Readers vs. Monsters: Read Like a Writer

When I was working on my capstone project for my graduate degree back in 2013, my husband came home from work one day to find me surrounded by books, index cards, highlighters, and notebook paper. I was scribbling away–in pencil–in one of the books. My potty-mouthed, inked-up, motorcycle-riding husband was horrified.

“Are you writing in that book?”

I looked up from my pile of research materials. “Yeah,” I said matter-of-factly.

“You can’t write in books!”

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The note “animals don’t know they take ppl to hang,” hastily jotted down in my copy of The Crucible as I read with a group of students one day, ultimately inspired my sonnet, “Salem’s Indifferent Ox,” which will be honored with a second place award in the Nancy Byrd category of the Poetry Society of Virginia‘s Annual Awards Luncheon later this month.

At that point in his life, my husband had yet to read a single book all the way through, so I struggled to imagine the reason behind his disgust. That he, of all people, should care whether or not I wrote in my books was a bit perplexing. I shrugged. “I mean, I’ll erase it later–since they’re library books.”

“They’re library books?! You can’t write in library books!”

I don’t see writing in books as delinquent or destructive. I see it as proof of engagement with the text.

But I can, and I do–all the time. I write in almost every book I read. You’ll never find me reading a book without a pen in my hand.

All of my books look like they’ve been through the wars. Their pages are dog-eared (I use bookmarks to mark my spot, but I dog-ear pages to mark spots I want to revisit). Their margins are full of scribbled questions, ideas, inspirations, criticisms, and exclamations. Words are underlined. Typos are corrected in blue or black pen. If they’re paperbacks, their spines are cracked and broken. They are well-loved, if not ratty.

I specifically remember the very cynical notes I read in my used copy of Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative.  It was as if the reader who read the book before me were quipping back at Gornick’s every idea or assertion–a disgruntled child talking back to his mother under his breath.

For years, I figured everyone read like this–pen in hand. How could it be otherwise? How could anyone resist scratching down an idea inspired by a passage, or underlining a particularly delicious turn of phrase? How could anyone not circle an unfamiliar word for later exploration? How could anyone read actively, critically, or analytically without writing in her books? Impossible.

It was only recently I found out I was wrong–and that a group of readers very unlike me exists. My fellow blogger, Charlene Jimenez, of Write. Revise. Repeat., is one of them. These readers refer to readers like me as “monsters.” Readers like me destroy our books as we devour them. We can’t help it; it’s how we read.

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If monsters only dog-ear pages, I am absolutely the most villainous ogre imaginable.

In addition, I actually enjoy reading books fellow monster-readers have written in. I like reading their notes almost as much as the book they pertain to. I feel like I am having a conversation not only with the author, narrator, and characters–but also a like-minded friend, one who writes in her books–just like I do. Sometimes I agree with the previous reader’s assessment; sometimes, I don’t. Oftentimes, I feel like I get a sense of who the person behind the notes is–her outlook on life, her general mood, her beliefs and questions and insecurities. I specifically remember the very cynical notes I read in my used copy of Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative.  It was as if the reader who read the book before me were quipping back at Gornick’s every idea or assertion–a disgruntled child talking back to his mother under his breath. While I agreed with very few of the marginal notes that graced the pages in a fading, gray pencil scrawl, I found them amusing–and they told me a lot about the previous reader.

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My copy of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is peppered with notes regarding things I want to make sure I address with my students–stylistic techniques, literary devices, etc.

Despite the disdain it apparently draws–from bibliophiles and bibliophobes alike–I won’t stop writing in my books. Not out of obstinacy or spite–but out of necessity. I don’t see writing in books as delinquent or destructive. I see it as proof of engagement with the text. I don’t read like a monster; I read like a writer.

Despite the disdain it apparently draws–from bibliophiles and bibliophobes alike–I won’t stop writing in my books. I don’t read like a monster; I read like a writer.

 

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My Current To-Read List

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I’ve started to allow myself about 15 minutes of pleasure reading before I close my eyes for the night most nights. Currently, I’m enjoying Yellowstone Has Teeth, by Marjane Ambler.

I don’t get to read much during the school year (unless, of course, you count the nearly never-ending string of my students’ persuasive essays, journal entries, literary analyses, and research papers). But last month, I spent several hours in the Bozeman airport waiting for my travel companions’ plane to land so we could make the trip to Big Sky together. Though I admit to reading several persuasive essays during my wait (yes, during my vacation…), I also perused the little airport shops.

And I found books. Lots and lots of books.

There were at least a dozen I wanted to buy–and probably would have, if my luggage had not already weighed 52.5 pounds when I left home that morning. I always have a long Summer To-Read List, so this year, though I limited my Bozeman book-buy binge to three books, I decided to get started early. Most nights of the week since I’ve been home from Montana, I’ve been allowing myself 15 minutes before bed to read for pleasure. Currently, I’m about 100 pages in to Yellowstone Has Teeth, and in the beginning chapters of Salt to the Sea, which I’m reading as part of the novel-writing class I’m taking (and loving!) at The Visual Arts Center of Richmond.

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Currently Reading

Yellowstone Has Teeth, by Marjane Ambler

One of the planned activities I was most excited about during my trip was a day-long coach tour of Yellowstone National Park. I couldn’t wait to see the park and its feature in the snow. The last time I visited, it was summer and I was in elementary school. I was looking forward to the spectacular juxtaposition of colorful hot springs with white snow. I bought this book thinking I’d have time to start reading it before our visit to the park,  but all I managed to read during the entire trip were persuasive essays. Still, starting the book once I returned home has been a nice way to savor my memories of our snowy day in the park.

I also bought this book because I love books about people’s lives. I am incredibly nosy about everyone’s routine, right down to the most mundane details, so I’m enjoying reading about how Ambler and her fellow winter residents managed to tote groceries home on snowmobiles, the ways they managed to keep warm, and what their day to day job obligations were.

If that weren’t enough, I always love books about nature. Reading about other peoples’ observations in and connection to nature helps me better appreciate my own time in the out of doors, enhances my own ability to be aware and open and in touch. I enjoy the introspective reverie of one alone in nature.

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Salt to the Sea, by Ruta Sepetys

IMG-1980A fellow writer in my novel-writing class who happens to work as a librarian recommended our class read this book as an excellent example of writing craft. It’s a Young Adult (YA) novel about four teens during World War II. So far, it’s an incredibly fast read. It’s riveting. The book is impressively thick, but the chapters are incredibly short and it’s not hard to read several in one sitting–not only because of their brevity, but also because of their pace. The chapters alternate between the perspectives of each of the four characters. So far, each chapter is a first-person account of the same experience or moment.

My To-Read List

A Modern Dog’s Life: How to Do the Best for Your Dog, by Paul McGreevy

You can probably tell from this blog and my corresponding Instagram account that my dogs are a huge focal point in my life, so it’s no surprise that the title of this book caught me eye. It seems to promise A) that will learn about how my dogs experience life and B) that I will learn how to make their lives the best lives possible. I actually came across this book while I was conducting research for an article I was writing for ScoutKnows.com, and when my brother asked me a few days later what I wanted for my birthday, I asked for this book and he delivered. I can’t wait to learn more about my dogs and how to make their lives better, and I have a feeling the information in this book will also help with my writing for Scout Knows.

What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World, by Jon Young

I want to know the secrets of the natural world–and I like birds–so this book seemed like a no-brainer purchase. It’s another that I bought at the Yellowstone National Park Store in the Bozeman airport. I’m excited to read about what I can learn from my backyard birds.

I Am I Am I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death, by Maggie O’Farrell

I haven’t purchase this book yet, but I first heard about it on NPR a few weeks ago, and then read a review of it in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. In both cases, it sounded intriguing and thought-provoking. I have a feeling it will alter my perspective on many things.

Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, by Edward Abbey

I think my cousin Katie originally told me about this book, and it’s another my brother bought me for my birthday. As I wrote above, I love introspective writing like I expect to read here.

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Just a small pile of some of the books on my to-read list

Ol Major’s Last Summer: The Story of a Very Special Friend, by Richard Sloan

This is my third Bozeman airport book buy. Each purchase of this book donates money to animal causes, and it’s written by a local writer. Plus–it’s about a dog. How could I resist?

I do expect this book will make me cry, so I have to plan my reading of it wisely.

Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo

One of my best friends bought this book for me for Christmas last year. He hates reading, but this is his favorite book, so it must be good. I’ve actually already read it, but I was a sophomore in high school and remember very little.

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

I’m a firm believer in reading the book before seeing the movie (or, in this case, show), but I let my husband talk me into watching Season One of The Handmaid’s Tale before I read the book.

I am also a firm believer that the book is always better than the movie (or the show)–so I have got to read this book. If the show is any indicator, the book must be mind-blowing.

Lastly, the novel I’m currently writing is, according to my instructor, speculative fiction, so I am sure I can also learn something about craft from reading this book.

 

 

The Risk in Writing: Rejections Galore

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This past weekend, another couple helped my husband and me paint the foyer in our nearly century-old vacation home, leading to a discussion about various art forms, from writing to painting.

Recently, one of my free-spirited, creative friends and her equally creative husband spent the weekend with my husband and me at an old house we purchased and are working to rejuvenate. My friend is a talented and passionate teacher with a penchant for languages and writing. Her husband, though he works in the technology field, is a gifted painter. My own husband builds lamps from

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While I don’t have the patience to actually paint the detailed woodwork featured in the foyer, and while the work in the above photo is unfinished, I’m proud of my vision, albeit executed by a more detail-oriented friend.

re-purposed materials and has recently begun creating beautiful stained glass pieces. And I? Well, I identify mainly as a writer, though I dabble in painting and amateur photography from time to time.

As the four of us painted the front foyer of our 1919 farmhouse, my friend gave me candid feedback on my novel, which I recently asked her to read, giving her free rein to rip it apart if necessary. She gave me some really insightful advice, and admitted she felt relieved that I had taken her constructive criticism so well (granted, she did an excellent job tempering her criticisms with compliments, but I digress).

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One of my husband’s latest artistic endeavors includes making stained glass pieces. This one hangs in a friend’s kitchen.

She followed her critique of my novel with the admission that she had decided she was no longer going to identify as a writer, in part because she needed more validation than she felt writing could offer her, and in part because writing simply offers less tangible and fewer results. When you paint a wall, for example, you can see the effect of your efforts almost immediately–as proven by the way our foyer brightened up with every coat of  paint. When you write a story or a novel, the progress is often much slower, and much less noticeable. In addition, while a newly-painted room is sure to get oos and ahhs, a story or novel is likely going to face dozens and dozens of rejections before it ever sees an acceptance (if it ever sees an acceptance).

You can show people a painting, a sculpture, a photograph–and they need only seconds to get at least a cursory appreciation of your work. But someone has to invest a lot of time and energy to read your poem, story, essay, or novel. And lots of activities vie for our time and attention. Writers compete for an audience with TV shows, movies, sports broadcasts, sleeping, errands, etc. We must not only write our story, but then convince people to commit their limited time and energy to reading it. After all, more energy and time are required to read a book  than to look at a piece of artwork or watch a film or play.

 

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Plus, producing a tangible product, like a painting or a sculpture, can be satisfying. You can display it. You can sell it. You can hold it, gaze at it, touch it. All of these things are much more difficult, if not impossible, to do with a poem or novel–not to mention the fact that a written work never feels finished. We feel always like we could find a more perfect word, more effectively structure our chapters, more expertly develop our characters or write our dialog or set our scene or or or…. At a certain point, we just have to decide it’s done, whereas other artistic endeavors we can more definitively finish, and that completion is satisfying and fulfilling.

 

I understand what my friend is saying. I have often questioned my drive to identify as a writer. Is it really necessary? Why do I care so much? Why do I write? It’s really hard, and I enjoy many other forms of creative expression–painting, singing (though I can’t say I’m any good anymore), sketching, design, photography, and even theater at one point in my life–and these open me up to far less criticism and rejection.

 

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As a writer actively seeking publication, rejections have become routine for me. Getting published is like winning the lottery–just as rare, but just as thrilling. I think maybe that’s one reason I keep writing: It’s hard (really, really hard sometimes), but the sense of accomplishment and elation I experience when a publication accepts my pitch, when I see my work in print or on-line, or when I get that long-awaited paycheck for an idea hatched a year before, far outshines the sense of disappointment that accompanies (yet another) rejection. Maybe I have come to accept that rejections are part of writing–at least for someone who seeks publication. I am no less a writer for having become more familiar with a sense of resignation at another thanks-but-no-thanks than with a sense of validation and accomplishment. In fact, another rejection at the very least means I’m producing enough work–enough writing–to send out into the world. The real fear sets in when I haven’t written anything new in a while–when my list of rejection e-mails shrinks because of a dearth of ideas, a sort of writing drought. My fear of having nothing to write far outweighs my fear of rejection. So, really, maybe that’s how I know I’m a writer.

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Above, you can see the many rejections my desire to write has recently survived. With persistence and resilience, I have manged to find homes for some of these pieces.

My fear of having nothing to write far outweighs my fear of rejection. So, really, maybe that’s how I know I’m a writer.

Reading, Writing, Dog Food, and Validating Emotions

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

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One of my favorite writing activities is participating in the Life in 10 Minutes writing workshops. This blog post was inspired by a conversation I had with a friend and fellow Life in 10 Minutes writer after our workshop last night.

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.

 

 

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?

 

Still a Writer

As a high school teacher, I learn as much from my students as I teach them. For example, several weeks ago, when I was teaching my students about the root “therm,” I got an education on thermite, and the fact that it can burn underwater. More recently, I overheard one of my students, who is getting ready to apply for a specialty arts program, say something really simple, but really profound, to a classmate sitting in her little pod of student desks: “I really hope they [the judges/admissions committee] like my art and that I get in, but at the end of the day, regardless of the results, I am still an artist.”

“I really hope they like my art, but at the end of the day, regardless of the results, I am still an artist.”

This statement resonated with me because, for the last few months, I have been sending query letters for my debut novel, Goodbye for Now, out into the ultra-competitive world of literary agents and publishers in the hopes of following the traditional route to seeing it published. So, far I have queried about fifteen agents (though it feels more like 1500)–some of whom have thanks-but-no-thanksed me the very day they received my query. I won’t lie and tell you that isn’t disheartening, because it is–it really, really is. But not disheartening enough to stop me. Not yet. I intend to query at least one agent a week for the entirety of 2017 before switching my tactic. If December 31, 2017, rolls around, and I still don’t have a single offer of representation, I will either reevaluate my query or attempt a new route altogether.

On those days when maybe the rejection starts to get to me just a little, I will remember the words of my student, and I will remind myself: At the end of the day, regardless of the results, I am still a writer.

And on those days when maybe the rejection starts to get to me just a little, I will remember the words of my student, and I will remind myself: I really hope agents and publishers and readers like my book, but at the end of the day, regardless of the results, I am still a writer. That part of my identity is not reliant on the validation of the mainstream publishing world (though it would be nice, and it is my goal…), nor is it dependent on recognition from critics or reviewers (though that would be nice, too). It relies only on the fact that I continue to do one thing: write. And that, my friends, I most certainly will do.

Your identity as a writer does not rely on the validation of the mainstream publishing world, nor does it depend on recognition from critics or reviewers. It relies only on the fact that you continue to do one thing: write.

 

Author Interview: Jill Breugem

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Mother, full-time Learning Specialist, and debut novelist Jill Breugem is excited to announce the launch of her book, Read Between the Lines. A portion of the profits made from sales will be used to benefit families whose children live with Autism.

Though Jill Breugem works full-time as a Learning Specialist, finding training solutions for internal business partners and facilitating and designing training, and is the mother of two children, she somehow manages to find time to write books on the side. Her debut novel, Read Between the Lines, launches on January 24, followed by a February 11 launch party at Blue Heron Books. What follows is my interview with this delightful debut indie novelist.

Mind the Dog: Where did you get your inspiration and idea for your first novel, Read Between the Lines?

Jill Breugem: I always wanted to write a book and the inspiration came while having a chat with a friend. He talked about making sure that beyond our families, careers, and regular day to day, we find time every day to do something that we really love. If we are lucky, that is also our career. I do love my career; I also love writing. Once I started, I couldn’t stop.

The idea for my first novel literally woke me up in the middle of the night. I got out of bed, walked across the room and wrote some notes down.

I squeeze writing in when I can. Sometimes with everyone running around the house around me, sometimes in the late hours of the day when everyone was in bed and other times very early on the weekend before anyone got up. My favorite time is at 6am on a Sunday when everyone is fast asleep, the house is dark, and I have a hot cup of tea beside me.

MTD: How long did it take you to write it? What was your process like?

JB: It took me 15 months to write the book and an additional four months to complete edits, book cover, etc.

There were times I went weeks and didn’t touch it–I wanted to; I wanted to write so badly, but I just couldn’t. There were times I would write several chapters in only a couple hours and then other times that I would stare at the same sentence for hours, only to delete it.  I created an outline of the story and mapped out the chapters. I set up goals in the program Nozbe to stay on track and organized.

MTD: What made you decide to self-publish as opposed to going the traditional route?

JB: Once I set out to write the book, it became a goal of mine to finish it. Many times I had started to write something and would stop. So, just the fact I finished the book was a major accomplishment for me. I always thought I would self-publish and admired a couple authors who self-published and were very successful. Bella Andre and Marie Force are two that quickly come to mind. They have been extremely successful with self-publishing ebooks in the last five years. Marie Force’s first novel, Maid for Love, was originally turned down by ALL publishers. She went on to sell 2.5 million books of her Gansett Island Series.

Getting published the traditional way was something that if it happened and the timing was right, the royalties reasonable, then that would be a cherry on top.

MTD: How do you make time in your day to write?

JB: I squeeze it in when I can. I work full-time and am a busy mom of two kids, a dog, a husband… Sometimes I write with everyone running around the house around me, sometimes in the late hours of the day when everyone was in bed and other times very early on the weekend before anyone got up. My favorite time is at 6am on a Sunday when everyone is fast asleep, the house is dark, and I have a hot cup of tea beside me.

Write because you want to, because you need to, because you have to – – for you, and for you alone.

MTD: What do you wish I would have asked you that I haven’t asked you yet?

JB: I guess, “who do I enjoy reading?” I like romance. I read Diana Gabaldon, Bella Andre, Marie Force, Sylvia Day, Sophie Kinsella, Emily Giffen…a wide range of romance authors.

I have a soft spot for romance. I love the anticipation and the happy ending. Like books, my movie choice is always a romantic comedy, too.

MTD: What advice would you give to aspiring novelists?

JB: Go for it!  Write because you want to, because you need to, because you have to – – for you, and for you alone. Think positive and whatever happens from there…happens.

Social media is very important. Most authors will tell you that connecting with fans and other writers on social media has been key to their success.

Surround yourself with like-minded people. Follow (through social media!) authors that inspire you, authors you aspire to be, and people you can connect with.

Inventory is key. You need to have the next book ready for the readers.  Once you have several published, offer the first for free or major discount through something like Book Bub. This will build up your fan base and hopefully inspire fans to buy your other books.

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When asked about the bookstore where Ms. Breugem will host her book launch party on February 11, she beams, “It’s a quaint bookstore that draws you in; it’s an older building, with beautiful wood floors and shelves. It is a bookstore that just makes you want to stay…”

MTD: Have you already begun your second book, The Distance Between Us?

JB: YES! So excited! It is coming together so nicely. It is about two characters that you meet in the first book, Read Between the Lines. These will turn into a series. I have the next four books planned.

I don’t have the names of the subsequent books decided yet, except for the first and second books,  Read Between the Lines and The Distance Between Us.  The latter is the story about Ally and Oliver. The third book will be about Samantha (an actress).

MTD: Who designed your covers?

JB: My daughter designed my covers – I absolutely love them.  You will see branding of the stripes on the next four books, as well–in different colors.

MTD: You mention that a portion of the profits from Read Between the Lines will benefit families touched by Autism. Tell me a little more about that.

JB: My amazing eight-year-old son lives with Autism.  He has developmental delays and is non-verbal. Therapy, although VERY expensive, has been VERY important to his progress and growth. His learning center has been very good to us, and I want to make sure that I pay it forward and help other children like my son get the therapy they need.

MTD: What can attendees at your book launch party on February 11 at Blue Heron Books expect?

JB: My book launches on January 24th, but the launch party is on Feb 11th at Blue Heron Books. The party is for friends, family, and readers/potential fans to come and celebrate the launch of the book with me! I will sign books and there will be cake!

MTD: How did you go about setting up your book launch?

JB: I approached the bookstore and told them all about my book and asked if I could have the party there. They were happy to! It’s a quaint bookstore that draws you in; it’s an older building, with beautiful wood floors and shelves. It is a bookstore that just makes you want to stay…

 

 

 

Censorship of “Sexually Explicit” Content in Classic Works of Literature

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.

Sincerely,

Amanda S. Creasey