June 27:  Short Story Day

One of the most iconic and most anthologized short stories ever written is set on this day.  The story is Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.”

The date is established in the story’s opening line:

The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green.

ShirleyJack.jpgWhile the story’s opening sentence paints a calm, serene picture, the events of the story soon turn dark and even horrifying as the reader discovers why the residents of an unidentified small American village have gathered.  In an annual rite, the villagers draw lots to determine which one of them will be stoned to death.

Soon after the story was published in the June 26, 1948 edition of the New Yorker, a deluge of letters arrived expressing the shock and bewilderment of its readers.  In fact, “The Lottery” sparked more letters to the New Yorker than any work of fiction it ever published.  Some of the readers were critical — including some who cancelled their subscriptions — but most were simply confused by the story, wanting an explanation of its meaning (1).

On July 22, 1948, nearly one month after the story’s publication, Jackson wrote to the San Francisco Chronicle, giving a brief explanation of the story’s meaning:

Explaining just what I had hoped the story to say is very difficult. I suppose, I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village to shock the story’s readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives (2).

The day and month of the story’s setting are noteworthy.  June 27th has significance dating back to the Roman calendar as the first day of summer.  It was known as Initium Aestatis or the Feast of Aestas, the Roman Goddess of summer (3).  

But perhaps more noteworthy in determining the meaning of “The Lottery” is the year of its publication:  1948.  In her take on the meaning of the story, Ruth Franklin, biographer of Shirley Jackson, explains why it makes sense that a story like this would emerge three years after one of history’s darkest and most brutal wars — World War II:

[“The Lottery”] anticipates the way we would come to understand the twentieth century’s unique lessons about the capacity of ordinary citizens to do evil—from the Nazi camp bureaucracy, to the Communist societies that depended on the betrayal of neighbor by neighbor and the experiments by the psychologists Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo demonstrating how little is required to induce strangers to turn against each other. In 1948, with the fresh horrors of the Second World War barely receding into memory and the Red Scare just beginning, it is no wonder that the story’s first readers reacted so vehemently to this ugly glimpse of their own faces in the mirror, even if they did not realize exactly what they were looking at (4).

Today’s Challenge:  Short Story Almanac
If you were to write a short story that takes place on a specific day and month, what would it be and why?  Write the opening paragraph of a short story that takes place on a specific day and month.  (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

Quotation of the Day:  I frankly confess to being completely baffled by Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery.’ Will you please send us a brief explanation before my husband and I scratch right through our scalps trying to fathom it?  –Miriam Friend in a letter to the editor of The New Yorker.

 

1- http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-lottery-letters

2-http://northbennington.org/jackson.html

3-http://www.thaliatook.com/OGOD/aestas.html

4-http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-lottery-letters

June 25:  Dead Metaphor Day

Today is the birthday of British journalist, essayist, and novelist George Orwell (1903-1950). His birth name was Eric Arthur Blair, and he was born in Motihari, India, where his father was serving as an official in the British colonial government. Orwell left India to get his education in British schools, but he returned to Asia in 1922 to work with the Indian Imperial Police in Burma. He decided to devote himself to writing full time in 1928, and in 1933 he published his first novel Down and Out in Paris and London and adopted his pen name, George Orwell.

PoliticsandtheEnglishLanguage.jpgOrwell’s best known and most widely read novels are Animal Farm and 1984. Both novels are potent warnings against big government, totalitarianism, and fascism.

In Animal Farm, a political allegory, Mr. Jones’ animals take over his farm, and in events that parallel the Russian Revolution, they learn that “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

Nineteen Eighty-Four tells the story of a future dystopia called Oceania. The one-party government is in a perpetual state of war and is led by the all-seeing but unseen leader called Big Brother. From the very beginning of the book, the novel’s main character, a party work named Winston Smith, is doing something that is both radical and unlawful: he is questioning his government, and he is writing his thoughts in a journal.

Orwell wrote 1984 in 1948 (reversing the numbers 4 and 8), but he probably should have called it 2084 since questions about big government, privacy, and the role of technology make this novel even more relevant in the 21st century than it was in the 20th.

Two words created by Orwell in 1984, doublethink and newspeak have been melded in our modern lexicon to become doublespeak, meaning language that is deliberately constructed to disguise rather than clarify meaning. William Lunz, author of the 1989 book Doublespeak, keeps Orwell’s memory alive in his annual Doublespeak Awards, which call attention to language from government, business, and the military that is “grossly deceptive, evasive and euphemistic.”

Orwell’s use of the suffix -speak in 1984, for words such as newspeak, duckspeak, and oldspeak, popularized the use of the suffix -speak to refer to any particular variety of spoken English, such as Haigspeak, Bushspeak, or soccer-speak.

The 1946 essay Politics and the English Language is George Orwell’s plea for writing that is clear, concise, and thoughtful. In a famous example, he presents the following passage from Ecclesiastes as a model of clarity:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

He then translates the passage into modern gobbledygook:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

Also in Politics and the English Language, Orwell practices what he preaches when he presents the following concise list of rules for writers:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive [voice] where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous. (2)

In order to elaborate on his first rule, Orwell discusses dead metaphors, which are figures of speech that once evoked images, but because they have been used and recycled so often by writers, they have lost their luster.  Today the most common term for a trite and overused figure of speech is cliche.  Orwell’s goal is to get writers to eschew cliches and instead create fresh figures of speech that will bring their writing to life.  

In the following 170 words, Orwell explains the writing process meticulously, showing how fresh figures bridge the gap between the abstract and the concrete and how good writing must be intentional and thoughtful:

When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualising you probably hunt about until you find the exact words that seem to fit it. When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose — not simply accept — the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impressions one’s words are likely to make on another person. This last effort of the mind cuts out all stale or mixed images, all prefabricated phrases, needless repetitions, and humbug and vagueness generally.

Today’s Challenge:  Five Fresh Figures
What are some examples of abstract words – ideas or concepts that live in the mind but that are not tangible?  Brainstorm a list of abstract words, such as truth, beauty, or justice.  Select five of the words from your list, and practice Orwell’s advice on crafting fresh figures of speech.  Use figurative language (metaphors, similes, or personification) to define or explain each of your abstract ideas.  Before you begin drafting your own, read the following fresh figures for inspiration.  Each is from Dr. Mardy Grothe’s book Metaphors Be With You:

Curiosity:  Curiosity is the wick in the candle of learning. -William Arthur Ward

Fear:  Fear is a pair of handcuffs on your soul. -Faye Dunaway

Language:  Language is the apparel in which your thoughts parade before the public.  Never clothe them in vulgar or shoddy attire. -George W. Crane

Learning:  There is no royal road to learning; no short cut to the acquirement of any art. -Anthony Trollope

Memory:  Memory is the personal journalism of the soul. -Richard Schickel

Power:  The jaws of power are always open to devour, and her arm is always stretched out, if possible, to destroy the freedom of thinking, speaking, and writing. -John Adams (3)

Quotation of the Day:  Effective metaphor does more than shed light on the two things being compared. It actually brings to the mind’s eye something that has never before been seen. It’s not just the marriage ceremony linking two things; it’s the child born from the union. An original and imaginative metaphor brings something fresh into the world. -Rebecca McClanahan

1 – Lunz, William. Doublespeak. New York: Random House, 1989.

2 – Politics and the English Language

3 – Grothe, Mardy.  Metaphors Be With You.  New York:  HarperCollins, 2016.

June 19:  Create a Monster Day

Today marks the anniversary of one history’s most remarkable meeting of literary minds. On the night of June 19, 1816, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley, and Byron’s doctor and travel companion Dr. John Polidori met in a villa on the shores of Lake Geneva, Switzerland.

Frankenstein 1818 edition title page.jpgInspired no doubt by the unseasonably stormy weather of that summer, caused by the eruption of Tambora, a volcano in Indonesia, the group gathered to read aloud from a collection of German ghost stories, called The Fantasmagoriana. These stories inspired Lord Byron to challenge each person in the group to compose a ghost story (1).

One might guess that the two established poets Byron and Shelley would battle for first place in the contest; however, it was the two members of the party without literary reputation who rose to the challenge, each creating a monster that would change literature forever.

The English Doctor, John Polidori, wrote what has come to be called the first vampire tale, a short story called “The Vampyre,” published in 1819. Although his story is not widely read today, it predates other stories in the vampire genre and is seen as the inspiration of the masters of the form: Sheridan le Fanu, Edgar Allen Poe, and, of course, Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula (2).

As far as the overall winner of the contest, based on the criteria of both influence and creativity, the award must go to Mary Shelley, whose contribution to the contest later became her novel Frankenstein (1818). In her introduction to Frankenstein, Mary credits a conversation between Byron and her husband, Shelley, as the inspiration for her story. She listened attentively as the two poets discussed Darwin’s discoveries and as they speculated about whether or not the secret of life could be found and whether or not a human corpse could be reanimated.

That evening the seeds of the poets’ conversation germinated in Mary’s mind, producing a vivid nightmare that gave her the story that would captivate readers and moviegoers for generations. In her introduction to Frankenstein, Mary Shelley describes what she saw in her nightmare:

I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion. Frightful must it be, for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor to make the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world. His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his odious handiwork, horror-stricken. He would hope that, left to itself, the slight spark of life which he had communicated would fade, that this thing which had received such imperfect animation would subside into dead matter, and he might sleep in the belief that the silence of the grave would quench forever the transient existence of the hideous corpse which he had looked upon as the cradle of life. He sleeps; but he is awakened; he opens his eyes; behold, the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains and looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes.

As a result of Byron’s challenge, on this one faithful day, two unique literary monsters were born.

Famous Monsters of Book Land

Long before Shelley and Polidori created their monsters, other monsters filled the pages of ancient myth. See if you can match up each monster below with its appropriate description. Then, challenge your family or a group of friends to create their own horror stories and monsters.

  1. Grendal
  2. Cyclopes
  3. Minotaur
  4. Cerberus
  5. Hydra
  6. Sphinx
  7. Harpies
  8. Medusa

A. The many-headed snake that Hercules defeated in one of his labors.

B. The monster that Beowulf fought and killed in the Old English epic.

C. The creature with a bull’s head and a man’s body that was confined in the Labyrinth until it was killed by Theseus.

D. The Gorgon who had snakes for hair and turned anyone who looked at her into stone. She was killed by Perseus.

E. The monster with the wings and claws of a vulture and the head and body of a woman.

F. The winged monster with a woman’s head and a lion’s body. It challenged travelers with a riddle and killed them when they failed to solve it. It killed itself when Oedipus finally solved its riddle.

G. The three-headed dog who guards the entrance to Hades.

H. The race of one-eyed giants who made thunderbolts for Zeus.

Today’s Challenge:  A Dark and Stormy Story
What would make a good setting for a horror story?  How might you create tension and suspense at the very beginning of a scary story?  Write the opening paragraph of a tale of horror.  Start your tale with a specific setting, and use the kind of specific description that creates a mood that is appropriate to a horror story.  For inspiration, read the first paragraph of a Stephen King story or novel. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

Quotation of the Day: Everyone thinks I’m a horrible person, but I’m really not. In fact, I have the heart of a child, and I keep it in a jar on my desk. -Stephen King

Answer: 1. B 2. H 3. C 4. G 5. A 6. F 7. E 8. D

1 – Woodbridge, Kim. “The Summer of 1816.

2 – John Polidori & The Vampyre Byron

 

June 5:  Bedtime Story Day

Today is the birthday of Rick Riordan, the bestselling author of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series.  An award winning author of mysteries for adults, Riordan’s great success as a children’s author began at the bedside of his oldest son.  When his son requested a bedtime story from Greek Mythology, Riordan, a former middle school teacher, was more than willing to share some stories about gods and heroes.  Riordan’s major breakthrough happened when he ran out of material.  His son asked him to make up some new stories with the same characters.

The Lightning Thief cover.jpgIn addition to the familiar characters from Greek mythology, there is one conspicuously new character:  Percy Jackson, a 12-year old demigod with dyslexia and ADHD.

A 2007 study entitled “Reading Across the Nation” found that under half of parents surveyed in the U.S. read every day to their children.  The study tracked results by state.  The highest scoring state was Vermont, where 67% of respondents claimed to read to children daily; the lowest scoring state was Mississippi with 38%.

The results of the “Reading Across the Nation” study are distressing.  The nightly bedtime story ritual is more than just a time for preparing children to sleep; it’s an essential part of preparing them for a lifetime of literacy.  The study’s authors state the following:

Reading aloud is the single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading. Early language skills, the foundation for later reading ability, are based primarily on language exposure and human interaction – parents and other adults talking to young children. The more words parents use when speaking to an eight-month-old infant, the greater the size of the child’s vocabulary at age three (2).

Today’s Challenge:  Tell Me a Story
Which mythological characters do you think have the most dramatic stories?  Brainstorm some memorable characters from mythology.  Research their background and stories.  Then, using your own words, tell a single story about your featured character aimed at a young audience.  Remember to include the essential story elements, such as dialogue, setting, conflict, climax, and resolution.  (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

Quote of the Day:  A nation that does not read much does not know much. And a nation that does not know much is more likely to make poor choices in the home, the marketplace, the jury box, and the voting booth. And those decisions ultimately affect the entire nation…the literate and illiterate. -Jim Trelease, author of The Read-Aloud Handbook

1 -Biography – Rick Riordan.

https://www.scholastic.com/teachers/authors/rick-riordan/

2 –http://www.reachoutandread.org/FileRepository/RORChartbook.pdf

February 28: Essay Day

On this date in 1571 in Bordeaux, France, a nobleman named Michel de Montaigne sat down to write.  It was his 38th birthday, and he had just retired from public life where he held a seat in the Bordeaux parliament.  What Montaigne wrote that day and what he would write for the next twenty years influenced countless future writers of prose.

Michel de Montaigne 1.jpgMontaigne wrote essays, but he wasn’t just writing essays, he was inventing the genre.  He called his compositions “essais” from the French verb “essayer” meaning “to try.”  An essai, therefore, is an “attempt” or a “trial” where the writer attempts to address a question and figure it out (1).  Unlike the concept we have today of beginning an essay with a thesis – a statement of belief – the original idea of the essay was instead to begin with a question.  The attempt to answer this question in writing then becomes the  process by which a writer explores his or her thinking, getting ideas down on paper so that they can be examined.  The act of writing, then, becomes the act of forming ideas and the exploring those ideas so that the writer knows what he or she really thinks.  In this sense the essay becomes a form of metacognition, or thinking about your own thinking.  The abstract thoughts of a writer are transformed into visible words on paper.  This allows writers to see what they know and what they don’t know.  By further rumination, examination, and revision of those thoughts, they can crystallize their thoughts, making them more clear to themselves and to an audience.

Montaigne’s essay were intensely personal.  He wrote about sleep, smells, idleness, anger, repentance, and thumbs, but his main subject was always himself.  By expressing and exploring ideas about himself in writing, he discovered that he not only understood himself better, but also understood his own thoughts and his own thoughts about the world.

For example, in the following excerpt from his essay entitled “On the Inconstancy of Our Actions,” notice how Montaigne explores the idea of inconsistent human behavior by honestly confronting his own character and actions:

For my part, the puff of every accident not only carries me along with it according to its own proclivity, but moreover I discompose and trouble myself by the instability of my own posture; and whoever will look narrowly into his own bosom, will hardly find himself twice in the same condition. I give to my soul sometimes one face and sometimes another, according to the side I turn her to. If I speak variously of myself, it is because I consider myself variously; all the contrarieties are there to be found in one corner or another; after one fashion or another: bashful, insolent; chaste, lustful; prating, silent; laborious, delicate; ingenious, heavy; melancholic, pleasant; lying, true; knowing, ignorant; liberal, covetous, and prodigal: I find all this in myself, more or less, according as I turn myself about; and whoever will sift himself to the bottom, will find in himself, and even in his own judgment, this volubility and discordance. I have nothing to say of myself entirely, simply, and solidly without mixture and confusion. (2)

Montaigne reminds us of the power of writing not just as a way of expressing what we know, but also of discovering what we know by getting our thinking down on paper.  When we write, therefore, we aren’t just learning how to write, we are writing to learn.

Read the four quotations below, noting how each of the writers vividly illustrates the connection between thinking and writing:

Writers take thoughts from the invisible mind and make them visible on paper.  They can then contemplate this objectified thought and revise it until it becomes the best thinking of which they are capable.  -R.D. Walshe

Writing is a way of freezing our thinking, of slowing down the thoughts that pass through our consciousness at lightning speed, so that we can examine our views and alter them if appropriate.  Writing enables us to note inconsistencies, logical flaws, and areas that would benefit from additional clarity. -Dennis Sparks

Writing enables us to find out what we know — and what we don’t know — about whatever we’re trying to learn.  Putting an idea into written words is like defrosting the windshield:  the idea, so vague out there in the murk, slowly begins to gather itself into shape. -William Zinsser

Just as inviting people over forces you to clean up your apartment, writing something that other people will read forces you to think well. So it does matter to have an audience. The things I’ve written just for myself are no good. They tend to peter out. When I run into difficulties, I find I conclude with a few vague questions and then drift off to get a cup of tea.  -Paul Graham

Today’s Challenge:  Thinking in Ink

What is a question that you have about some aspect of universal human experience, such as anger, happiness, love, lying, or marriage?  Select a universal human theme and form a question about that theme that you do not have a definitive answer to.  Explore that question in a personal essay by writing about different ways the question might be answered and by answering it based on your own memory, observations, and experiences. Don’t commit yourself to supporting a single thesis; instead, try to truly explore your own ideas in writing to see what new thinking emerges.

(Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  The true alchemists do not change lead into gold; they change the world into words.”  –William H. Gass

1-http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/montaigne/

2-http://essays.quotidiana.org/montaigne/inconstancy_of_our_actions/

 

February 12:  Pros and Cons Day

Today is the birthday of Charles Darwin (1809-1882), the Victorian naturalist known for the theory of evolution.  From 1831-1836 Darwin sailed aboard the HMS Beagle to the Galapagos Islands and the coast of South America.  Based on the observations he made on this five year trip, Darwin published, in 1859, the single most influential book of the nineteenth century, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life.  Darwin’s work not only revolutionized science, especially the fields of biology and anthropology, but it also sparked furious philosophical, religious, and ethical debates–debates which continue even today.

Head and shoulders portrait, increasingly bald with rather uneven bushy white eyebrows and beard, his wrinkled forehead suggesting a puzzled frownAfter his five-year voyage, Darwin returned home to an intense internal debate, not about issues of science but issues of matrimony.  Having fallen in love with his first cousin Emma Wedgwood, Darwin contemplated whether or not to pop the question.  Being a scientist, he approached the matter in a rational and methodical manner, sitting down and writing out a list of pros and cons.

Under the heading “Marry” some of the notable arguments for having a wife were “Constant companion . . . better than a dog” and “someone to take care of house.”  As for the cons, under the “Not Marry” heading, he listed, “Less money for books” and “cannot read in the evenings.”  Despite the fact the Darwin’s “Not Marry” column included more reasons than his “Marry” column, we know that in the end he decided to marry.  He and Emma were married on January 29, 1839.  They had ten children and remained married until Charles died in 1882 (1).

Of course Darwin was not the first to use the pros and cons method of decision making.  It dates back to Roman times.  Pros and cons is derived from the Latin pro et contra, which translates into English as “for and against.”  Another noted man of science who advocated the pro et contra method was Benjamin Franklin.  He wrote a letter to a friend on September 19, 1772 in which he praised this rational method of putting your thoughts on paper:

And tho’ the Weight of Reasons cannot be taken with the Precision of Algebraic Quantities, yet when each is thus considered separately and comparatively, and the whole lies before me, I think I can judge better, and am less likely to take a rash Step; and in fact I have found great Advantage from this kind of Equation, in what may be called Moral or Prudential Algebra. (2)

Today’s Challenge:  Decisions, Decisions

What are some of life’s majors decisions that require the kind of careful thought and deliberation that require a pros and cons list?  Create your own pros and cons list based on an important life decision that you might make in the future.  Force yourself to go beyond your own biases by trying to create a list that has a balanced proportion of pros and cons.  With Valentine’s Day drawing near, for example, you might consider whether or not to pursue a relationship with a significant other.  Below are some other examples of crucial life decisions:

Marry/Don’t Marry

Go to College/Don’t Go to College

Own a Pet/Don’t Own a Pet

Buy a Home/Rent a Home or Apartment

Buy a New Car/Lease or Buy a Used Car

Have Children/Don’t Have Children

Staycation/Vacation

Work for a Company/Be Self-Employed

(Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  Quick decisions are unsafe decisions. -Sophocles

1-http://www.telegraph.co.uk/books/authors/a-wife-is-better-than-a-dog-charles-darwins-main-reason-for-marr/

2-http://www.procon.org/view.background-resource.php?resourceID=1474

 

February 8 – Best Practices Day

Today is the birthday of American writer John Grisham whose books have sold over 300 million copies and been translated into 40 languages.

John Grisham 2009.jpgBorn in Arkansas in 1955, Grisham was a small town lawyer in Mississippi before he was a writer of legal thrillers.  His first book A Time to Kill had limited success; the book’s initial printing of 5,000 copies did not sell out (1).

Luckily Grisham continued to write.  In 1973, he read an article by Brian Garfield in the magazine Writer’s Digest entitled, “10 Rules for Suspense Fiction.”  Grisham applied these best practices in his second book The Firm, and they worked.  The Firm was a phenomenal success, remaining on the New York Times bestsellers lists for 44 weeks.  Later the book was made into a feature film starring Tom Cruise.  Garfield’s rules must work for movies too — to date, eight other books by Grisham have been made into films.

That original Writer’s Digest article offers the following concise decalogue of writing advice:

The 10 Commandments of How to Write a Thriller

  1. Start with action; explain it later.
  2. Make it tough for your protagonist.
  3. Plant it early; pay it off later.
  4. Give the protagonist the initiative.
  5. Give the protagonist a personal stake.
  6. Give the protagonist a tight time limit, and then shorten it.
  7. Choose your character according to your own capacities, as well as his.
  8. Know your destination before you set out.
  9. Don’t rush in where angels fear to tread.
  10. Don’t write anything you wouldn’t want to read. (2)

Today’s Challenge:  Best Practices Make Perfect

What rules for success or best practices would you put down in writing for a specific area of your expertise or for life in general?  Brainstorm some specific areas where you have expertise and experience — hobbies, sports, academic disciplines, etc. Then, think about how you would state some concise rules for success based on your personal experience.   As in Brian Garfield’s list, write your rules concisely, and make them parallel, stating each one in the imperative form — beginning with a verb.  Write at least three rules, and follow each of your rules with some examples and explanation. (Common Core Writing 2 – Explostory)

Quotation of the Day:  There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.  –W. Somerset Maugham

1-https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2011/nov/25/john-grisham-life-in-writing

2-http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/there-are-no-rules/the-10-commandments-of-how-to-write-a-thriller

February 6:  Lipogram Day

On this date in 1995, Paul Gray wrote one of the most interesting book reviews ever written.  Writing in Time magazine, Gray was reviewing the novel A Void by the French writer Georges Perec and translated into English by Gilbert Adair.  Read the opening sentence of Gray’s review, and see if you notice what’s missing:

A Void, originally La Disparition (1969), is a lipogram, an old trick dating as far back as 500 B.C. in which authors voluntarily submit to awful handicaps, arbitrarily abjuring crucial signs or symbols and making writing, always a hard task, a virtual impossibility.

A lipogram is a word from Ancient Greek that means “leaving out a letter.”  And in case  you didn’t notice, the letter Gray leaves out of his review is the letter “e.”  Georges Perec’s complete novel A Void — all 285 a pages — is a lipogram, and he doesn’t just “avoid” any letter, he avoids the single most frequently appearing letter in the French language, the letter “e” – a letter that appears in 15% of French words.  

Following Perec’s achievement, translator Gilbert Adair took on the even more challenging task of translating A Void into English while at the same time maintaining its E-lessness.  This means Adair had to avoid the two most frequently used words in English, “the” and “be.”  As in French, the letter “e” is the most frequently used letter in English, appearing in 12.7% of words.

Gray clearly admires the achievements of both Perec and Adair.  In praising Adair’s work, for example, Gray says the following, while maintaining his e-less lipogram:

Adair’s translation is an astounding Anglicization of Francophonic mania, a daunting triumph of will pushing its way through imposing roadblocks to a magical country, an absurdist nirvana, of humor, pathos, and loss.

In 1972 Perec took on another form of constrained wordplay called the univocalic, a piece which uses only a single vowel (See September Seventeenth: Univocalic Day).  In the case of his novella, entitled Les Revenentes, Perec eschewed all vowels but “e.”

Today’s Challenge:  Lipograms — as easy as A, B, C, D, and E   

How can you write a short story in which each sentence is a lipogram?  Try your hand at writing the beginning of a short story of at least five sentences.  Eliminate one letter in each sentence, beginning with the letter “A” in the first sentence, the letter “B” in the second sentence, and so on. If you’re truly ambitious, work your way through the entire alphabet.

Here’s an example:

Mike loves his dog, Spot, but he finds it difficult to love his pet turtle, Boris. This turtle has some serious issues, including his penchant for eating Mike’s clothes.  Just last week, Mike found Boris under his bed gnawing on his brand new tennis shoes. Spot, however, is a quality canine, one that Mike can always trust.  Spot is truly man’s paramount companion, consuming only what is put in his dog bowl.

Quotation of the Day:  Sadly, a handful of critics find lipograms ridiculous, ugly or without worth (as fiction or as wordplay). To such sorry saps, I say only that constraining your thoughts and writing in a particular way aids in promoting branching paths of thought, thus amplifying vocabulary and instilling adroit linguistic skills among both young and old. By putting into praxis ways of thinking that wouldn’t occur normally, lipograms call for authors to look at writing as an activity in ways that, frankly, wouldn’t occur to such niggling adjudicators of linguistic conduct. -Steve Chrisomalis (2)

1-Gray, Paul. “A World of Humor and Loss.”  Time 6 Feb 1995.

http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,982438,00.html

2-http://phrontistery.info/lipogram.html

January 31:  Factoid Day

Today is the birthday of American writer Norman Mailer (1923-2007).  Born in New Jersey, Mailer graduated from Harvard in 1944 and then served in the Phillipines during World War II.  After the war, Mailer published a semi-autobiographical novel called The Naked and the Dead.  Based on his experiences in the war, The Naked and the Dead was incredibly successful, and brought Mailer fame at just 25 years of age.

Normanmailer.jpgWriting in his 1973 biography of Marilyn Monroe, Mailer coined the word “factoid,” a word that has taken on a number of interesting usages in the past few years.  In his biography of Monroe, Mailer defined factoids as “ . . . facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper . . . .”  In its original sense, a factoid was not, as some believe, “a small fact”; rather, a factoid was an untruth that was stated as if it were an actual fact and was repeated so many times that many believed it to be true.  A classic example would be the often stated belief that the Great Wall of China is visible from space.

It’s appropriate that Mailer would coin the word, considering the fact that his writing often blurred the lines between fiction and journalism.  For example, Mailer won the Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for his novel The Executioner’s Song, a book that he called a “true life novel,” and which is based on the actual events surrounding the execution of Gary Gilmore for murder by the state of Utah in 1967.

Because so many people have mistakenly mixed up the meaning of the words fact and factoid for so long, factoid has recently taken on another, opposite meaning to Mailer’s original definition.  Today when people use the word, they mean “a trivial or fascinating fact.”  So, we can sum up the interesting history of this word by saying the word that originally meant “a fake fact” has evolved to mean “an interesting fact.”

As a result of the history of the word’s usage, lexicographers would call factoid a contranym — a word that has two opposite definitions, as in the word “dust,” which can mean “to add fine particles” or “to remove fine particles.”  These words are sometimes also called “Janus words,” based on Janus, the two-faced Roman god of beginnings, gateways, and doorways (See January 1:  Exordium Day). Other examples of contranyms are apology, bolt, finished, handicap, trip, and weather.

Today’s Challenge:  Factlet or Factoid?

To clarify the often confusing and contradictory definitions of factoid, columnist William Safire suggested a new word be added to the English lexicon:  factlet, meaning “a small, arcane fact.”  By adopting factlet, writers would help readers differentiate between the two meanings of factoid.  How do you determine whether something is true or false?  When you’re reading, how do you determine whether something is fact or fiction?  Using a recent newspaper or magazine, gather five interesting factual details based on a variety of different articles; try for factlets – small, arcane facts. Once you have a list of at least five factlets with citations, use your imagination to create five factoids, that is some details that sound plausible but that are made up.  Finally, select a random item from your list of ten, and read it to a friend to see if they can tell the factlets from the factoids.

Quotation of the Day:  Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn’t. -Mark Twain

1-Authorisms

https://www.theguardian.com/media/mind-your-language/2014/jan/17/mind-your-language-factoids

 

 

January 30:  Blurb Day

Today is the birthday of American author and humorist Frank Gelett Burgess (1866-1951).  Some might argue that today should be “Purple Cow Day” because Burgess is best known for the four-line nonsense poem, “The Purple Cow”:

I never saw a Purple Cow,
I never hope to see one,
But I can tell you, anyhow,
I’d rather see than be one!*

Although “The Purple Cow” is one of the most quoted American poems of the twentieth-century, Burgess is also known for another momentous literary achievement:  the coining of the word “blurb,” the short promotional descriptions or reviews by which consumers judge a book by its cover.

The story of the blurb begins in 1906.  Burgess was promoting his latest book Are You a Bromide? at trade association dinner.  To capture the attention of potential buyers, he created a dust jacket with the book’s title and a brief description.  To make the book more eye-catching, he added a picture of fictitious young woman he called Miss Belinda Blurb.  The name stuck as a way of describing the promotional text that publishers place on book jackets.  Today the term is also used to refer to the written endorsements  by fellow writers or celebrities that are found typically on a book’s back cover.

One could argue that American poet Walt Whitman should be given some credit for inventing the concept of the blurb — though not the word itself.  After Whitman published the first edition of his poetry collection Leaves of Grass in 1855, he received a letter of praise from the poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson:

I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere for such a start. I rubbed my eyes a little to see if this sunbeam were no illusion; but the solid sense of the book is a sober certainty. It has the best merits, namely of fortifying and encouraging.

Seeing an opportunity to use Emerson’s words for promotional purposes, Whitman had them stamped in gold leaf on the spine of his second editon.

Today blurbs have expanded beyond books.  They’re written for movies, for websites, and just about any product you can imagine.

Today’s Challenge:  Judging a Book by It Blurb

What is a book, movie, or other product that you are enthusiastic enough to endorse with words of praise?  Brainstorm some titles or products your really love.  Then, select one and write a blurb.  Image that your words of praise will be placed on the actual item and that your words will determine whether or not consumers buy the item.  

(Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Quotation of the Day:  . . . consumers aren’t stupid, and they’ve grown increasingly cynical about the dubious art of the blurb. After you’ve been tricked into paying for a couple of really bad movies because of one, you realize the difference between real praise and a plain old con job. Every good blurb of bad work numbs the consumer’s confidence and trust.  -Stephen King (3)

*A purple cow is the mascot of Williams College, a private liberal arts college in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

1-http://www.npr.org/2015/09/27/429723002/forget-the-book-have-you-read-this-irresistible-story-on-blurbs

2-http://www.lettersofnote.com/2010/12/i-greet-you-at-beginning-of-great.html

3-http://www.ew.com/article/2008/03/20/stephen-king-art-blurb/2