April 1: Invention of Punctuation Day

Today we celebrate the life of Kohmar Pehriad (544-493 BC), an ancient writer known not so much for his words as for his punctuation.  In the pre-Christian era in which Pehriad lived, written language was continuous, without any sentence or paragraph breaks. Pehriad’s reform, which today we take for granted, was the revolutionary idea of placing a single, small round dot to signal the end of a complete thought.  Pehriad’s invention did not end with the period, however. Concerned with a method for signaling pauses within a sentence, Kohmar devised the comma. For more than thirty years, Pehriad traveled throughout the ancient world — to Greece, Rome, Persia, North Africa, and Asia — to lobby for the use and acceptance of his creations.  Today, most have forgotten Kohmar Pehriad’s work, but his reward is that his name is immortalized in the anglicized names we use today for his two inventions: the comma (Kohmar) and the period (Pehriad).

It should also be noted that Pehriad’s son Apos-Trophe Pehriad followed in his father’s footsteps by creating another widely used form of punctuation.  His invention was a single mark that served double duty, either to signify possession at the end of a word or to denote the abbreviation of a word. Like his father’s inventions, the punctuation mark we know today as the apostrophe was named after Apos-Trophe Pehriad.

If some or all of the above historical information strains credulity, there is a reason.  None of it is true. What is true, however, is that on this day (April Fool’s Day) in 1956, The Saturday Review published an article by K. Jason Sitewell entitled “The Invention of the Period.”  In the article, Sitewell created a biography of a mythical inventor named Kohmar Pehriad, who, according to Sitewell, was born on April 1, 544 BC (1).

Today’s Challenge:  The Eponyms of April

It is true that many English words are derived from actual people who lived and walked the earth; it is also true that some are named for fictional persons.  These words are so numerous that they have a name: eponyms. Examples are cardigan, diesel, chauvinist, braille, boycott, atlas, and tantalize.  What are some interesting words that might make for good storytelling? Brainstorm some words.  Then, select one and write a fictional biography of a person behind the word. Connect the details from your biography to the meaning of the word in order to make it more believable. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

Quotation of the Day:  The first of April is the day we remember what we are the other 364 days of the year.  -Mark Twain

February 1:  From News to Novel Day

Robinson Crusoe 1719 1st edition.jpgOn this date we celebrate two influential works of fiction, both influenced by actual events. The first was Daniel DeFoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), a novel based on the real-life castaway Alexander Selkirk, who was rescued on this date in 1709.  

A black cover depicting a woman swimming and a shark coming towards her from below. Atop the cover is written "Peter Benchley", "Jaws" and "A Novel".The second work of fiction is the novel Jaws by Peter Benchley, published on this date in 1974.  The idea for the book, Benchley’s first novel, began ten years earlier in 1964 when Benchley read a news story about a 4,550 pound Great White shark caught off the beaches of Long Island, New York. The brief news story sparked Benchley’s imagination:  “And I thought right then ‘What if one of these things came round and wouldn’t go away?’” (1).

The true story behind the fictional Robinson Crusoe begins in 1704.  Alexander Selkirk was a Sailing Master aboard the Cinque Ports, an English frigate fighting with Spanish vessels off the coast of South America.  When the captain of the Cinque Ports stopped at a desert island to re-stock supplies of freshwater, Selkirk refused to get back on board due to the ship’s less than seaworthy condition.  When the Cinque Ports left him behind, Selkirk hoped to quickly flag down another ship. This, however, was a more difficult task than he imagined.

Selkirk spent the next four years alone on the island, surviving primarily by hunting and eating goats, which were in plentiful supply on the island.  Unfortunately for Selkirk, rats were also in plentiful supply.  They would gnaw at his clothes and his feet as he tried to sleep.  To solve this problem, Selkirk domesticated several cats he found on the island, employing them to keep his campsite rat-free.

Finally, on February 1, 1709, Selkirk was rescued when two British ships spotted his signal fire. When the landing party came ashore, they were astonished by Selkirk’s appearance:  he looked like a wild man dressed from head to toe in goat skins.

In 1713 an account of Selkirk’s ordeal was published, and six years later, influenced by Selkirk’s adventures, Daniel Defoe published his novel Robinson Crusoe*.  Defoe’s book went on to become one of the most widely read books in history and is recognized today as the first work of realistic fiction.  Selkirk and Defoe also influenced world geography; in 1966 Mas a Tierra, the Pacific island which Selkirk inhabited for four years and four months, was renamed Robinson Crusoe.  A separate island, 100 miles west, has been renamed Alejandro Selkirk (2).

Like Defoe’s novel, the story of Jaws also follows an interesting path from fact to fiction.  The novel’s author Peter Benchley was working as a journalist in 1971 when he had lunch with a publisher from Doubleday.  They discussed Benchley’s book ideas which were all non-fiction.  At the end of the meeting, the publisher asked Benchley, who had never written fiction, if he had any ideas for a novel.  At that point, Benchley remembered the 1964 news story about the colossal shark caught off of Long Island.  He told the publisher,  “I want to tell the story of a Great White shark that marauds the beaches of a resort town and provokes a moral crisis.”

When Jaws was published on February 1, 1974, it made Benchley one of the most successful first-time novelists of all time.  The book spent 44 months on the New York Times bestseller list and sold over 20 million copies.  Benchley went on to co-write the screenplay for the book’s wildly successful film version; today the film Jaws, directed by Steven Spielberg, is recognized as the movie that invented the summer blockbuster.

Today’s Challenge:  All the Fiction That’s Fit to Print

What story from today’s newspaper could you adapt for a short story?  Select a story from a recent newspaper, and use the facts from the true story to spark your imagination.  Generate a central conflict from the true story that might be used in a fictional story, such as an individual fighting to survive alone on a desert island or a town struggling to survive attacks from a killer shark. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

Quotation of the Day:  Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth. -Albert Camus

*The complete original title of Defoe’s novel is:  The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pyrates.

1-http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/3400291.stm

2-http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/scottishhistory/europe/oddities_europe.shtml

January 21: Novel First Lines Day

Today is the anniversary of the publication of the first novel in America, The Power of Sympathy: or, The Triumph of Nature. When the book was first released in 1789, it was published anonymously.  Later, however, William Hill Brown, a 24-year-old Bostonian, came forward to claim authorship.

Although the novel is not remembered today for its literary excellence, it is characteristic of its time.  Reflecting a popular 18th-century literary device, the novel was epistolary, that is, its story is told via letters between characters.  The novel involves an illicit love triangle and is written as a cautionary tale.  Some speculate that Brown published his novel anonymously because the details of his plot were based on actual events in the lives of his Boston neighbors.

Although there are certainly examples of long fiction that might be called novels before the 1700s, it was the 18th century that launched the popularity of this “new form” of extended narrative, best exemplified by the works of English writers Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, and Henry Fielding.

Today’s Challenge:  Blackjack Sentences

How can you captivate a reader by writing a 21-word opening sentence of a short story or novel?  To celebrate America’s first novel on 1/21, your task is to craft a novel first line for a story that is exactly 21 words.  Think about a narrative hook that will grab your reader.  

Here’s an example:

At 7:10 am that Monday morning, Bill awoke to the choking sound of his cat, Hamlet, vomiting violently on his pillow.

There is nothing magical about 21 words, but writing to an exact word count will force you to pay attention to the impact of each word you write. It will also force you to pay careful attention as you revise and edit.  When you write the first draft of your sentence, don’t worry about word count.  Get some ideas and details down on paper first.  Then go back and revise, making every word count — up to exactly 21 (no more, no fewer).

The sentences below are some examples of opening sentences from American novels.  They are not 21 words, but they will give you a flavor for the ways different novelists have opened their works:

You may now felicitate me — I have had an interview with the charmer I informed you of. -William Hill Brown, The Power of Sympathy: or, The Triumph of Nature.  (1789)

I am an invisible man. —Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)

Call me Ishmael. —Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851)

I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story. —Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome (1911)

(Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

Quotation of the Day:  It is only a novel… or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.  -Jane Austen

1-McCarthy, Erin. 7 Fascinating Facts About the First American Novel. Mental Floss.com. 21 Jan. 2016. http://mentalfloss.com/article/74019/7-fascinating-facts-about-first-american-novel.

January 6: Personification Day

Photograph of Sandburg
Carl Sandburg

Today is the birthday of American writer and poet Carl Sandburg, who was born on this day in 1878 in Galesburg, Illinois.

The son of Swedish immigrants, Sandburg left school at the age of thirteen to work odd jobs to help support his family.  In 1898, he volunteered to travel to Puerto Rico where he served with the 6th Illinois Infantry during the Spanish-American War.  After the war, he attended the United States Military Academy at West Point but dropped out after just two weeks after failing a mathematics and grammar exam (1).  Returning to his hometown in Illinois, Sandburg enrolled in Lombard College.  At Lombard, he honed his skills as a writer of both prose and poetry, and after college, he moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin where he worked as an advertising writer and a journalist.

Sandburg achieved unprecedented success as a writer of both biography and poetry.  His great work of prose was his biography of Abraham Lincoln, an exhaustively detailed six-volume work that took him 30 years to research and complete. Not only did he win the Pulitzer Prize in 1939 for his stellar writing, he was also invited to address a joint session of Congress on the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth on February 12, 1959.  This was the first time a private citizen was allowed to make such an address (2).

Before he began his biography of Lincoln, Sandburg established himself as a great poet, winning the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1919.  Writing in free verse, Sandburg’s poems captured the essence of industrial America.  

Perhaps his best-known poem Chicago begins:

HOG Butcher for the World,

              Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,

              Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;

              Stormy, husky, brawling,

              City of the Big Shoulders . . .

One of the primary rhetorical devices at work here is personification. Sandburg does not just describe the city, he brings it to life, giving it job titles, such as “Tool Maker,” and human characteristics, such as “brawling,” and even human anatomy, such as “Big Shoulders.”

Personification is figurative language used in either poetry or prose that describes a non-human thing or idea using human characteristics.  As Sandburg demonstrates, the simple secret of personification is selecting the right words to animate the inanimate.  The key parts of speech for personification are adjectives, nouns, verbs, and pronouns:

-Adjectives like thoughtful or honest or sneaky

-Verbs like smile or sings or snores

-Nouns like nose or hands or feet

-Pronouns like I, she, or they.

In the following poem, Sandburg personifies the grass.  Notice how he makes the grass human by giving it not just a first person voice, but also a job to do:

GRASS

Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.

Shovel them under and let me work–

         I am the grass; I cover all.

And pile them high at Gettysburg

And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.

Shovel them under and let me work.

Two years, ten years, and the passengers ask the conductor:

         What place is this?

         Where are we now?

         I am the grass.

         Let me work.

Today’s Challenge:  I Am the Homework, I Make You Sweat

What are some everyday objects that you might bring to life using personification?  If these things had a voice, what would they say?  Using “Grass” as a model, select your own everyday non-human topic and use personification to give it a first-person voice, writing at least 100 words of either poetry or prose.  Imagine what it would say and what it would say about its job.  Your tone may be serious or silly.

Possible Topics: alarm clock, coffee cup, textbook, guitar, bicycle, paper clip, pencil, car, microwave, baseball

(Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

Quotation of the Day:  Carl Sandburg was more than the voice of America, more than the poet of its strength and genius. He was America. -President Lyndon B. Johnson

1- Wikipedia Carl Sandburg.

2-Poetry Foundation. Carl Sandburg

January 2:  55 Fiction Day

On this day in 1974, President Richard Nixon signed the Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act which established a 55 mile per hour speed limit on the nation’s highways.  Nixon’s effort to conserve gasoline was spurred by the 1973 oil crisis where Arab countries declared an oil embargo, dramatically increasing U.S. gas prices (1).

Just as reducing your speed when driving increases fuel efficiency, reducing your word count when writing increases your communication efficiency, making every word count.  One excellent way to practice limiting your word count is by trying your hand at an exciting new genre of writing called 55 Fiction.  In these short, short stories, you must not exceed the 55-word limit.

Since 1987, Steve Moss, the editor of New Times, a California newspaper, has held a Fifty-Five Fiction Story Contest. The contest has spawned two books of 55 Fiction:  The World’s Shortest Stories and The World’s Shortest Stories of Love and Death.

As Moss explains in his introduction, 55-Fiction is a little like a one-minute episode of “The Twilight Zone,” or “what O. Henry might have conjured up if he’d had only the back of a business card to write upon . . . .” Shakespeare said it best: “Brevity is the soul of wit,” and in the 21st century, where sound bites compete for our limited attention span, 55-Fiction is the perfect form (2).

The keys to 55-Fiction are a good story, concise — yet clear — writing, and a denouement with a payoff. Surprise, irony, and/or humor are the hallmarks of truly great short, short stories.

While 55-fiction is fun to read and write, these are not just frivolous throwaways. The writer of a good 55-Fiction piece must practice many of the key techniques of any good writer: clear diction, vivid detail, concise language, careful revision, and thoughtful editing.

Here are a couple of examples:

Last Call
It’s a dark summer evening. Lightning strikes in the distance. Two young lovers rendezvous. She lies sleeping. He kisses her soft, yet strangely warm lips. He makes a toast to his love and drinks. As he swallows, his cell phone rings. He grabs it with a trembling hand. “Romeo! Stop! Listen! Juliet’s not really dead!!”

Alone
He shivered in the darkness. Long ago, there had been 12 in his pack, disappearing over time. Only he remained. Suddenly, a change; the light at the end of the tunnel was coming nearer. Giant hands grabbed him, pulling him towards the light. God, perhaps? Then, a voice: “Mom, we’re down to the last soda!”

Today’s Challenge:  Fifty-Five Test Drive
What is an anecdote that you can tell in no more than 55 words?  Write your own 55-word short story. Use the guidelines below. If you can’t think of an original story, consider adapting something from classic literature, as in “Last Call.”

Five Guidelines for Writing Fifty-Five Fiction:

  1. Like any good story, these stories need a setting, characters, conflict, climax, and resolution.
  1. Stories may be any genre: sci-fi, romance, detective, horror, parody, etc.
  1. Don’t try to write exactly 55 words on your first draft; instead, try to write a short-short story on the first draft. Then, go back to revise and edit until you’re down to 55.
  1. Humor, puns, suspense, or parody are encouraged.
  1. For more examples of 55 Fiction, go to the New Times web site.

(Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

Quotation of the Day:  Less is more. -Andrea del Sarto

1-http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=4332

2-http://www.newtimesslo.com/special-issue/8/55-fiction/how-to-enter/

 

December 20: Polysyndeton Day

On this day in 1946, the movie It’s A Wonderful Life premiered in New York at the Globe Theatre.  Seventy years after its release, the story of how George Bailey arrived at his joyous epiphany is still one of the most popular holiday films ever made.

The film was based on a short story by Philip Van Doren Stern called “The Greatest Gift.”  After unsuccessful attempts to get the story published, Stern mailed 200 copies of the story to friends and family during the holiday season in 1943 as a Christmas card.  After the story came to the attention of executives at RKO Pictures, they bought the rights to the story for $10,000 (1).

One rhetorically interesting aspect of the film is the dialogue of its protagonist George Bailey.  In one of film’s most famous scenes, George pleads with his antagonist, the scheming misanthrope Mr. Potter:

Just remember this, Mr. Potter: that this rabble you’re talking about, they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath?

Notice the intentional overuse of conjunctions here.  This rhetorical device is called polysyndeton.  The added conjunctions slow the list down, emphasizing each individual item.  The repetition of conjunctions gives the reader the feeling that things are piling up and creates a tone that is more formal than a typical list.

The film’s dialogue features polysyndeton at another dramatic point.  It’s Black Tuesday, October 29, 1932, and George is trying to convince the citizens of Bedford Falls to resist the temptation to withdraw all their money from his savings and loan:

No, but you . . . you . . . you’re thinking of this place all wrong. As if I had the money back in a safe. The money’s not here. Your money’s in Joe’s house . . . right next to yours. And in the Kennedy house, and Mrs. Macklin’s house, and a hundred others.

The close cousin and opposite of polysyndeton is asyndeton, where instead of adding conjunctions to a list, a writer removes them all.  Comparing the following lists might show us why Julius Caesar chose asyndeton for his most famous proclamation:

Typical List:  I came, I saw, and I conquered.

List with Polysyndeton:  I came and I saw and I conquered.

List with Asyndeton:  I came, I saw, I conquered.

Instead of slowing down the list, as with polysyndeton, asyndeton has the effect of speeding things up.  Asyndeton also has the effect of making the list seem like it is continuing into infinity as if there is more there than meets the eye.

Today’s Challenge:   A Monologue and a List and a Lot of Conjunctions

What is a hypothetical dramatic situation in which an individual would be unhappy with another individual or group?  Write a dramatic monologue in which a speaker expresses unhappiness with the individual or audience that he/she is addressing.  Before you begin writing, identify a hypothetical dramatic situation in which a speaker would be unhappy and who the speaker would be unhappy with, such as a teacher who is angry with a tardy student or a customer who is unhappy that the Slurpee machine at his local 7/11 is empty. In the monologue include some lists using either polysyndeton or asyndeton for dramatic effect.  Try to capture the emotion in the voice of the character. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

1-Ervin, Kathleen A. It’s a Wonderful Life. Failure Magazine 1 Dec. 2001. http://failuremag.com/feature/article/its_a_wonderful_life/P2/.

December 18: Romance at Short Notice Day

Today is the birthday of Scottish writer Hector Hugh Munro (1870-1916), better known by the pen name Saki.  Munro was born in British Burma, where his father was an Inspector General for the Indian Imperial Police. Munro later served in the Burma police force himself, but he was forced to resign after he contracted malaria.  Near the end of his life, Munro joined the British Army and served in World War I.  He was killed in 1916, shot by a German sniper in France during the Battle of the Ancre

Munro’s writing career began as a journalist in England, but he is best known for his carefully crafted short stories.  The stories often satirized social conventions and frequently featured surprise endings.  Saki’s stories are often compared to those of American writer O’Henry (1862-1910), which also feature endings with a surprising twist (1).

One particularly brilliant story by Saki is called “The Open Window.”  The story features a character named Frampton Nuttel, who is visiting the country in hopes of finding relief for his nervous condition.  Nuttel, with letters of introduction from his sister in hand, visits the home of Mrs. Sappleton.  While waiting for Mrs. Sappleton to come down, Nuttel talks with Sappleton’s niece, a precocious fifteen-year-old named Vera.  In the room where the two characters are sitting, a French window is kept open, despite the fact that it’s October.  Vera explains to Nuttel that the door is left open because Mrs. Sappleton is under the delusion that her husband and her brothers will return from hunting, despite the fact that the three men died three years ago, sinking into “a treacherous piece of bog.”

When Mrs. Sappleton arrives in the room and begins talking about the imminent return of her husband and brothers, Nuttel listens politely, but based on Vera’s explanation, he perceives his hostess to be deranged.

When Mrs. Sappleton announces the return of the hunters, Nuttel turns and sees three men approaching the French doors accompanied by their hunting dog.  Thinking he is seeing ghosts, Nuttel leaps up, fleeing the house in horror.   At this point in the story, the reader realizes that Vera made up the story of the hunting tragedy simply to entertain herself.  Next, instead of explaining the trick she played on Nuttel to her aunt, she spins another tale to explain Nuttel’s odd behavior, saying that Nuttel was spooked by the dog:

He was once hunted into a cemetery somewhere on the banks of the Ganges by a pack of pariah dogs, and had to spend the night in a newly dug grave with the creatures snarling and grinning and foaming just above him.  

The final line sums up Vera’s propensity for flash fiction:  “Romance at short notice was her specialty” (2).

The meaning of the word “romance” in the context in which Saki uses it does not mean romantic love.  Instead, in this context, romance relates to the long tradition of Medieval romances — imaginative and extravagant stories of the adventures of heroic characters.  Therefore, if he were writing today, Saki probably would have written:  “Imagination at short notice was her specialty.”  

Today’s Challenge:  Short Notice, Short Fiction

What is something odd that a character might wear or carry, and why would the character wear or carry it?  Practice using your imagination at short notice.  Pick a number at random, from 1 to 7.  Then write the opening of a short story in which you, the narrator, give the backstory of why the character wears or carries the odd item.  Give the character a name, and also establish the setting of your story.

  1. A character who wears a Santa hat in May
  2. A character who wears a toga in January
  3. A character who wears earmuffs in July
  4. A character who always carries a rubber chicken
  5. A character who always carries a cheese grater
  6. A character who carries a guitar with no strings
  7. A character who carries an open umbrella when there is no chance or sign of rain

(Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

1-Encyclopedia Britannica. Saki. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saki-Scottish-writer.

2-Saki (1870-1916). The Open Window. Public Domain. East of the Web.com. http://www.eastoftheweb.com/short-stories/UBooks/OpeWin.shtml.

December 10: Declarative Sentence Day


On this day in 1954, Ernest Hemingway received the Nobel Prize for Literature.  Because of illness, Hemingway was unable to attend the Nobel Banquet in Stockholm, Sweden, to receive his award in person.  He did, however, prepare a brief speech which was read by John C. Cabot, United States Ambassador to Sweden.

In addition to expressing his appreciation to the Nobel administrators, Hemingway’s speech provided some insights on the writer’s life:

Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness but I doubt if theyimprove his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness andoften his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a goodenough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day. (1).

Characteristic of Hemingway’s writing, all four sentences in the paragraph above are declarative, that is they are sentences in which the subject precedes the verb, and they are sentences that make direct statements.  Unlike interrogative sentences, they donot ask questions (Why is writing a lonely life?).  Unlike imperative sentences, they do not make commands (Write every day no matter what.) And unlike exclamatory sentences, they do not express strongemotion (Writing is hard work!).

Today’s Challenge:  The Title is Also Declarative

What is a declarative sentence that would serve as a good title for a personal anecdote?  As Hemingway did with his novel The Sun Also Rises, try coming up with a good title in the form of one complete declarative sentence.  Then write an anecdote, either fact or fiction, that matches the title. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

1-The Nobel Prizes in Literature. Ernest Hemingway – Banquet Speech. Nobel Prize.org. 

December 9: Narrative Poem Day

On this day in 1854, Britain’s Poet Laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson published his poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”  The poem recounts a horrific episode at the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War.  On October 25, 1854, the British Light Brigade rode into battle against Russian forces. Following an ambiguous order to attack, the soldiers of the British cavalry were mowed down by Russian field artillery as they charged across a treeless valley.  Of the 673 British horsemen who made the charge that day only 198 survived (See October 25:  History Into Verse Day)(1).

Tennyson is said to have written his famous narrative poem in just a few minutes after reading an account of the battle in the newspaper.  The six-stanza poem immediately became popular, and even today its famous lines capture the plight of common soldiers, nobly and courageously following the orders of their superior:

Theirs not to make reply,

Theirs not to reason why,

Theirs but to do and die:

Into the valley of Death

   Rode the six hundred.

Narrative poetry is probably the oldest form of poetry there is. A narrative poem is a poem with a plot, a plot which centers around characters, conflict, and setting.  

The most common forms of narrative poems are the short form known as a ballad and a long form known as an epic. Accordingto Edward Hirsch in his book A Poet’s Glossary, these poems are some ofour oldest forms of storytelling. Many ballads and epics began as spoken formsof poetry, long before we had an alphabet that allowed people to write theirwords (2).

Today’s Challenge:  Muse Meets the News

What event from today’s news is worthy of immortalizing in verse? read Tennyson’s poem carefully, noticing how he tells the story of The Charge of the Light Brigade (3).  Then, like Tennyson, read a story in today’s newspaper, and write a short narrative poem that captures the key elements of the story. (Common Core 3 – Narrative)

1- March, W.B. and Bruce Carrick.  366: A Leap Year of Great Stories. Cambridge, UK:  Icon Books, 2007: 342.

2-Hirsch, Edward. A Poet’s Glossary. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014: 397.

3-Tennyson, Alfred Lord. The Charge of the Light Brigade. 1854 Public Domain. Poetry Foundation.org. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/45319.

December 6:  Passive Voice Day

On this day in 1986, President Ronald Reagan presented a radio address to the nation.  His subject was a political scandal called the Iran-Contra Affair, where members of Reagan’s administration engaged in a secret arms deal in an attempt to obtain the release of American hostages.  Without approval or even the knowledge of the U.S. Congress, Reagan administration officials sold weapons to Iran and then used the profits from the sale to fund rebel forces in Nicaragua.

When a Lebanese newspaper published a report detailing the secret deal in November 1986, President Reagan was forced to address the matter publicly:

In the process of providing his explanation to the American people, Reagan used a classic framing device, the evasive maneuver known as passive voice:

And while we are still seeking all the facts, it’s obvious that the execution of these policies was flawed and mistakes were made [emphasis added] (1).

The use of the passive voice puts the object of the sentence “mistakes” up front and makes the doer of the action magically disappear.  The use of the passive voice allows the speaker to subtly evade admitting direct responsibility.  Notice the difference in the two sentences below:

Active Voice:  I made a mistake.

Passive Voice:  Mistakes were made.

Reagan was certainly not the first president to make this kind of unapologetic apology.  The use of this artful dodge dates back to the Ulysses S. Grant administration.  In a report to Congress in 1876, Grant acknowledged his administration’s scandals, saying “mistakes have been made, as all can see and I admit it” (2).

For most writers, understanding the difference between active and passive voice has nothing to do with political rhetoric. Instead, the difference relates to making sure that your sentences are as clear, concise, and active as possible.

Just as the key to keeping your car running well is taking care of its engine, the key to successful sentences is taking care of the engine of the sentence:  the verb.  Notice the difference in the following two sentences:

Passive Sentence:  The book was read by Mary.

Active Sentence:  Mary read the book.

Both sentences say the same thing.  The active sentence, however, says it in fewer words.  Also, the active sentence makes Mary the doer of the action.  In contrast, the passive sentence puts the object up front which requires the addition of two weak and unnecessary words:  “was” and “by.”

Passive voice is technically not a grammar error; instead, it is a style choice.  There are times when you might want to focus on the object rather than the doer of the action.  Be aware, however, that in most cases putting the doer up front and eliminating unnecessary words will make your writing more clear and concise.

As exemplified by the sentence about Mary above, be on the lookout for forms of “to be.”  We use this verb more than any other verb in English, but don’t overuse it.  “To be” is a state of being verb.  When you use forms of “to be” as the engine of your sentence, the sentence doesn’t get very far:

Bill was happy.

In contrast, when you employ active verbs, your sentences have more motion, which creates a better picture for the reader:

Bill smiled broadly and threw his head back as he laughed.

Today’s Challenge:  Mistakes Were Corrected

What is the best way to begin a story?  Select one of the passive sentences below.  Transform the sentence from passive voice to active voice, and expand the sentence into an opening paragraph of a short story.  As you revise, consider the subject of your sentence. Whenever possible make people the subjects of your sentences, the doers of the action; this will add more life and human interest to your writing.

The groceries were purchased.

The cake was eaten.

The sun was watched.

The test was taken.

The book was thrown.

The poem was written.

The team was booed.

The birthday was celebrated.

(Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

1-  Reagan, Ronald. Radio Address to the Nation on the Iran Arms and Contra Aid Controversy. 6 Dec. 1986. The American Presidency Project.  http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=36788.

2-Safire, William.  Safire’s Political Dictionary.  Oxford University Press, 2008:  431.