November 1:  Art Imitates Life Day

On this day in 1866, the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky met a very important deadline.  Based on the terms of his contract with his publisher, Dostoyevsky would either deliver his completed novel on November 1, 1866 or his publisher would be given complete rights to his works, without compensation, for the next nine years.  Clearly entering into such a contract was a gamble, but then Dostoyevsky had a reputation as a gambler.  After all, the reason he agreed to a contract with such stark terms was because he was desperate for money to pay off his gambling debts.

When Dostoyevsky began work on his novel on October 4, 1866, he had just 26 days to finish.  To assist him, he hired a stenographer, a woman named Anna Grigorievna whom he would later marry.  They met daily.  Dostoyevsky dictated the story to Grigorievna, and on November 1st, two hours before the deadline, the complete manuscript was delivered to the publisher.

The title of Dostoyevsky’s novel is appropriately The Gambler, and its plot revolves around several desperate characters winning and losing at the roulette table.  In the novel, art imitates life as the author’s addiction to roulette is the focus of his novel’s plot.

Today’s Challenge:  From Fact to Fiction

What anecdote from your life would be worthy of adapting to fiction?  Just as Dostoyevsky used his life experiences, his passions, and his misfortunes for his fiction, the challenge here is to take something from your life and adapt it into a fictional anecdote.  Once you have an actual incident, transform it into fiction by creating a character in a specific setting.  Decide also on a point of view – 1st person or 3rd person (limited or omniscient).  Then, write your anecdote.  Base the plot of your anecdote on the facts of your experience, but also use your poetic license as a fiction writer to embellish the facts. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

1-Nissley, Tom.  Reader’s Book of Days.  New York:  W. W. Norton, 2014:  315.

November 1:  Art Imitates Life Day

On this day in 1866, the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky met a very important deadline.  Based on the terms of his contract with his publisher, Dostoyevsky would either deliver his completed novel on November 1, 1866 or his publisher would be given complete rights to his works, without compensation, for the next nine years.  Clearly entering into such a contract was a gamble, but then Dostoyevsky had a reputation as a gambler.  After all, the reason he agreed to a contract with such stark terms was because he was desperate for money to pay off his gambling debts.

When Dostoyevsky began work on his novel on October 4, 1866, he had just 26 days to finish.  To assist him, he hired a stenographer, a woman named Anna Grigorievna whom he would later marry.  They met daily.  Dostoyevsky dictated the story to Grigorievna, and on November 1st, two hours before the deadline, the complete manuscript was delivered to the publisher.

The title of Dostoyevsky’s novel is appropriately The Gambler, and its plot revolves around several desperate characters winning and losing at the roulette table.  In the novel, art imitates life as the author’s addiction to roulette is the focus of his novel’s plot.

Today’s Challenge:  From Fact to Fiction

What anecdote from your life would be worthy of adapting to fiction?  Just as Dostoyevsky used his life experiences, his passions, and his misfortunes for his fiction, the challenge here is to take something from your life and adapt it into a fictional anecdote.  Once you have an actual incident, transform it into fiction by creating a character in a specific setting.  Decide also on a point of view – 1st person or 3rd person (limited or omniscient).  Then, write your anecdote.  Base the plot of your anecdote on the facts of your experience, but also use your poetic license as a fiction writer to embellish the facts. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

1-Nissley, Tom.  Reader’s Book of Days.  New York:  W. W. Norton, 2014:  315.

October 30: All I Really Need to Know Day

On this day in 1989, Robert Fulghum published his book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.  The book, which stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for almost two years, is a collection of short essays, subtitled “Uncommon Thoughts on Common Things.”

Fulghum grew up in Waco, Texas, and before he began writing full time, he was a Unitarian minister and an art and philosophy teacher.

Robert Fulghum - All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.jpgThe first essay in Fulghum’s book, called “Credo,” explains the origin of his book’s title.  Fulghum explains that each spring throughout his life he would sit down and write a personal credo, a list of statements of personal belief.  This list evolved over the years with statements that were sometimes comical, sometimes bland, sometimes cynical, and sometimes over-complicated.  The final version of his credo came to him, however, when he realized that true meaning in life did not need to be complicated.  In fact, he already knew what he needed to know; he had learned it a long time ago in kindergarten. The basic rules he learned like “Share everything,” “Play fair,” and “Clear up your own mess” served him throughout life (1).

All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten has spawned numerous imitations, spinoffs, and parodies based on television shows, movies, books, etc.  These imitations adopt Fulghum’s title and list as their template, beginning with “All I Really Need to Know I Learned From ______,” followed by a list of principles based on the source of inspiration.

For example:

All I Really Need to Know I Learned from Watching Star Trek

All I Really Need to Know I Learned from My Dog

All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Fairy Tales

A further adaptation narrows the learning a bit to a single specific area, as in:

All I Really Need to Know about ___________ I Learned from ___________

One example of this kind of spinoff is a book, published in 2014 by Paul Oyer, Everything I Ever Needed to Know about Economics I Learned from Online Dating.

Today’s Challenge:  Create Your Credo

How would you finish the following titles, and what principles would you include in your personal credo?  “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in/from ______.”  And “All I Really Need to Know about ___________ I Learned in/from ___________.”

Create your own spin-off of Fulghum’s credo.  Brainstorm some ideas based on books, movies, television shows, the internet, or some other aspect of life that you know well.  Once you have selected a single focus, generate a list of principles that spring from your selected area.  Your list may contain serious insights or humorous insights.  (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

1-Fulghum, Robert. All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. New York:  Ballantine Books, 1989.

 

October 27:  The Federalist Papers Day

On this day in 1787, Federalist Paper 1 was published in the Independent Journal of New York.

Today Americans take the Constitutional form of government for granted.  But in 1787, shortly after the young, ragtag nation had thrown off the British monarchy and won its independence, a constitution was not a given.  The questions at that time were — would there be a central federal government at all, and if there were, what would be its powers?  The original basis for the united thirteen states was the Articles of Confederation, but this gave the federal government little power:  no power to levy taxes, to regulate trade, or to enforce laws.  The Constitution, which offered a plan for a federal government based on checks and balances, was drafted in September of 1787, but it still needed to be ratified by at least nine states.

In October 1787, therefore, the federalists began their debate with the anti-federalists.  One of the chief proponents of the Constitution was Alexander Hamilton, the chief aide to George Washington during the Revolutionary War and an elected representative from New York state to the Congress of the Confederation.  Hamilton knew that New York would be a key swing state in the debate, so he hatched a plan to write essays that would be published in New York newspapers to promote and explain the new Constitution.  To help him, Hamilton enlisted James Madison, who had served in the Continental Congress, and John Jay, a lawyer and diplomat.

Between October 1787 and May 1788, the trio wrote a total of 85 essays, totaling more than 175,000 words.  Each essay was published anonymously under the pen name “Publius,” an allusion to Publius Valerius Publicola, a supporter of the Roman Republic.

The Federalist Papers served as a kind of user’s guide to the Constitution, explaining how the people, not a king, would govern and how a federal government was needed to increase efficiency and to prevent the risk of another monarchy.  The papers also explained the separation of powers between the branches of government, and how government should operate to maintain individual liberty without anarchy.

In the end, the federalists won.  All thirteen states ratified the U.S. Constitution.

Today we have all 85 Federalist Papers intact as testimony to the work of Hamilton, Madison, and Jay.  Reading them, however, is not easy. They are written in dense 18th century prose.  With careful focus and attention, however, they can be understood.

It is this kind of careful close reading that the College Board had in mind when it redesigned its Scholastic Aptitude Test, which took effect in 2016.  One specific area of emphasis in the redesign of the SAT reading test is U.S. founding documents, which includes the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Federalist Papers (2).

Today’s Challenge:  Federalist Paper in a Nutshell

What are the keys to writing a good summary?  Read Federalist Paper 1, or one of the other papers, and write a one-paragraph summary.  Read and re-read the passage until you understand its main ideas.  Before you write your summary, consider the following “Six Summary Secrets”:

  1. Open with a topic sentence that identifies the author and title of the work being summarized.
  2. Make sure your summary is clear to someone who has not read the original.
  3. Focus on the main points rather than the details.
  4. Paraphrase by using your own words without quoting words directly from the original passage.
  5. Be objective, by reporting the ideas in the passage without stating your own opinions or ideas regarding the passage or its author.
  6. Use concise, clear language.

(Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

1- Beck, Glenn with Joshua Charles.  The Original Argument:  The Federalists’ Case for the Constitution, Adapted for the 21st Century.   New York:  Threshold Editions, 2011:  xxi-xxxi.

2- The College Board.  The Redesigned SAT  “Founding Documents and the Great Global Conversation.”

https://www.collegeboard.org/sites/default/files/founding_documents_and_the_great_global_conversation.pdf.

 

October 22: Battle Writer’s Block Day

WORD DAYS is now available for the first time in paperback!

On this day in 1804 and 1837, two famous writers, one British and one American, waged their own personal battles with writer’s block by writing in their journals.

The first was the British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834). Writing in his journal the day after his thirty-second birthday, Coleridge expressed his exasperation at being unable to produce the kind of great poetry he had written in his mid-twenties:  “So Completely has a whole year passed, with scarcely the fruites of a month. –O Sorrow and Shame . . . . I have done nothing!”  Although Coleridge was writing in his journal, he never again managed to write anything like his great narrative poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” which had been published six years earlier (1).

The second writer was the American Henry David Thoreau. After graduating from college at Harvard in 1837, Thoreau returned to his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts.  There he met and was mentored by essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, who encouraged the fledgling writer to keep a journal in order to record his thoughts and to develop his craft.

On this date Henry opened his first journal and began writing. He started by recording the questions that Emerson had first asked him:

‘What are you doing now?’ he asked. ‘Do you keep a journal?’ So I make my first entry to-day.

Thoreau’s journals gave him a place to develop his ideas and to avoid writer’s block.  In the course of 24 years, he produced over two million words in 39 notebooks.  As explained by Odell Shepard, editor of Thoreau’s journals, writing this way helped Thoreau in a number of ways:

It sharpened his observation and deepened his thought.  By preserving the memory of his best hours — those that had “a certain individuality and separate existence, aye, personality” –it enabled him to survey long stretches of earlier experience and thus to estimate his development or decline. (2)

No doubt the journaling habit gave Thoreau the kind of confidence in his own ideas that lead to his two great works, the book Walden and the essay “Civil Disobedience” (See August 9: Walden Day and July 12: Thoreau Day).

One interesting note is that the social networking messaging service Twitter used Emerson’s question as its prompt when the online service began in 2006.  Each tweet composed was prompted by the question “What are you doing?” In 2009 Twitter changed its prompt to the more succinct “What’s happening?” (3).

Today’s Challenge:  Six-Sided Solution

What are at least six of your go-to writing ideas when combating writer’s block?  A great way to defeat writer’s block is to turn your negative thoughts into positive thoughts.  Your task, therefore, is to construct an actual Writer’s Block that, instead of causing writers to stumble, will inspire and motivate them to write.  First, brainstorm as many writing ideas as you can, anything that might spark ideas and inspire someone to write. Then, organize your ideas into six categories, one for each side of your physical Writer’s Block.  Finally, construct your block out of paper, wood, or some other material.  Write your categories and ideas on each side of your block, adding artwork, diagrams, graphics, pictures, etc. to make it visually appealing.  In constructing your own Writer’s Block you’ll be doing something that all great writers do, you’ll be transforming an abstract idea into a concrete one.  Use your Writer’s Block to spark ideas as you begin your daily journaling habit. (Common Core Writing 5 – Writing Process)

1-A Critic at Large. Blocked. The New Yorker 14 June 2004. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2004/06/14/blocked

2-The Heart of Thoreau’s Journals (Edited by Odell Shepard).  New York:  Dover Publications, Inc., 1961.

3-Dybwab, Barb. Twitter Drops “What Are You Doing?” Now Ask “What’s Happening?” Mashable.com 19 Nov. 2009. http://mashable.com/2009/11/19/twitter-whats-happening/

October 16:  Dictionary Day

WORD DAYS is now available for the first time in paperback!

Noah Webster was born on this day in 1758 in Hartford, Connecticut. He went on to graduate from Yale and to work as a lawyer. His most noteworthy work, however, came as a school teacher. Unhappy with the curriculum materials he was given to teach, he created his own uniquely American curriculum: A three-part Grammatical Institute of the English Language. It included a spelling book, a grammar book, and a reader.

Webster served in the student militia at Yale during the Revolutionary War. He never saw combat, but while he never fought in the literal battle for independence from Britain, he was a key player in the battle to make American English independent from British English.

His spelling book, known as the “Blue-Backed Speller,” became one of the most popular and influential works in American history. Only the Bible sold more copies.  According to Bill Bryson in his book The Mother Tongue, Noah’s spelling book went through at least 300 editions and sold more than sixty million copies. Because of the wide use of his spelling book and his dictionary published in 1828, Webster had a significant impact on the spelling and pronunciation of American English. His dictionary contained more than 70,000 words, and it was the most complete dictionary of its time (1).

Many of the distinctive differences in spelling and pronunciation of British words versus American English words can be traced back to Webster. For example:

Change of -our to –or as in colour and color, honour and honor, labour and labor.

Change of –re to er as in centre and center, metre and meter, theatre and theater

Change of –ce to se as in defence and defense, licence and license, offence and offense

The change of the British double-L in travelled and traveller to the American traveled, traveler (2).

Not all of Webster’s spelling changes stuck, however. David Grambs, in his book Death by Spelling, lists the following as examples of words that were retracted in later editions of Webster’s Dictionary: iz, relm, mashine, yeer, bilt, tung, breth, helth, beleeve, and wimmen (3).

After Webster’s death in 1843, the rights to his dictionaries were purchased by Charles and George Merriam. The first volume of their dictionary, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary was published in 1847.

After purchasing the rights for use of the Webster name, the Merriam brothers lost a legal battle to use the name exclusively. As a result, today other dictionaries use the name Webster even though they have no connection to Webster or his original work. Because of this, Merriam-Webster includes the following assurance of quality for its dictionaries:

Not just Webster. Merriam-Webster.™

Other publishers may use the name Webster, but only Merriam-Webster products are backed by 150 years of accumulated knowledge and experience. The Merriam-Webster name is your assurance that a reference work carries the quality and authority of a company that has been publishing since 1831 (4).

Today’s Challenge: Dictionary Day Decalogue

What is your favorite word in the English language?  What kind of information can you find in a dictionary besides just the correct spellings and definitions of words?  Dictionaries tell us much more than just spelling and definitions. To celebrate Dictionary Day brainstorm a list of your favorite words.  Then, grab a good dictionary, and make a list of at least “Ten Things You Can Find in a Dictionary Besides Spelling and Definitions.” (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

1- Bryson, Bill. The Mother Tongue. New York: Perennial, 1990.

2 –Reader’s Digest Success with Words: A Guide to the American Language. New York: Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., 1983.

3 – Grambs, David. Death by Spelling: A Compendium of Tests, Super Tests, and Killer Bees. New York: Harper & Row, 1989: 27.

4-Merriam-Webster. About Us – Noah Webster and America’s First Dictionary. https://www.merriam-webster.com/about-us/americas-first-dictionary.

 

October 11:  Apocryphal Anecdote Day

WORD DAYS is now available for the first time in paperback!

Today is the birthday of Parson Weems (1759-1825), the man who might be called “The Father of the Father of Our Country.” It was Weems’ biography of Washington that first published the story of young George Washington and the cherry tree.

Parson Weems, also known as Mason Locke Weems, was a book agent, author, and ordained Episcopal priest.  His primary employment was as a book salesman.  When George Washington died in 1799, Weems saw an opportunity.  He thought that a biography of the venerated first president would be a big seller.  Weems published The Life of Washington in 1800, one year after Washington’s death. Excerpts of Weems’ biography were later included in the enormously popular McGuffey Readers, the most widely read elementary textbook from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century (1).

One of the excerpts included in the McGuffey Reader was Weems’ account of the cherry tree incident, an anecdote that Weems claimed he got from one of Washington’s distant relatives:

One day, in the garden, where he often amused himself hacking his mother’s pea-sticks, he unluckily tried the edge of his hatchet on the body of a beautiful young English cherry-tree, which he barked so terribly, that I don’t believe the tree ever got the better of it. The next morning [an] old gentleman, finding out what had befallen his tree, which, by the by, was a great favourite, came into the house; and with much warmth asked for the mischievous author, declaring at the same time, that he would not have taken five guineas for his tree. Nobody could tell him anything about it. Presently George and his hatchet made their appearance. “George,” said his father, “do you know who killed that beautiful little cherry tree yonder in the garden? ” This was a tough question; and George staggered under it for a moment; but quickly recovered himself: and looking at his father, with the sweet face of youth brightened with the inexpressible charm of all-conquering truth, he bravely cried out, “I can’t tell a lie, Pa; you know I can’t tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet.” “Run to my arms, you dearest boy,” cried his father in transports, “run to my arms; glad am I, George, that you killed my tree; for you have paid me for it a thousand fold. Such an act of heroism in my son is more worth than a thousand trees, though blossomed with silver, and their fruits of purest gold.” (2)

The historical veracity of this anecdote is questionable. Certainly by modern standards of historical research, Weems’ citation of a single distant and unnamed relative makes it dubious.  To be exact, however, we cannot call it a myth nor a total falsehood.  What we can call it is apocryphal — that is, a story that is widely circulated as true, yet is of doubtful authenticity.  The adjective derives from the Greek apokryphos, meaning “hidden or obscure.”  Another relative of the word is the Latin noun Apocrypha, a word used to identify the books excluded from the canon of the Old and New Testaments.

No doubt a part of a story’s appeal is its foundation in truth, but often we can sniff out an apocryphal story if it sounds just too good to be true.  This is the nature of stories we call legends, stories based on actual characters from history but that cannot be verified as true.  If we try to classify Meeks’ Washington story on the continuum of narrative between fact and fiction, the most accurate term would be legend.

Today’s Challenge:  Bogus Back Stories

What are the keys to creating a story that sounds believable enough to be really true?  Try your own hand at a little fact-based fiction by selecting a well-known person who is no longer living.  Think about what you know about that person’s character; then, craft an anecdote that seeks to explain a defining incident in the person’s youth that formed his or her character.  Include a plausible setting and vivid enough details to make it believable.  Share your story with some of your friends to see if they can detect any dubious details. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

1- Richardson, Jay. The Cherry Tree Myth. Mount Vernon.org. https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/cherry-tree-myth/.

2-Weems, Mason Locke. The Fable of George Washington and the Cherry Tree. 1809. Washington Papers. University of Virgina. Public Domain. http://gwpapers.virginia.edu/history/articles/weems/.

October 3:  Read an Essay Out Loud Day

WORD DAYS is now available for the first time in paperback!

On this day in 1890, Harvard Professor Barrett Wendell read an essay aloud to his class of 50 undergraduate English students.  The essay was written by one of the students in the class, a student who would go on to become one of the most important African-American intellectuals and leaders of his generation.  The essay’s author was W.E.B. Du Bois, who signed up for the class because he realized that without the ability to write well, his ideas would never be taken seriously.

Du Bois’ essay was the only one that Professor Wendell read aloud that day.

Formal photograph of W. E. B. Du Bois, with beard and mustache, around 50 years oldDu Bois went on the say many things well as an activist, a sociologist, and a historian.  In 1895, he became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. at Harvard, and in 1909 he co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).  He worked his entire life for the cause of civil rights, and he died on August 27, 1963 — one day before Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C. (1).

Today’s Challenge:  Extra-Sensory Reading

What is the value of reading out loud as a way of reading and of revising your writing?  Reading words aloud or hearing your words read aloud by someone else allows you to experience them in a different way than just seeing them.  Listening and speaking the words involve different senses than just reading with your eyes, allowing you to catch nuances or areas for revision that you might not catch otherwise.  Exchange some of your writing with a partner.  Read each other’s writing with your eyes first, highlighting the parts you particularly like. Then, take turns reading and listening to each other’s writing. (Common Core Writing 5 – Writing Process)

1-W.E.B. Du Bois (Bloom’s Modern Critical Views) Harold Bloom, editor. Chelsea House Publications, 2002.

September 21:  Compose a Novel First Line Day

On this day in 1937, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit was published. Tolkien began the book in a rather unexpected way.  As a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University, Tolkien would augment his salary in the summers by marking School Certificate exams, a test taken by 16 year-olds in the United Kingdom.  In a 1955 letter to the poet W.H. Auden, Tolkien recounted the moment that launched what was to become a classic in fantasy and children’s literature.  Taking a small break from correcting student papers, he scribbled the following sentence on a blank sheet of paper:

‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’ (1).

The opening line that Tolkien scribbled on a blank page that fateful day remained intact in the published final draft.

Today’s Challenge:  From Blank Page to Page Turner

What character and setting would you introduce in the first two sentences of a story?  Grab your own blank piece of paper, and draft at least two sentences that introduce a character and a setting for a story.  Hold a contest to see whose novel first lines resonate the most with readers. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

1-Flood, Alison. JRR Tolkien Called Teaching ‘Exhausting and Depressing’ in Unseen Letter.

September 20: Recitation Day

Today is the birthday of Donald Hall, American poet and the 14th U.S. Poet Laureate. He was born in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1928, and when he was only sixteen, he attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. In his 50-year career as a writer, Hall has published poems, essays, letters, children’s books, and literary criticism (1).

In 1985 Hall wrote a short essay for Newsweek‘s “My Turn” column entitled “Bring Back the Out-Loud Culture,” where he challenged readers to return to reading and reciting aloud.  Hall looked back to a time before television and mass media when print was frequently read aloud and everyone learned something by reciting or listening to recitations (2).

Today’s Challenge: Out-Loud Renaissance

What is a passage of prose or a poem that you feel is worth reading out loud and is worth committing to memory?  What makes it so exemplary and so worth remembering? Challenge yourself this week to commit a favorite poem or passage to memory. See if it helps you pay more attention to the written word.  Sponsor a “Recitation Day” in your class, school, or community, challenging people to share their poems or passages out loud. (Common Core Speaking and Listening 4 – Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas)

1 – Poets.org. Donald Hall. http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/264.

2 – Hall, Donald. “Bring Back the Out-Loud Culture.” Newsweek 15 April 1985: 12.