March 1:  Cultural Literacy Day

On this day in 1987, the book Cultural Literacy:  What Every American Needs To Know was published by American educator E.D. Hirsch.  The basic premise of Hirsch’s bestselling book was that in order to be literate, students need fundamental background knowledge in a range of disciplines, including literature, geography, history, math, science, art, and music.  Hirsch argues that reading is more than just decoding words; comprehension requires a reader to possess knowledge of a shared body of cultural references.  

For example, imagine a student read the following sentence from Ray Bradbury:

The television, that insidious beast, that Medusa which freezes a billion people to stone every night, staring fixedly, that Siren which called and sang and promised so much and gave, after all, so little.

To catch Bradbury’s full meaning and his negative attitude towards television, the reader needs to understand the mythological allusions he makes to “Medusa” and “Siren.”  The mere ability to pronounce or read the words is not enough to capture the meaning and tone of the sentence.

Cultural literacy, then, is the body of core, essential knowledge of the people, places, ideas, and concepts that form the collective memory of our culture.  

In addition to defining and arguing for cultural literacy, Hirsch also included a 63-page appendix where he listed 5,000 subjects and concepts to illustrate the kind of specific cultural references that every literate person should know.  Below is a sample of some of the terms:

ad hoc, Adam and Eve, Battle of the Bulge, Beatniks, capital punishment, Camelot, Emily Dickinson, The Divine Comedy, elementary particles, Epicureanism, The Federalist Papers, free will, Lady Godiva, gerrymander, hyperbole, Edward Hopper, isolationism, Irish potato famine, Jakarta, Judas Iscariot, King Lear, kitsch, Robert E. Lee, Lilliput, Ferdinand Magellan, Magna Carta, Neptune, Nineteen Eighty-Four, oxymoron, Oedipus, paranoid schizophrenia, pasteurization, beg the question, quod erat demonstrandum (Q.E.D.), The Red Badge of Courage, rank and file, sarcasm, Scylla and Charybdis, Tower of Babel, twin paradox, Ursa Minor, unilateralism, Venus de Milo, Voltaire, white elephant, Woodstock, X-chromosome, xenophobia, yellow journalism, yin and yang, Zeus, Zionism

In 1989, Hirsch published The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, a book that gives a brief definition of each cultural reference.

Today’s Challenge:  Allusion Alphabet

What would you say are allusions – cultural references from history, religion, mythology, or literature – that everyone should know?  Create an Allusion Alphabet that includes people, places, and ideas that you think are essential elements of cultural literacy; include at least one reference for each of the 26 letters of the alphabet.  Once you have your alphabet, write a report on one of your allusions.  Imagine you are writing to a person who is unfamiliar with the term.  In addition to giving essential background details on the who, what, when, and where of your term, give the reader some explanation on why this concept is so important.  (Common Core Writing 3 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  We have ignored cultural literacy in thinking about education.  We ignore the air we breathe until it is thin or foul.  Cultural literacy is the oxygen of social intercourse. -E.D. Hirsch, Jr.

1-Hirsh, E.D. Cultural Literacy

 

 

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

 

January 29: Show and Tell Day

Today is the birthday of Russian playwright and short story writer Anton Chekhov (1860-1904).  Chekhov began writing as a way to support his family when he was a teenager, selling stories to newspapers.  Although he is today recognized as one of the greatest fiction writers of all time, Chekhov’s first love was medicine.  He described his relationship with medicine and writing with an apt metaphor:  “Medicine is my lawful wife, and literature is my mistress.”  Unfortunately Chekhov had barely started his career as a doctor when he contracted tuberculosis, which took his life when he was just 44 years old.

Chekhov seated at a deskOften a prescription for good writing is to “show, don’t tell.”  This is great advice, and the three-word maxim is an excellent example of concise writing; however, the irony of “show, don’t tell” is that the statement itself does more telling than showing.  For a better, more illustrative version of this advice we can turn to a quotation that’s often attributed to Chekhov:

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.

Here we have an example of the kind of concrete language that creates a picture in the reader’s mind.  Concrete language engages the reader’s senses, allowing the reader to see, hear, feel, smell, and/or taste vicariously.

Although the “glint of light” quotation is consistently attributed to Chekhov, an investigation by Garson O’Toole has determined that it’s more of a paraphrase than a direct quotation.  At his website www.quoteinvestigator.com, O’Toole reports that the source of the quotation is a letter that Chekhov wrote to his brother Alexander in May 1886.  As we can see by Chekhov’s advice to his brother, sensory imagery is a must:

In descriptions of Nature one must seize on small details, grouping them so that when the reader closes his eyes he gets a picture. For instance, you’ll have a moonlit night if you write that on the mill dam a piece of glass from a broken bottle glittered like a bright little star, and that the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled past like a ball (1).

Too often writers don’t follow Chekhov’s advice.  It’s okay to talk about abstract ideas like love, war, freedom, or failure, but to truly show and to truly evoke images, the writer must use concrete language that engages the reader’s five senses.  This is the type of language that creates a dominant impression the mind of the reader.  

For example, notice how the two passages below both go far beyond telling the reader that “war is an oppressive struggle”; instead, they both show the druggery of war in vivid detail.

Passage 1 is an excerpt from a poem about World War I; Passage 2 is an excerpt from a novel about the Vietnam War:

Passage 1:  “Dulce Et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,

Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,

And towards our distant rest began to trudge.

Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,

But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;

Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots

Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Passage 2:  The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

Often, they carried each other, the wounded or weak.  They carried infections. They carried chess sets, basketballs, Vietnamese-English dictionaries, insignia of rank, Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts, plastic cards imprinted with the Code of Conduct.  They carried diseases, among them malaria and dysentery.  They carried lice and ringworm and leeches and paddy algae and various rots and molds.  They carried the land itself—Vietnam, the place, the soil—a powdery orange-red dust that covered their boots and fatigues and faces. They carried the sky.

Today’s Challenge:  Show Me the Details

How can you support a generalization with strong imagery and sensory details that create a showing picture for your reader?  Support a telling generalization with specific showing details that make a dominant impression on the reader.  Use sensory language that engage your reader’s senses, by including details that the reader can see, hear, feel, taste, and/or smell.

Learning a new skill can be difficult.

Persistence is an essential trait for successful people.

Failure is often a springboard for success.

Procrastination is a major problem for students.

Summer is the best time of the year.

Quotation of the Day:  When you show people something, you are trusting them to make up their minds for themselves.  Readers like to be trusted.  Don’t dictate to them what they are supposed to see, or think, or feel.  Let them see the person, situation, or thing you are describing, and they will not only like what you have written, they will like you for trusting them. -Gary Provost

1-http://quoteinvestigator.com/2013/07/30/moon-glint/

 

 

January 25:  Burns Day

Today is the birthday of the Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759-1796).  Born in Alloway, Scotland, on a tenant farm, Burns began writing poems at an early age.  Although he had little formal education, suffered much poverty and hardship, and died at just 37 years of age, his poetry and songs have made him one great poets, especially to the Scottish who recognize him as their national poet.

PG 1063Burns Naysmithcrop.jpgEven though he wrote his poetry in the Scottish dialect, today Burns’ poetry is read, remembered, and loved by people around the world.  One prime example is his song Auld Lang Syne, which is sang around the world each New Year’s Eve (1).

The philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson is just one of many American who recognized Burns’ genius.  On the centennial of Burns’ death in 1859, Emerson addressed commemorated burns at a gathering of admirers in Boston:

He grew up in a rural district, speaking a patois unintelligible to all but natives, and he has made the Lowland Scotch a Doric dialect of fame. It is the only example in history of a language made classic by the genius of a single man. But more than this. He had that secret of genius to draw from the bottom of society the strength of its speech, and astonish the ears of the polite with these artless words, better than art, and filtered of all offence through his beauty. It seemed odious to Luther that the devil should have all the best tunes; he would bring them into the churches; and Burns knew how to take from fairs and gypsies, blacksmiths and drovers, the speech of the market and street, and clothe it with melody. (2)

Beginning in 1801, five years after Burns’ death, his friends gathered at a dinner in Alloway to honor the Scottish Bard.  Ever since Burns’ admirers around the world have gathered on his birthday at Burns Suppers.  More than just a meal, the Burns Supper has evolved into an elaborate, scripted event involving the playing of bagpipes, the presentation of formal speeches and toasts, and the recitation and singing of Burns’ poetry and songs.

One vital menu item for ever Burns Supper is haggis, Scotland’s national dish: a pudding made of sheep offal (the liver, heart, lungs), oatmeal, minced onion, all encased in the sheep’s stomach.  Pipes play as the haggis is presented to the dinner guests, and before anyone digs in, Burns’ poem Address to the Haggis is recited.

The highlight of the evening, however, is the keynote address called the “Immortal Memory,” presented by one of the attendees.  The purpose of this speech is revive the memory of Burns’ life and to express appreciation for his work.

Today’s Challenge:  Immortal Memory, Memorable Meal

What person, who is no longer living, was so important and influential that he or she should be immortalized with an annual birthday supper?  What would be the menu, and what would be the agenda of activities for honoring the person and symbolizing the person’s life and achievements?  Brainstorm some individuals that you would recognize as having made a significant contribution to the world.  Select one individual and write an explanation of why this person should be honored.  Also, give a preview of the meal’s menu and festivities. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Quotation of the Day:  I pick my favourite quotations and store them in my mind as ready armour, offensive or defensive, amid the struggle of this turbulent existence. -Robert Burns

 

 

January 24:  Life Sentence Day

Today is the birthday of American writer Edith Wharton (1862-1937).  Although she lived in a time when women had limited opportunities for publishing their writing, she rose to become one of America’s greatest writers.  In 1921 she became the first woman to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.  Wharton is remembered mainly for her novels, The Age of Innocence, Ethan Frome, and The House of Mirth, but she wrote in a variety of genres and on a variety of topics, including architecture, interior design, and travel (1).

Edith Newbold Jones Wharton.jpgWharton embraced life, and although much of her fiction explored its darker, more tragic sides, she was able to examine and capture life’s essence so well that her characters resonate with readers as real people.  In her 1903 novel Sanctuary, Wharton wrote a memorable sentence, capturing an insight about life and the role of experience:

. . . life is the only real counselor, . . . wisdom unfiltered through personal experience does not become a part of the moral tissues.

Later, writing in her journal on March 23, 1926, Wharton wrote an entry reflecting on life.  This time she juxtaposed two metaphors in attempt to capture the best definition:

Life is always a tightrope or a feather-bed.  Give me the tightrope.

Edith Wharton is obviously not the first to attempt to capture the essence of life in words.   Writers both past and present have attempted their definitions.  Wielding a virtual Swiss Army knife of rhetorical devices, these writers take the one thing that is common to each of us — life — and reframe it, describing it in uncommon terms that allow us to see it in new ways.

Read the examples below, and notice the different ways the writers define life, using images, juxtaposition, antithesis, metaphors, and personification.

Life is not a spectacle or a feast:  it is a predicament. -George Santayana

Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced. -Soren Kierkegaard

Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving. Albert Einstein

Life is like playing a violin in public and learning the instrument as one goes on. -Samuel Butler

Life is all memory except for the one present moment that goes by so quick you can hardly catch it going. -Tennessee Williams

Life is not always a matter of holding good cards, but sometimes, playing a poor hand well. -Jack London

Life is a tragedy for those who feel, and a comedy for those who think. -Jean De La Bruyere

Life is hard, but it’s harder if you’re stupid. -Michael Crichton

Today’s Challenge:  You’ve Been Assigned a Life Sentence

How would you complete the following in one or more sentences:  Life is . . . ?  Take your own stab at defining life by beginning with “Life is . . . “  Try to define it in a way that goes beyond the obvious so that your reader can see it in a new way.  Brainstorm some ideas using analogies, metaphors, personification, or some other rhetorical technique.  Then go with the one idea that you like the best and that seems the most insightful and original. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

1-http://www.edithwharton.org/discover/edith-wharton/