November 22:  Pixar Pitch Day

On this day in 1995, the computer-animated film Toy Story was released by Walt Disney Pictures.  The film, directed by John Lasseter, was the first feature-length film produced by Pixar Animation Studios, a subsidiary of Walt Disney.  Widely considered one of the greatest animated films of all time, Toy Story and has earned over $350 million.

Today Pixar Animation Studios, located in Emeryville, California, is one of the most successful studios in movie history, grossing over $7 billion and winning 26 Oscars. Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, WALL-E, Up, and Toy Story 3 have all won the Academy Award for Best Animated Features.

In his book To Sell Is Human, Daniel H. Pink attributes the success of Pixar to “The Pixar Pitch,” a template that provides a structure for the most important part of every Pixar film – the story:

Once upon a time ____________.  Every day ____________.  One day ____________. Because of that, ____________. Because of that, ____________. Until finally ____________.

According to Pink, the strength of the Pixar Pitch format is that it a concise and controlled “framework that takes advantage of the well-documented persuasive force of stories” (1).  Just as the fourteen lines of a sonnet seem to be the best package for a message of love, the six-sentence template of the Pixar Pitch is the perfect way to deliver a packaged plot.

Today’s Challenge:  The Six-Sentence Sell

What story would you tell using the Pixar Pitch as your template?  Try your hand at creating a narrative that uses the six-sentence structure of the Pixar Pitch.  Imagine that you are making a pitch for the next Pixar feature.  If you are working with others, have a contest to see who can come up with the most compelling pitch. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

1-Pink, Daniel.  To Sell Is Human. New York:  Riverhead Books, 2012: 170-174.

 

November 20:  Significant Object Day

WORD DAYS is now available for the first time in paperback!

On this day in 2009, a fascinating five-month anthropological study was completed by two writers, Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn.  The hypothesis of the study was that storytelling has the power to raise the value of a physical object.

To test their hypothesis, the researchers acquired 100 objects at garage sales and thrift stores at a cost of no more than two dollars per object.  In phase two of the study, each object was given to a writer who crafted a short, fictional story about the object.  Each object was then auctioned on eBay with the invented story as the item description.  Walker and Glenn carefully identified each item description as a work of fiction. Based on the results of the study, the average price of an object was raised by 2,700 percent.  The total cost of purchasing the 100 objects was $128.74; the total sales on eBay reached a total of $3,612.51.  For example, a duck vase purchased for $1.99 sold for $15.75.  A motel room key purchased for $2.00 sold for $45.01.

Walker and Glenn compiled the results of their study, including a photo of each object along with its accompanying fictional story, in the book Significant Objects:  100 Extraordinary Stories About Ordinary Things.

To see additional objects and their stories, visit www.significantobjects.com.

Clearly, stories captivate our interest and attention like nothing else. Packaging both ideas and emotion in a narrative makes a powerful combination, and the results of the Significant Objects Study provide us with quantitative evidence of this.  As stated by Walker and Glenn, “Stories are such a powerful driver of emotional value that their effect on any given object’s subjective value can actually be measured objectively” (1).

Today’s Challenge:  Junk Drawer Stories

What inventive story would you write to give value to a seemingly valueless object?  Go to your junk drawer and find a physical object of little value.  Then, craft a short narrative about the background of the object.  If you are working with a group or class of storytellers, have a Significant Object Contest or a Significant Object Slam (SOS) to share your stories. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

1-Walker, Rob and Joshua Glen.  Significant Objects:  100 Extraordinary Stories about Ordinary Things.  Seattle, WA:  Fantagraphics Books, 2012.

November 16:  Proverb Day

On this day in 1932, the philosopher Bertrand Russell (1870-1970) published an essay entitled, “On Proverbs.”  For Russell the key characteristic of these proclamations of practical, timeless wisdom is that “they are remarkable for their terseness.”  Proverbs are models of economical writing, short, pithy, and usually anonymous.  As an example, Russell presents “More haste, less speed,” saying that it “could not possibly be said in fewer words.”

While he is impressed with the terseness of proverbs, Russell sees a problem in using them to support an argument since proverbs tend to run in pairs, and these proverb pairs often make opposite arguments. So, for example, when one person proclaims “Actions speak louder than words,” the other person can turn to the counter-proverb, “The pen is mightier than the sword” (1).

One other notable aspect of proverbs is stated in a definition by philosopher and poet Moses Ebn Ezra:  “[Proverbs have] three characteristics:  few words, good sense, and a fine image.”

Study the proverbs below, and notice how often they use imagery, usually figurative, to wrap up showing and telling into one tiny, concise package:

The squeaky wheel gets the grease.

No man is an island.

Birds of a feather flock together.

There’s no such thing as a free lunch.

Never look a gift horse in the mouth.

The early bird catches the worm.

A watched pot never boils.

Too many cooks spoil the broth.

Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.

A penny saved is a penny earned.

Necessity is the mother of invention.

Don’t judge a book by its cover.

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

The grass is always greener on the other side of the hill.

Don’t count your chickens before they are hatched.

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.

Today’s Challenge:  Proverbial Autobiographical Anecdote

What proverb comes to your mind when you think of wisdom you have gained based on your life experiences so far?  Write an anecdote about an incident from your life that illustrates the truth of a single proverb.  Just as Aesop told short fables followed by terse statements of general truths, follow your anecdote with the proverb that the anecdote illustrates.  Once you have finished, read your anecdote to a friend to see if he/she can guess the proverb before you reveal it. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

1-Russell, Bertrand.  Mortals and Others, 1932:  133-34. http://www.amazon.com/Mortals-Routledge-Classics-Bertrand-Russell/dp/0415473519.

 

November 10:  From Headlines to Lyrics Day

On this day in 1975, the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, a bulk freighter, sank in a storm on Lake Superior.  The entire crew of the Fitzgerald, 29 men, were lost.  Approximately two weeks after the tragedy, singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot read a short Newsweek magazine article on the ship’s sinking.  The first lines of the article read:

According to a legend of the Chippewa tribe, the lake they once called Gitche Gumee ‘never gives up her dead.’ (1)

Inspired by the article and the plight of the Fitzgerald and its crew, Lightfoot began writing what was to become one of popular music’s most recognizable ballads, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”  The opening lines of the song’s lyrics, clearly show the influence of the Newsweek article:

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down

Of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee

The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead

When the skies of November turn gloomy

Almost one year to the day of the appearance of the article in Newsweek, the song became a number one hit in Lightfoot’s native Canada; the song peaked at number 2 on the U.S. Billboard charts (2).

Gordon Lightfoot is certainly not the only songwriter to mine newspapers and magazines for ideas:

-The lyrics of 1967 Beatles song “A Day in the Life” were inspired by two separate stories that John Lennon read in London newspapers: One about a fatal car accident and the second about a road survey that revealed 4,000 pot holes in the roads of Blackburn, Lancashire.  The song’s opening line is: “I read the news today, oh boy.”

-Janis Ian’s 1975 song “At Seventeen” was inspired by a New York Times article about a debutante.  The article’s opening line was “I learned the truth at 18”; the opening line of Ian’s song is “I learned the truth at 17.”  She changed the number because 18 didn’t scan.

-Alicia Keys’ 2012 song “Girl on Fire” was inspired by a magazine article that Keys read about herself.  The article’s writer Jeannine Amber used the phrase “girl on fire” to describe the singer.  The phrase had such an impact on Keys that she used it not only for inspiration for a song, but also as the title of her fifth studio album.

-The 1956 Elvis song “Heartbreak Hotel” was inspired by a newspaper story about a suicide note.  The man who killed himself left a note that said, “I walk a lonely street.”  This inspired the song’s opening lines, written by Tommy Durden: Well, since my baby left me, I found a new place to dwell.  It’s down at the end of lonely street at Heartbreak Hotel.

-The 1973 Tony Orlando and Dawn hit “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round That Old Oak Tree” was inspired by a 1971 story in the The New York Post about a convict returning from prison.  In the story a white handkerchief was tied around the tree. Songwriters Irwin Levine and Larry Brown made the change to a yellow ribbon because they felt it made for a better song. Interestingly, the song went on to inspire a national movement in the 1980s when yellow ribbons became the symbol of American hostages held in Iran.  Fifty-two hostages were held captive for 444 days. (3)

Today’s Challenge:  I Read the News Today

What recent news story might serve as inspiration for a song or a poem?  Look through a recent newspaper or magazine for stories — local, national, or international — that might serve as inspiration for the lyrics of a song or poem.  Use your poetic license as needed to transform the people, places, and events in the news into your own creative work. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

1- Gains, James R. and Jon Lowell.  “Great Lakes: The Cruelest Month.”  Newsweek magazine 24 Nov. 1975.

2-Gordon Lightfoot.com. Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. http://gordonlightfoot.com/wreckoftheedmundfitzgerald.shtml.

3-Songfacts.com. Songs Inspired by Newspaper or Magazine Articles. http://www.songfacts.com/category songs_inspired_by_newspaper_or_magazine_articles.php.

 

November 9:  Cold War Day

On this day in 1989, the East German Communist Party opened the Berlin Wall, allowing citizens of East Berlin to freely cross the border that had separated East and West Berlin since the wall went up in 1961.  That night, crowds swarmed the wall and some, armed with picks and hammers, began to dismantle the wall, which had stood as the most powerful symbol of the Cold War.

In 1989 several eastern European nations of the Soviet Union carried out successful anti-Communist revolutions, winning greater autonomy and the right to hold multiparty elections. By December 1991 the Soviet Union ceased to exist and the Cold War was officially over (1).

The term “Cold War” was coined on April 16, 1947, when Bernard Baruch, advisor to presidents on economic and foreign policy, used the term in an address he gave to the South Carolina House of Representatives. Invited to speak in his home state, Baruch selected the topic of the struggle between the two post-World War II superpowers — the United States and the Soviet Union:

Let us not be deceived, we are today in the midst of a cold war. Our enemies are to be found abroad and at home. Let us never forget this: Our unrest is the heart of their success. The peace of the world is the hope and the goal of our political system.; it is the despair and defeat of those who stand against us. We can depend only on ourselves. (2)

Baruch’s term stuck as an apt description of the hostilities between the West and the East that spawned a nuclear arms race but fell short of armed conflict. Below are other words and terms that became a part of the Cold War lexicon, according to the book Twentieth Century Words (3):

Atom Bomb (1945)

fall out (1950)

N.A.T.O. (1950)

deterrent (1954)

conventional weapons (1955)

ICBM (1955)

unilateralism (1955)

Warsaw Pact (1955)

mushroom cloud (1958)

nuke (1959)

Hot and Cold Running Idioms

Below are descriptions of expressions that contain either the word hot or cold. Given the number of words in each expression along with a description, see if you can name the phrase:

  1. Four words: Newly printed; sensational and exciting.
  2. Two words: Immediate, complete withdrawal from something, especially an addictive substance.
  3. Two words: Trouble or difficulty.
  4. Two words: Retreat from an undertaking; lose one’s nerve.
  5. Two words: Deliberate disregard, slight, or snub.
  6. Four words: Extremely angry.
  7. Four words: In a position of extreme stress, as when subjected to harsh criticism.
  8. Five words: To cause one to shiver from fright or horror. (4)

Today’s Challenge:  Hot Potatoes and Cold Turkey

What words, phrases, or titles come to mind when you hear the word “hot” or “cold”?  Brainstorm a list of words, phrases, or titles (songs, movies, or books) that you associate with either “hot” or “cold.” Try to generate at least 20 ideas.  Then, select the one idea that sparks a writing idea, and write a poem, story, or essay on your idea.  Use the word “hot” or “cold” in your title. (Common Core Writing 2 and 3 – Expository and Narrative)

Answers: 1. Hot off the presses 2. Cold turkey 3. Hot water 4. Cold feet 5. cold shoulder 6. Hot under the collar 7. In the hot seat 8. Make one’s blood run cold.

1-Atomic Archive.com. Cold War: A Brief History 2015. http://www.atomicarchive.com/History/coldwar/page22.shtml.

2-History.com. Bernard Baruch Coins the Term ‘Cold War.’ http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/bernard-baruch-coins-the-term-cold-war.

3- Ayto, John. Twentieth Century Words. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

4 – Ammer, Christine. American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997.

 

November 7:  Meaning in Myth Day

Today is the birthday of the French writer and philosopher Albert Camus (1913-1960).  Camus was born in Algeria, a French colony, and was active in the French resistance in World War II, writing for an underground newspaper.  Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957 for his fiction, specifically his novels:  The Stranger (1942), The Plague (1947), and The Rebel (1951).

Though he never called himself an existentialist, Camus is often associated with the post-World War II philosophical movement which places the individual struggle for meaning above any other meaning that might be found in religion or society.  The major theme of Camus’ writing was the absurd — or the paradox of the absurd:  the idea that individuals have an innate desire to live a life that has meaning while at the same time realizing that ultimately life has no meaning (1).

To help his readers understand these somewhat abstract ideas, Camus wrote a philosophical essay in 1942 entitled “The Myth of Sisyphus,” where he retells the ancient Greek myth as a way of making meaning of the plight of modern man.

Sisyphus, the King of Corinth, was condemned by the gods to an eternity of rolling a huge rock to the top of a mountain. Once the rock reached the top, it would then roll back down to the bottom, where once again Sisyphus would commence the fruitless and futile task of rolling it back to the top.  Camus calls Sisyphus “the absurd hero” because, although he knows he must forever push his rock up the hill and then watch it roll back down the mountain, he embraces his fate.  By doing this “he is superior to his fate.”  In this way Sisyphus exemplifies the nobility and courage of the individual who even in the face of a hostile universe, strives for his own purpose.  Camus parallels Sisyphus’ labor with that of the modern worker (2).

Today’s Challenge:  Modern Meaning in Myth

What characters from mythology would you say tap most clearly into a universal theme of human existence, such as love, hate, change, evil, or freedom?  How do the characters’ stories relate to the themes, and how do the characters’ stories parallel the plight of modern humans?  Brainstorm some names of characters from mythology.  To get you started, here are a few characters from Greek mythology:

Odysseus

Tantalus

Prometheus

Pandora

Persephone

Oedipus

Narcissus

Select one character from your list, and identify a universal theme which can be extracted from the character’s story. Then, like Camus did with Sisyphus, give meaning to your myth by retelling the character’s story in your own words, explaining the universal theme that is found in the story, and paralleling the character’s experience to the lives of modern humans. (Common Core Writing 2 and 3 – Expository and Narrative)         

1-Albert Camus – BiographicalNobelprize.org. Nobel Media AB 2014. Web. 8 Aug 2018. http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1957/camus-bio.html.

2-Camus, Albert.  The Myth of Sisyphus. http://dbanach.com/sisyphus.htm.

 

November 3:  Dogs in Space Day

On this day in 1957, the USSR launched the satellite Sputnik 2 into orbit.  Aboard the spacecraft was the first ever living being launched into space, a female terrier named Laika.  Just four weeks earlier the Russians had shocked the world by launching the first-ever satellite, Sputnik I on October 3, 1957.

Laika went from obscurity to fame as the first cosmonaut; just a week before the launch she was a stray living on the streets of Moscow.  Unfortunately, there never was a plan to return Laika to earth, so the Russian canine was forced to sacrifice her life for the benefit of humanity.  Laika most likely died from overheating within hours of takeoff.  Sputnik 2 continued to orbit the Earth for several months before it burned up in April 1958 upon reentering the atmosphere.

A Chicago newspaper tried to lighten Laika’s passing with a pun:

The Russian sputpup isn’t the first dog in the sky. That honor belongs to the dog star. But we’re getting too Sirius (1).

The launches of the two Sputnik satellites led to a crisis in the United States as leaders feared Soviet domination of space.  In July 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower formed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and in September 1958, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act, which poured billions of dollars into the U.S. education system.

Russia was successful in launching the first human, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, into space on April 12, 1961; however, the United States proclaimed victory in the Space Race when NASA’s Apollo program landed a man on the Moon on July 20, 1969 (See July 20:  Antithesis Day).

Going to the Dogs

English is replete with idioms (expressions that don’t make sense when taken literally) related to dogs. And it is interesting to note that despite the dog’s reputation for being “man’s best friend,” most of the expressions use “dog” in the negative sense. For example, they are used as scapegoats for missing homework: “My dog ate my homework.” They are associated with sickness: “Sick as a dog.” And they are even used to characterize life in general as harsh and cut throat: “It’s a dog eat dog world.”

Use the clues below to identify the eight dog-related idioms. For each idiom you are given the number of words in the expression and a brief literal translation of the meaning of the idiom as it might be used in everyday speech.

  1. Five words: Don’t make something unimportant the most important thing.
  2. Five words: You’re searching in the wrong place.
  3. Four words: My feet are very tired.
  4. Four words: My wife is very mad at me.
  5. Seven words: He’s not really as mean as he seems.
  6. Eight words: Some people will never change.
  7. Four words: Don’t remind him of your past conflicts.
  8. Five words: Every person is successful at something at some point in his/her life.

Today’s Challenge:  Giving the Dog His Day

What words, phrases, or titles come to mind when you hear the word “dog”?  What is your favorite dog-based writing topic, either literal or figurative?  Brainstorm a list of words, phrases, or titles that you associate with dogs.  Try to generate at least 20 ideas.  Then, select the one idea that sparks a writing idea, and write a poem, story, or essay on your idea.  Use the word “dog” in your title. (Common Core Writing 2 and 3 – Expository and Narrative)

Answers: 1. The tail wagging the dog 2. Barking up the wrong tree. 3. My dogs are barking  4. In the dog house 5. His bark is worse than his bite 6. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. 7. Let sleeping dogs lie. 8. Every dog has its day

1-Latson, Jennifer.  “The Sad Story of Laika, the First Dog Launched Into Orbit.”  Time 3 Nov. 2014.   http://time.com/3546215/laika-1957/.

November 1:  Art Imitates Life Day

On this day in 1866, the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky met a very important deadline.  Based on the terms of his contract with his publisher, Dostoyevsky would either deliver his completed novel on November 1, 1866 or his publisher would be given complete rights to his works, without compensation, for the next nine years.  Clearly entering into such a contract was a gamble, but then Dostoyevsky had a reputation as a gambler.  After all, the reason he agreed to a contract with such stark terms was because he was desperate for money to pay off his gambling debts.

When Dostoyevsky began work on his novel on October 4, 1866, he had just 26 days to finish.  To assist him, he hired a stenographer, a woman named Anna Grigorievna whom he would later marry.  They met daily.  Dostoyevsky dictated the story to Grigorievna, and on November 1st, two hours before the deadline, the complete manuscript was delivered to the publisher.

The title of Dostoyevsky’s novel is appropriately The Gambler, and its plot revolves around several desperate characters winning and losing at the roulette table.  In the novel, art imitates life as the author’s addiction to roulette is the focus of his novel’s plot.

Today’s Challenge:  From Fact to Fiction

What anecdote from your life would be worthy of adapting to fiction?  Just as Dostoyevsky used his life experiences, his passions, and his misfortunes for his fiction, the challenge here is to take something from your life and adapt it into a fictional anecdote.  Once you have an actual incident, transform it into fiction by creating a character in a specific setting.  Decide also on a point of view – 1st person or 3rd person (limited or omniscient).  Then, write your anecdote.  Base the plot of your anecdote on the facts of your experience, but also use your poetic license as a fiction writer to embellish the facts. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

1-Nissley, Tom.  Reader’s Book of Days.  New York:  W. W. Norton, 2014:  315.

November 1:  Art Imitates Life Day

On this day in 1866, the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky met a very important deadline.  Based on the terms of his contract with his publisher, Dostoyevsky would either deliver his completed novel on November 1, 1866 or his publisher would be given complete rights to his works, without compensation, for the next nine years.  Clearly entering into such a contract was a gamble, but then Dostoyevsky had a reputation as a gambler.  After all, the reason he agreed to a contract with such stark terms was because he was desperate for money to pay off his gambling debts.

When Dostoyevsky began work on his novel on October 4, 1866, he had just 26 days to finish.  To assist him, he hired a stenographer, a woman named Anna Grigorievna whom he would later marry.  They met daily.  Dostoyevsky dictated the story to Grigorievna, and on November 1st, two hours before the deadline, the complete manuscript was delivered to the publisher.

The title of Dostoyevsky’s novel is appropriately The Gambler, and its plot revolves around several desperate characters winning and losing at the roulette table.  In the novel, art imitates life as the author’s addiction to roulette is the focus of his novel’s plot.

Today’s Challenge:  From Fact to Fiction

What anecdote from your life would be worthy of adapting to fiction?  Just as Dostoyevsky used his life experiences, his passions, and his misfortunes for his fiction, the challenge here is to take something from your life and adapt it into a fictional anecdote.  Once you have an actual incident, transform it into fiction by creating a character in a specific setting.  Decide also on a point of view – 1st person or 3rd person (limited or omniscient).  Then, write your anecdote.  Base the plot of your anecdote on the facts of your experience, but also use your poetic license as a fiction writer to embellish the facts. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

1-Nissley, Tom.  Reader’s Book of Days.  New York:  W. W. Norton, 2014:  315.

October 26:  Four Word Film Review Day

On this day in 1999, a web developer named Benj Clews had a brief but ingenious idea.  Clews wanted to create a website for movie reviews, but he wanted it to be different.  His idea was to limit the movie reviews to four words or fewer.  That same year he created the website Four Word Film Review, which in the internet tradition of crowdsourcing, invites readers to submit their reviews.  Most of the reviews at www.fwfr.com are not so much reviews as they are new titles, but the fun comes in the wonderful wordplay that results. Puns, alliteration, and adaptations of other film titles are all a part of the creative writing game of making every word count.

For example, here are seven examples of reviews for the film Jaws:

Gulp fiction

Shaw shark retention

Jurassic shark

Shooting barrel in fish

Gil against island

Diet: fish and ships

Amity’s vile horror (1)

Reading four-word movie reviews is fun in itself, but there is also something to be learned here. Shakespeare said that ‘Brevity is the soul of wit.’ In other words, the essence of good writing is economy. As you read four word reviews and begin to write your own, you’ll learn that wordplay can be hard work, but the rewards are satisfying for both you, the writer, and your readers. Also read newspaper headlines and notice how headline writers work with the same kind of wordplay to attract the reader’s attention. A good title is vital, so when you write an essay, take some time to write a short, but sweet, title of four words or fewer.

Today’s Challenge:  Four Word – Fantastic Flair

What are some classic movies or books that you could write four word reviews for?  Create your own four-word film reviews. But don’t stop with movies. Write a four-word review of your favorite book. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

1-Clews, Benj and Michael Onesi.  Four Word Film Reviews.  Massachusetts:  Adams Media, 2010.