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, 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.

2. Stories may be any genre: sci-fi, romance, detective, horror, parody, etc.

3. Don’t try to write exactly 55 words in your first draft; instead, focus just on writing a good short, short story. Then, go back to revise and edit until you’re down to 55.

4. Humor, puns, suspense, or parody are encouraged.

5. 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-The American Presidency Project – Richard Nixon. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=4332.

2-New Times.  55 Fiction. https://www.newtimesslo.com/sanluisobispo/55-fiction/Category?oid=2872608.

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 Framton 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 speciality” (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 speciality.”  

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

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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).

Use of the passive voice puts the object of the sentence “mistakes” up front and makes the doer of the action magically disappear.  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.  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.

November 25:  Fable Day

On this day in 1998, the computer-animated film A Bug’s Life was released.  The film was produced by Pixar Animation Studios and distributed by Walt Disney Studios.  The film, which was directed by John Lasseter and co-directed by Andrew Stanton, featured the music of Randy Newman and the voices of Dave Foley, Kevin Spacey, and Julia Louis-Dryfus (1).

The plot of the film is based on a retelling of one of Aesop’s fables: The Ant and the Grasshopper:

One bright day in late autumn a family of Ants were bustling about in the warm sunshine, drying out the grain they had stored up during the summer, when a starving Grasshopper, his fiddle under his arm, came up and humbly begged for a bite to eat.

“What!” cried the Ants in surprise, “haven’t you stored anything away for the winter? What in the world were you doing all last summer?”

“I didn’t have time to store up any food,” whined the Grasshopper; “I was so busy making music that before I knew it the summer was gone.”

The Ants shrugged their shoulders in disgust.

“Making music, were you?” they cried. “Very well; now dance!” And they turned their backs on the Grasshopper and went on with their work.

There’s a time for work and a time for play. (2)

No one knows for certain if Aesop actually lived, but some ancient historians report that he was a slave who lived either in the 5th or 6th-century B.C.  Whether he actually lived or not, today we have over 300 fables, each with a plot the centers on animals and a moral that applies to the human reader (3).

Walt Disney made a cartoon-short of “The Ant and the Grasshopper” in the 1930s, but when Pixar got ahold of the story in the 1990s, they turned the short fable into a full-fledged film, featuring a full colony of ants and a rowdy gang of grasshoppers.

Today’s Challenge:  An Awesome Aesop Adaptation

Which of Aesop’s Fables is your favorite, and how would you adapt the story to create a feature animated film?  Write an explanation of which of Aesop’s Fables you would adapt and how you would transform it from a brief fable into a full length feature film.  If you want, you may use the Pixar Pitch template from November 22:  Pixar Pitch Day. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

1-Pixar. A Bug’s Life. https://www.pixar.com/feature-films/a-bugs-life/#abl-main.

2-Aesop Fables. The Harvard Classics 1909-14. Bartleby.com.  Public Domain. https://www.bartleby.com/17/1/38.html.

3-University of Massachusetts Amherst. Aesop’s Fables. https://www.umass.edu/aesop/history.php.