October 22: Battle Writer’s Block Day

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On this day in 1804 and 1837, two famous writers, one British and one American, waged their own personal battles with writer’s block by writing in their journals.

The first was the British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834). Writing in his journal the day after his thirty-second birthday, Coleridge expressed his exasperation at being unable to produce the kind of great poetry he had written in his mid-twenties:  “So Completely has a whole year passed, with scarcely the fruites of a month. –O Sorrow and Shame . . . . I have done nothing!”  Although Coleridge was writing in his journal, he never again managed to write anything like his great narrative poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” which had been published six years earlier (1).

The second writer was the American Henry David Thoreau. After graduating from college at Harvard in 1837, Thoreau returned to his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts.  There he met and was mentored by essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, who encouraged the fledgling writer to keep a journal in order to record his thoughts and to develop his craft.

On this date Henry opened his first journal and began writing. He started by recording the questions that Emerson had first asked him:

‘What are you doing now?’ he asked. ‘Do you keep a journal?’ So I make my first entry to-day.

Thoreau’s journals gave him a place to develop his ideas and to avoid writer’s block.  In the course of 24 years, he produced over two million words in 39 notebooks.  As explained by Odell Shepard, editor of Thoreau’s journals, writing this way helped Thoreau in a number of ways:

It sharpened his observation and deepened his thought.  By preserving the memory of his best hours — those that had “a certain individuality and separate existence, aye, personality” –it enabled him to survey long stretches of earlier experience and thus to estimate his development or decline. (2)

No doubt the journaling habit gave Thoreau the kind of confidence in his own ideas that lead to his two great works, the book Walden and the essay “Civil Disobedience” (See August 9: Walden Day and July 12: Thoreau Day).

One interesting note is that the social networking messaging service Twitter used Emerson’s question as its prompt when the online service began in 2006.  Each tweet composed was prompted by the question “What are you doing?” In 2009 Twitter changed its prompt to the more succinct “What’s happening?” (3).

Today’s Challenge:  Six-Sided Solution

What are at least six of your go-to writing ideas when combating writer’s block?  A great way to defeat writer’s block is to turn your negative thoughts into positive thoughts.  Your task, therefore, is to construct an actual Writer’s Block that, instead of causing writers to stumble, will inspire and motivate them to write.  First, brainstorm as many writing ideas as you can, anything that might spark ideas and inspire someone to write. Then, organize your ideas into six categories, one for each side of your physical Writer’s Block.  Finally, construct your block out of paper, wood, or some other material.  Write your categories and ideas on each side of your block, adding artwork, diagrams, graphics, pictures, etc. to make it visually appealing.  In constructing your own Writer’s Block you’ll be doing something that all great writers do, you’ll be transforming an abstract idea into a concrete one.  Use your Writer’s Block to spark ideas as you begin your daily journaling habit. (Common Core Writing 5 – Writing Process)

1-A Critic at Large. Blocked. The New Yorker 14 June 2004. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2004/06/14/blocked

2-The Heart of Thoreau’s Journals (Edited by Odell Shepard).  New York:  Dover Publications, Inc., 1961.

3-Dybwab, Barb. Twitter Drops “What Are You Doing?” Now Ask “What’s Happening?” Mashable.com 19 Nov. 2009. http://mashable.com/2009/11/19/twitter-whats-happening/

October 3:  Read an Essay Out Loud Day

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

On this day in 1890, Harvard Professor Barrett Wendell read an essay aloud to his class of 50 undergraduate English students.  The essay was written by one of the students in the class, a student who would go on to become one of the most important African-American intellectuals and leaders of his generation.  The essay’s author was W.E.B. Du Bois, who signed up for the class because he realized that without the ability to write well, his ideas would never be taken seriously.

Du Bois’ essay was the only one that Professor Wendell read aloud that day.

Formal photograph of W. E. B. Du Bois, with beard and mustache, around 50 years oldDu Bois went on the say many things well as an activist, a sociologist, and a historian.  In 1895, he became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. at Harvard, and in 1909 he co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).  He worked his entire life for the cause of civil rights, and he died on August 27, 1963 — one day before Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C. (1).

Today’s Challenge:  Extra-Sensory Reading

What is the value of reading out loud as a way of reading and of revising your writing?  Reading words aloud or hearing your words read aloud by someone else allows you to experience them in a different way than just seeing them.  Listening and speaking the words involve different senses than just reading with your eyes, allowing you to catch nuances or areas for revision that you might not catch otherwise.  Exchange some of your writing with a partner.  Read each other’s writing with your eyes first, highlighting the parts you particularly like. Then, take turns reading and listening to each other’s writing. (Common Core Writing 5 – Writing Process)

1-W.E.B. Du Bois (Bloom’s Modern Critical Views) Harold Bloom, editor. Chelsea House Publications, 2002.

April 2:  Writing Marathon Day

On this day in 1951, Jack Kerouac began a 21-day writing marathon, producing a 120-foot typewritten scroll that would become his best-known work, On The Road.  In a letter to his friend, Neal Cassady, Kerouac described the process and product:   “Went fast because the road is fast… wrote whole thing on strip of paper 120 foot long (tracing paper that belonged to Cannastra.)–just rolled it through typewriter and in fact no paragraphs… rolled it out on floor and it looks like a road.”  The scroll contained 125,000 words, which means that Kerouac averaged approximately 6,000 words per day. On The Road was officially published in 1957(1).  The original scroll was purchased for $2.43 million by Jim Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts, in 2002 (2).

OnTheRoad.jpgThe month of April also marks the anniversary of the first Olympic marathon, run in Athens, Greece on April 10, 1896. The origin of the word marathon comes from Greek legend. According to the story, a Greek foot-soldier Pheidippides was sent as a messenger from the battlefield of Marathon to Athens to announce the Greek victory over the Persian army. As he approached Athens, having run a distance of nearly 25 miles, Pheidippides collapsed and died. He did not die, however, without completing his mission; with his last gasp he uttered “niki,” the Greek word for victory.

Incidentally, the word niki is derived from the name of the Greek goddess of victory: Nike – a name that would later become the trademark of a running shoe manufacturer in Oregon.

Today’s Challenge:  26 Topics Abecedarian Marathon

What are some topics you might use in a writing marathon?  A marathon is 26 miles, so come up with at least one topic that starts with each of the 26 letters of the alphabet.  Write out your list of topics in preparation for your next writing marathon. (Common Core Writing 5 – Production and Distribution)

Quotation of the Day:  If you want to win something, run 100 meters. If you want to experience something, run a marathon.Emil Zatopek

1- https://vonquale.wordpress.com/2010/08/20/letter-jack-kerouac-to-neal-cassady/

2-http://chronicle.augusta.com/stories/2004/01/19/art_401525.shtml#.WSWbTvkrIdU

October 3:  Read an Essay Out Loud Day

On this date in 1890, Harvard Professor Barrett Wendell read an essay aloud to his class of 50 undergraduate English students.  The essay was written by one of the students in the class, a student who would go on to become one of the most important African-American intellectuals and leaders of his generation.  The essay’s author was W.E.B. Du Bois, who signed up for the class because he realized that without the ability to write well, his ideas would never be taken seriously.  He explains this in his autobiography:

I realized that while style is subordinate to content, and that no real literature can be composed simply of meticulous and fastidious phrases, nevertheless that solid content with literary style carries a message further than poor grammar and muddled syntax.

Formal photograph of an African-American man, with beard and mustache, around 50 years oldDu Bois’ essay was the only one that Professor Wendell read aloud that day, and it was the essay’s conclusion that he particularly liked:

Spurred by my circumstances, I have always been given to systematically planning my future, not indeed without many mistakes and frequent alterations, but always with what I now conceive to have been a strangely early and deep appreciation of the fact that to live is a serious thing . . . . I believe, foolishly perhaps, but sincerely, that I have something to say to the world, and I have taken English 12 in order to say it well.

Du Bois went on to say many things well as an activist, a sociologist, and a historian.  In 1895  he became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. at Harvard, and in 1909 he co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of  Colored People (NAACP).  He worked his entire life for the cause of civil rights, and he died on August 27, 1963 — one day before Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C.

Today’s Challenge:  Extra-Sensory Reading
What is the value of reading out loud as a way of reading and of revising your writing?  Reading words aloud or hearing your words read aloud by someone else allows you to experience them in a different way than just seeing them. Listening and speaking the words involve different senses than just reading with your eyes, allowing you to catch nuances or areas for revision that you might not catch otherwise.  Exchange some of your writing with a partner.  Read each others writing with your eyes first, highlighting the parts you particularly like. Then, take turns reading and listening to each other’s writing. (Common Core Writing 5 – Writing Process)

Quotation of the Day:  Reading aloud recaptures the physicality of words. To read with your lungs and diaphragm, with your tongue and lips, is very different than reading with your eyes alone. The language becomes a part of the body . . . . The words are not mere words. They are the breath and mind, perhaps even the soul, of the person who is reading. -Verlyn Klinkenborg

1- http://www.bolenderinitiatives.com/sociology/w-e-b-dubois-1868-1963/w-e-b-dubois-harvard-last-decades-19th-century