October 22: Battle Writer’s Block Day

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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

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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

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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

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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.

September 18:  Lexicographer Day

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Today is the birthday of Samuel Johnson (1708-1784), the writer of the first scholarly researched English dictionary.  His work A Dictionary of the English Language was published in two volumes on April 15, 1755.  Johnson’s dictionary was not the first dictionary in English, but what made it special was its use of illustrative quotations by the best writers in English.

A lexicographer is a writer of dictionaries, and Johnson set the standard for the basic principle that lexicographers use even today, that is deducing the meaning of a word based on how it is used by accomplished, published writers.  Instead of creating meanings of words, the lexicographer reads prodigiously, gathering examples of words used in context in published works.  Only after gathering these examples does the lexicographer write a definition of a word.  Thus, instead of prescribing the definitions of words, the work of a lexicographer is descriptive.  Working objectively, like a scientist, a lexicographer observes (describes) the way words are actually used in the real world by real writers, rather than declaring by fiat (prescribing) what words mean.

JohnsonDictionary.pngIn Johnson’s Dictionary he defines his job as follows:

Lexicographer: A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.

In his preface to his dictionary, Johnson stated his purpose: not to fix the language by defining its words in print, but to display its power by arranging it for easy alphabetical access:

When we see men grow old and die at a certain time one after another, from century to century, we laugh at the elixir that promises to prolong life to a thousand years; and with equal justice may the lexicographer be derided, who being able to produce no example of a nation that has preserved their words and phrases from mutability, shall imagine that his dictionary can embalm his language, and secure it from corruption and decay, that it is in his power to change sublunary nature, or clear the world at once from folly, vanity, and affectation. (1)

Today’s Challenge:  Lexicographer for a Day

What are the key elements of writing a definition?  The act of writing the definitions of words allows you to see the many facets of language that often go unnoticed.  Begin your definition with your word and its part of speech.  Then, identify a general category or class that the word fits into.  Finally, provide details that show what differentiates the word from the other words in its class — in other words, details that show how it is distinct from other words in its general category.

Here’s an example:

Pencil (Noun):  a type of writing or drawing instrument that consists of a thin stick of graphite enclosed in a thin piece of wood or fixed in a case made of metal or plastic.

Open a dictionary to a random page, and write down the first four words you find.  Then, without looking at the definitions, write your own.  Then, compare your definitions to the ones published in the dictionary. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

1-British Library. 1755: Johnson’s Dictionary.  Public Domain.

September 5:  Two Voices Day

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Today is the birthday of children’s author and poet Paul Fleishman. Born in 1952, Fleishman grew up in Santa Monica, California.  His father, Sid Fleishman, was also an award-winning author of children’s books.

Fleishman graduated from the University of New Mexico in 1977, and before he became a full-time writer, he worked as a bookstore clerk, library shelver, and proofreader.  His work as a proofreader led to the founding of two grammar watchdog groups:  ColonWatch and The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to English (1).

Fleischman in 2014.Fleishman won the most prestigious award in children’s literature in 1989, the Newbery Medal, for his book Joyful Noise:  Poems for Two Voices. In Joyful Noise, Fleishman popularized a new poetic genre, the poem for two voices. Written to be read aloud by two people, each poem is written in two columns.  Each reader is assigned a single column, and the two readers alternate, reading the lines in turn from the top to the bottom of the page.  Reader’s join their voices whenever words are written on the same line in both columns.

How to Read a Poem for Two Voices

I’m the first reader. I’m reading

only the lines in the left column.      

                                                                                                                                                                                        I’m the second reader.

                                       As you can see, I waited my

                                                             turn to read.

If words appear on the same

Line in both columns,

Both readers read them aloud,       Both readers read them aloud,

Simultaneously.                                   Simultaneously.                                                            

One voice on the left,                            

                                                          Plus another on the right,

Makes two voices.                           Makes two voices.                                                                             

Today’s Challenge:  Compose, Collaborate, and Contrast

Given poetic license, what two people, places, things, or ideas would you like to see hold a conversation?  Write your own poem for two voices.  Begin by brainstorming some contrasting ideas:  people, places, ideas, or things.  You have poetic license to give voices to anyone or anything.  Here are some ideas to get you started:  father and son, dog and cat, protagonist and antagonist, summer and winter, success and failure, noun and verb, football and baseball.  Craft your poem in the two-column format, and when you have a solid draft, work with a partner to bring the poem to life by reading it aloud.  Revise and practice until you have a poem that’s ready to be shared with a larger group. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

1- Paul Fleishchman.net. Biography.

September 1:  Author Perseverance Day

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Today is the birthday of Robert M. Pirsig, who received 121 rejections for his novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  Pirsig persevered.  The book he wrote in 1968 about a motorcycle trip that he and his son took from Minnesota to San Francisco was finally published in 1974.  Not only was the book published, it achieved cult status, selling more than five million copies.

Zen motorcycle.jpgPirsig is not the only author to experience rejection.  L. Frank Baum, author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, received so many rejection letters that he kept a journal called a “Record of Failure.”  J.K. Rowling received 14 rejections for her first Harry Potter book, and Stephen King received more than 30 rejections for his first novel Carrie.  In fact, King almost gave up on Carrie.  Discouraged with his lack of progress, he threw the manuscript in the garbage.  His wife retrieved it, however, and told him to keep writing.  Sometimes even the best writers need the encouragement of others.

Today’s Challenge:  The Write Stuff

Writing is hard work, and all writers must persevere through rejection before getting their writing published.  What’s your favorite book?  What makes it such a special book?  Write an acceptance letter to the author explaining why you love it so much and thanking the author for all of his/her hard work. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

1- Temple, Emily. The Most Rejected Books of All-Time. Literary Hub. 22 Dec. 2017.  https://lithub.com/the-most-rejected-books-of-all-time/.

 

August 22:  Fahrenheit 451 Day

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Today is the birthday of Ray Bradbury, the American writer best known for his science fiction novels and short stories. He was born in Illinois in 1920 and later moved to Los Angeles where he graduated high school in 1938. After high school, he furthered his education by spending long hours roaming the stacks in the public library.

He began writing full time in 1943, publishing a number of short stories in various periodicals. His first success came in 1950 when he published The Martian Chronicles, a novel made up of a number of his short stories about the human colonization of Mars (1).

This original cover shows a drawing of a man, who appears to be made of newspaper and is engulfed in flames, standing on top of some books. His right arm is down and holding what appears to be a fireman's hat made of paper while his left arm is as if wiping sweat from the brow of his bowed head. The title and author's name appear in large text over the images and there is a small caption in the upper left-hand corner that reads, "Wonderful stories by the author of The Golden Apples of the Sun".On October 19, 1953, he published his most popular and critically acclaimed novel Fahrenheit 451, a story about a dark future in which books are illegal, and instead of putting out fires, firemen answer calls to burn illegal caches of books. The main character is one of these firemen, Guy Montag. Instead of reading, the general public immerse themselves in pleasure, watching television screens that take up three of the four walls in their homes and listening to seashell radios that fit in their ears. Like Winston Smith in George Orwell’s 1984, Guy Montag begins to question his job and the entire status quo of the society in which he lives. He also begins to become curious about the books he’s burning. However, Montag’s curiosity and his books betray him, and the firemen one day arrive to burn his home and his books.

Montag flees the city and comes upon a group of educated but homeless men who each memorize a great work of literature or philosophy. When the time comes to return to the city and rebuild civilization from the ashes of burned books, these men will be ready to play their part. Montag will join them with his book, Ecclesiastes.

Bradbury published over 30 books, almost 600 short stories, as well as a number of poems, essays, and plays. Along with Fahrenheit 451, his most read book, his short stories are published in numerous anthologies and textbooks.

Fahrenheit 451 began as a short story called “The Fireman,” published in Galaxy Science Fiction Magazine in 1950. Bradbury’s publisher then asked him to expand the story into a novel in 1953. The first draft of the novel was completed in a typing room located in the basement of the University of California Library. The typewriter was on a timer connected to a change slot. For one dime Bradbury got thirty minutes of typing. He spent $9.80 to complete the first draft.

When he wasn’t typing furiously against the clock, Bradbury would go upstairs to explore the library, strolling among that stacks, running his hands across the books, and flipping through the pages of books that captured his curiosity.

Bradbury had more than just a love affair with books. For him, they were the backbone of civilization.  It’s no wonder, then, that one of Bradbury’s most famous quotes is: There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.

Today’s Challenge: On Fire for a Book

Near the end of Fahrenheit 451, the main character Montag finds himself among a group of people who each memorize a forbidden book.  Each person becomes the keeper of the book, preserving the book for future generations.  If you found yourself in a society that banned books, what single book would you select to memorize, and what makes that book so special? Brainstorm some titles of important books that should always remain alive in the hearts and minds of readers.  Select a single book that you would commit to memory, and write an explanation of what the book is about and what makes that book important and special? (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

1- About Ray Bradbury. http://www.raybradbury.com/bio.html.