A few years ago, I had the great fortune to be able to attend Kenyon College’s Writing Workshop for Teachers. My instructor was Dr. Emily Moore, who teaches at Stuyvesant High School in New York. She shared a writing assignment with us that Stuyvesant English teachers use. It’s a form of writing that marries the literary analysis with the personal narrative, and she referred to it as a “Rumination Essay.”
The instructions are as follows (very much adapted from those shared by Dr. Emily Moore):
Choose a single quotation from the text—about 1-3 consecutive lines [note: this is negotiable, but the point is to choose a short passage rather than a really long passage]. You might choose a passage that captured your attention, moved you, or felt connected to an experience or emotion in your own life. You might reflect on a key message or theme, conflict, or character from the play as a starting point, and look for a quote based on that.
Begin your rumination by discussing the context of the quote clearly, but avoid unnecessary plot summary. Instead, simply give the reader enough information so the quote will make sense. What situation has led up to the quote? Who is speaking?
Introduce the quote smoothly with a strong transition, so that it is incorporated into your own writing. Make sure you format the quote correctly and cite it properly. Don’t forget a Works Cited page.
Analyze the quote. What is its significance in the play up until this point? How does it help us understand a message or theme emerging in the play? What does it suggest about the character’s experience, or the conflicts and characters that drive this story?
Next, transition into personal writing. In this section, you will write in the first person about an experience of your own that relates to the quote you’ve chosen. The experience doesn’t have to be exactly the same—these characters have their lives; you’ve had yours—but there should be a connection. Your personal experience will reflect something about the quote you’ve chosen, and it will echo an idea that stayed with you from your reading.
Note: In this section, you’ll write in the first person. Work like a storyteller, and think about the techniques storytellers use. In particular, you’ll want to do more than just tell us what happened.Use details (concrete imagery, dialogue, character, etc.) to show us something about your experience, and reflect on it as well.
Now that you’ve considered how the message or themes suggested by your chosen quote connect to your own life, reconnect to the literary work in your last paragraph. How does the experience you had help you understand the work? Your understanding of the quote and key message or theme you’re discussing will be deeper now, because you’ve enriched it with a story from your own experience. Use that to conclude your rumination.
This assignment can be used with a variety of texts. I have previously used it with teaching King Lear and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but I have also allowed students to select a work of their choosing.
Students generally enjoy this assignment and find it engaging because it asks them to make a direct connection to a work of literature. However, they also find it challenging to use first person, mainly because somewhere along the line, someone told them never to do that. The structure is a bit different from what they’re accustomed to.
I usually save the exemplars from each year and share them with students so they can get the idea. I am embedding an example of the instructions I share with students. You can use the instructions and modify them for your own texts and needs.
I know I am really late to this party, but I just discovered The Great British Bake Off. I have been catching up on each of the seasons available on Netflix. It’s rare for me to actually be able to binge-watch something, but I can watch The Great British Bake Off all day. I find it helps me destress a bit. I love seeing what the contestants come up with. I admit I haven’t watched the American versions. If you have, feel free to chime in here, but my feeling is that it couldn’t quite work the same way with American contestants because one of the best things about The Great British Bake Off is the fact that even though contestants are competing against one another, they support each other, show each other kindness, and even seem happy for others when they are named Star Baker or win the competition and sad to see contestants go. I’m not sure Americans are like that in a competition.
I don’t have this idea fully formed in my head yet, but for the past couple of weeks, I have been wondering what educators can take away from this show. I don’t mean the competition aspect, necessarily, but the structure of the show intrigues me as a learning model.
If you haven’t seen it, each week has a different focus: Bread Week, Pastry Week, French Week, etc. Some of these themes repeat each season, while others don’t necessarily. For example, the most recent season available on Netflix included a Vegan Week. Bakers have to display a wide variety of skills and apply what they know about baking to several challenges.
The first challenge in each episode (or week) is the Showcase Challenge. This challenge sets a goal, such as making 24 identical buns, that allows contestants to demonstrate their skills. They know the Showcase Challenge in advance and are allowed to practice recipes at home. The second challenge is the Technical Challenge. For this challenge, contestants do not know the recipe, and often, the judges set really difficult baking tasks for the contestants. They must apply what they know about baking to the challenge because in some cases, they are not given full, precise directions. It’s not uncommon, for example, for the baking directions to just say “bake” without offering baking time or temperature. The final challenge each week is the Showstopper Challenge. For this challenge, contestants must impress by going all out to create something truly amazing that fits the theme. For example, if it’s Cake Week, the judges might ask for a landscape cake with a whole scene in edibles.
I am a bread baker, somewhat new to baking bread as I had always thought it too intimidating. I’ve been baking bread about a year and a half or so. Not too long. I love baking bread. It tastes good, and it provides just the right amount of challenge coupled with simplicity—after all, it’s mostly just flour, water, salt, and yeast. I have had a sourdough starter going for about 15 months. I started watching The Great British Bake Off thinking I would find it entertaining since I like to bake. I didn’t really expect to learn anything from the show, and not because I’m an expert or anything, but mainly because I don’t usually learn much from television or video. I generally have to read books. I actually will read cookbooks cover to cover. However, aside from learning a few things about baking that I didn’t expect to learn, I also noticed the show teaches a few important skills and competencies that it would be good for all students to learn.
First, the show asks contestants to apply their knowledge about a variety of baking skills, from cookies (or biscuits) to cakes to bread to pastries. All aspects of baking are important: the appearance, the flavors, the ability to follow instructions and deliver what is asked. Each week’s three challenges offer an opportunity to demonstrate different skills:
What can you produce within the confines of certain expectations with time to practice?
What can you produce bringing to bear what you know about baking when you are giving a challenging task?
What can you make that will really impress?
These skills could be applied to other kinds of learning. What if an art class tried these three different challenges? A Showcase with a chance to paint something you know well? A Technical that challenges you to apply a skill, such as stippling, to create a painting? A Technical that challenges you to apply an array of painting skills to create something.
What if a writing class gave students a Showcase challenge that allowed them to write in a genre of their choice about a topic? A Technical that gave a topic and challenged students to write in a specified genre? A Showstopper that asked students to write in several different genres on a topic?
These ideas are obviously not fully formed, but I must admit when I watch this show, several things impress me. The contestants take feedback really well and learn from it. They demonstrate a great deal of resilience and dedication to learning. They have to display a wide array of baking skills, probably far more than the average home baker usually knows. As I mentioned before, they are really supportive of each other. I have actually seen several contestants help others when they’re struggling.
I can’t help but wonder what might happen in a classroom that looked a little bit like The Great British Bake Off.
I set my summer professional goal to ramp up writing instruction. It’s an area in which I feel a level of competence and confidence, but I am always looking for ways to improve. I asked Twitter for suggestions. I’m embedding the tweet here so you can follow the suggestions if you like.
Best professional learning books with ideas for teaching writing to high school students? #nctechat#engchat
Later, this tweet also crossed my timeline, so I’m embedding it, too:
Hi @ncte !! 😃 I’m looking for recs on a similar mentor/companion text like How To Read Literature Like a Professor, but for *writing* 📝 Hoping to use with my 11th grade Lit & Comp classes 👍🏻 Any ideas?! #nctevillagepic.twitter.com/hAeUukhJBn
Maggie’s question is really what I was trying to ask in a way: I am looking for something that goes beyond theory and offers concrete ideas for exercises to try. I don’t need to give the book to students, but I do want takeaways I can actually use.
I did, however, get a lot of great suggestions, and I will read through some of the selections and post thoughts here on the blog from time to time. I won’t devote a blog post to each book I read. I might read a few of them and then write a blog post with quick thoughts and takeaways from each book.
It took me many years of teaching, but I ultimately developed this philosophy a few years ago. In fact, I have been known to say the first two sentences of Kelly’s tweet, word for word, especially to parents on Back to School Night, mostly when I explain my revision policy. However, I admit that thinking of papers as “best drafts” was new language for me. I have started using it with my students this year. In fact, yesterday, I told my AP Lit students I have been wrestling with a piece of writing for months now, and I am really frustrated with it. Honestly, I knew some of the changes we had implemented in writing instruction in our department were bearing fruit when their response was to offer to workshop it for me. I nearly cried.
Maybe I will take them up on it. Meeting their writing needs is more important to me, though.
Let’s just say it’s a very important piece of writing. I worked on it today a little bit, and I am much happier with it, but I shared with my students that I was particularly bothered by too many instances of passive voice—ironically, something I just taught to my freshman students in the last couple of weeks. I found about seven examples of passive voice in my two-page essay.
Writing is hard. I really care about this piece of writing. Striking the right chord with its intended audience is critical. I typed a sentence. I erased it. I typed a new sentence. I erased it. I growled in exasperation. My husband, who is busily writing articles for Maxim online about six feet away from me asked me what was wrong. I said, “I can’t write.”
He did what husbands do—especially, I think, writer husbands—and he offered to help me. I was so angry at myself that I probably didn’t respond. I can’t recall what I said if I did. But I did something I am always telling students to do when they can’t start. I began in a different place. I rewrote a passage that came toward the middle of my third draft. Then I filled in a bit at the end. Then I went back to the beginning again. I scanned my third draft, looking for anything I might be leaving out. I thought a great deal about active voice. I researched a little bit online. I added more to my draft.
I am a lot happier with the fourth draft. I wonder how long that feeling will last? In any case, it’s important that English teachers regularly engage in this process they ask students to do. It’s difficult work, lest we forget how hard it is, and if we are to instruct others how to do it, it’s important that we do it, too.
My thinking about the topic, which happens to be assessment, has changed so much over time. I know many people don’t agree with me about this, but I don’t average grades when students revise. I replace the grade with what the student earns on the new draft. I am not even sure that Kelly Gallagher is advocating a total grade replacement when he talks about all writing being eligible for revision. My only stipulation is that students revise within a week of receiving my feedback so I don’t go crazy trying to keep up with work—it’s not fair to me to wait until the last day before a grading period ends, for example. My students revise like mad. A few elect not to do so, but they know the policy, and they are making that choice.
I care a great deal that students’ writing improves—much more so than maintaining a hard line about a grade. I don’t really even like grades, as regular visitors to this blog will know. Some students will demonstrate mastery of a concept the first time they attempt to show what they know. Others will take a few tries. If the end product is similar, why shouldn’t the grade be similar? I understand the argument that we should reward the student who does it right the first time with a higher grade. I suppose I disagree on the grounds that sometimes it took me a long time to understand a concept, but once I did, my understanding was as deep and profound as the person who got it on the first try. In fact, my determination in trying to learn it is worth something.
At some point, this piece of writing I am laboring over will be due. It will have to be a final draft, too, because of the nature of the work. I’ll work like mad to make sure it’s my best draft. One thing is certain: working on it multiple times has already yielded much better work than I did on my first draft.
You can learn interesting things in some unlikely places. I had the great fortune to be able to see U2’s Joshua Tree concert in June, and shortly after I attended the concert, I came across the interview (embedded below) on their website. If you are a U2 fan like me, you might want to listen to the whole thing, especially because I think much of what Bono says in the interview applies to learning in general and to writing in particular. He cringes about a few word choices he has used in the past, and he also says it “wigs [him] out” to listen to his singing on the album, so he hasn’t really listened to it. Of course, he had to listen to it in order to prepare for the tour, particularly because some of the songs are rarely performed, and “Red Hill Mining Town” had never been performed live before.
One thing Bono said at about 10:20 into the video has had me thinking ever since I saw this interview for the first time over a month ago. He remarks that he feels he didn’t get to finish the songs on Joshua Tree even though the band made “finishing” the songs a priority for that album. The incredulous interviewer asks which songs Bono didn’t get to finish. Bono says “Where the Streets Have No Name.” If you are a U2 fan, or even if you can’t stand them, you know that song. It’s one of their most popular, most enduring songs. I still hear it all the time when I go out places, like restaurants. Bono’s bandmates laugh at Zane Lowe’s incredulous response to Bono’s answer. Bono explains that he feels that “lyrically, it was just a sketch.” He imagines the song is an invocation, he is asking “do you want to go to that other place,” a place of “imagination” and “soul.” Over time, he has added this invitation into the lyrics when he performs the song, and he feels the “hairs on the back of [his] neck go up,” which I interpret him to mean that he feels the lyric is more finished with this line than it was as he recorded it.
Zane Lowe asks, “But how can you ask a question of an audience with a complete thought?”
Bono’s reaction to that question is what I found most intriguing about this entire interview.
Bono: Okay. Interesting. That’s interesting that you should say that..
Zane Lowe: Aren’t you waiting for us to answer the question for you?
Bono: Yeah, but what it is, and I shouldn’t really say this, but just as a… you develop vanity as a songwriter.
The Edge: He’s very hard on himself. Very hard on himself.
Bono: No, but you’ve got vanity as a songwriter, [and] I’m sure it’s the same for drums, the same for [unintelligible]. And it’s just, I knew I could write that better… Anyway, I think what you just said something really important there, and incomplete thoughts are generous because they allow the listener to finish them.
I would argue that the fact that Bono, and really the group as a whole, are hard on themselves and on each other is what makes them a band that has endured and has remained popular with many people over the years. What I mean by that is they are critical friends and help each other get better because it will help the team get better. Part of that means being honest about what is working and what is not.
I am considering using part of this video as a mentor text for thinking about writing this year because what Bono has to say about incomplete thoughts being generous made me think about what poetry does for us that other forms of writing do not do. I also really enjoy hearing someone who has been so successful in so many ways express how he feels he could have done better. One statement I make a lot when discussing writing is that it is never done; it’s just due. If we are writing a newspaper article, a statement of purpose, an educational philosophy, or an essay for school, or any kind of writing we imagine, if it’s writing meant for an audience, at some point, it’s due. We need to let it go and say it’s ready, even if we might tweak it ad infinitum.
It’s an important message for writers to hear, I think, that good writers, successful writers, struggle with the craft and wish they could do better. Bono, for example, disparages his rhyme of “hide with inside.” Honestly, that’s one of my favorite parts of the lyric. One of the reasons this interview struck me, and particularly the parts I quoted above, is that we sometimes dismiss writing because we did it, not realizing that others might respond to it in an entirely different way. Sometimes, we might not be the best judges of what works and doesn’t work in our own writing. All the more reason to give writers an audience—to offer them our incomplete thoughts and allow others to finish them.
As E. T. Bell says, “Time makes fools of us all.” Months have gone by, and I haven’t written anything on this blog, but it doesn’t mean I haven’t been writing. I have actually taken up letter-writing again, and I have been trying to send letters somewhat regularly to my grandfather, who just turned 92 this last week, as well as two friends from school. I have been journaling. I published an article inEnglish Journal back in January. While I haven’t been doing as much creative writing, I have been doing some reflective writing or other writing about teaching practice.
I’m a firm believer that we make time for things that are important to us, and for one reason and another, it looks on the surface like this blog’s importance has diminished. After all, if it were more important (I reason to myself), I would post more. I’m forced to consider also, however, that despite much of the writing I’ve been doing offline, I’ve got writer’s block where this blog is concerned. I have often logged into my blogging platform, started a new post, and stared at the blinking cursor. Other times, something will happen in the course of a regular teaching day, and I will make a mental note to blog about it. But I don’t.
Why not? By the time I find I have an hour or two to set aside to write about a topic, my own brain has moved on from thinking it over. I have a little notebook with a few ideas jotted down, but I find when I pull it out and look over them, thinking about what to write, nothing is grabbing my attention. In theory, the little notebook is a great idea.
It’s the end of another school year, my twentieth, and I feel wrung out in a lot of ways. I am doing more presentations, including presenting at the NEATE conference earlier this year. I’m also presenting at NCTE in November. Running my department can be exhausting. I have three preps, which is doable, but involves a lot of planning. I am falling behind grading. And, and, and…
And yet, this blog, I know, is important to me. When I was recently at the Harvard Graduate School of Education participating in the Transformative Power of Teacher Teams, a professional development course for teachers aimed at making teacher teamwork more powerful, rewarding, and productive, I was asked to share what I was proud of in my career, and this blog was high on my list of accomplishments. I have been writing and reflecting (sporadically, yes) in this space for nearly twelve years. When my former host shut me down last year because they claimed my site was not optimized (and wouldn’t help me optimize it without my plunking down several hundred dollars, despite my having been a paying customer for a decade), I was not so much worried that all of my work would be lost, as I know how to back up my files, but I was worried I wouldn’t be able to figure out an affordable solution and that I would be offline for weeks. And in spite of not having updated, I didn’t want to be offline for that long.
I know I need to make more time to be reflective here. This blog saved me when I felt alone, and I found others who shared their ideas and practices with me and who agreed with me. I didn’t feel so lonely anymore. It made me think about what I was doing and why. I am not sure I would have done presentations at conferences or written any articles for publication if I hadn’t had this blog first. This blog gave me some sorely needed confidence.
It doesn’t work for me to schedule time, say, once a week to be reflective here (although it would be good for me if it did work) because I feel pressure, and I just get frustrated with myself if I can’t do it. I have always had to post when I can, when I’m inspired. I just wish that were more often.
Those of you who blog, how do you keep your momentum going over time? How do you encourage yourself to keep writing? What do you do when the cursor is blinking at you? How do you start again?
I have been trying a new technique to keep myself organized this year. On September 14, on a whim, I divided my journal page for that day down the middle and wrote “Stuff I Did” on the left side and “Stuff to Do” on the right. I hadn’t done it before. In fact, I’d been using the journal mainly to meditate on the day—when I remembered to do it, which was not very often.
Something about making that list of all the things I had accomplished that day made me feel like I had been more productive. What I liked about having the “Stuff to Do” list is that it enabled me to keep things going for long-term projects or for incomplete work. I might have “grade essays” on there for a few days until they’re done, but having to keep writing it again on “Stuff to Do” makes me want to get it moved over to “Stuff I Did.”
I have played with the idea of doing a bullet journal. I’m drawn to the organization. Then again, this weird little system of mine works, so it may be self-defeating to tweak it. I find I enjoy the time I set aside to take stock of the day. Sometimes I write things down as I do them. Sometimes I wait until the end of the day. I do find I am working my way through my to-do lists more quickly, and the “Stuff to Do” list gives me a place to start the next day. I start the day’s list by looking back at the previous few days’ lists to see what needs doing and what I am going to continue to move over to today’s “Stuff to Do” list because it’s not going to happen today.
I also use the journal to take notes in meetings that are likely to involve tasks to do. For example, if I’m in a department chairs’ meeting or meeting with my Dean of Faculty, I will probably have new items to add to my “Stuff to Do” lists.
So that’s your peek into my journal. I have a separate Moleskine cahier notebook for taking notes and writing ideas.
And speaking of writing, I’m trying NaNoWriMo again this year. I didn’t do too badly for the first day. My goal was 1,667 words, and I wrote 1,793. I have a fun idea, but it was hard to write myself into the story today. I am learning that I have become a much more fluent writer over the years. When I first started participating in NaNoWriMo, meeting the word count was hard and often took hours. Now, I can generally do it fairly quickly, especially if I turn off my internal editor and let the ideas flow. I have been blogging for a long time—and I don’t blog as much as I used to—so I’m not sure why I’ve been more fluent the last few years I’ve participated. I can’t chalk it up to blogging, which is one way I’ve traditionally worked on my writing. I’m not handwriting my NaNo novel, but I am handwriting a lot of other things more often. I wonder if that’s it. I won’t complain in any case. The big task I need to put on my “Stuff to Do” list is picking up one of my previous NaNo novels and revising it so I can do something with it.
Slice of Life is a weekly writing challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.
My daughter’s school recently had a “Know Your School” night, and I heard one refrain all evening—class sizes are too big. Almost all of her teachers said something like “every desk in this class is full” or “I have over 30 students in this class.”
We have a growing teacher shortage in many places in the US, and it’s not hard to see why when you examine how teachers are treated and undervalued in this country. This teacher shortage is only one reason for large classes, which are a growing issue.
My friend Mark mentioned on Facebook earlier this year that he is teaching five classes. He has four classes with 32 students each and one class with 26 for a total of 154 students. Each time he takes up a stack of writing assignments, assuming these classes are one prep (which probably isn’t the case), he is taking up 154 writing assignments. Even if you grade pretty fast—let’s say about 15 minutes per paper (not always realistic), you’re looking at a full work week just to grade those writing assignments—38.5 hours. If you’re fast. I don’t know how he manages it, but he teaches literature and writing under those conditions.
My daughter was in an English class at the beginning of this school that had over 30 students in it. Her teacher thought she might be having difficulty, and we discussed changing her schedule. Ultimately, we decided it would be best for her to be in a different class. She was in an honors class, and I honestly don’t care what level she takes—I just want her to get good writing instruction. Given the size of her English class, I think I was right to be concerned. I even told her assistant principal that I just don’t know how you teach writing to classes with 30+ students.
When her schedule was changed, she was placed in a class with fewer than 20 students. I love her teacher. He is doing some great things with a group of students who are mostly “inclusion” and have IEP’s. I am fairly confident he is going to be able to do some good writing instruction with her class.
The world of independent schools, at least in my experience, looks very different. Because I am a department chair, I teach three classes rather than a full load of four—chairing the department is more work than a single prep, I can tell you. Four classes are a full load at my school, though I have worked in schools with a five-class full load. My largest class has 16 students in it. I have one class with 15 students and another with 12. I have three preps, so I probably will not be collecting writing assignments from all my students at once, but if I did, I would collect a total of 43 essays. Assuming a fast grading time of 15 minutes per student, I am looking at nearly 11 hours of grading. It’s a significant investment of time, but not a whole work week. In fact, I can typically grade writing at school and turn it around fairly fast. Because I have 43 students, I can ask my students to do a lot of writing and give them feedback on their writing. Because I have 43 students, I can accept revisions and give students feedback on revisions.
As Mark says, “Class load and class size are important.” We can’t pretend we are doing right by our students when we pack them into classrooms like sardines and don’t give them opportunities to learn to write well. I often hear my own colleagues worry about class sizes when their numbers approach 20 in a class (never mind approaching 30, which would never happen at my school). In my years of experience, I have found that 12-15 students in a class is a great number for generating thoughtful and rich discussion that allows each student to be heard while still being manageable enough to do plenty of writing. And we are doubling and sometimes tripling these numbers in most classrooms. My daughter’s school is not unique in this respect. I would argue that teaching writing is the most important aspect of an English teacher’s job. And how do we do that when we have 154 students, some of whom are gifted, some of whom need remediation, and everything else you can imagine in between?
I don’t have a solution to this problem because to resolve the issue, there are a host of related issues we need to fix as well—increasing and encouraging professionalism among teachers, treating teachers like professionals, moving away from this toxic test-based educational system we’ve become, hiring more teachers and making their classes smaller and reducing their teaching loads, and making the profession more attractive and lucrative.
Yes, it’s true, I have known teachers who don’t seek to improve their practices through professional learning (although most teachers I know are not like this). We should be encouraging professional growth. I think part of that encouragement could come if we treat teachers more like other professionals.
As much as I like my daughter’s English teacher, even he mentioned that “creative writing isn’t on the MCAS” [Massachusetts’s test]. And he’s right. But he also told me with that comment that he has to prioritize teaching the kind of writing my daughter needs to do for a test instead of the kind of writing she needs to do for life. Students should be doing writing in every genre, for multiple audiences and multiple purposes. Not only is writing important for clear communication, but it also helps us learn and process and figure out what we think. Take a look at this article if you need evidence that we need to do better writing instruction.
We just need more teachers. Mark needs a clone—at minimum one more person—to do the job he is doing by himself. At my school, 154 students would be divided among about 10 classes. We would actually have two and half people doing Mark’s job. Mark should at least be teaching only four classes instead of five. Even if they took away his smaller class of 26, he could save almost an entire day’s work grading those essays (6.5 hours), assuming the figure of 15 minutes per essay. If his classes were also capped at 25—which would give my own colleagues hives, wondering how they’d assess such a large class—he would spend 25 hours grading those essays from 100 students. Of course, 25 hours is still a large time investment, but it’s 13.5 fewer hours than he is spending with 154 students.
We might actually attract more teachers to the profession if we paid them for doing this kind of work. However, teaching has never been a well-paid profession. While I don’t like the idea of luring less capable individuals to the profession with promises of fat paychecks, I also don’t see any reason why teachers should sacrifice the ability to support their families in order to do the job they love. They should make a healthy living wage. If teachers did earn fair pay for their work, we might be able to attract and keep more teachers. As it is, we lose large numbers of young teachers in the first five years of their career. I nearly left teaching myself four years in.
Perhaps visiting my daughter’s school and listening between the lines to her teachers’ concerns about the sizes of their classes, and subsequently, their ability to effectively teach what their students need to learn and manage the learning environment well, brought these concerns into sharp relief. Our children deserve better. So do our teachers.
I am reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. It’s been on my to-read list for a very long time, and I picked it up on a whim last night. These passages out of “Spin” caught my attention this afternoon:
You take your material where you can find it, which is your life, at the intersection of past and present. The memory-traffic feeds into a rotary up on your head, where it goes in circles for a while, then pretty soon imagination flows in and the traffic merges and shoots off down a thousand different streets. As a writer, all you can do is pick a street and go for the ride, putting things down as they come at you. That’s the real obsession. All those stories. 34-35
Later in the same chapter/story, O’Brien writes:
Forty-three years old, and the war occurred half a lifetime ago, and yet the remembering makes it now. And sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. That’s what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story. (38)
These passages really resonated with me because I consider myself a bit of an ambassador for storytelling. I am the family historian. I captured some of the stories of my grandparents and their own grandparents as told to them. I’ve tried to capture a few of my own stories, too. I don’t have anything like serving in the Vietnam War in my background, like Tim O’Brien does, but I do have stories. All of us do, and even though O’Brien is writing stories about the war, I have the sense he’d agree with me.
I find accepting the idea that all of us have stories is one of the biggest hurdles to writing. Many students—and for that matter, many adults—think they don’t have anything interesting worth sharing. I think we have a skewed idea of what constitutes interesting. In many cases, if we’ve lived it, we can’t see the potential it might have to intrigue someone else. And then we might be daunted by what we perceive as our inability to tell the story.
Tell it anyway. That is what revision is for. The important thing is to get it down, record it, get it out there. And then share it. The important thing is just to tell your stories. There are lots of ways to do it. If you are more of a writer, write them down. If you’re more of an oral storyteller, record yourself. Video editing software, podcasting software, and services like StoryCorps with their storytelling apps make it easy to capture your stories or those of others. Lest anyone ever in a million years think they don’t have a story, they should listen to the beautiful and wonderful story of Danny and Annie, one of the most popular stories of all time on StoryCorps:
Since I’m thinking of Tim O’Brien, now seems like a good time to share this video I created when I interviewed my grandfather about his war experiences.
Go tell your stories.
Slice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.
“When did you first realize that room was unique? That not many houses had one?”
I was in a session at NCTE and had written about a special place on the direction of the presenters. All of us participants were asked to share our special places with others, and this woman and I were the only ones in in the front right corner of the room. We exchanged those glances that said “Do you want to be my partner?”
I read her a little something I had written up, and she asked me those questions. I had never thought about it, but she was right. That room was unique. I didn’t know anyone else who had a sewing room in their house. My grandmother was, as she always described herself, a seamstress. When I was a child, I used to go to her house every day after school until my mother’s workday ended. I usually sat at her coffee table and did my homework. All the time, the burr of her sewing machine could be heard in the background, and there was usually a visit from a customer or two. She did everything from alterations to wedding dresses.
When I was at Kenyon last summer, we did a wonderful place exercise in which I wrote about that room, and ever since that writing activity, that room has been a deep well of inspiration for me. I wrote a zuihitsu poem about it, which I won’t share here because I would like to try to publish it—rules about prior publication are pretty strictly defined to include personal blogs. I have returned to that to room many times. I can see it so vividly.
Granna had several sewing machines, but the ones I remember being set up when I was a child were a metallic green Rex, a newer Bernina, and a Juki serger. She also had a complicated-looking ironing apparatus. The iron was always hot and was attached to a large steam bottle that looked like an overlarge IV. She had a large table in the corner. It was covered with fabric. I don’t think I ever saw its surface. She had stacks and boxes of old patterns. Many of the patterns featured on the McCalls Pattern Behavior Tumblr wouldn’t have been out of place in her collection. There was an area to the right of her Rex, which was her main sewing machine at the time. A small table nestled between her sewing table and the large fabric-laden table against the wall; here Granna kept spools of thread and trays with bobbins, pins, needles, sewing machine feet, buttons, and every kind of sewing notion you can think of. In second grade, I had made her a memo board with woodgrain contact paper and my picture—grown out perm and overlarge permanent teeth coming in—framed in pieces of lace. It still hangs there, next to her machine. I could usually find stale pieces of Freedent gum on that table, too. The floor in that room was black tile, pitted with scars from the wheels on my grandmother’s chairs as she whipped around the room from machine to machine.
It is probably the place I associate most with my grandmother because it was where she spent most of her time when I was a child. I used to go back and visit her in the room. Often she would be humming. When asked her what she was humming, she always said she didn’t know. She usually had two or three straight pins sticking out of her mouth for safekeeping.
She could fix a tear or a hem in nothing flat. In the years she was still actively sewing, you could turn anything she made inside out, and it would be lined and the seams would be straight, rough edges serged and neat. There was no flaw in anything she made. I only came to appreciate the craftsmanship and learning her skills took when I tried to learn to sew myself and put one of my pockets in backwards in the shorts I made and sewed my top too tight to wear. I do remember going through a period when I wanted store-bought clothes because I was desperate to fit in and wear the same kinds of jeans and jackets as the other kids wore. By the time I was an adult, I appreciated the love that went into the clothes my grandmother made. She used to sew little tags into the back of anything she made for me:
Made Especially for You by
When I last visited my grandparents, I was able to interview my grandmother about her career and hobby as a seamstress. I hope you enjoy the digital story I made.
Slice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.