S-Town from an English Teacher’s Perspective

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As my husband selflessly and singlehandedly drove us to Florida Wednesday, we listened to the podcast “S-Town” and I submitted several pieces of my writing to various contests and publications, as well as worked on some freelance projects.

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.

Paradox

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!)

New Words

At least three new words jumped out at me as we listened:

  1. proleptic
  2. mellifluous
  3. peregrinate.

Zora Neale Hurston

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

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During our visit, I spent lots of time building Florida snowmen (sandmen) on the beach with my niece, who has taught me many valuable lessons and inspired many of my personal narratives, availabe at richmond.com.

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:

  1. “He may have had a little sugar in his tank” as a way of saying someone might be gay.
  2. “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.

Making Connections

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.

 

Expand your Vocabulary: Read

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?'”

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Because sunset and twilight are two of my favorite times of day, one of my favorite recently-acquired words is “crepuscular,” a word I came across in my reading, and that could be used to describe the scene in the above photograph, which I took in the Outer Banks of North Carolina earlier this week.

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:

  • epigones–inferior imitators
  • 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.

 

The Value of Rereading

Just a few minutes ago, I finished reading my friend and fellow writer Charlene Jiminez’s blog post, “Finding the Universal Truth in your Work.” I found it so thought-provoking that I was inspired to share my thoughts (before I lose them).

Emotional Experiences and Life Experiences

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.

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Yesterday, my husband and I celebrated ten years of marriage. Developments in our relationship over the years have affected my ability to better understand universal truths in books like Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.

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.

What changed?

Only me.

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?

 

Are you gonna be famous one day?

“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:

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Nine Lives: A Life in Ten Minutes Anthology is available at Chop Suey Books in Richmond, Virginia, or online.

“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).

 

 

Much vs. Many

To follow up on my last post regarding when to use “fewer” and when to use “less,” let’s briefly discuss when to use “much” and when to use “many.” Although the latter two seem to be confused far less frequently than the former two (largely because we seem to have an inherent sense of which one simply “sounds right”), people still sometimes mix them up.

Use “much” with singular nouns and “many” with plural nouns. For example, you didn’t eat much cereal, but you did eat many muffins. “Cereal” is a singular, mass noun, whereas “muffins” is a plural noun. There is one box or one bowl of cereal, but there are several muffins.

You would ask, “How much chicken did he eat?”, but “How many eggs did he eat?” (This would be different, of course, if you were dealing with an extremely hungry person, in which case, you might actually need to ask, “How many chickens did he eat?”)

You can talk about how much milk you drank, but how many cookies you dipped into it. You might describe how many sundaes you ate, but how much ice cream.

(Side note: Apparently, I am the aforementioned extremely hungry person. I started this post with breakfast examples, moved on to dinner, and followed with dessert–not deliberately! For more examples of how to correctly use “much” and “many,” click through the slideshow of (food!) photos below.)

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For further explanation of the relationship between “less”/”fewer” and “much”/”many,” click here.

 

 

Fewer vs. Less

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Above, my friend and I show off our paintings after a recent paint night. If we had used fewer colors, we would have used less paint. Use “fewer” for countable items, and “less” for one, mass item.

It’s research paper season in my world right now, and as I read page after page of student work, one mistake keeps surfacing: confusion regarding when to use “fewer” and when to use “less.”

Most of the time, people probably aren’t even aware that they are getting it wrong. After all, saying something like, “I should have eaten less cookies” really doesn’t sound that bad (unless you know better, which you are about to). But it is wrong. What the regretful victim of the sweet tooth should have said was: “I should have eaten fewer cookies.” Now, if she had been talking about cake, she would have been correct in her use of “less.” “I should have eaten less cake” is correct.

So why is “I should have eaten less cake” correct where “I should have eaten less cookies” is incorrect? Well, whereas “cookies” are several, countable items, “cake” is one, mass item. If you eat less cake or less pie, you eat fewer slices of cake or pie. The cake and the pie are singular, mass items, but the slices are individual, countable pieces.

Basically, you use “fewer” when discussing a number of individual items that you can count–crackers, cookies, hours, vegetables. You use “less” when discussing one item that can be larger or smaller in size.

For example, when you have fewer minutes, you have less time. Time is one thing made up of a bunch of minutes.

Similarly, when you eat fewer pieces of cake, you eat less cake. The cake is one baked good made up of several pieces.

For one final example: If you eat fewer meals, you might eat less food. Food is not a countable item, but the number of meals you eat in a day is.

Hopefully, you now have fewer questions and less confusion about the English language! 😉

Reader’s Choice: Your Writing Questions, Answered

Perhaps you’ve always wondered what the difference between “Master’s” and “masters” is, in the context of one’s graduate degree.

Maybe you’ve never quite understood the difference between “affect” and “effect.”

Possibly, the semicolon is a source of infinite confusion for you.

Whatever your writing-related quandary may be, comment below or send an e-mail to mindthedogwritingblog@gmail.com to get it all cleared up in an upcoming post!

I look forward to hearing from you!