections–not because I am ashamed or embarrassed or disappointed (though I am always disappointed)–but because they are so frequent that telling you–or anyone else–about them would get old. Fast. Saying, “Oh, such-and-such agent doesn’t want my manuscript” or “Oh, such-and-such magazine isn’t interested in my poetry” would be kind of like walking around every Monday saying, “Hey, it’s Monday again.” You already know and it’s not fun to hear about. It’s just a fact of life. Like Monday is a fact of the 9-5, five-day workweek life, rejections are part of the writer’s life. They just are. I quickly reached a point at which I read them, and disappointed but unsurprised and more or less unfazed, file them away.
One insult could knock someone’s self-esteem down so far, that that person would need seven different compliments to build her confidence back up. The same is not true of rejection e-mails and acceptance e-mails. It doesn’t matter how many rejection letters I’ve gotten–it only takes one acceptance letter to pick me back up again.
When I was a sixth grader going through the D.A.R.E program at school, the police officer who visited our classroom each week told us it took seven (or some number I can’t exactly recall) compliments to outweigh one insult–that one insult could knock someone’s self-esteem down so far, that that person would need seven different compliments to build her confidence back up. The same is not true of rejection e-mails and acceptance e-mails. It doesn’t matter how many rejection letters I’ve gotten–it only takes one acceptance letter to pick me back up again.
I hope one day to hold in my hands books I have written with them.
So, am I gonna be famous one day? Who knows. It would be kind of lovely, wouldn’t it? In the meantime, I plan to enjoy writing–and seeing my writing published, whenever and wherever it is. And even if I’m never famous, I hope one day at least, writing will provide my main source of income, and I will hold in my hand books I have written with them. Because that would be truly lovely (even lovelier than fame).
This past Thursday, I went to a day-long Fred Pryor seminar called Business Writing for Results, hoping to gain skills that will further my freelance work, as well as techniques and information I can use in teaching the professional writing unit I conduct with my dual enrollment college composition students each spring. Below are my takeaways, as well as lessons from my own experience, which the seminar helped confirm.
When crafting a business e-mail or letter (or any piece of writing, really) the most important thing to keep in mind is your audience–the people or person who will read what you’re writing. First and foremost, you need to make sure they will actually read it. Your message is going to be hard to get across if your reader doesn’t read it to begin with. While you obviously can’t force someone to read your e-mail, memo, collections notice, etc., there are a number of things you can do to increases the chances someone will read it.
Avoid large, dense blocks of text that can alienate your reader. Long, bulky paragraphs can look intimidating–they appear as if they will simply take too long to read. Many readers will be tempted simply to skim over them, or skip them altogether–likely resulting in their missing important information you wanted them to know.
Give your reader frequent visual breaks by utilizing white space and short paragraphs, as well as short sentences and frequent periods. An e-mail of three short paragraphs with white space in between each one looks much more readable than one consisting of a single, large block of text.
Use bullet points and lists, which can make information skimmable and quick to read. See Sample One and Sample Two below. At a glance, Sample Two is likely easier to read. The bullet pointed list stands out from the rest of the text, making the tasks you need to achieve stand out amongst the rest of the text, which is less critical.
Sample One: We are so pleased you have chosen Princess Cruises! Upon boarding the ship, please check in with the attendants, participate in safety training, check your baggage, procure your meal ticket, and find your room. Bon voyage!
Sample Two: We are so pleased you have chosen Princess Cruises! Upon boarding the ship, please:
check in with the attendants
participate in safety training
check your baggage
procure your meal ticket
find your room.
Include hyperlinks. If you want your reader to know more about a topic but fear your correspondence running too long for her attention span, provide links for the subjects you hope your reader will further investigate, instead of writing your own sentences about it. If your reader wants the information, she will follow the link for it–and still read your short and sweet correspondence.
Italicize or bold key points to help your reader distinguish what the most important information is, and to improve the ease of finding it.
Use a ragged right margin, as opposed to block. This increases the amount of white space, making your document more reader-friendly.
Be Specific and Proactive
If you are composing a piece of business writing, you are likely trying to get something done. You want your tenant to pay her overdue rent, you want your new hire to hurry up and finish his new employee training, you want a refund for the damaged product you received. In order for these communications to be effective, they must be both specific and proactive; otherwise, your reader may be left with little to no idea of how to respond or proceed.
Include dates whenever relevant. For example, if you are upset because a product did not arrive in its promised 3-day delivery window, you would be wise to include the date you ordered the product and the date it arrived. If your tenant’s rent is overdue, include its original due date, how much time has elapsed since then, and the extended deadline, as well as any monetary amount he might need to know.
Provide names–of yourself, so the recipient knows who to get in touch with, but also of any involved parties. For example, if a store clerk insulted you, including the name of the clerk in your correspondence will allow the business to take more actionable steps in addressing the employee’s rudeness; they will know who to retrain or coach.
Include contact information. If you want a response, and presumably you do, it’s important to make sure you include how your recipient can get in touch with you. Make sure to include an e-mail address, phone number, or mailing address where they can reach you.
Explain what you’ll do and when. If you own a company that ships parts to clients, your shipping confirmation should be specific: “We will ship your model no. 4563-1978 Chevrolet headlights to 432 Any Street, Anywhere, VA 12345, on 15 May 2017. Expect its arrival 5-10 business days after shipping date.” If you wrote a letter of complaint, explain exactly what compensation would satisfy you.
When composing a business correspondence, you may or may not know who you’re addressing. For example, if you’re writing a cover letter, you may not have the contact information of the addressee–and you may not be able to find it. In the event that you can’t find out who you are addressing, or whether the person is male or female (think about ambiguous names like “Pat,” “Ashleigh,” or “Cameron”) or married or single, consider these tips:
If gender or marital status is ambiguous, use the person’s first and last name, with no title. For example, if you are writing to Cameron Jones, don’t use “Dear Mr. Cameron Jones”–what if Mr. Cameron Jones is really Ms. or Mrs. Cameron Jones? Instead, just address the correspondence “Dear Cameron Jones.”
Try to avoid “To Whom It May Concern,” replacing it with the person’s job title (or likely job title). For example, if you are writing about a personnel issue, but do not know who the personnel director is, you can address your letter, “To the Personnel Director.” Even if the company does not employ someone by that title, they will get it to the appropriate person.
Active and Passive Voice
I am forever harping on my students to use the active instead of the passive voice, but in business writing, both voices have their advantages. Pick which voice to use based on the goal of your correspondence. Here are some things to consider:
In the active voice, the subject (in the case below, “We”) performs an action.
Example: We will send your invoice before May 15.
In the passive voice, the subject (in the case below, “invoice”) does not perform an action, but is being acted upon.
Example: An invoice will be sent before May 15.
More Examples of Active Voice
More Examples of Passive Voice
The shipping department will send your product on Tuesday.
Your product will be shipped on Tuesday.
You must pay your bill within the 15-day grace period.
Your bill must be paid within the 15-day grace period.
Students should turn their assignment in tomorrow.
The assignment should be turned in tomorrow.
Advantages of Active Voice for Business Writing
Advantages of Passive Voice for Business Writing
Can read warmer and fuzzier; softer and gentler; less direct
Example: You must pay your bill before the 15th of each month vs. Bills must be paid before the 15th of each month.
Inspires more confidence
Appropriate for scientific and technical writing where no clear actor needs to be identified
Often smoother and more fluid; easier to read; less clunky or choppy; more concise
Example: The billing department will send a bill next month vs. A bill will be sent by the billing department next month.
Can avoid placing blame or taking direct responsibility
Example: We apologize for the error that was made in your order vs. We apologize for the error we made in your order.
More specific and direct
Obviously, you must consider the context and intent of your correspondence before deciding whether passive or active voice would best suit your purpose. In a billing notice, for example, passive voice might work best in an effort not to offend a customer who may simply have forgotten to pay the initial invoice, or who isn’t late at all. Similarly, passive voice can serve you well if you want to avoid taking direct blame for an inconvenience or issue, or placing direct blame on someone else (such as your reader). On the other hand, if your correspondence requires you to be more direct and specific, active voice will better suit your needs.
Consider These Questions
On a final note, whenever you read a business correspondence and notice yourself skipping sections, as yourself:
Why did I skip this and read that? What engaged me here, and what bored/confused/intimidated me there?
Becoming more self-aware as a reader can help you avoid mistakes when you’re writing.
As you write, ask yourself:
Have I given the reader options, or am I making demands?
Have I used respectful, courteous language?
Have I used a positive approach?
Finally, when you edit your correspondence before sending it out, make sure you consider clarity, brevity, active voice, and simple word choice. Or, as I like to put it, remember your ABCS:
Several months ago, I learned that a piece I wrote, “Rescued,” inspired by my relationship with my sweet husband (so often my muse), would be included inNine Lives: The Life in 10 Minutes Anthology. I was, of course, thrilled. I couldn’t wait to pick up my own copy at Chop Suey Books–hold it in my hand. Today, I am even more excited–because the other contributors and I are getting even more than that! The producers and publishers of the book are putting on a launch party at The Visual Arts Center of Richmond in June. How could I have known when I visited VisArts several years ago as part of a course for my master’s degree in creative writing, or attended their open house, or took some glass slumping classes there, that soon, I would be a writer-guest at a launch party there! I have never attended a launch party before, and am so excited to be a part of this one.
Submitting your written work is kind of like fishing–you might not catch anything, but there’s a little thrill in just having your bait in the water.
So, it’s fair to say that I’ve been nearing Cloud 9 with my writing success lately (I think the only thing that could put me there would be finding an agent for my novel). One of my sisters told me today she’s so happy my writing has taken off lately. And I am, too. I just hope it continues. In the spirit of that hope, I submitted nine different pieces–everything from poetry to short stories to essays–to three different publications today. It feels good to have something out there. It’s kind of like fishing–you might not catch anything, but there’s a little thrill in just having your bait in the water.