Thursday, June 26, 2014

Packing Your Literary Suitcase

When I enjoyed all the chores, joys, and life within the walls of my own classroom, I coached students to read with understanding, and that required a carefully packed literary suitcase. The first items, resting across the base, were archetypes—the heroes and foils, ingénues and vixens, rebels and lambs struggling against their own doubts or a parent or a whole town, God himself, and mighty storms at sea. These provide student-readers with context, a place to begin when evaluating a work.


Once upon a time, I had 21 shelves of the same size. Painful though it was,
I culled and gleaned from them several times, donating all to a local
library. I was gratified to learn that a new teacher had plucked three paper
grocery bags full at the book sale, an annual fund raiser for the library.
These are but a few books dear to my heart--just six shelves now--well,
six in one room. In other rooms are a few more favorites.
Photo by Al Griffin
Resting below the suitcase lid, like delicate pieces of tissue, were key rhetorical elements, including diction, detail, figurative language, and syntax. These were lessons delayed until students had mastered story and theme, but they were essential lessons for rhetoric shapes tone, and tone tempers meaning.

In between archetype and rhetoric rested the titles, characters, and authors: To Kill a Mockingbird, Beowulf and Buliwyf, Khaled Hosseini, Elizabeth Bishop, Adrienne Rich, W. H. Auden, Kevin Powers, Tim O'Brien, Annie Dillard, and Joan Didion. These allowed students to refine their tastes, to experience and practice, to grow in understanding. That was my work, my devotion, my avocation and passion.

Reading Challenge:

Read this short video from TEDEd, a resource you should know. Pack it near the bottom of your own literary suitcase.

Writing Challenge:

What and who are the essentials in your own literary suitcase?

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Write the Truth So Others May Know It

Reading delights, in part because the words are like exquisitely crafted music. They hum, harmonize, and hold our hearts. We gasp and pause, amazed by mere words so felicitously ordered.

More important, however, is the other delight derived from reading. Serendipitous discoveries. Epiphanies. Lightning strikes filling our minds with light as we recognize old truths little understood until the poet and author reveal them for us. Then our understanding explodes like new stars born from the debris of confusion. And we glimpse new truths. They unfold before our eyes as we gather insights about places and people and times.

“The role of a writer is not to say what we all can say, but what we are unable to say,” said Anaïs Nin. What will you write? How will you speak for us? And what shall we learn from you?

Mexico, Photo by Al Griffin
Reading Challenge:

Read a book, story or poem that lies outside your preferences. If you adore mystery, read nonfiction. If nonfiction is your first choice, choose fiction. If prose pleases and poetry baffles, try poetry.

Writing Challenge:


Explain the truth that you were unable to say until a writer revealed it to you.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Fairy Tales as Teaching Tools

Many classroom teachers use classic and modern fairy tales to teach the elements of plot in fiction. Perhaps you’ve seen a shape resembling a bell-curve with short intersecting lines for words including antecedent action, inciting incident, conflict, plot complications, climax, and denouement. Because readers are familiar with the story line for fairy tales, the mechanics of fiction are easy to see. Consider Grimm’s fairy tale, Hansel and Gretel.

Antecedent Action: Poor Hansel and little Gretel are the children of a woodcutter, a widower remarried to a heartless woman. She recommends leading the children into the dark woods and leaving them there because the family’s resources are too thin to nourish four.

Photo by Al Griffin
Inciting Incident: Hansel and Gretel’s weak-willed father relents and agrees to the wicked stepmother’s plan.

Conflict: The children overhear the plot and are thus forewarned. They crumble the bread given to them, unaware that birds will eat the crumbs and erase the children’s trail leading them home. Without a trail, the children are lost and alone, no longer pitted against the stepmother, but against all of Nature’s deep, dark woods and their own guileless natures. The children simply don’t know how to survive on their own.

Complications Intensify the Conflicts: A house made of sweet treats guaranteed to entice children hither appears; it is the work of an evil witch who plans to feast upon the children. She’s larger and filled with guile, but unlike the stepmother, she has more than her wits to use against the children. She has power to create an illusion that fair is foul and foul fair (Macbeth); this empowers her to dupe and imprison the babes after which she heats an oven, planning to force Gretel to shove her own brother inside. Little Gretel thinks on her feet and pretends to be unable to push Hansel. The witch rushes in, putting herself in jeopardy; Gretel pushes the witch off her feet and inside the oven, then slams the door. Freed from certain death, the children steal the witch’s riches in order to save their father from penury and starvation. 

Complications Continue: The children still don’t know how to get home, but they set off in the general direction of home, arriving at the edge of a large body of water. They can’t swim. This time, however, Nature befriends the children. A duck appears to carry them on its back. On the other side, the children recognize the terrain and find their way home.

Climax: Hansel and Gretel’s little hearts have forgiven their father’s shrunken one. Better still, he’s realized his complicity in his children’s suffering and is grateful for a second chance. He embraces his children and tells them the stepmother is no more.

Denouement: All live happily ever after, father caring for his children well because his children cared for him, delivering wealth untold, enough for a lifetime.

Reading Challenge: Apply the terms reviewed above to any other fairy tale as you read it.

Writing Challenge: Map, as I did for Hansel and Gretel, the plot of the fairy tale you chose to read. Briefly explain each element.



Thursday, June 5, 2014

In the Shadow of Vultures: Literary Symbols Revisited

While reading another book by Kate Atkinson, my upper body in the shade of the deck’s roof, my shins toasting in the sun’s radiant heat, the shadow of a large bird drifted along my legs. I lifted my eyes in time to see him, a Turkey Vulture with red beak naturally camouflaged to mask the bloody work he’s made to do all his days. Another soon floated by, deck-high, as if to take a closer look at what might lie inside the screens.

In truth, that bird has little interest in me unless maggots become my intimate companions. I know this, and perhaps that is why my thoughts caught the currents of sadness in an otherwise perfect breeze, gentle and kind, barely strong enough to stir my hair, a lover brushing against my exposed skin before wafting away.

Last Light. Photo by Al Griffin

It’s the damn bird. Through no fault of its own, a vulture connotes deeds dark, stenches foul, and mortality glossed. It’s the vulture’s lot in life to leave us musing about the great hereafter, about a past we cannot recover moment by moment, in specific detail. We are left to color inside the lines of what we remember from so long ago. And now, because of that dreadful bird, my crayons are gray, steel, and black, colors we associate with unknowns, impenetrable spaces, unfathomable sorrows.

A memory rises, and I try to follow it until I remember that we are the architects of our memories and our happiness. I think it wise to move into full sun. Barn swallows, song birds, and gulls now corral my thoughts.

That buzzard dwells in detritus, performing janitorial duties for us all, but eagles soar above the trees on the hills beyond and song birds sing me to joy. The sun is warm; the breezes kiss. I have today, and that is enough.

Reading Challenge:

Read about the ways writers color in the outlines of experience, shaping tone with references to birds, rain, clouds, colors, and light.

Writing Challenge:

Color in your own outline.