May 19:  Literacy Narrative Day

Black nationalist leader Malcolm X was born on this day in 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska. Born Malcolm Little, he considered Little his slave name, so he replaced it with an X to represent the lost name of his African tribal ancestors.

Malcolm X in March 1964When he was 21 years old, Malcolm was convicted of burglary and received a ten-year sentence.  In prison, Malcolm transformed his life through voracious reading and study. He stopped using drugs and became a member of the Nation of Islam.  After his early-release from prison in 1952, Malcolm became a spokesman for the Nation of Islam. Like Martin Luther King’s quest for civil rights, Malcolm advocated for racial equality.  However, unlike King’s tactics of nonviolent resistance, Malcolm promoted a more militant approach, saying “There’s no such thing as a nonviolent revolution.” Shortly before he died, Malcolm left the Nation of Islam.  While preparing to give a speech in New York, he was assassinated on February 21, 1965.

In his autobiography, Malcolm recounts the events that led to his education behind bars.  With time on his hands, he attempted to read but due to his limited vocabulary, he could comprehend few of the words on the page.  To remedy this he decided to study a dictionary. Beginning with the letter A, he read and copied by hand page after page and soon discovered that he was learning more than just vocabulary:  “With every succeeding page, I also learned of people and places and events from history. Actually the dictionary is like a miniature encyclopedia.”

As his knowledge base and vocabulary grew, Malcolm turned to other books beside the dictionary, reading in every free moment during the day, and well into the night by a small corridor light outside his jail cell.

Talking about his prison studies, Malcolm says:  

I never have been so truly free in my life. . . . the ability to read awoke inside me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive . . . . My homemade education gave me, with every additional book that I read, a little bit more sensitivity to the deafness, dumbness, and blindness that was afflicting the black race in America.

Today’s Challenge:  Your Love Letter to Literacy

What are some memorable experiences that would be in your autobiography regarding your acquisition of literacy?  What do you remember about learning to read, about learning to write, and about being influenced by books?  Imagine you are writing your autobiography and that it must include a literacy narrative, that is a story of your experiences with learning to read and write.  Write about a specific incident from your life that is related to books, reading, or writing.  Also consider the people who have influenced your experiences with literacy. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

1-The Autobiography of Malcolm X 1965

 

May 11:  Tall Tale Day

On this day in 1720, Baron Karl Friedrich Münchhausen was born.  The German nobleman fought for the Russian Empire in two Turkish Wars.  When he retired to his German estate in 1760, he gained a reputation as a raconteur, weaving outrageous tall tales based on his experiences as a soldier, traveler, and sportsman.

Munchausen might have been forgotten by history if not for German writer Rudolf Erich Raspe who listened to the baron’s tales and adapted them in a book Baron Munchausen’s Narrative of his Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia.

In Raspe’s book, the outlandish tales are narrated in first person by Munchausen.  In one story, for example, the baron recounts a near-death experience he had while bathing one day in the Mediterranean.  Startled by a giant fish swimming towards him, Munchausen curled his body into a ball and sailed into the fish’s mouth and into its stomach. Before he could figure out how to extricate himself from the fish’s belly, he felt the fish rising from the waters. A fisherman had caught the fish and was about to cut it up when he heard the baron yelling.  Freed by the fisherman, the baron ends his story by saying that ever since that day, whenever he smells fish, he becomes sick.

Throughout the years the stories that Raspe put in print have been adapted, expanded, and rewritten in numerous languages.  In 1988, Terry Gilliam of Monty Python fame made a film adaptation called The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.

In addition to being a name synonymous with tall tales, Munchausen’s name has also become well-known in the psychiatric and medical communities for a condition known as Munchausen Syndrome.

More than just telling entertaining tales, victims of Munchausen Syndrome deliberately deceive their doctors, describing false symptoms of illness and in some cases even inducing real symptoms by injecting themselves with foreign substances.

Today’s Challenge:  Munchausen Your Autobiography

What are some incidents from your life that you might exaggerate in the tradition of the tall tale?  Brainstorm a list of key incidents that you would include in your autobiography.  Select one important incident and write it as a short autobiographical anecdote based on what really happened.  Next, take that story and “munchausen” it by adding some hyperbole, drama, and outrageous embellishments. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

Quotation of the Day:  The raconteur knows too well that, if he investigates the truth of the matter, he is only too likely to lose his good story. Herbert Butterfield

1-Goldberg, Philip.  The Babinski Reflex. Los Angeles:  Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc., 1990.

 

May 7:  Dramatic Monologue Day

Today is the birthday of poet Robert Browning. Born in Camberwell, England in 1812, Browning was exposed to books at a young age. His father owned a collection of some 6,000 rare volumes, and Browning learned to share his father’s passion for literature, reading books in Greek, Hebrew, Latin, French, Italian, and Spanish.

Robert Browning by Herbert Rose Barraud c1888.jpgBrowning wrote both poetry and drama, and his most influential innovation, the dramatic monologue, combined both.

The dramatic monologue is characterized as a poem with a single speaker with an implied listener or audience. The speaker is not the poet; instead, the poet takes on the persona (Latin for “mask’) of an imaginary character and brings that character alive solely through the words spoken.  A specific dramatic situation is important in the poem, as well as a tone that captures both the voice and the character of the speaker.

Perhaps the greatest of all dramatic monologues was one written by Browning in 1842 called “My Last Duchess.”  In the poem, set during the Italian Renaissance, Browning speaks in the persona of an arrogant, cold, and controlling duke who is in the process of negotiating the dowry for his next marriage.  Taking a break from the negotiations, he gives a tour to one of his future father-in-law’s envoys. The major focus of the duke’s remarks is on a portrait of his deceased wife, his “last duchess,” which he shows the envoy.  The major criticism he had with this duchess, as he explains to the envoy, is that she had “A heart . . . too soon made glad,/Too easily impressed.” Because she did not make her husband the sole focus of her universe and because she allowed herself to be moved by other persons and other things than her husband, he “gave commands” –a suggestion that he had her killed to open the door of opportunity for a new, less disagreeable wife.

My Last Duchess by Robert Browning

That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will ‘t please you sit and look at her? I said
‘Frà Pandolf’ by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ‘t was not
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek: perhaps
Frà Pandolf chanced to say, ‘Her mantle laps
Over my lady’s wrist too much,’ or ‘Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat:’ such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy. She had
A heart—how shall I say?—too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, ‘t was all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace—all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,  
Or blush, at least. She thanked men,—good! but thanked
Somehow—I know not how—as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody’s gift. Who’d stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech—(which I have not)—to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, ‘Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark’—and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse,
—E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop. Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. Will ‘t please you rise? We’ll meet
The company below then. I repeat,
The Count your master’s known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretence
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. Nay, we’ll go
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!

Today’s Challenge:  Grab Your Mask and Your Poetic License

What are some examples of dramatic situations a person might be in that would produce a dramatic monologue?  Try your hand at writing your own dramatic monologue. You can try to write it in verse if you want, but more importantly, try to capture the authentic voice of your narrator. In a dramatic monologue you can take on the voice of ANYONE, or anything, you desire. In other words, you take on a persona and use your poetic license to channel the voice of whomever you wish.

Before you begin writing, you’ll need four things:

  1. A specific character/narrator  
  2. A dramatic situation
  3. An attitude the speaker has toward the situation (tone)
  4. A listener or audience of the monologue

Before you commit to a single idea, do some brainstorming on possible combinations of the four elements. You can go for comedy or tragedy — a really good dramatic monologue might have elements of both.

Here are some examples:

  1. An angry teacher, complaining to her husband about her students’ lack of enthusiasm.
  2. A teenager pleading with his parents to allow him to get a tattoo.
  3. A desperate elderly salesman trying to persuade his boss not to fire him.
  4. An enthusiastic teenager trying to persuade her grandmother to get an iPod.
  5. A shocked postal worker calling the police to report a UFO sighting.
  6. A concerned father advising his son on how to approach the challenges of life.

(Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

Below is an example based on #6, with apologies to Rudyard Kipling:

HOW YOUR RACE IS RUN

If you can keep your head about you when everybody’s losing theirs

Step up to the starting line, and stare down your fears

Be ready for the gun as you start the race

Get out at a good strong pace

Don’t let the pack box you in.

Run your own race to win.

Whether you win or lose the race my son,

It matters more how your race is run

Will you run your race to win?

And when you fall down will pick yourself back up again?

You’ve  gotta make your own breaks in this human race

Three fingers pointing back in your face

Fill each minute with sixty seconds run.

You can’t stop the sun, but you can make him run.

Triumph and disaster are two imposters just the same,

Don’t spend your time looking for someone to blame.

Because the rain comes down and the way gets hard,

And it seems like you haven’t gotten very far

Push beyond the pain

Through the mud and the rain

Whether you win or lose the race my son

It matters more how your race is run

Try to see the world in your neighbor’s shoes

And whether you win or you lose

You’re not the only one who has a race to run

Do all you can to lend a helping hand

Pray to God each day

That He’ll light your way

Whether you win or lose the race my son

It matters more how your race is run

Quotation of the Day: Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp – or what’s a heaven for? -Robert Browning

May 2: King James Bible Day

Today is the anniversary of the publication of what is probably the most influential work in the history of the English language, the King James translation of the Old and New Testaments, completed in 1611. Of course, one might argue that it is not one work but 66 separate books (39 Old Testament and 27 New Testament); nevertheless, the reading and proclaiming of the words from the King James Bible have made a significant impact on the words we speak today.

The title page's central text is:"THE HOLY BIBLE,Conteyning the Old Testament,AND THE NEW:Newly Translated out of the Original tongues: & with the former Translations diligently compared and revised, by his Majesties speciall Comandement.Appointed to be read in Churches.Imprinted at London by Robert Barker, Printer to the Kings most Excellent Majestie.ANNO DOM. 1611 ."At bottom is:"C. Boel fecit in Richmont.".For example, take any letter of the alphabet and think of expressions we use in print and spoken word that came to us from the King James Authorized Version. Here are just a few examples from the letter A:

Adam’s apple

Apple of one’s eye

Adam’s rib

A little lower than angels

All things are possible

All things work together for good

Alpha and omega

Am I my brother’s keeper?

A soft answer turneth away wrath

Ask, and it shall be given

For a more complete collection of words and phrases from the Bible, see the book Mene, Mene, Tekel (The handwriting is on the wall): A lively lexicon of words and phrases from the Bible (1).

In the second year of his reign, after the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, King James I ordered a new English authorized translation of the Bible. It was a time of renaissance for the spoken and written word in English as witnessed by the works of William Shakespeare, who was a contemporary of the men working on James’ translation. Over fifty scholars worked on the project, making it probably the most impressive work ever completed by a committee.

The King James Bible and the manner of speaking it influenced soon crossed the Atlantic to the New World, where in 1620 the Mayflower arrived at Plymouth to plant the seed of King James’ English in this new Promised Land.

The King James Bible was published the same year that Shakespeare began work on his last play The Tempest. In Shakespeare and the Authorized version of the Bible, we have the Yin and the Yang of the English language. Shakespeare prodigiously invented words, metaphors, and turns of phrase; his works make up a vocabulary of approximately 30,000 words. In contrast, the King James Version uses a sparse 8,000 words, a basic lexicon that could be read, spoken, and understood by common men and women.

Bard or Bible?

Read the common expressions below. Which come from the King James Bible and which are from Shakespeare’s plays?

  1. Apple of one’s eye
  2. Out of the mouth of babes
  3. There’s the rub
  4. Fallen from grace
  5. Lamb to the slaughter
  6. It’s Greek to me
  7. Through a glass, darkly
  8. To eat out of house and home
  9. Tower of strength
  10. Pearls before swine
  11. Serve God and Mammon
  12. Sings of the times
  13. Too much of a good thing
  14. Skin of the teeth
  15. Fatted calf
  16. Feet of clay
  17. Giants in the earth
  18. Gone with the wind
  19. Every inch a kind
  20. Turn the other cheek
  21. Eye for eye, tooth for tooth
  22. Den of lions
  23. Cast the first stone
  24. Paint the lily
  25. Cruel to be kind
  26. Blind leading the blind
  27. Budge an inch

According to the scholar and critic E. D. Hirsch, knowledge of the Bible is not simply an issue of religious education; it is instead an issue of literacy (see March 1: Cultural Literacy  Day).. A basic understanding and working knowledge of the Bible is essential to being literate in the English-speaking world. As Hirsch puts it:

Literate people in India, whose religious traditions are not based on the Bible but whose common language is English, must know about the Bible in order to understand English within their own country.  All educated speakers of American English need to understand what is meant when someone describes a contest as being between David and Goliath, or whether a person who has the “wisdom of Solomon” is wise or foolish . . . . Those who cannot use or understand such allusions cannot fully participate in literate English. (2)

Allusions are references to people, places, events, and things from history, mythology, religion, or literature.  The mention of an allusion doesn’t just evoke a story, it also evokes an abstract idea or universal theme. For example, if a writer makes an allusion to “Judas,” most literate readers will comprehend the reference to Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed Jesus as told in the New Testament.  In addition to the story of Judas, the allusion also evokes themes related to Judas’ story, such as treachery and betrayal.

Today’s Challenge:   Tales from the Testaments

What are some examples of stories from the Bible that everyone should know — the kind of stories that are alluded to not just in religious works, but also in secular poems, novels, and nonfiction works?  Brainstorm a list of stories you think of that come from the Bible, either the Old or the New Testament.  The following are a few examples of allusions that most literate persons would be expected to recognize:

Abraham and Isaac, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, David and Goliath, Good Samaritan, Jacob and Esau, Job, Jonah and the Whale, Lot’s wife, Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes, Moses and the Exodus, Noah and the Flood, Pentecost, Pontius Pilate, Prodigal Son, Solomon, Tower of Babel

Select one allusion and paraphrase the essential elements of the story. Imagine an audience who has not heard the story before. Your purpose is to give them details concerning the story’s plot and its characters to that they will understand both the story and the meaning of the story. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

Quotation of the Day:  It ain’t the parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it’s the parts that I do understand. –Mark Twain

1 – Ehrlich, Eugene and David H Scott. Mene, Mene, Tekel: A lively lexicon of words and phrases from the Bible. New York: HarperCollins, 1990.

2- Hirsch, E. D. The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy.

Answers:

KJV: 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 10, 11, 12, 14,15, 16, 17, 18, 20, 21, 22, 23, 26

Shakespeare: 3, 6, 8, 9, 13, 19, 24, 25, 27

April 27:  Mouse Day

On this date in 1981, Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) introduced its computer mouse. It’s hard to imagine a time when we operated a computer without a mouse, a time when we didn’t point and click, or a time when we needed a good mouser more than we needed an operational mouse.

The invention of the mouse is credited to Douglas Engelbart, who created what he called an “X-Y position indicator for a display system” in 1964. His invention, a wooden shell with two metal wheels, was patented in 1970. In 1970, however, there were no personal computers; it would be ten more years before someone stepped up to take the mouse to the big time.

The decade of the personal computer had arrived in 1980, and Steve Jobs , co-founder of Apple Computer, challenged Xerox’s (PARC) to create a mouse that was durable, useful, and inexpensive. They succeeded. Where Engelbart had used metal wheels, they used a plastic ball. Their mouse was ready for demonstration in 1981, and in January 1983 the Apple Lisa was introduced, the first commercial personal computer with a mouse. At a price of almost $10,000, the Lisa was not a commercial success, but Apple rebounded one year later with the Macintosh 128K. Like the Lisa, the Macintosh had a single-button mouse. The Macintosh revolutionized personal computing with its Graphic User Interface (GUI), the predominant method we use today of interacting with a computer using windows and icons. Imagine trying to do this without a mouse!

With the popularity of Microsoft Windows in the 1990s, the mouse became what it is today: ubiquitous (1).

Today’s Challenge:  Build a Better Abecedarian

When you hear the word “ computer technology” what are some words that come to mind?  Brainstorm as many words as you can that you associate with “computer technology,”  such as antivirus, bandwidth, and cloud.  Attempt to create an A to Z list of words that are related to computer technology.  Include a short definition next to each word. (Common Core Writing Language 3 – Knowledge of Language)

Quotation of the Day:  The computer is by all odds the most extraordinary of all the technological clothing ever devised by man, since it is the extension of our central nervous system. Beside it, the wheel is a mere hula-hoop. -Marshall McLuhan

1 -Soojung, Alex and Kim Pang. Mighty Mouse. Stanford Magazine March/April 2002.

April 23:  Birth of the Bard Day

The greatest writer in the English language, William Shakespeare, was born on this day in 1564. He died on the same day 52 years later in 1616.

Besides the date of his birth and death, we know little about Shakespeare’s life. Here is a brief timeline of key events:

1564 Born in Stratford-Upon-Avon, 100 miles north of London

1582 Married to Anne Hathaway on November 28th

1583 Daughter Susanna is born

1585 Twins Judith and Hamnet are born

approx. 1591 Travels to London, works as an actor

1596 Eleven-year-old Hamnet dies

1513 Globe Theatre burns and Shakespeare retires to Stratford.

1616 Dies in Stratford-Upon-Avon

Shakespeare is clearly the most successful playwright who ever lived, but his influence reaches well beyond just his plays. His writing literally transformed the English language. If you want to see what the birth of the universe looked like you can read an account in Genesis, Chapter 1; if you want to see what the birth of words looks like, read the plays of Shakespeare.

According to linguist David Crystal, of the 17,677 words in the collected works of Shakespeare, approximately 1,700 (10%) can be identified as neologisms — that is invented words (1).

Here is a small sample of words first recorded in Shakespeare, according to David Crystal in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language:

accommodation, assassination, barefaced, countless, courtship, dislocate, dwindle, eventful, fancy-free, lack-luster, laughable, premeditated, submerged

In addition to individual words, there are countless common expressions that first appear in the works of Shakespeare:

There’s the rub from ‘Hamlet’

It’s Greek to me from ‘Julius Caesar’

At one fell swoop from ‘Macbeth’

Every inch a king from ‘King Lear’

Play fast and loose from ‘Love’s Labor Lost’

What’s in a name? from ‘Romeo and Juliet’

Paint the lily from ‘King John’

Too much of a good thing from ‘As You Like It’

Give the devil his due from ‘I Henry IV’

Although we know few specifics about Shakespeare’s education, we can make some guesses based on what we know about education in the 16th century England.  According to writer Simon Callow, the main topic of study was grammar – not English grammar, but Latin grammar:

Grammar school was tough. . . .They didn’t study history, they didn’t study mathematics, they didn’t study geography, they didn’t study science.  They studied grammar, from dawn to dusk, six days a week, all the year round. Grammar – Latin grammar. They translated from Latin into English and from English into Latin. At school, ordinary conversation was in Latin; any boy caught speaking English was flogged. And they mastered the tropes of rhetoric, from antimetabole (where words are repeated in inverse order) to zeugma (where one verb looks after two nouns). This is the language of power and politics: of the law, of Parliament, of the court, and this is the world of which young Will and his fellow pupils would soon, it was hoped, be part.

Today’s Challenge:  A Novel Opening

Who are the most memorable characters from Shakespeare’s plays?  If you were to inhabit the mind of one of these characters, writing his or her story in first person, which character would you choose?  Select your favorite character from Shakespeare and re-imagine his or her story as if it were a novel written in first person by the character.  Write the opening 250 words. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

Quotation of the Day:  From a selection of his other works, we might think him variously courtly, cerebral, metaphysical, melancholic, Machiavellian, neurotic, light hearted, loving, and much more. Shakespeare was of course all these things—as a writer. We hardly know what he was as a person. -Bill Bryson

1-Shakespeare’s Genius in Creating Words. https://h2g2.com/edited_entry/A76533195#back1

2-https://www.bl.uk/shakespeare/articles/shakespeares-childhood-and-education

 

April 20:  Urban Legends Day

This day is purported by some to be the day that Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin died, but don’t believe it. Although all three of these celebrities shared a background of drug use and rock ‘n roll, they each died on a separate day other than 4/20.

The date and number 420 has somehow evolved to connote drug use, and there are a number of stories related to why, such as the supposed common death date of the trio of dead rock stars alluded to earlier. Other stories claim that the Los Angeles police code for “marijuana use in progress” is 420, or that the number of chemical compounds in marijuana is 420. Both of these claims are untrue. No one knows for certain the origin of these stories, and this brings us to the topic of urban legends.

An urban legend is defined as a story that is “too good to be true” by Jan Harold Brunvand, a professor at the University of Utah and the world’s expert in collecting and analyzing urban legends. Brunvand says these stories are told “as if they are really true, attributed to a friend of a friend of a friend.” Each time the story is told, the basic elements (or motifs) are the same, but the setting and other minor details change.

For example, a friend might tell you about a story he heard from a friend of a friend that goes like this:

There’s this man, see, and he dresses up like a little old lady and accosts unsuspecting women in shopping malls. Usually, he waits in the car. When the owner of the car shows up, bags in tow, the stranger pleads fatigue and asks her for a ride home. Then the driver notices her passenger’s hairy legs, the wig and, oh yeah, the knife!

This is an example of a story that was reported in the Seattle Times on May 4, 1983. It was reported as a rumor that was running up and down the shores of Puget Sound, and no doubt a story that had appeared in various parts of the country if not the world.

Even in a modern, urbanized society, people still love to tell stories. Maybe this is because we were telling stories long before the invention of writing. Urban legends allow even strangers to connect with each other. Another bonus is that they can be easily reconstructed from the basic elements of the tale and don’t need to be told exactly the same way every time (1).

Urban legends come under the category of folklore: songs, legends, beliefs, crafts, and customs that are passed on from one generation to the next by word of mouth. An adjective that is frequently used to describe urban legends is apocryphal. The modern definition according to the American Heritage College Dictionary is “of questionable authorship or authenticity.” The roots of the word are from Greek, meaning secret or hidden. The word was used in Latin to describe the books excluded from the canon of the Old and New Testaments, and these books are still identified today as the Apocrypha.

Today’s Challenge: Tell the Tall Tale

What is a tale you have heard from a friend of a friend?  Tell your own version of an urban legend, but provide enough concrete details about the specific setting, characters, plot, and dialogue to make it sound true. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

Quote of the Day: The most outrageous lies that can be invented will find believers if a man only tells them with all his might. -Mark Twain

  1. – cnn.com

http://www.cnn.com/books/beginnings/9909/urban.legends/index.html?eref=sitesearch

April 17:  Story Contest Day

On this day in 1397, Chaucer read his great work The Canterbury Tales before the gathered ladies and gentleman of the English court.  It was not surprising that someone would read stories out loud. After all, in the 14th century, before Gutenberg introduced movable type, books were rare. What was surprising, however, was the language that Chaucer wrote in and spoke in as he read his stories: English.

Canterbury Tales.pngSince the Norman Invasion of England in 1066, French and Latin had been the language of the court and the language of power.  English was spoken, but primarily by the peasantry. Change began to happen, however, as England waged war against France in The Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453).  Anti-French attitudes opened the door for English, the vernacular tongue of the commoners, to become more and more acceptable among the nobility.

Chaucer’s work begins with a group of 29 travelers gathered at the Tabard Inn in London to begin their pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket, a Christian martyr, in Canterbury.  The pilgrims are accompanied by Harry Bailly, the host of the Tabard, who proposes a story contest. Volunteering himself as the judge, Bailly presents the stakes: the winner of the contest will be awarded a dinner paid for by the group when they return back to the Tabard Inn.

Thus begins the framing device for the collection of tales that became the first important work of literature in English and that earned Chaucer the title:  “Father of English Literature” (1).

Today’s Challenge:   Winning Storytelling

What are the essential key elements that make a good story?  What criteria would you use for judging the effectiveness of a story?  Brainstorm some criteria for storytelling and create a judge’s ballot that spells out each of your criterion along with the maximum points you would award for each of your criteria. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

Quotation of the Day:  Storytelling is a very old human skill that gives us an evolutionary advantage. If you can tell young people how you kill an emu, acted out in song or dance, or that Uncle George was eaten by a croc over there, don’t go there to swim, then those young people don’t have to find out by trial and error. -Margaret Atwood

1-http://thisdaythen.blogspot.com/2012/04/17th-april-1397-geoffrey-chaucer-reads.html

 

April 15:  Deliberately Bad Writing Day

Today is the deadline for a delightful contest for deplorable writing: The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest (BLFC), where entrants face the challenge of writing the worst possible opening sentence to a novel. The contest began in 1982, created by Scott Rice of the San Jose State University English Department.

The contest is named after the prolific Victorian novelist Edward George Earle Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873). He was a contemporary of Dickens, and in the 19th century, his novels were nearly as popular as Dickens’. Bulwer-Lytton’s flair for the melodramatic has inspired more than twenty years of good bad writing, “writing so deliberately rotten that it both entertains and instructs,” according to Scott Rice.

Here’s the famous opening of Bulwer-Lytton’s novel Paul Clifford (1830):

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

An overall winner is selected in the contest each year, but there are also category winners for various genres, including western, detective, romance, and science fiction. Below is the overall winner for the 2002 contest, written by Rephah Berg of Oakland, California:

On reflection, Angela perceived that her relationship with Tom had always been rocky, not quite a roller-coaster ride but more like when the toilet-paper roll gets a little squashed so it hangs crooked and every time you pull some off you can hear the rest going bumpity-bumpity in its holder until you go nuts and push it back into shape, a degree of annoyance that Angela had now almost attained.

For more past contest winners, visit:  http://www.bulwer-lytton.com/

Today’s Challenge: The Good, the Bad, and the Funny

What are some examples of bad ways to begin a story?  Get a head start on next year’s Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. Read the rules below; then, write your own one-sentence masterpiece.

The rules of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest are simple:

Each entry must consist of a single sentence but you may submit as many entries as you wish. Sentences may be of any length (though you go beyond 50 or 60 words at your peril), and entries must be “original” (as it were) and previously unpublished.

Surface mail entries should be submitted on index cards, the sentence on one side and the entrant’s name, address, and phone number on the other.

Email entries should be in the body of the message, NOT in an attachment. If you are submitting multiple entries, please include them in one message.

Entries will be judged by categories, from “general” to detective, western, science fiction, romance, and so on. There will be overall winners as well as category winners.

The official deadline is April 15 (a date that Americans associate with painful submissions and making up bad stories). The actual deadline may be as late as June 30.

The contest accepts submissions every day of the livelong year.

Wild Card Rule: Resist the temptation to work with puns like “It was a stark and dormy night.” Finally, in keeping with the gravitas, high seriousness, and general bignitude of the contest, the grand prize winner will receive . . . a pittance.

Send your entries to: Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest Department of English San Jose State University San Jose, CA 95192-0090,

Quotation of the Day: The pen is mightier than the sword. –Edward George Earle Bulwer-Lytton

April 12:  Oxymoron Day

At 4:30 am on this day in 1861, the first shots of the Civil War were fired. Forty-three confederate guns along the coast of Charleston, South Carolina fired on Fort Sumter. On the following morning, the Union commander of the fort, Major Robert Anderson, surrendered after 33 straight hours of bombardment. No one on either side was killed, but by the end of the war four years later, 600,000 of the 3,000,000 who fought were dead (1).

FortSumter2009.jpgThe term civil war is sometimes classified as an oxymoron. An oxymoron is a figure of speech in which two contradictory words are juxtaposed – placed side by side — as in deafening silence. The word is from Greek and translates as “sharp or pointed” (oxus) and “dull or foolish” (moros).  Therefore, the word oxymoron is an oxymoron that means “a sharp dullness” or “pointed foolishness” (2).

Below are other examples of oxymora (Yes, as in some other words from Greek, the plural of oxymoron is irregular: oxymora):

jumbo shrimp, guest host, old news, dry ice, light heavyweight, original copy, festina lente (Latin for hurry slowly) (3)

In the Shakespearean tragedy Romeo and Juliet, a play about contrasts — love and hate, young and old, darkness and light — Romeo presents an oxymoron-packet speech when he reacts to the conflict between the Capulets and the Montagues:

Why, then, O brawling love! O loving hate!

O anything, of nothing first create!

O heavy lightness! Serious vanity!

Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms!

Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health!

Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!

(Act I.i.176)

Some individual words we use today began as oxymora. For example, the word sophomore originated from the combination of two Greek words sophos, meaning “wise,” and moros, meaning “foolish, dull.”

Today’s Challenge:  Serious Fun With Oxymorons

What are some adjective-noun combinations that have contradictory meanings?  Try creating your own oxymora by juxtaposing words that have contrasting meanings.  You can try any contradictory combination, but the easiest combo to start with is an adjective and a noun, as in “serious fun” or “successful failure.”  Just begin with an adjective or noun that comes to mind; then, couple it with a noun or adjective that has a contradictory meaning. Once you have generated a list, select the one you like the best and use it for the title of a short poem, story, or piece of “poetic prose” that captures the contradictory theme of your oxymoron. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

Quotation of the Day:  I am a deeply superficial person. – Andy Warhol

1- civilwar.com

2 – Grothe, Mardy.  Oxymoronica:  Paradoxical Wit and Wisdom From History’s Greatest Wordsmiths.  New York: HarperCollins 2004.

3 – Holman, C. Hugh and William Harmon. A Handbook to Literature (6th Edition). Macmillan General Reference, 1992: 338.