Today is already a good day. It’s Friday. The sun is shining. My honors students are going to write their own Gothic stories, modeled after Poe, Faulkner, or Gilman, later on this morning. In addition to all this–it’s also National Day on Writing, sponsored by the National Council of Teachers of English. All week long on my Instagram account, I’ve participated in their #whyIwrite campaign, posting one reason each day for, well, why I write. This blog post is the culmination of my daily musings on why I write.
Reason 1: I love to write.
This one is probably pretty obvious, but I figured I’d elaborate, anyway. I have been compelled to write since the day I was physically able. Boxes and boxes of journals, begun when I was in just third grade, occupy a significant amount of the storage space in the eaves of my attic. I love to write articles, diary entries, poems, stories, narrative essays, novels, blog posts. There isn’t much I don’t like to write. The feeling I experience when I know I have written something just the way it needed to be expressed is the same satisfaction produced by the sound of a softball smacking a glove in a perfect catch. That sense of achievement and precision is priceless.
In addition to the simple satisfaction writing provides for me, I find the act of writing therapeutic. Writing provides a physical, mental, and emotional means to let go. It allows me to process my emotions and thoughts, and offers a form of catharsis.
It also reaffirms for me my place in the world, and my identity as “writer.”
Finally, I find flow through writing. There is nothing quite like the sense that the piece I am writing–the very words pouring from my pen or fingertips–stems from some secret source I have magically tapped into. I am just the conduit. It is effortless. Finding myself in this state is truly a spiritual experience, one I have not achieved through any other activity.
The feeling I experience when I know I have written something just the way it needed to be expressed is the same satisfaction produced by the sound of a softball smacking a glove in a perfect catch.
Reason 2: I write to remember.
One of my favorite things about writing is going back, sometimes years later, to read things I have written. Many times, I find I wrote about things that, had I never written about them, I would have forgotten them. They never would have resurfaced in my mind. I love rediscovering scraps of experience that, without writing, would have been lost to my consciousness.
Reason 3: I write to be remembered.
Writing offers a form of immortality. It helps me preserve something of myself for future generations–for my nieces, for my nephews, maybe even for their children and their children’s children. Often, when I write something, particularly diary entries or personal narratives, I wonder who might read them decades down the road, and think about me–and know a little more about me, about herself, about the world as it was when I was here, for having read it.
Writing is a handshake, a hug, an invitation to empathy and understanding. It is one way to strengthen the bond of the human family.
Reason 4: I write to get perspective.
Writing helps me get my thoughts in order, helps me sort myself out.
Reason 5: I write to connect.
One of the most rewarding aspects of writing is when people tell me a piece I wrote resonated with them. People’s reactions to what I write about my family and marriage, the lessons I have learned through my mistakes or misconceptions, or the effect nature seems always to have on me are so touching–and encouraging. Writing is a way to reach out to humanity as whole, across oceans and mountains, to cry out into the abyss, “I am here! You are here! And we are not alone!” Writing is a handshake, a hug, an invitation to empathy and understanding. It is one way to strengthen the bond of the human family.
Wednesday, my husband and I hit the road to visit family in Florida, and to help keep us awake and alert during our ten-hour stint on 95 South, we listened to the seven-chapter podcast, S-Town, by Serial and This American Life. It was thought-provoking, emotional, entertaining, and worthwhile. I laughed, cried, and marveled. It’s the kind of podcast that stays on your mind for days–probably weeks–popping up in your day-to-day when something seemingly inocuous inspires a memory of an emotion, thought, person, or question brought up in S-Town. It brings up big questions, like: What is fulfillment? How do different people achieve it? What does it mean to live a meaningful life? How can people achieve meaning in their lives? Do familial relationships trump relationships with friends, though in some cases, the friends are closer than family? Should familial relationships be given legal priority in every case? I could compose an entire post consisting solely of questions S-Town makes me ask myself, but I’ll spare you (listen to it yourself, if you haven’t already, and find out what questions it brings up for you). Besides, this post isn’t actually about the effect S-Town had on me personally; it’s about the connections I can make between it and my career as a writer and English teacher (though to be honest, the personal musings are far deeper than the professional ones).
The Mad Hatter
As a child, I enjoyed the cartoon version of the story Alice in Wonderland. As an adult, in a children’s literature class for my graduate degree, I had to read the full-length book–and I enjoyed that, too. Like me, you’re probably familiar with the story and its characters, including the Mad Hatter. You might also have heard the term, “mad as a hatter.” In listening to S-Town, I learned where that phrase comes from: In the 1800s, hat-makers (hatters) used a dangerous chemical compound to turn fur into felt for hats. Inhaling these chemicals on a regular basis caused many of them to go crazy, and even die prematurely.
“A Rose for Emily” and “The Masque of the Red Death”
One of the short stories I read with my students during our Gothic literature unit is William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” one of John B. Mclemore‘s (only click that link if you don’t mind a spoiler alert) favorites. The theme song of the podcast, “A Rose for Emily” by the Zombies, which I’d never heard before, alludes to the story and helps elucidate the meaning of the title, and the story, to a degree. I’m currently working on the best way to use it to A) enhance my teaching of the story and B) boost my students’ understanding of the literary device, allusion. In addition, my honors students complete a Literature Portfolio project throughout the course of the semester, requiring them to write short essays (Connections Essays) connecting a work of art, a piece of music, a work of literature, or a current event to the work of literature we are reading in class. Connecting the song “A Rose for Emily” to the story by the same name would perfectly exemplify the expectations for this assignment, as would connecting the short story to S-Town itself.
On a similar note, another Gothic author mentioned in the podcast is Edgar Allan Poe. One of his stories my students and I read is “The Masque of the Red Death,” in which the hourly striking of a large, black clock in a room of crimson and ebony provides a constant reminder to a group of revelers that their time is running out, and their hours are numbered. John B. Mclemore was an antiquarian horologist who built sun dials and restored old clocks. Herein lies more potential for a stellar Connections Essay.
At the risk of spoiling everything for you, I will just say that S-Town also provides an excellent example of paradox: time as both a punishment and a gift. (In addition to spoiling things for you, I risk going way too far into my musings on the concept of a lifetime and time if I continue!)
At least three new words jumped out at me as we listened:
Although some might see the sometimes racist characters in S-Town as the farthest possible thing from anything relating to Zora Neale Hurston, two similarities stood out to me. First, Hurston lived part of her life in Eatonville, Florida, which the earliest residents helped build from the ground up. Janie, the protagonist in Hurston’s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God(which I read each year with my students), also lives in Eatonville, and is there for its incorporation, her husband having become the mayor and working hard to incorporate the town. John B. Mclemore played an integral role in the project of
putting Woodstock, Alabama (originally North Bibb), on the map as an actual town. Second, Hurston had a deep appreciation for folklore, and for spoken language and culture. While many African-American writers were attempting to create characters and narrators that sounded like, well, white characters, narrators, or writers, Hurston’s characters spoke in the vernacular of the people she knew, to the chagrin of many of her contemporaries, who perhaps saw her as proliferating negative racial stereotypes. Hurston, though, seemed to see herself as advocating for the beauty of these speech patterns, rhythms, and nuances. To learn more about this (and then some!), check out this audio guide by the National Endowment for the Arts. Like Hurston’s characters, the people in S-Town often speak in artful and unique phrases–without even realizing it; it seems to come naturally. They speak in clever metaphors without consciously crafting the comparisons, and use figurative language without even trying or, perhaps, realizing. Consider these two examples:
“He may have had a little sugar in his tank” as a way of saying someone might be gay.
“He’d drank enough Wild Turkey to make anyone gobble” as a way of saying he’d had enough alcohol to make absolutely anyone drunk.
These aren’t direct quotes, but they’re pretty close, and good examples of phrases that stood out me as particularly unique, amusing, or clever. Hurston’s characters, too, often express themselves in equally eloquent and creative terms.
One of the surest ways to support retention and critical thinking is helping students make connections between what they learn in the classroom, and the outside world. I found that as I listened to S-Town, I was experiencing what I hope my students experience when we read, discuss, and write: direct parallels between my own experience and education, and the real world.
As the title of her blog post makes plain, Charlene writes about universal truths in our own writing. When I was in AP English Literature as a high school senior, my teacher refused to use the word “theme,” instead demanding that we discuss universal truths. I embraced this idea. To me, it made the literature more relevant–more real. I wasn’t searching for some obscure (to teenage me) author’s message, which, I was sure, wasn’t really his message, anyway, but some critic-imposed theme originating in academia; I was looking for truth, a pursuit that seemed much more noble.
Our ability to discern the universal truth in the writing of others directly correlates to the value we will or will not place on that writing. It directly affects our ability to understand a work of literature beyond its surface elements (characters, plot, setting–that sort of thing), and to instead see those elements as tools used to communicate a truth about the human condition. At the same time, as Charlene explains, while our ability to discern that universal truth does not depend on our having had the same life experiences as the writer or characters, it does depend on our having had the same emotional experiences.
Life experiences equip us with the emotional capacity to better understand universal truths expressed in literature.
For example, the first time I read Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, I was unimpressed. Really. It was, as they say, “meh.” I was unmoved. It was my fourth year teaching. I had just been assigned the honors classes, and the book was to be the students’ summer reading assignment. I read the book from cover to cover–all the introductory material, all the acknowledgments, everything. I took notes in the margins. I read carefully. But I didn’t like it. It was a chore. A year or two later, we changed the summer reading book, and Their Eyes Were Watching God collected dust on the shelves of the English department work room for several years. Two years ago, though, we reintroduced it as part of the core curriculum for both the honors and academic level classes. Since several years had gone by since I’d read the book, I decided I’d better read it again. Sigh…
The second time around, I loved it. What had changed? It was the same book with the same introduction, the same acknowledgments, the same notes in my same handwriting. Certainly, the story hadn’t changed. The writing hadn’t changed. Even the universal truths hadn’t changed.
But I had.
While I had not been married off by my grandmother to a man three times my age; while I had not run away with a man who swept me off my feet only to find myself stuck in a loveless marriage; while I had not nearly died in a hurricane or (spoiler alert!) shot my one true love in self-defense, I had a deeper capacity to understand the emotions these situations elicit because I had had my own life experiences that had deepened my understanding of what it means to be human–of love, loss, friendship, and self-actualization.
Yesterday, my husband and I celebrated a decade of marriage. The experiences we have shared helped open me up to the truths expressed in Hurston’s novel. Our marriage, and the sense of love and commitment I feel for my husband, expanded my emotional capacity, and helped me feel what Janie feels, though our situations are very different.
I had a similar experience with one of my all-time favorite books, John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. The first time I read it, I was an undergraduate at Michigan State. I. Loved. It. The complexity of the characters’ relationships, and of the characters themselves, fascinated me. It all seemed to so novel, so shocking, so eye-opening.
Several years later, having graduated and been in the working world for at least as much time as I’d spent in college, I reread it. I still loved it–I still refer to it as one of my favorite books–but my love wasn’t as enthusiastic the second time around. I was older. Maybe a little wiser. Maybe a little jaded. Whatever it was, somehow, the book’s impact wasn’t as powerful.
A book is never the same book twice, because you are never the same reader.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby has also affected me very differently at various points in my (emotional) life. When I read it as a junior in high school, despite my teacher’s assertions that Daisy was shallow and flighty, I really admired her. I wanted to be like her, or, more accurately, I wanted to be loved like her. Now, 15 years later, I’m far more fascinated with Nick and Gatsby’s characters, and with ideas like personal responsibility (or lack thereof), the American dream and how far one is prepared to go-should go–to achieve it, what it means to be American and how this book fits with our national identity, among others.
Life experiences equip us with the emotional capacity to better understand universal truths expressed in literature. We don’t need to have had the exact same life experiences as the writer or characters, as long as we have had life experiences that allow us to have the same emotional experiences. You may never have lost your spouse to a car wreck, but you may have lost him to another woman, and thus experienced loss and grief (among other feelings, no doubt!). A book you may have genuinely related to as a teenager may seem trite when you reread it as an adult. Something you may not have grasped in a book when you were a bachelor may be crystal clear when you read the same book after you’ve been married for fifteen years and have two children. For these reasons, and others, rereading is valuable. A book is never the same book twice, because you’re never the same reader.
But I Already Know What Happens
I’ll admit it. Sometimes I dread rereading a book I’ve already read multiple times. Even if I’ve actually read it only once. Even if I really liked it. Even if it’s been years since I read it. I mean, I already know what happens.
But the fact is, I’m an English teacher, so sometimes (lots of times), I have to read the same book more than once. Besides the fact that reading the same book twice (or more than twice) can prove a different experience every time, every time I reread a book (and as an English teacher, I reread many books, many times), I find something new. Students sometimes marvel at the way I can read aloud and write notes in my book at the same time, without missing a word. Here’s the trick: When you know the story line and characters and setting–the basic stuff–your mind is free to notice deeper elements like motifs, author’s purpose, writing strategies–or even universal truths. The more times I have read a book, the more familiar I am with its fundamental parts. The more familiar I am with the fundamental parts, the more literary elements I am free to notice and attend to.
While you may know the plot like the back of your hand, and have certain sections of dialog memorized, rereading a book can still prove an enlightening and surprising experience. Instead of waiting for just what happens next, you’re waiting for what revelation dawns on you next. What will you notice about the author’s word choice or rhythm? What epiphany will you experience regarding theme or the use of setting? What literary devices have you somehow missed the first (and second) time you read the book? What cunning turn of phrase has escaped your notice–until the fifth reading of Huck Finn?
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.
For the last three days, the school where I teach has been closed due to snow. While I have indeed gone sledding, made snow angels, napped, taken my dogs for snowy walks, and even taken two snowy runs, I have also spent the last three days crafting a letter to the Virginia Department of Education regarding an insidious policy up for discussion later this month–a policy similar to legislation already vetoed by our governor, but that pro-censorship groups are attempting to push through the VDOE as a sort of backdoor approach. Below, read my take on the issue, and if you live in Virginia, please join me in writing to:
Emily Webb, Director for Board Relations
P.O. Box 2120
Richmond, VA 23218-2120.
Better yet, if you are free at 9:00 on the morning of Thursday, January 26, attend the public hearing on this issue.
Dear Ms. Webb:
I am writing to make you aware of my strong opposition to policies reminiscent of House Bill 516, wisely vetoed by Governor McAuliffe, and currently up for discussion by the Virginia Department of Education, specifically the potential requirement that schools “provide policies on the use of sexually explicit instructional materials to parents or guardians with the copy of the syllabus for each high school course and to include a notice to parents identifying any sexually explicit materials that may be included in the course, the textbook, or any supplemental instructional materials.” While I will be unable to attend the public hearing on this matter, as I, like many of my equally concerned fellow educators, will be on the frontlines in the classroom with my students that morning, it is very important to me that my voice on this matter be heard.
Let us give our students the opportunity to learn about, discuss, and study the effects of the darkness and the light in a safe, nurturing space where they can learn how to handle them in a healthy, productive manner. Do not let them leave the public school system without the tools needed to cope with what lies beyond the doors of their high school.
Though the language reproduced above seems innocent enough, it could very easily act as a catalyst for future censorship that would prove detrimental to our schools. I have been in the classroom for eleven years, and hold a Master’s degree—during the earning of which I wrote a lengthy, research-based paper on the problem of unwarranted censorship (as most censorship is). The regulations and policies that will be discussed on January 26 border on dangerous and senseless censorship (as most censorship is) that in no way helps, and in fact hinders, the intellectual, emotional, and moral progress of our young people. Censoring the literature they read based on minimal “sexually explicit” or otherwise “offensive” content or language—that may appear on merely one page of a much larger work—unnecessarily shelters students from reality and does not help prepare them to function as well-rounded, productive adults in the real world. Furthermore, the interpretation of “sexually explicit” is far too broad and subjective to be of any real value, and would allow for many relevant, artistic, classic, and important works to be excluded from a child’s education.
Censorship stems from fear, and is rarely anything more than a bid for control. Tell me–what are we afraid of, and what are we trying to control? The answer to the first question is perhaps less insidious than the answer to the second.
The intellectual development of our students lies primarily in their ability to think critically. One of the most effective means of teaching children how to think for themselves is to present them with various viewpoints, circumstances, situations, cultures, and people different from their own and from themselves—to help them learn to ask the right questions, see problems from various perspectives, and consider other points of view. Based on the policy under consideration, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men would likely be considered for banning based merely on the brief mentions of cat houses and the fact that Lennie’s innocent petting of a dress was once mistaken for attempted rape. Many years, this is the only book some of my weaker students actually read—and love. Their focus does not rest on the cat houses or the non-rape; it rests on the characters, the emotions, the situations. They love to discuss the ideas of companionship versus loneliness, tolerance of “the other,” friendship, and sacrifice that the book brings up. The infinitesimal role of sex in this novella does not distract or demoralize them; instead, books like this encourage students to think about multiple perspectives, and expose them to time periods in which they can never live, places they may never visit, and people they are likely never to meet.
Only open, uncensored access to literature and information can help combat the creeping cloud of thought control I see on the horizon. We can take a step into its shadow by allowing these policies to move forward, or a step into the sunshine of enlightenment by adopting more progressive and productive policies regarding the literature read in our classrooms.
Books like this broaden their understanding of the world, and the human condition—thus helping to make them into more adept thinkers, able to consider different ideas and viewpoints, as well as to ask meaningful, insightful questions. What a shame it would be to deprive students of that opportunity simply because a cat house or glove filled with Vaseline is mentioned in passing once or twice in the course of the story.
In addition to helping children develop intellectually, reading books that this policy would likely deem inappropriate, such as The Great Gatsby for its (extremely subtly implied) sexual content, helps students develop emotionally. Reading books that contain challenging content matter exposes children to topics they will encounter in their adult lives, and gives them a safe, nurturing, and neutral place to discuss these topics before they must handle them on their own in the real world. Giving students the capacity to imagine what it would feel like to be in the multiple moral dilemmas Nick Carraway faces or to be so lovesick so as to engage in criminal activity just to get the girl, as is the case with Jay Gatsby, gives them an emotional foundation on which to stand when they themselves face real-life difficult decisions and moral dilemmas. In addition, asking them to put themselves into the shoes of various characters in these novels helps them develop the ability to sympathize and empathize, thus fostering in them a sense of compassion and emotional intelligence that I would rather nurture with “provocative” literature than stunt with senseless censorship.
I can think of very few instances in history when censorship has ever been looked on in a positive light or yielded positive results. In fact, quite the opposite: Censorship stems from fear, and is rarely anything more than a bid for control. Tell me–what are we afraid of, and what are we trying to control? The answer to the first question is perhaps less insidious than the answer to the second.
Literature mirrors life, and life is as full of gender discrimination, sexism, lust, and other depravities as it is of gentleness, love, acceptance, justice, and goodness. How can we teach true self-sacrifice without also teaching its opposite, selfishness? How can we teach the value of true loyalty without also teaching infidelity?
As a final point, I will simply say that if every work of literature that contains a scene, a sentence, or a situation that someone somewhere in the state might construe as “sexually explicit” were removed from the classroom, I cannot imagine what would remain at the secondary level. I would be hard-pressed to find a single novel that is devoid of any hint of sex. Literature mirrors life, and life is as full of gender discrimination, sexism, lust, and other depravities as it is of gentleness, love, acceptance, justice, and goodness. How can we teach true self-sacrifice without also teaching its opposite, selfishness? How can we teach the value of true loyalty without also teaching infidelity? Students need the emotional intelligence, the moral basis, and the critical thinking skills to face all of these issues and more. Let us give our students the opportunity to learn about, discuss, and study the effects of the darkness and the light in a safe, nurturing space where they can learn how to handle them in a healthy, productive manner. Do not let them leave the public school system without the tools needed to cope with what lies beyond the doors of their high school. If we do, we—and they–will certainly have more to fear than the mature content—expressed in prose so poetic, I would grieve to see my students deprived of it–of Their Eyes Were Watching God or Romeo and Juliet. We do our students no favors, no kindness, by shielding them from real life issues and experiences presented in works like these.
I ask you not only as an experienced educator, but also as a devoted aunt, a writer, and a concerned community member to please block these pro-censorship policies that will only foster the preponderance of ignorance and bigotry trying to take hold in our world. Now, more than ever, a student’s ability to think for himself or herself is critical, and limiting a student’s access to literature in any way only limits his or her capacity for compassion and critical thinking. Only open, uncensored access to literature and information can help combat the creeping cloud of thought control I see on the horizon. We can take a step into its shadow by allowing these policies to move forward, or a step into the sunshine of enlightenment by adopting more progressive and productive policies regarding the literature read in our classrooms.
I am (still) reading Roberto Bolano’s 2666, and during my sofa session Friday afternoon, came across this sentence on page 323:
“The oneiric wind whipped grains of sand that stuck to their faces.”
The word “oneiric” (oh-ny-rick) was a new one for me. The “Look Up” feature on my nook told me it is an adjective that means “of or relating to dreams; dreamy.” Merriam-Webster confirmed the definition, and informed me that the word rests in the bottom 50% of word popularity (what a shame). What a whimsical word to add to my vocabulary.
In addition to its inherent whimsy, the word applies to my own writing experience: The oneiric state I find myself in just before sleeping or just before waking seems to generate my best writing ideas. The only problem? Whereas I often remember my dreams, I only rarely remember the words I wrote during the course of them.
Other contexts in which I can imagine this word:
She waited impatiently for the oneiric effects of the medication to wear off.
He thought about the oneiric nature of his earliest memories, which might be memories, but might just as likely be imaginings based on stories he’d heard from his parents and grandparents and siblings hundreds of times, his imagination indistinguishable from reality.
The sight of the couple walking arm-in-arm down the cobblestone street summoned an oneiric sense of a life he felt he had never lived, though the photographs he had not yet removed from his walls told him otherwise.
She stepped off the plane and into the oneiric landscape of paradise.
Lastly, I am quite sure that the male protagonist of my current writing project, a novel in its seventh draft titled Goodbye For Now, feels an oneiric sensation at waking up in a stranger’s body, and viewing his life as an outsider.
With Halloween less than a week away, my students and I are delving into Gothic literature with the likes of Poe, Faulkner, and Gilman. One of the Gothic pieces we read is Poe’s familiar poem, “The Raven.” Typically, my students are enthusiastic about the Gothic unit in general, and, as poetry goes, they like “The Raven.” Because they are already predisposed to enjoy this poem, I use it to illustrate the importance and purpose of poetic devices–especially since one question I field almost every year goes something like this: “Why is poetry so complicated? Why can’t he just say it?” Of course, I could answer that “just saying it” takes away from the art of the poem, takes the beauty out of it–but they don’t always particularly care about that. I have found it much more effective to show them why the poet can’t “just say it” by teaching what many of the various poetic devices are, and then stripping the poem bare of them.
One question I field almost every year goes something like this: “Why is poetry so complicated? Why can’t he just say it?” Of course I can answer that “just saying it” takes away from the art of the poem, takes the beauty out of it–but teenaged students don’t always particularly care about that. I have found it much more effective to show them why the poet can’t “just say it,” by stripping the poem bare of all its poetry.
The literary devices we cover include alliteration, allusion, assonance, consonance,
metaphor, symbolism, juxtaposition, internal rhyme, rhyme scheme, imagery, and personification, just to name a few. After I provide definitions and examples of each of these, we listen to a reading of “The Raven” by Christopher Walken, and I instruct students to follow along on their own copy, in the margin labeling any poetic devices they notice.
Once Mr. Walken has finished his reading of the poem, the students and I go through each stanza, labeling the rhyme scheme, drawing boxes around all internal rhymes, and pointing out all the poetic devices we labeled as we listened.
Paraphrasing essentially strips the poem to its simplest and least artistic form. The plot–the bones–remains, but the beauty is gone, leaving the poem a sort of skeleton, all of the flesh having fallen away. A paraphrase does perhaps make the basic information more digestible, but the language is stilted and artless without the poetic devices.
The next step in this lesson is to assign students to small groups, and assign each group three to five stanzas of the poem to paraphrase. This paraphrasing essentially strips the poem to its simplest and least artistic form. The plot–the bones–remains, but the beauty is gone, leaving the poem a sort of skeleton, all of the flesh having fallen away.
Take the stanza below, for example. It includes internal rhyme (denser and censer; lent thee, sent thee, and nepenthe), alliteration (Swung and Seraphim; foot-falls and floor; tufted and tinkled), consonance (foot-fall, tinkled, tufted, and floor), and imagery (we can imagine the scent of perfumed air and the jingling sound of little angel feet scampering across the floor).
Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
`Wretch,’ I cried, `thy God hath lent thee – by these angels he has sent thee
Respite – respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore!
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe, and forget this lost Lenore!’
Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.’
A paraphrase of this stanza does perhaps make the basic information more digestible, but observe how much more stilted and artless the stanza becomes:
Then I felt like the atmosphere changed; it was scented
as if angels walked across the room with perfume or incense.
‘Wretch,’ I yelled, ‘some master or demon sent you
Rest – rest and relief from my memories of Lenore!
Drink this merciful relief, and forget dead Lenore!’
The raven said, ‘Nevermore.’
After all groups have finished paraphrasing their assigned stanzas, we read the paraphrased versions aloud, in the order in which they appear in the poem, to get a complete sense of just exactly what poetic devices do for a poem.
From there, we go on to discuss the symbolism of the raven, as well as to examine the Gothic elements used in the poem, such as suspense, the dark side of humanity, etc.
In addition, I always offer extra credit in conjunction with this unit. The assignment requires students who opt to participate to visit the Poe Museum in Richmond and write a one-page, double-spaced paper about the experience.
Because of my attendance at the James River Writers Annual Conference, I have had the opportunity to pitch my novel on two different occasions, to two different agents. I was woefully under-prepared (or perhaps completely unprepared is more accurate) the first time, but this second time I came equipped with a few workshops and practice queries and pitches under my belt, and my pitch went much better. Instead of feeling incurably anxious, I felt hopeful and excited. And those feelings continued when, at the close of my seven minutes with an agent who I had a lot of fun taking with, she asked me to go ahead and send her the first 20 pages of my manuscript. I don’t know where things will go from here, but that was a small step in the right direction, and it would not have been possible without the Annual Conference.
In addition to taking advantage of the chance to talk with an agent one-on-one, I have heard valuable advice from a variety of agents, which can help me improve the marketability of my novel, my writing in general, and my query letter and pitch.
When you attend conferences and participate in workshops, you meet fellow writers, editors, and bibliophiles who can help guide you on your writing journey. What we can learn from each other is amazing. I feel so fortunate to have met people like Kris Spisak, Valley Haggard, Judy Witt, and Mary-Chris Escobar, who have helped me with writing activities as diverse as author interviews, workshop experiences, advising the high school literary magazine and creative writing club, and participating in a critique group that has been immeasurably helpful.
In 2014, I attended my first Master Class as part of the James River Writers Annual Conference. I do not recall the name of the two or three classes I attended, but one of them focused on helping writers compose synopses of their novels or memoirs, in preparation for writing query letters or pitching. I am a naturally verbose person, so the task of squeezing something as large as a novel into something as succinct as a synopsis was (is) daunting–made even more daunting by the fact that at the time, I didn’t even have a novel or memoir in the works. The closest thing I had to a novel in the works was a piece I had started (and stopped) writing in a Composition notebook four years prior, in 2010.
After some instruction and examples, the instructor gave us some time to quietly craft our synopses. Because I didn’t have anything about which to write a synopsis, I harkened back to the book I had begun writing four years before, even though I hadn’t added a single word to it in all that time, and truth be told, didn’t even know where the Composition book was.
Because I didn’t have anything about which to write a synopsis, I harkened back to the book I had begun writing four years before, even though I hadn’t added a single word to it in all that time, and truth be told, didn’t even know where the Composition book was.
When most of us were finished–or as finished as we were going to be–the instructor asked for volunteers to read what they had written, opening themselves up for feedback from both her and our fellow writers in the class. I did not volunteer at first, desiring to hear a few examples and learn whether or not I had been on the right track. After listening to maybe three or four volunteers, I raised my hand, and read my synopsis. The response I got was so overwhelmingly positive, that I felt inspired to go home and tear my house apart in search of the Composition book. When, after surprisingly little effort, I found it, I set to typing up what I had already written. From there, I continued the story, and now, two years, three Annual Conferences, and six drafts later, I have something like a finished product.
When we attend a conference, we are surrounded by people who not only share a dream similar to ours, but who also share a love of writing, and who take us seriously as writers. This atmosphere of support and encouragement can remind us first, that we are not alone in our goal, and second, that other people believe in us.
Had I not attended that 2014 Annual Conference, I would never have finished my novel, a source of great pride and pleasure for me.
One more thought on inspiration: We writers (at least, I speak for myself) experience much more rejection of our work than we do acceptance and publication. It can be easy to feel discouraged at times, to ask: Why am I doing this? Am I really good enough? Can I even call myself a writer? But when we attend a conference, we are surrounded by people who not only share a dream similar to ours, but who also share a love of writing, and who take us seriously as writers. This atmosphere of support and encouragement can remind us first, that we are not alone in our goal, and second, that other people believe in us.
In addition to feeling inspired to complete works in progress, attending workshops and conferences often inspires new ideas, potentially leading you to write pieces that later develop into submittable work. For weeks after attending The Poetry Society of Virginia‘s 2016 Annual Poetry Festival and Conference in May, I was composing haiku in my head everywhere I went, dictating them into my phone for transcription later on. I have submitted several to various publications. I had a similar experience with the Life in 10 Minutes workshop I participated in during January and February of this year, though in that case, I was writing short slices of life in the form of somewhat sparse, stream-of-consciousness prose.
I cannot emphasize enough how much information one can take away from a conference or workshop–about craft, about the field, about publishing, about upcoming opportunities, about submissions, about other local writers, and about oneself. I have learned how to hone my vocabulary; how to write a query letter; how to craft a pitch; how to let go and really write, uninhibited–just to name a few valuable lessons. I have also learned about new tools and technologies, like dictation apps, and programs like Scribner (neither of which I use yet–but both of which I now know about, and knowledge is power). In addition, I have picked up little tips about things I never thought to do, but that prove helpful, such as tracking my daily word count (which was just suggested to me last Friday, and which I admittedly have not yet begun to do–but will). Finally, I have learned about valuable, supportive, and helpful Facebook groups, like For Love or Money (as in, do you write for the love of writing, or to make a living–and how does either impact your writing?).
In his essay “Why Soldiers Won’t Talk,” John Steinbeck surmises that one reason a soldier can return to battle despite the traumas of war, and a woman can bear more than one child despite the ravages of labor and delivery, is simply because neither can
remember what the experience was like, rendering both incapable of experiencing the fear that might prevent them from entering into a similar experience again. “Perhaps,” he writes, “all experience which is beyond bearing is that way–the system provides the shield and removes the memory.” I think there is some validity to Steinbeck’s hypothesis. I see it evidenced in my own life, in at least two areas. The first is my husband’s willingness–eagerness, even–to engage in DIY home projects over and over again, despite the stress and anxiety they inevitably cause him. Not long after completing one painful project, he starts to get antsy for another–to the extent that we just purchased a second home, in part to help satisfy his craving for projects (and he is now completely embroiled in the pangs of a plethora of home projects). The second is my own experience with writing conferences, my favorite and the most accessible one to me being the James River WritersAnnual Conference. I look forward to this three-day event with an enthusiasm approaching that of a young child’s at Christmas. But some years, I leave feeling defeated and discouraged: There are so many writers out there with so many stellar ideas, and we are all in competition for an agent, a publisher, a paycheck. I look around at the sheer number of writers in attendance at the conference and think: How can I possibly stand a chance against so many competitors? Frankly, it’s deflating.
We come together as a community of writers to support each other, encourage each other, help each other. We have not gathered in the spirit of competition; we have gathered in the spirit of community.
But at Friday’s pre-conference Master Class, “How to Hook an Agent–From the Query Letter Through the Opening Pages,” literary agent Michael Carr said something that helped me realize at least one reason (there are many) I look forward to the conference every year: “It’s important to get motivation from events like this.” He went on to explain that so much of a writer’s work is done in isolation. And when we finish a piece we are really proud of, we send it off–most of the time only to face rejection after rejection. And yes, of course, that is a very defeating experience. But at a writing conference, we crawl out of our writing caves and come together. We are among people who take us seriously as writers. We convene as a community of writers to support each other, encourage each other, help each other. We have not gathered in the spirit of competition; we have gathered in the spirit of community. And it is in that spirit of the writer’s community that I share with you just a handful of highlights and takeaways from this weekend’s James River Writers Annual Conference.
For reference and in an effort to give credit where credit is due, here is a list of the sessions I attended:
Be sure to vary your sentence structure. Reusing the same sentence structure can pull the reader out of your narrative, or, as Michael Carr explains it, can “wake him up from the fictive dream.” Two structures that Carr says are frequently overused, particularly by amateur writers are: 1) “Doing this, she did this” or 2) its inverse: “She did this, doing this.”
So much of a writer’s work is done in isolation. And when we finish a piece we are really proud of, we send it off–most of the time only to face rejection after rejection. And yes, of course, that is a very defeating experience. But at a writing conference, we crawl out of our writing caves and come together.
Each scene of a novel needs tension to hold a reader’s interest. Some ways to introduce tension can include giving the character a goal–and creating a character who actively engages in reaching this goal, as opposed to passively waiting for things to happen to him. Secondly, there must be some opposition regarding the goal. Something must impede the character’s achieving the goal he has set. Another tool in the writer’s belt is dramatic irony. The reader’s experience of knowing more than the characters about which she is reading is a powerful means of creating tension. Finally, be sure to ask yourself if there is enough at stake. What will the consequences be if the character achieves his goal versus if he does not achieve his goal?
The Opening Lines
At least three different experts at the conference exaggerated the importance of starting in the right place, which could be as simple as deleting the first line or first paragraph, or as complicated as rearranging the order in which your chapters appear–as was the case with my novel. Initially, Goodbye For Now opened with Marissa Donnoway working at The Beanery, serving a difficult customer. Several people mentioned that the book started a bit too slowly. In response, I wrote a new scene, one in which two brothers are looking out over Lake Huron. Still too slow. I deleted that scene, and opened the book with the emergency room scene. That didn’t work logistically, and the book currently begins with Scott Wilder’s suicide.
If your published book receives a bad review, it’s not because your book was bad; it’s because the reader expected one thing, but got another.
Keep in mind that when beta readers, critique partners, critique groups, or other readers offer feedback, you are not obligated to take it–but deciding when and if you should follow someone’s advice can be tricky, and sometimes, so can not getting our feelings hurt. I thought Michael Carr’s comments regarding this issue were an insightful reframing of how to look at criticism. He essentially suggested that when someone responds critically to your work, it simply means he woke up from the fictive dream and didn’t “believe you.” It is not personal. It means you might want to revisit that part of your piece and consider how you can strengthen it. Sometimes, a reader might suggest a specific change to improve a piece–a change you disagree with. It’s important to keep in mind that you do not have to act on specific advice, but you would likely be wise to address the issue in some way, even if it is not the way your critic suggested. Carr also advised, “If the feedback resonates with you, address it. If it doesn’t, don’t.” Specific feedback itself might not be worth following, but reexamining each part about which a reader makes suggestions is worthwhile. In my case, the people who told me my book started too slowly only confirmed what I had suspected all along–so I addressed that issue (many times…).
I also appreciated what Natasha Sass of Busstop Press said about feedback: If your published book receives a bad review, it’s not because your book was bad; it’s because the reader expected one thing, but got another. More on this, in the context of tropes, below.
On Writing to Market and Finding Your Audience
Perhaps I should be embarrassed to admit it, but until attending Friday’s Master Class,
“Writing Smarter, Faster, and to Market: Game-Changing Tips for Indie Authors (and Writers who Want to Up Their Game NOW!”, I was unfamiliar with the term “trope.” Now I know a trope is essentially an expected element of a genre or subgenre. Tropes can include point of view, format, character types, themes, settings, plot devices, pacing, etc. In order to engage your audience, your writing has to deliver the promised tropes of your genre. The tricky part is that tropes change over time, so reading within your genre and subgenre can be an important way to keep up with what tropes are currently desirable in your area.
What does your audience want? What do they expect?
A trope is essentially an expected element of a genre or subgenre. Tropes can include point of view, format, character types, themes, settings, plot devices, pacing, etc. In order to engage your audience, your writing has to deliver the promised tropes of your genre.
Two important notions occurred to me as I sat in a session today, the final day of this year’s Annual Conference. The first was that this year was quite possibly my favorite Annual Conference thus far (though they have all been wonderful). The second was that I would likely have never finished my novel, Goodbye For Now, had it not been for the 2014 James River Writers Annual Conference. The idea for my novel was born in 2006, when I was studying abroad in Germany–an ocean away from my then-fiance (now, husband). I began actually writing the novel in 2010 (I think) in a black-and-white Composition book. After a few weeks, I got busy and just stopped writing. I even lost the Composition book. Four years later, at a Master Class that was part of the 2014 Annual Conference, I read aloud the synopsis I composed in the workshop that day. The response I got from the instructor and my fellow attendees was so supportive, I came home and dug through my attic space until I found the Composition book. My desire to write the novel was reinvigorated, but it would likely have remained dormant, safely stored away in my mental attic, had I never attended the conference. Now, two years later, the sixth draft of my novel is complete, and I feel equally excited, motivated, inspired, and encouraged. And I already can’t wait until next year’s conference.
I found Romance author and loving mom Brandi Kennedy on Instagram, her posts about nearing the final draft of a book intriguing to me. Upon contacting her, I learned she is actually approaching the end of three different series, not just a single book. According to Kennedy, The Kingsley Series, made up of four books so far and destined to consist of six, is a Classic Contemporary Romance. The Selkie Series touches the Fantasy realm. The third series, The Freedom Series, Kennedy defines as Contemporary-Romance-meets-Women’s Fiction. The first book in that series, Fighting For Freedom, is live now, and the second book is underway. Without further adieu, here is my interview with author Brandi Kennedy.
Mind the Dog: How long have you known you wanted to be an author? Is this how you are able to make your living?
Brandi Kennedy: I’ve wanted to be an author since I was a kid. I even had a bet with a classmate in fifth grade; I swore I’d be published by the end of the summer. Obviously I lost that bet, but it was the seed of my determination to do it, and I’m proud of where I am now as an author. As for making a living with it – I make a regular small income, so I’m happy with my progress. I still want to keep going, though, so I’m just focusing on following the advice of those who came before me. Liliana Hart says, “The best way to sell the last book is to write the next one,” and I’ve found that to be true.
MTD: Do you work with an agent, publishing the traditional way, or do you self-publish?
BK: I’m independently published. I like that it gives me creative control over my work, my hours, my deadlines, my covers. I get to retain full rights over what goes on the covers, as well as what stays between them. I also like that as I learn more about this business and the best ways to do certain things, I’m free to tweak or adjust what I no longer feel is working – and the only approval I need is my own.
Liliana Hart says, “The best way to sell the last book is to write the next one,” and I’ve found that to be true.
MTD: Are most of your books online?
BK: All of my currently released books are available for Kindle, iBooks, Nook, and Kobo. Each book page on my website is complete with blurbs, cover images, and market links.
MTD: How long did each one take you to write?
BK: They varied. My shortest book (to write) was either Courageous or Fat Chance (Kingsley Series, book 1). Both took around a month. The longest (to write) is probably More Than Friends. Something held me back from that one for a long time, and the words just wouldn’t come. I started and stopped that book twice, throwing everything out before it finally just seemed to click on that third try. In all, that book took me a little over two years to write.
MTD: On Instagram, you sometimes post how many parts you have left to write before you have finished with The Selkie Series. Would you consider yourself a planner or a pantster (or a planster!), and why?
BK: Ooh, I love the term planster! I’m a hybrid, honestly. With Selkie, I literally just sat down and wrote it. I had a general idea of where I was going in the next few scenes, but that was it. Fat Chance and most of the other Kingsley books were the same. I sat down and just let the words pour out. I generally keep notes as I go, including at least a small outline of where the next few scenes are probably going. I think Selkie II is my most planned/plotted book – I’ve had a beginning to end outline the entire time, with certain main ideas lined out and various scenes being added or planned as I wrote to get me from point to point. That has been by far the most relaxing way to write a book, in that I already knew where I was going. I never got writer’s block (once I had the outline done), because literally all I had to do was write from Point A to Point B. But do I like that better than when the story just bleeds out unplanned? I can’t say. Both sides have great value and both points of action impact the writing process in different ways.
Some of my readers have become personal friends, and I find that many of them have enriched my life in ways that go much deeper than even my love of books.
MTD: What have been some of your career highs and lows?
BK: It’s always a high to have someone reach out to me and tell me that my books touched them in some way. When Fat Chance went live, I received a slew of emails and messages from people who read and related to Cassaundra’s struggles, and one woman told me that reading how real and relatable Cass was would change the way she allowed herself to see her own body for rest of her life. As for the lows, truly the only thing I can think of as a low or a downside to writing as a career is how over-saturated the market is. Success in such a popular market is truly hard to come by, so it can be a little discouraging at times.
MTD: What do you love about writing?
BK: Everything. Writing is art for me, it’s sculpting and painting with words and imagery. I love the intricacies of the English language, the powerful use of analogy and narrative prose, the flow of one word into the next. It makes me think, makes me grow, makes me feel. I can only hope my own writing lives up to what I love so much in the writing of others.
MTD: What is your favorite work of literature and why?
BK: Hard question! Old literature – the lasting kind? Maybe it’s A Little Princess. Such a beautiful story of resilience and determination, kindness and heart. It’s inspiring, it’s poetic. But I also still love several of my other childhood favorites, like Black Beauty, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and To Kill a Mockingbird. New literature, though – the kind that you just know will last forever? Harry Potter, hands down. Also, I am a pretty rabid Outlander fan.
MTD: Who is your favorite writer and why?
BK: I usually answer this question easily, and it’s almost always Diana Gabaldon, the author behind the Outlander Series. Now and then it’s JK Rowling. Both have an amazing power of molding the smallest detail into something incredibly meaningful. They both have beautiful, flowing prose, and neither is afraid to touch on the darker issues of the world we live in, regardless of what time period they’re using. Their character development is strong, their plots are intricate. I must include Johanna Lindsey, as well, whose embossed name on a drugstore romance cover was the first seed of a dream I’ve been nurturing almost all my life.
MTD: Describe your average work day.
BK: It’s busy and often interrupted. I work from home, so writing is interspersed between the rigors of laundry and dish washing, bathroom cleaning, floor vacuuming, and animal care. I get distracted easily, too, so I rarely work more than an hour or two at a time without breaking to accomplish other, non-writing tasks. This pays off, though, in that it allows my ideas to simmer a bit, while giving my hands a break from the keyboard. And then in the after-school hours, there are my daughters to care for, and they take precedent even over writing – most of the time.
MTD: You mentioned you have two daughters. Do they ever read your work, or do you ever read it to them?
BK: They have read very small bits of some of my work, and are both generally upset with me on some level because they aren’t allowed to read my novels. My girls are currently twelve and seven, and my books do have adult content in them, so I don’t let them read that yet. They have begged me for a long time to write something they can read, but I haven’t been able to do it just yet. However, they have been allowed to peek at certain novel’s scenes/passages or bits of poetry now and then, and I suppose if my oldest took an interest in reading my blog, she’d be allowed.
MTD: In a recent Instagram post, you mentioned that you are proud of how you interact with your readers. Can you tell me more about that?
BK: Well, it’s just like this, what we’re doing in this interview. I’m on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter several days a week. I blog once a week, and that blog autofeeds to a newsletter – I like that this allows my readers the freedom of not having to remember to check my site. I love interviews, guest spots, and guest posts, and I rarely ever turn down opportunities to appear anywhere in that way. Beyond those things, and on a much more interactive level, I try to answer every message, email, and/or comment when I can, and I always make sure I’m putting myself out there. Actually, some of my readers have become personal friends through this level of interaction, and I find that many of them have enriched my life in ways that go much deeper than even my love of books.
Mind the Dog would like to thank Brandi Kennedy for taking the time to participate in this interview.
Real Characters. Honest Love. Brandi Kennedy Books.