April 3:  Humorous Anecdote Day

On this date in 1862, Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables was published.  The novel, which has been popularized through its numerous musical and film adaptations, took Hugo 17 years to write.  

Victor Hugo by Étienne Carjat 1876 - full.jpgWhile writing the novel, the French writer struggled with bouts of writer’s block that required him to develop a unique Ulysses contract:  he removed all his clothes and locked himself in his room with only pen and paper; he would then order his servants not to bring him his clothes until he had produced a complete chapter (1).

Once the novel was complete and published in 1862, Hugo was anxious to find out how it was selling.  One famous anecdote recounts the shortest correspondence in history. Hugo supposedly sent a telegram to his publisher which simply said, “?”  The publisher’s reply, by telegram, was just as brief: “!”

Another humorous anecdote related to laconic communications comes from the United States’ 30th president, Calvin Coolidge.  Known for his taciturn nature, Coolidge was nicknamed Silent Cal. At a White House dinner one night, Coolidge was accosted by a young female guest who said, “You must talk to me, Mr. President.  I made a $10 bet with my husband. He waged that you wouldn’t say three words, but I bet you would.” Coolidge then considered the matter for a moment and replied: “You lose” (2).

Often times anecdotes like the ones above seem almost too funny to be true, and in many cases they are.  One excellent source for exploring the veracity of such stories is the blog Quote Investigator, where Garson O’Toole doggedly searches for the truth (2).  Some stories and quotations are so old that we just cannot find out definitively whether or not they are true.  The term for these types of anecdotes is apocryphal — that is, a story that is widely circulated as true, yet is of doubtful or uncertain authenticity — from the Greek apokryphos, meaning “hidden or obscure.” (See October 11:  Apocryphal Anecdote Day).

Today’s Challenge:  LOLA:  Laugh Out Loud Anecdote

What are some examples of humorous anecdotes — short stories with a funny punchline?  Write a version of a humorous anecdote appropriate for all audiences in your own words.  It may be a true story, an apocryphal story, or a totally fictional story. Be brief, but also be funny.  (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

Quotation of the Day:  Laughter is the sun that drives winter from the human face. -Victor Hugo

1-http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/2017/06/29/victor-hugos-strange-cure-writers-block-9-things-didnt-know/

2-http://quoteinvestigator.com/2016/01/10/few-words/#more-12786

 

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

March 17:  Your Brain on Fiction Day

On this day in 2012, the New York Times published a mind-blowing editorial by journalist and author Annie Murphy Paul.

In her article, entitled “Your Brain on Fiction,” Paul summarizes a variety of studies from neuroscience that reveal how reading fiction stimulates the brain and enhances human experience.

One study, for example, showed how specific sensory words related to smells, such as “lavender” or “cinnamon,” activated not only the brain’s language regions, but also regions of the brain that are devoted to dealing with actual smells.  Another study using brain scans showed that words describing motion, such as “kick” and “grasp,” activated regions of the brain that coordinate the actual movements of the body.

Another study showed that even figurative language had surprising neurological effects.  When laboratory subjects read a sentence like “The singer had a velvet voice,” the sensory cortex, the brain region that perceives texture, became active.  In contrast, when a subject read the sentence, “The singer had a pleasant voice,” only language regions were activated.

Additional studies revealed how reading fiction relates to social skills in the real world.  Canadian studies published in 2006 and 2009 revealed that frequent readers of fiction were more empathic and more able to see the world from the perspective of other people.  In Paul’s words, “This relationship persisted even after the researchers accounted for the possibility that more empathetic individuals might prefer reading novels.”

The studies summarized by Paul reveal that fiction is, in essence, the original virtual reality.  Reading fiction feeds our imagination with rich sensory imagery, evocative metaphors, and engaging details about the actions and interactions of people.  Long before we had computer simulations, fiction and storytelling gave us a way to simulate reality. In fact, one might even argue that fiction provides an enhanced reality because, as Paul puts it, “novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page:  the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings” (1).

Today Challenge:  All the World’s a Page

What are some works of fiction that you think do the best job of simulating the real world?  Select a work of fiction that you love because its story captures the essence of real life.   Identify a specific passage from the work that you think exemplifies that author’s ability to simulate real life through description of characters, setting, or plot.  Pay attention especially to effective sensory imagery, figurative language, and/or dialogue. Copy the passage verbatim; then, write an explanation of what makes the writing in the passage exemplary.  (Common Core 3 – Narrative)

Quotation of the Day:  Just as computer simulations can help us get to grips with complex problems such as flying a plane or forecasting the weather, so novels, stories and dramas can help us understand the complexities of social life. -Annie Murphy Paul

1-http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/18/opinion/sunday/the-neuroscience-of-your-brain-on-fiction.html

March 11:  I Remember Day

American poet and artist Joe Brainard was born on this day in 1942. Brainard was raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but he spent most of his adult life in New York City where he collaborated with a number of writers and artists.  As a visual artist, Brainard gained renown for his work in painting, drawing, and collage.

Brainard is best known for his 1975 memoir I Remember, a kind of verbal collage, juxtaposing vivid details from his life.  I Remember is a book-length prose-poem made up of one long list of sentences, each of which begins with “I remember . . . “

I remember the only time I ever saw my mother cry.  I was eating apricot pie.

I remember how much I used to stutter.

I remember the first time I saw television.  Lucille ball was taking ballet lessons (1).

Today’s Challenge:  Mining Memory

What are some specific ways you would complete the following sentence: “I remember . . . .”?  The simple two words “I remember” remain one of the best prompts for writers of all ages, opening the door to the mine of memory and helping them to practice recording sensory details that show, not just tell.  Create a list poem, cataloging at least five specific memories. Strive to show, not tell, using specific sensory imagery of what you saw, smelled, tasted, heard, or felt.

-I remember the smell of the freshly cut grass on a spring day in 1971 when I first learned to ride my bike.

-I remember my dad in the front yard, pushing the lawn mower, as I pushed my Schwinn Stingray with a banana seat onto its two wheels.

-I remember being too proud to ever use training wheels.

-I remember the overwhelming joy and freedom of finally staying up on the bike, pedaling up and down the street in front of my house in Renton, Washington.

-I remember the feeling of the wind in my hair, and, looking back, I think about the absence of a bike helmet, something that no one wore in the 1970s.

-I remember the smile that would come to my face each morning as I woke up and realized once again that I had a bike and that I knew how to ride it.

(Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

Quotation of the Day:  Writers remember everything…especially the hurts. Strip a writer to the buff, point to the scars, and he’ll tell you the story of each small one. From the big ones you get novels. A little talent is a nice thing to have if you want to be a writer, but the only real requirement is the ability to remember the story of every scar.

Art consists of the persistence of memory. -Stephen King

1-https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/joe-brainard-i-remember

March 10:  Dialogue Day

On this day in 1876, Alexander Graham Bell uttered the first words ever spoken on the telephone.

Born in Scotland, Bell immigrated first to Canada and then to Boston, Massachusetts, where he opened a school for teachers of the deaf.  Long distance communication became a reality in the 1830s with the invention of the telegraph, but messages could only be transmitted in Morse code.  Bell’s vision was to transmit the human voice over a wire. To help make his vision a reality, Bell hired Thomas Watson, an electrical designer and mechanic.

While working on a transmitter in his laboratory on March 10, 1876, Bell spilled battery acid on his clothes.  He called out: “Mr. Watson, come here! I want you!” Watson rushed excitedly from the other room, reporting that he heard Bell’s voice coming from the transmitter.  Without realizing it, Bell had just made the first telephone call.

Bell offered to sell his invention to Western Union for $100,000.  Western Union’s president, however, failed to see how Bell’s invention could ever become more popular than the telegraph.  Within two years the telephone was worth more than $25 million, and Alexander launched his Bell Telephone Company, which would become one of the world’s largest corporations (1).

Today when we make a telephone call, we take for granted that the person on the other end of the line will answer with “hello.”  The truth is, however, that when the first telephones were put into service, people were not sure what to say to initiate the conversation.  Bell suggested the nautical greeting “Ahoy,” the word he used for the rest of his life. His rival, Thomas Edison, who made improvements on Bell’s invention, suggested “hello,” a word that previously had been used more as an exclamation of surprise rather than a synonym for “hi.”  Edison won the war of words in the long run, primarily because the first telephone books suggested “hello” as the officially sanctioned greeting (2).

In addition to the telephone, Bell is also credited with another noteworthy invention, the metal detector.  After President James A. Garfield was shot by an assassin on July 2, 1881, Bell invented a metal detector to help doctors locate the bullet.  Unfortunately, the bullet was never found because the metal bed springs from Garfield’s bed rendered Bell’s metal detector useless. Garfield died from infection from his wound on September 19, 1881.

Today’s Challenge:  Telephone Tales

What are some possible dramatic situations that would involve dialogue between two characters?  Craft a short story or anecdote entirely of dialogue.  Use no narration and no tag lines to identify speakers.  Use a title to clue your reader into the context of your story, and skip lines between each line of dialogue.  (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

Darth and Luke on Christmas Morning

Luke, let’s gather around the Christmas tree and open some gifts.

Okay, dad.

Here’s two nicely wrapped ones for you.  The tags say they’re from Yoda. I bet one’s a new lightsaber and the other is fruitcake.

Wow, you’re right Dad!  A new lightsaber and a fruit cake!  How did you know?

I felt your presents.

(Common Core Writing 3- Narrative)

Quotation of the Day:  Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.  -Alexander Graham Bell

1- http://thisdaythen.blogspot.com/2012/03/10th-march-1876-alexander-graham-bell.html

2-http://www.npr.org/sections/krulwich/2011/02/17/133785829/a-shockingly-short-history-of-hello

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 fresh water, 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 it 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 17: Virtues Day

Memoirs of Franklin.jpg
Cover of the First Edition of Franklin’s Autobiography (1793)


Today is the birthday of Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), writer, inventor, printer, and founding father.

Franklin was a Renaissance man in every sense of the term.  He aided Jefferson in the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, persuaded the French to aid the rebel colonies in their fight against England, negotiated the peace with England after the war, and helped in the framing of the U. S. Constitution.

Perhaps Franklin is best known for his writings in Poor Richard’s Almanack, published between 1733 and 1758. Full of proverbs, wit, and advice, Poor Richard’s Almanack made Franklin an eminently quotable figure even though Franklin freely admitted that fewer than 10 percent of the sayings were original.

In his autobiography, which was published in 1791, Franklin recounts one particularly interesting project he undertook when he was only 20 years old.  It was what he called a “bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.”  

Franklin’s project began first as a writing project, a list of the virtues that he felt were necessary to practice in order to achieve his goal of moral perfection.  As he explains,

I included under thirteen names of virtues all that at that time occurr’d to me as necessary or desirable, and annexed to each a short precept, which fully express’d the extent I gave to its meaning.

The names of virtues, with their precepts, were:

1. TEMPERANCE. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.

2. SILENCE. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.

3. ORDER. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.

4. RESOLUTION. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.

5. FRUGALITY. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.

6. INDUSTRY. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.

7. SINCERITY. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.

8. JUSTICE. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.

9. MODERATION. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.

10. CLEANLINESS. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.

11. TRANQUILLITY. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.

12. CHASTITY. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.

13. HUMILITY. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

Franklin arranged his list of virtues in strategic order from one to thirteen and created a calendar devoted to mastering one virtue each week. Practicing each virtue, he hoped, would lead to making each a habit, and his thirteen-week plan would culminate in his moral perfection.

Today’s Challenge:  Tale of a Trait

brianbackman

What is the single most important virtue or commendable trait that a person can practice, and what specific story would you tell to illustrate its importance?  The idea of identifying virtues and practicing virtuous behavior did not begin with Franklin.  Dating back to the fourth century B.C., Plato identified in his Republic the four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and courage.  The noun virtue comes from the Latin virtus, which was derived from the Latin vir, meaning “man” (the same root that’s in the word virile).  Thus, the original sense of virtue related to manliness, and the qualities that were associated with men of strong character, such as moral strength, goodness, valor, bravery, and courage (1).

As Plato says in his Republic, youth is a vital time for the forming of character, and the stories that are told to youth should be chosen carefully based on the virtues they teach:

Anything received into the mind at that age is likely to become indelible and unalterable; and therefore it is most important that the tales which the young first hear should be models of virtuous thoughts.

Write an argument for the one virtue you would identify as the most important — one of Franklin’s virtues or another of your choice.  Present your case for why this virtue is so important, along with a specific story or anecdote that illustrates the virtue’s benefits. (Common Core Writing 1/3 – Argument and Narrative)

Quotation of the Day:  Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit. –Aristotle

1-Online Etymology Dictionary.  “Virtue.”

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.

Image result for word days book

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. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Sandburg.

2-Poetry Foundation. Carl Sandburg.  https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/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 the 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/