Friday, August 27, 2010

Make Writing a Habit: Memoirs

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.

Many years ago, I took part in an official State Writing Project much like the Bay Area Writing Project begun in 1974 at the University of California at Berkeley. These State projects were and are opportunities for teachers to learn more about the skill, art and craft of writing by writing and sharing.

My own Writing Project year was 1979, but the lessons learned during several weeks that summer transformed my teaching over the next 30 years. I grew as a writer and became more adept at teaching writing. I attribute much of that growth to a book by Ken Macrorie: Telling Writing, Revised 2nd edition (Hayden 1976).

In that text for college students and writers of all ages, Macrorie used the term “fabulous reality” to describe what we can uncover and discover by expecting the unexpected. As Macrorie put it: “Most of us go through each day looking for what we saw yesterday and we find it, to our half-realized disappointment. But the man who daily expects to encounter fabulous realities runs smack into them again and again. He keeps his mind open for his eyes.”

What Macrorie has in mind, I think, are incongruities, the clamor and dissonant clash of two things side by side. For example, once upon a time “jumbo shrimp” caught the attention of one who kept his mind open for his eyes to see fresh what the rest of us accepted as advertising for oversized shrimp. That oxymoron and others like it inspired witty observers like Lenny Bruce and George Carlin to laugh at our language, especially those seven dirty words. Carlin also noted a few oddities about language, reporting that he prefers to be “in” a plane rather than “on” it.

Macrorie invites writers to record fabulous realities—as you have no doubt done while creating a journal of gratitude, journeys, parenting, or memories. Then Macrorie directs writers to transform those fabulous realities into “case histories” (his word for a memoir or biographical sketch) with the characteristics listed below.

1. a particular setting
2. details
3. action (and events follow logically from one to another)
4. word economy (the result of ruthless editing)
5. an implied truth (avoid announcing what the point is; let readers infer), held until the end

The poetry of William Wordsworth overflows with fabulous realities. “The Solitary Reaper” is a case history created when Wordsworth opened his mind to see a Scottish lass harvesting grain while singing a beautiful song. The setting (1) is, of course, a field of grain in a valley. The details (2) include the fact that the reaper is a “solitary Highland Lass” who sings a “melancholy” tune as she works, its melody resonating in the passerby because it touches upon “Some natural sorrow, loss, or pain, / That has been, and may be again.” The listener pauses, ponders, and passes on up the hillside (3), observing that the music touches his heart long after he can no longer hear it (5). With that observation, Wordsworth suggests that music and Nature collaborate to speak a universal language that transforms those of us who open ourselves to hear and see. In a mere 32 lines—182 words—Wordsworth tells a beautiful story that unfolds to reveal a complex truth (4).

Grammar, Usage, and Mechanics (GUM):

When quoting from Wordsworth’s poem, lines 23 and 24, I inserted a forward slash between line 23 and 24. This is required to show the reader when the poetic line “breaks” or ends. From the example above, you will observe that the last word of line 23 is “pain,” and the first word of line 24 is “That.” You will also note that punctuation and capitalization are exactly as they appear in the original—a comma at the end of line 23 and a capital “T” for the word “that.” So when quoting three or two lines of poetry, be sure to use the forward slash and transfer punctuation, spelling, word order, and capitalization into your copy.

If, on the other hand, you must use more than three lines, you should indent the lines of poetry two tabs from the left margin and copy the poem into your essay exactly as it appears in the original. For example:

BEHOLD her, single in the field,
Yon solitary Highland Lass!
Reaping and singing by herself;
Stop here, or gently pass! (1-4)

Note that quotation marks do not wrap around the four lines from Wordsworth’s poem. Indenting a quotation replaces the need for quotation marks.

Reading Challenge:

Some delightful reflective personal narratives that you will enjoy are:

1. Anthony Bourdain’s Blog, Notes from the Road, “Laos: Mount Phupadeng, Near the Plain of Jars” (or other places visited by Anthony Bourdain)
2. David Sedaris’ Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, a collection of funny and poignant essays
3. Calvin Trillin’s About Alice, a tribute to his wife, five years after her death
4. Sarah Vowell’s Take the Cannoli: Stories from the New World, a series of funny observations about growing up, being in the band, Frank Sinatra, and more

Writing Challenge:

Transform one of your own “fabulous realities” into a “case history.” You are not required to be poetic as you do.

Begin with “once,” as in “once upon a time” and persevere until you have drawn a truth from the moment. Your truth may not be that “good guys finish first to live happily ever after,” but the truth is essential. It is the point of the tale, the insight gleaned from the human experience. Be sure to evaluate your case history for the five characteristics Macrorie recommends.

Amazon links include Trillin, Vowell, Wordsworth, and Macrorie, Sedaris

Telling Writing, Revised Second Edition

Friday, August 20, 2010

Diaries: A Treasure Trove of Writing Ideas

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach

A diary is personal, of course. Most writers do not begin a diary with the intention of making it public. A diary is a place where we go to talk to ourselves, but just because our audience may not judge us, we are not at liberty to be dull and monotonous.

Consider the following sample from a dull and fictional diarist:

7 a.m. Woke up late. Forgot to set alarm.
8 a.m. Made it to work on time. No sweat.
9:45 a.m. Stopped checking e-mail to call vet. Dog okay.
Noon Chowed down on vending machine sandwich. Gack!
3 p.m. Starving. Ran out for sidewalk hot dog.
5 p.m. Out the door.
5:15 p.m. Ordered beer #2.
8 p.m. Realized I forgot about dog. Gotta eat from the machine to make up
for the extra night boarding dog. Poor me.
11 p.m. Headed home. Headache tomorrow.

7:30 a.m. Woke up late. No alarm. Gotta do something about that.
8:15 a.m. Boss did not miss me. Maybe I’ll go for 8:30 tomorrow.
10 a.m. No one in break room. Found a frost-covered frozen lasagna. Lunch!
Noon. Picked up dog. Dropped it at home.
1:15 p.m. On the job again—late again. Gotta watch that.
3:15 p.m. Seriously in need of electrolytes. Tanked up at the water cooler. No
coin for the machine.
5:30 p.m. Customer with serious bug up his—well, you know, would not shut up.
Had to go into OT. They owe me.
6 p.m. Home with the TV. Gotta save for Friday night—and the dog.

Who would read this diarist much longer? He offers little insight into his culture or himself. In a decade, if he were to re-read his diary, I believe he would bore himself, and if a future anthropologist found his diary, the anthropologist would conclude that people from this diarist’s era were primarily concerned with not working OT or pets and with taking advantage of cheap lunches.

Let diaries be a place where you reveal yourself and your growth. Say something. Avoid lists.

Blog readers, don’t you want to know why the dog was at the vet? Don’t you want to know what this guy does for a living? How long he’s been employed? Whether this is his first job? How old he is? Answers to all those questions could alter our opinion—perhaps.

Samuel Pepys, an English nobleman, wrote a diary in code, but upon his death, he left information so that his son-in-law could decode the diary. Thanks to Pepys’ good sense that what he had witnessed and experienced might make good reading, we know about one man’s reaction to the Great Fire of London in 1666. We know what Pepys smelled and thought upon being given an audience to report to the King. We know that Pepys’ young wife was jealous and one night, stalked her man with a red hot poker. We also know that Pepys was less than patient with her on more than one occasion, but he found her clever so he taught her some basic math and more. Indeed, we know a great deal about the Restoration, the momentous events of the era and the trivia that make up a life.

Pepys himself must have recognized the value of his documentation; otherwise he would not have passed along his diaries and the code to anyone. Pepys, like many of his age, believed he was alive during a time of change and that the changes were important. He recorded his own perceptions during that time.

Who cannot say that we live in a time of change—a time when our decisions and revisions will not shape the future? No one. So when you write a personal, private diary, imagine that someone, years hence, may read it. Imagine your own children reading it, then write for them. If you do, your diary will become more interesting and your insights extensive.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM): Reviewing punctuation for complex sentences.

Because I failed to set an alarm, I missed my bus.

I missed my bus because I failed to set an alarm.

The two sentences above are complex sentences consisting of a dependent clause (because I failed to set an alarm) and an independent clause (I missed the bus). The two sentences show you what the punctuation rule is: if the dependent clause precedes the independent clause, use a comma at the end of the dependent clause. On the other hand, if the dependent clause follows the independent one, use no comma to separate the clauses.

Reading Challenge:

To read three classic diaries, two nonfiction and the other fiction, try:

1. The Diary of Samuel Pepys, a Restoration official who witnessed the restoration of King Charles and the Great Fire of London, 1666
2. Eaters of the Dead by Michal Crichton, a novel created from Ibn Fadlan’s diary about his time among the Vikings
3. Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe, a researched, but fictionalized account of the Plague’s effects upon a city and people

Writing Challenge

Begin a diary with an audience in mind. Write so that some future anthropologist will understand your reactions to your time and your contributions to the future.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Writing Challenges: Writing requires practice!

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach

Writing well requires practice. I have offered many weeks of “Writing Challenges” to provide you with practice. Below is a list of those “Writing Challenges.”

February 21, 2010. Practice beginning. Search for a prompt by reading college and scholarship applications, or use a prompt that you have been given by a teacher. Make a list, write freely, develop an outline, or write, using all three pre-writing methods, in sequence. Just make a start.

February 28, 2010. Practice beginning sentences and phrases with anaphora. Return to your free writing from the previous week or the work you did with the word, serendipity. Pluck out significant sentences and passages from your writing. Play with them by adding and deleting words; alter word choices and sentence patterns to add the emphasis and power of anaphora.

March 7, 2010. Practice collecting words. Make lists of words and word combinations that delight, words that are fresh, telling and learned without being pompous or off-putting. Circle or highlight them in your own writing; copy them into a journal when you find them in others’ works. Finally, be ruthless as you examine your own work. Stamp out all forms of get and illogical or unnecessary uses of you. Play with other, more exact phrasing to replace such tired, overused words.

March 14, 2010
. Write about your sense of purpose to a) enter college, b) compete for scholarship money, and/or c) land the job. Prove that you can go the distance, that you can and have persevered. Prepare answers to the many questions from the last paragraph [of the post for March 14], and if you cannot answer that you auditioned, performed, and gave, explain why you will now. Perhaps you had no choice but to work part-time and consequently, your grades are average, your extracurricular activities non-existent. Explain convincingly what your choices and work ethic prove about you. If you reflect upon them and write genuinely, you and your audience will see that you have purpose and the ability to overcome.

March 21, 2010. When you find a published passage that seems particularly effective and powerful, mark it or copy it into a journal. Later, imitate it with your own messages. Experience the many ways to say the same thing. Liberate your messages by learning to play with word choices and word order.

March 28, 2010. Choose classified ads. Copy several of the best into your journal. Pluck words from the ads, arranging them in patterns to tell short, short stories.

April 4, 2010. Use your own writing or that of another writer to create haiku that brings alive for the reader a moment, emotion, or idea.

April 11, 2010. Write an “I remember” story every day for the next week. Don’t worry about contractions or pronouns or active voice verbs. Do try to weave in as many of the five senses as you can. Above all, just enjoy telling your story.

April 18, 2010. Practice making concrete words specific. Write at least 3 specific and concrete sentences every day.

April 25, 2010
. Make abstractions concrete by showing them with actions or inventing images for them.

May 2, 2010. Use a template or create your own to prepare at least two different résumés for your own educational and/or work history. Return to these documents in order to update them as you add honors, activities, and experience.

May 9, 2010. Select at least two items from your sample résumés [written for the May 2nd writing challenge]. Write body paragraphs that spin those items into recognizable assets. Provide details that are specific and concrete so that any reader will appreciate you and what you offer.

May 16, 2010
. Take effective notes as you complete research. Make sure you know where the information came from by author, the title of the film or article, the publication date, and page number (if applicable). Be sure to use quotation marks around words, phrases, sentences, and whole passages that you copy exactly from the original.

Be thorough and persevere through your frustration. If you know little about the subject, you will not know what is important enough to write down. You will feel as if you need everything. That impulse is normal.

As you become more and more knowledgeable, you will become more discerning. You will be able to separate what is important from what is unimportant so push on, write everything, and grow in your knowledge.

May 23, 2010. Read a magazine, skipping all the articles and studying the advertising instead. Watch several hours of television, but only the Public Service announcements and ads. Make notes about the use of color, line, and language. Consider also how music persuades. Become an aware “reader” of print and non-print media as you do.

May 30, 2010. After reading several resources, write your own “editorial” on the topic, avoiding logical fallacies and integrating at least two points of view.

June 6, 2010. Read numerous sources over a topic that interests you and take notes. Be sure to use the online citation resources such as to create an accurate and complete citation for each resource from which you take notes.

June 13, 2010. Return to the editorial that you wrote after reading the blog entry for May 30, 2010. Integrate facts and quotations effectively.

June 20, 2010. Use the formulaic patterns for essay thesis statements to plan your own essay, then write an abstract or précis, relying upon your plan.

June 27, 2010
. Listen to yourself, and rewrite when you tell yourself that a passage lacks sufficient evidence or explanation. Pay attention to matters of style and write so that you are proud of every word.

July 2, 2010. Write something fun, something just for you or reflect upon the entire research paper process, using any level of language that comes to mind. This is your opportunity to vent.

July 9, 2010. If you have done what you should do as a student, you will have an extensive set of notes for the homework you have read and the lectures or discussions you have heard. Go through the notes, highlighting major themes, motifs, patterns, and concepts for the subject. Then, write your own essay exam prompts. By doing so, you are not only reviewing the course material, you are preparing for the next essay exam. Reward yourself with your favorite treat every time you anticipated the teacher or professor’s exam items correctly.

July 16, 2010. Write about the people, ideas, incidents, and creatures in nature for which you are grateful. Be specific and concrete, but write with abandon—the only audience being you—at least for now.

July 23, 2010. Write a travelogue. If your big summer trip is behind you or your budget restricts you to a staycation, then capture the short, local day trips that you and your family enjoy: a weekend at the lake, a bike ride through the river park, a day among the crowds at the local amusement park. Remember to include the five senses.

July 30, 2010
. Reflect upon a day in the life of parenting. Capture one of the joys or frustrations, using dialogue.

August 6, 2010. Respond to one more quotation from Tom Stoppard:

“The truth is always a compound of two half- truths, and you never reach it, because there is always something more to say.”

What do Stoppard's words suggest to you? What do they have to do with the subject of this post: reflective journals.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM)

Language is dynamic. It changes as people develop a need for words and as language users refuse to follow the rules.

In 1998, the Oxford English Dictionary ratified one such change, finally permitting the split infinitive. Before then, Captain Kirk should not have said to boldly go; he should have said to go boldly, but Captain Kirk was not an anomaly. Countless speakers and writers, including this one, split infinitives so the rule had to yield to usage.

Similarly, little support remains for the distinctions between which, that, who and whom. Once, who and whom were the go-to words when referring to humans or characters in literature. Which and that were reference words for all things non-human.

Who and whom, it seems, are too tricky for most language users so they stepped around the rule and selected which and that for all purposes. One day, the Oxford Dictionary corporation will officially rule with which and that taking the lead. Until that day, high school students must not avoid who and whom because the ACT college entrance exam still uses the correct usage for who and whom as a test item.

So how can high school students learn to use who and whom correctly? They can use the he and him switch to test the sentence. Simply exchange who for he or him. If he seems right, then who is the correct choice. If him is better, then whom is the correct choice.

Another usage error that will not be an error one day is the plural possessive pronoun their. Language users no longer honor the use of his when the referent requires a singular pronoun. For example: Everybody has his book is correct; everybody has their book is more common. High school students must still know the old rule—at least until the ACT no longer tests for the usage error and the students’ abilities to correct for it.

Reading Challenge:

Read this blog from the first post in February through today’s.

Writing Challenge:

Using the list of the writing challenges posted since February, rank them in the order in which you wish to complete them. Begin writing, checking off each challenge as you finish it to the best of your ability.

Alternately or additionally, accept the writing challenges posted on Twitter. Go to and select Twitter, or go to and select CoachConnye.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Writing is Knowing: Reflective Journals

Reflections. If I stand before a mirror or catch a glimpse of myself in a pool of water, I see me as others do. Often, a tuft of hair, standing straight up as if at attention, a cowlick that can never be forced into alignment with all the other locks, surprises me. When I look at my reflection through writing, I must admit that my character resembles that tuft of hair. I bristle when expected to fall in line, and I cannot comprehend why things must be done the way they have always been done.

Such insight has, however, taken a lifetime to acquire. I did not glance into a mirror and see the truth; I did not awaken one day with an epiphany. The truth peeked around corners, only to disappear again. It burrowed into anxious nights when sleep was little more than a rough-cut documentary of my day, but Truth grew more daring and more defined as the decades drifted along and I wrote about all sorts of people, places, things, and notions.

Indeed, the truth unfolded as I reflected, and that, blog friends, is the magic of journalling: writing is discovery and knowing. (Yes, I have said this before in many places since this blog began. As Tom Stoppard has written: If an idea’s worth having once, it’s worth having twice.)

So let your experience fold back upon itself. Consider the things for which you are grateful. Describe the places you go. Make the people in your life rounded and alive through words. Evaluate your actions as a parent, a worker, a citizen, and a human being. Then, when all else fails, accept the moment as inspiration enough, and write what you hear, see, smell, feel, and/or taste.

You should never lack for subject matter. The muse is everywhere although, I admit, sometimes writers long to publish the next great American novel and must settle for a memory from childhood. Persevere. Write about your past anyway. From it, you may draw insights that lead directly to that great American novel.

Obsevations. In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, a very funny and thoughtful play, Tom Stoppard commented upon the fleeting nature of human experience through Guildenstern who says: “We cross our bridges when we come to them and burn them behind us, with nothing to show for our progress except a memory of the smell of smoke, and a presumption that once our eyes watered.” What an amazing bridge we could build for the next generations if we recorded our human experience for them; we could give them the gift of continuity.

Ask yourself if you know your parents as human beings, separate from the person you recognize as Mother or Dad. Can you imagine them as children? Teens? Young adults? Do you know if they made their dreams come true? Do you know what they think about December 7, 1941; November 22, 1963; April 4, 1968; or September 11, 2001? Does it matter to you?

You could ask all these questions and more. You can also create a record for your children. Through journals and scrapbooks, they will read about the people who shaped you and the events that shaped them.

Do this for your children. Write to bring the truth into the light.

Grammar, Usage, Mechanics (GUM):

As I began the section above, labeled “Observations,” I used a quotation, but I also commented upon it; i. e., I interpreted it and allowed the reader to see my interpretation. Doing so is essential.

Avoid dropping in a quotation and assuming that your reader will recognize what it means in context. You must put your reasoning on display. You must suggest how the quotation relates or links to the discussion on the page.

Also, remember that quotations must meet all rules of standard English usage (GUM). Quotations must be complete sentences or linked logically to independent clauses. They must flow logically from the sentences before and after. Writers should not “drop in” a quotation like sprinkles on cupcakes. Quotations should be part of the batter, icing, or both—part of the entire creation.

Reading Challenge:

If you have not already read the following titles, listed for previous posts about journals, consider reading them now.

1. To Our Children’s Children: Preserving Family Histories for Generations to Come by Bob Greene and D. G. Fulford
2. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard, a nonfiction account of Dillard’s life in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.

Consider also:

1. Walden by Henry David Thoreau
2. Animal, Vegetable, Mineral by Barbara Kingsolver
3. Marley and Me by John Grogan
4. Dewey: The Snall-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World by Vicki Myron and Bret Witter
5. A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, 1st ed. by Ishmael Beah

Writing Challenge:

Respond to one more quotation from Tom Stoppard:

“The truth is always a compound of two half- truths, and you never reach it, because there is always something more to say.”

What do his words suggest to you? What do they have to do with the subject of this post: reflective journals.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.