Posted in Reading, Teaching, Writing

ENG 111: Maus under the Microscope

Spiegelman, Art. Maus I. Pantheon, 1986. p. 66.

In the first weeks of the course, we studied Maus as a model for your literacy narratives. Now, as we turn to more formal academic writing, we will examine Art Spiegelman’s memoir as the subject for your second essay assignment, the textual analysis.

Analysis

Unlike a narrative, an analysis has an explicit thesis, which often—but not always—appears at the end of the first paragraph. A thesis is not a statement of fact; instead, it’s an interpretation or judgment* based on a close examination of the subject—in our case, Maus.

*Making a judgment is not the same as being judgmental. When you make a judgment in academic writing, you present an informed opinion based on evidence. When people say, “I’m not judging,” they are making the claim that they are not judgmental or intensely critical of others.

Statement of fact: The epigraph for Maus shows the young Art Spiegelman and his father talking but not truly communicating with each other.

Spiegelman, Art. Maus I. Pantheon. p. 6.

Thesis (which presents an interpretation or judgment): The cutting remark that Spiegelman’s father makes as he saws wood illustrates the communication breakdown between him and Artie; Spiegelman’s deft depiction of that gulf foreshadows the trials he will encounter: struggling to understand his father and himself as he aims to make meaning of their lives through his comics.

Notice how the thesis above addresses what Vladek Spiegelman says and also lets the reader see him sawing wood. Keep in mind that Maus is a graphic memoir. In your analysis, you will address both the pictures and the words on the page.

Where to Begin

Look back through the pages of your journal and note what aspect of Spiegelman’s memoir interests you most? Here are a few that might serve as your focus:

  • Vladek and Art Spiegelman’s father-son relationship
  • Maus as a dual memoir
  • Maus as a meta-memoir
  • The Nazi persecution of the Jews (leading up to the Holocaust, depicted in Maus II)
  • Anja Spiegelman’s depression
  • Anja’s diary

My journal for English 111 is a dual-entry notebook. I draw a line down the middle of each page to separate my summaries of the chapters (on the right) from my questions and comments (on the left). For more on keeping a double-entry notebook, see A Writer’s Reference, page 59.

Turn back to the pages of Maus devoted to the parts of the story that interest you most. Ask yourself how Spiegelman makes meaning with both his images and his words. Your answer to a how question about those words and pictures could serve as your thesis.

Questions to Ask of the Words

  • Are the words in the panel dialogue, narration, or both? (Dialogue is presented in speech balloons; narration or summary is presented in rectangles.)
  • If the panel includes dialogue, what does the exchange between the characters reveal about their relationship? Do the words of the second speaker propel the narrative forward or disrupt it?
  • Are any words enlarged or in boldface for emphasis?

Questions to Ask of the Pictures–the Panels, Tiers, and Pages

  • Is the image in the panel a close-up or a long shot?
  • Are the panels and the tiers on the page roughly the same size? If not, why might Spiegelman have chosen one in particular to dominate the page?
  • Are any of the panels borderless?
  • Do any of the panels break the frame and spill into the gutter (the white space between the frames)?
  • Are any of the panels oblique or slanted?
  • How do these visual effects contribute to your perception of the story? For example: What mood or atmosphere does Spiegelman create through his combination of black and white, lines, and silhouettes? How does the size of a panel or a series of panels convey the passage of time?

Look back at the panels from Maus at the top of this post. There Art Spiegelman presents the scene of Vladek’s surprise return to his family after he sneaks across the border from the Protectorate to the Reich. A narrow vertical panel shows him in his uniform holding aloft his son, Richieu, who responds to his father’s embrace with screams. Beside the vertical panel, two horizontal ones–close-ups of father and son–depict Vladek questioning his son and toddler’s tearful response. Richieu explains that it was the metal buttons on his father’s uniform that made him cry. In Richieu’s words, “Daddy–they’re cold!” (66).

Note how with minor changes, the preceding paragraph could serve as an opening-paragraph summary that leads to a thesis. Here’s a slightly altered version of the summary, followed by a claim, or thesis, about the panels.

In Chapter 3 of Maus, Art Spiegelman presents the scene of Vladek’s surprise return to his family after he sneaks across the border from the Protectorate to the Reich. A narrow vertical panel shows him in his uniform holding aloft his son, Richieu, who responds to his father’s embrace with screams. Beside the vertical panel, two horizontal ones–close-ups of father and son–depict Vladek questioning his son and the toddler’s tearful reply. Richieu explains that it was the metal buttons on his father’s uniform that made him cry. In Richieu’s words, “Daddy–they’re cold!” (66). That brief exchange between father and son exemplifies Spiegelman’s masterful rendering of the pain that underlies the moments of happiness in the narrative.

Although Richieu has no knowledge of the horrors of war that his father has endured, the uniform that symbolizes the war is a literal source of pain for the child when its cold metal buttons press against his body.

The passage above–the introductory summary, the thesis, and the topic sentence for the second paragraph–constitutes 155 words, which could be the first 155 words of a textual analysis of Maus. The analysis could be developed into one of five-hundred words or more by addressing these points:

  • The juxtaposition of happiness and sorrow in the words and images in the panels.
  • The specific horrors of war that Vladek’s uniform represents. 
  • Richieu’s screams as foreshadowing.

For more on writing analytical essays, see A Writer’s Reference, 69-78.

Posted in Reading, Teaching, Writing

ENG 111: Revising (or Reenvisioning) Your Literacy Narrative


The processes of revising and editing aren’t the same. As the authors of A Writer’s Reference note, when you revise “you focus on clarity and effectiveness; when you edit, you check for correctness” (29).

On Wednesday, I will ask you to check for correctness. Today, I am asking you to focus on the big picture. With that in mind, consider the differences between the side-by-side paragraphs below. On the left is the first paragraph of a rough draft of a literacy narrative written in 2015 by then-college student Michelle Nguyen. The paragraph on the right is her revision.

My family used to live in the heart of Hanoi, Vietnam. The neighborhood was small but swamped with crime. Drug addicts scoured the alleys and stole the most mundane things–old clothes, worns slippers, even license plates of motorbikes. Like anyone else in Vietnam in the ’90s, we struggled with poverty. There was no entertainment device in our house aside from an 11″ black-and-white television. Even then, electricity went off for hours on a weekly basis. (25)

I grew up in the heart of Hanoi–Nhà Dàu–a small but busy neighborhood swamped with crime. Houses, wedged in among cafés and other local businesses (see fig. 1), measured uniformly about 200 square feet, and the walls were so thin that we could hear every heated debate and impassioned disagreement. Drug addicts scoured the vicinity and stole the most mundane things–old clothes, worn slippers, even license plates of motorbikes. It was a neighborhood where dogs howled and kids ran amok and where the earth was always moist and marked with stains. It was the 1990s Vietnam in miniature, with all the turmoil and growing pains of a newly reborn nation. (32)

Revising (or Reenvisioning) by Adding and Deleting Details

In her revision, Nguyen paints a clearer picture of her neighborhood with these added details:

  • Nhà Dàu, the name of her neighborhood in Hanoi
  • the size of the houses, cafés, and other businesses
  • the thinness of the walls
  • the sounds of arguments
  • the howls of dogs
  • the sight of running children
  • the moisture of the ground
  • The image of her neighborhood as a microcosm of her country–a “Vietnam in miniature, with all the turmoil and growing pains of a newly reborn nation” (32).

Nguyen also deletes a couple of details:

  • the 11-inch black-and-white TV
  • the weekly power outages 

Although the TV and the power outages provide specifics about her childhood home, Nguyen realized through the process of revision that they were details she didn’t need to include.

As you work on your revision, turn to pages 25-26 and 32-33 of A Writer’s Reference. There you will find the complete rough draft and revision of Nguyen’s literacy narrative. As you revise the body paragraphs of your own narrative, examine the differences between the body paragraphs of Nguyen’s draft and those of her revision. Later, as you revise the ending of your essay, consider the changes in Nguyen’s conclusion.

Revising (or Reenvisioning) by Reorganizing

  • If you drafted your narrative chronologically, try starting in the middle or working in reverse.
  • If your draft begins in the middle or the end, try reordering it chronologically.

And for More Ideas and Inspiration . . .

Browse the New York Times feature “The 50 Best Memoirs of the Past 50 Years.” The description of each memoir in the list includes a short quotation, a sentence or two, from the book. Browse the list, and if you read a line that you find evocative, write it down in your journal. Here’s one that I recorded in my journal:

He [J.M. Coetzee] feels like a crab pulled out of its shell, pink and wounded and obscene” (qtd. Szalai).

Writing of himself in third person, Coetzee vividly depicts the vulnerability that many of us feel when we put ourselves on the page for others to see.

Writing Help

If you would like for someone to review your literacy narrative before you submit it, look to the Center for Academic Engagement, which offers a variety of options:

Works Cited

Hacker, Diana, and Nancy Sommers. “How to Write a Literacy Narrative.” A Writer’s Reference. GTCC Custom 9th ed., Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2018. pp. 34-35.

Nguyen, Michelle. “A Place to Begin.” A Writer’s Reference by Diana Hacker and Nancy Sommers. GTCC Custom 9th ed., Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2018. pp. 32-33.

—. Rough Draft with Peer Comments. A Writer’s Reference by Diana Hacker and Nancy Sommers. GTCC Custom 9th ed., Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2018. pp. 25-26.

Szalai, Jennifer. 17: Boyhood by J.M. Coetzee. “The 50 Best Memoirs of the Past 50 Years.” The New York Times, 26 June 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/06/26/books/best-memoirs.html.


You’ve Got to . . .

For the fourth installment in our You’ve-Got-To series, I offer an assignment that focuses on the television sitcom Community. As you read it, ask yourself how the writer might revise the paragraphs by adding and subtracting details. 

You’ve Got to Watch Community

Community is a TV show on Netflix with 110 episodes around 30 minutes each. The show starts off about Jeff Winger, a former lawyer who faked getting a bachelor’s degree. In order to become a practicing lawyer again he enrolls at Greendale community college to earn his degree. The show follows Jeff as he makes a study group with a bunch of random people in his spanish class. He ends up not liking anyone in his study group and constantly talks about how he can’t wait to get out of Greendale. As time goes on he continues to meet with his study group and he actually starts to like them and the school. 

I first started watching community at the beginning of quarantine because my sister showed it to me. I really enjoyed the show and I liked it so much that I finished it in 2 weeks. The show was super funny and it was pretty cool watching Jeff go from hating the school to loving it. You also get to watch the study group grow closer together and become a family.  Community has a little something for everyone and you should definitely watch it.

YGT Notes: “You’ve Got to Watch Community”

  • In the first paragraph, the writer includes the number of episodes and their run time. Although those are concrete details, they are specifics that the writer doesn’t need to include in the summary. 
  • While Community does stream on Netflix, it is not a Netflix original series (such as Stranger Things). Details that the writer might add to the first paragraph include these: Community originally aired on NBC (2009-14) and streamed for a sixth season on Yahoo.
  • After the writer names the central character, Jeff Winger, for the first time, he should follow the character’s name with the actor’s name in parentheses. That’s the stylistic convention for identifying actors when you’re writing about TV/streaming series and films. 
  • The writer notes that Jeff doesn’t like his classmates initially. Adding some of his personality traits, naming some of his classmates (followed by the actors’ names), and including some of the classmates’ character traits would give readers a clearer picture of Jeff’s circle of friends.  
  • The second paragraph offers a more effective place to present the number of episodes in the series. When the writer notes that he watched the entire series in a couple of weeks, he could include the detail that he watched all 110 episodes to emphasize Community’s binge-worthiness. 
  • Since the writer is a community college student, he might add to the second paragraph his observations about the similarities and/or the differences between the experiences of the fictional Greendale students and his own at GTCC.
  • As a guide for addressing trouble spots, the writer should consult these pages of A Writer’s Reference: 259-71 (commas), 293 (capitalize proper nouns), and 301 (italic for titles). 
Posted in Reading, Teaching, Writing

ENG 111: Ideas and Inspiration

Today as you continue to plan and draft, look to the essay excerpts I’ve included here for ideas and inspiration as well models for developing your own narrative through description, narration, classification, and definition.

Developing with Description

First, consider the paragraph that follows from a literacy narrative written by a student at the University of Texas at El Paso. In the first paragraph of her essay, the writer, Ana-Jamileh Kassfy, introduces readers to her family’s auto repair shop. In the second paragraph (the one below), she describes her role in the auto shop with details that lead to the incident at the center of the narrative.

From “Automotive Literacy”

Since I come from a family whose life revolves around cars, and since I practically lived at the auto shop until I was able to drive, you’d think that I’d understand most of the jargon a mechanic would use, right? Wrong. During my first sixteen years of life, I did manage to learn the difference between a flathead and a Torx screwdriver. I also learned what brake pads do and that a car uses many different colorful fuses. However, rather than paying attention to what was happening and what was being said around me, most of the time I chose to focus on the social aspect of the business. While everyone was running around ordering different pads, filters, and starters or explaining in precise detail why a customer needed a new engine, I chose to sit and speak with customers and learn their life stories. Being social worked for me–until it didn’t. (85)

The writer, Kassfy, develops the second paragraph using description as her pattern of organization, specifically by describing what she has and hasn’t learned about her family’s auto shop. What she hasn’t learned (because she focused on the social aspect of the business) leads to the incident at the center of the narrative, which she introduces with the line “until it didn’t.”

For more on developing paragraphs with description, see A Writer’s Reference (45-46).

Developing with Narration and Classification

In “Wet Dogs & White People,” Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Harvard Professor and host of PBS’s Finding Your Roots, begins with a one-sentence paragraph hook followed by a memory within a memory: a car ride with his daughter in which he recounts learning to read and write.

From “Wet Dogs & White People”

You just wouldn’t know it from Mama.

I remember the first time I got angry with my older daughter, Maggie. Not the angry that a parent gets when he’s tired, or irritable, or stressed. But angry, deep-down angry, angry like: Do I know this person I’ve helped bring into the world and have been living with for seven or eight years? We were driving along the highway that connects Piedmont to Cumberland, and I was going on about Mama, about how she had taught me to read and write in one day in the kitchen of our second house, down Rat Tail Road. (“You want to learn how to write?” was all she had asked me. And I had said yes, so she wrote out all of the letters in printing and in script, and we made them together on our red kitchen table.) (84)

After opening his essay with a one-sentence paragraph hook, Gates begins his narration with a memory, then interrupts it with classification. Note how Gates begins to develop his paragraph by classifying types of anger before he returns to the narration that leads to the memory within a memory. 

For more on developing paragraphs with narration and classification, see A Writer’s Reference (45, 48).

Developing with Definition

Novelist Amy Tan, author of The Joy Luck Club, begins her essay “Mother Tongue” with a definitionfirst by defining herself by what she isn’t, then by turning to how she defines herself as a writer.

From “Mother Tongue”

I am not a scholar of English or literature. I cannot give you much more than personal opinions on the English language and its variations in this country or others. 

I am a writer. And by that definition, I am someone who has always loved language. I am fascinated by language in daily life. I spend a great deal of my time thinking about the power of language—the way it can evoke an emotion, a visual image, a complex idea, or a simple truth. Language is the tool of my trade. And I use them all—all the Englishes I grew up with. (462)

In the first paragraph of her essay, Tan defines herself by what she is not (“a scholar of English or literature”). She develops the second paragraph by expanding her definition of what it means to her to be a writer, a definition that serves as a lead-in to her exploration of her identity as someone who grew up hearing and speaking more than one form of English: her own standard English and the nonstandard English of her immigrant mother.

For more on developing paragraphs through definition, see A Writer’s Reference (48-49).

Works Cited

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. “Wet Dogs & White People.” Colored People. Knopf, 1994, pp. 29-39.

Hacker, Diana, and Nancy Sommers. A Writer’s Reference. GTCC Custom 9th ed., Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2018. 

Kassfy, Ana-Jamileh. “Automotive Literacy.” The Norton Field Guide to Writing with Readings and Handbook. 5th ed., by Richard Bullock, Maureen Daly Goggin, and Francine Weinberg, 2019, pp. 84-86.

Tan, Amy. “Mother Tongue.” The Norton Book of Personal Essays. Edited and with an Introduction by Joseph Epstein. W.W. Norton, 1997. pp. 462-68.


You’ve Got to . . .

For the third installment in our You’ve-Got-To series, I offer an assignment that focuses on “Keep the Wolves Away” by Uncle Lucius. In it, the writer addresses the song’s themes of overcoming adversity and the dynamics of parent-child relationships. As you read the assignment, ask yourself if a similar experience of overcoming adversity or a story of a lesson learned from one of your parents might serve as the subject of your literacy narrative.

Now It’s My Turn

So a former banker, a bassist, a rock guitarist, and a drummer walk into a bar. What are they doing? The answer: playing a show. These four men, by the names of Kevin Galloway, Hal Vorpahl, Mike Carpenter, and Jason Armstrong made up the band “Uncle Lucius” . Formed in 2005, then retiring in 2017, “Uncle Lucius” embraced the Texan music culture, inspired by musicians such as Willie Nelson. The song that helped the group gain traction, “Keep The Wolves Away”, is a true story based on the life of lead singer Kevin Galloway and his father’s misfortunes. Galloway’s father was involved in a chemical accident while at work, and being the only one working in the house, his father had to “Keep The Wolves Away” while his family struggled.

“Keep The Wolves Away” is a song about misfortune and overcoming misfortune. I feel that although not everyone’s fathers get into chemical accidents, everyone faces adversity and misfortune at some point or another, and everyone also has a metaphorical father, being someone to ward off the sorrows of life. Galloway details the way life goes on, and now that his father is growing old, Kevin is now the one “Keeping The Wolves Away” from his father. This is a song I can listen to with my best friends, or my own father, and it sparks conversation starting with “ Do you remember when…”. Yip Harburg said it best, “Words make you think. Music makes you feel. A song makes you feel a thought” .

Notes on YGT: “Now It’s My Turn

  • The writer draws readers into the first paragraph with a guy-walks-into-a-bar set-up, which he uses to introduce the band Uncle Lucius, whose song “Keep the Wolves Away” serves as his subject.
  • In the summary, the writer conveys a sense of Uncle Lucius’s sound by including the group’s locale (Texas) and one of its influences (Willie Nelson).
  • In the fourth sentence, “by the names of” is an empty phrase, which A Writer’s Reference defines as one that “can be cut with little or no loss of meaning” (151). Listing the names alone suffices.  
  • In the fifth sentence, the writer states that the group retired. More accurately, the group disbanded. At least one of its members, frontman Kevin Galloway, continues to record and perform. 
  • Not everyone’s father falls victim to a chemical accident. That is a statement of fact, not a perception. “I feel that” should be deleted from the second sentence of the second paragraph.   
  • Yip Harburg should be identified as a lyricist and the source of his observations should be listed in a works cited entry.
  • As a guide for addressing trouble spots, the writer should consult these pages of A Writer’s Reference: 164-65 (exact language), 281 (periods and commas–placement inside quotation marks), and 383 (documenting sources). 

Posted in Reading, Teaching, Writing

ENG 111: Of Maus and Memoirs, Part II

On Monday, our study of Art Spiegelman’s dialogue in Maus served as a starting point for exploring how writers render conversation. Today, as we continue to examine Maus and as you prepare to write your literacy narrative, we will shift our focus to conflict, scene, and summary.

Narrative Conflict or Tension

Notice how many panels in Maus convey conflict, either a character’s inner conflict or a character’s conflict with another character. Conflict, which is essential to narrative, appears on virtually every page of Maus.

The first half of Chapter 2, “The Honeymoon,” depicts six conflicts or problems:

  • Vladek combatting his medical condition (heart disease, diabetes)
  • the policemen’s pursuit of Anja
  • the interrogation of Anja’s aide, the seamstress,  Miss Stefanska
  • Art questioning his father’s storytelling
  • Anja’s struggles with postpartum depression, and
  • the train passengers facing the threat of the Nazi regime, signified by the flag in the center of the page (32).

Scene and Summary

As a comic, Maus consists primarily of scenes but it includes summary as well. In the panel below, which depicts Miss Stefanska’s interrogation by the Polish police, the scene is depicted with the panel’s drawing and its speech balloons. Spiegelman presents summary in the rectangles.

Panel from page 28 of Maus.
Spiegelman, Art. Maus I. Pantheon, 1986. p. 28.

Scene and summary are the building blocks of narratives. Simply put, scenes show and summaries tell. Narratives can consist primarily of scenes, but ones that rely heavily on summary don’t capture our imagination. As you plan your literacy narrative, keep this in mind: Readers would rather be shown than told.

The paper-craft graphic below illustrates the organization of scene and summary in a narrative essay.

Look to the passage that follows as another model for your literacy narrative. Here, in her memoir, An American Childhood, Annie Dillard recounts seeing an amoeba for the first time:

Finally late that spring I saw an amoeba. The week before, I had gathered puddle water from Frick Park; it had been festering in a jar in the basement. This June night after dinner I figured I had waited long enough. In the basement at my microscope table I spread a scummy drop of Frick Park puddle water on a slide, peeked in, and lo, there was the famous amoeba. He was as blobby and grainy as his picture; I would have known him anywhere.

Before I had watched him at all, I ran upstairs. My parents were still at table, drinking coffee. They, too, could see the famous amoeba. I told them, bursting, that he was all set up, that they should hurry before his water dried. It was the chance of a lifetime.

Father had stretched out his long legs and was tilting back in his chair. Mother sat with her knees crossed, in blue slacks, smoking a Chesterfield. The dessert dishes were still on the table. My sisters were nowhere in evidence. It was a warm evening; the big dining-room windows gave onto blooming rhododendrons.

Mother regarded me warmly. She gave me to understand that she was glad I had found what I had been looking for, but that she and Father were happy to sit with their coffee, and would not be coming down. She did not say, but I understood at once, that they had their pursuits (coffee?) and I had mine. She did not say, but I  began to understand then, that you do what you do out of your private passion for the thing itself.

I had essentially been handed my own life, in subsequent years my parents would praise my drawings and poems, and supply me with books, art supplies, and sports equipment, and listen to my troubles and enthusiasm, and supervise my hours, and discuss and inform, but they would not get involved with my detective work, nor hear about my reading, nor inquire about my homework or term papers or exams, nor visit the salamanders I caught, nor listen to me play piano, nor attend my field hockey games, nor fuss over my insect collection. My days and nights were my own to plan and fill. (148-49)

Those paragraphs from An American Childhood don’t include any direct quotations. In the second paragraph, Dillard recounts what her mother said, but she doesn’t present it as dialogue. If the exact words spoken aren’t crucial to a scene, you can present the conversation indirectly, as Dillard does above.

Narratives Don’t Have to Center on Dramatic Events

The excerpt above demonstrates how to create scene and summary and how to shift from one to the other. And perhaps most importantly, it demonstrates this: Narratives don’t have to center on dramatic events.

If you think that you don’t have a story to write as your literacy narrative, look again at Dillard’s depiction of herself as a student of the natural world. There’s no dramatic conflict, but there’s desire. First, she wants to see an amoeba,  something she’s never seen before. Second, she wants her parents to share her excitement, but they don’t. With her microscope, Annie Dillard develops her knowledge of nature, but the larger learning experience that takes place is her realization that “you do what you do out of your private passion for the thing itself” (149). She has “essentially been handed [her] own life” (149).

What quiet, significant learning experience of yours has lingered in your mind? Your answer to that question could be the start of your literacy narrative.

You’ve Got to . . .

The You’ve-Got-To assignment that follows was composed by one of your classmates in English 111. As you read it, ask yourself if a similar reading experience of your own might serve as the subject of your literacy narrative.

The Hate U Give

When I first read this story, I fall in love with it. I am not a person who like to read but with this book I had too. It’s tell you about life, been a black and white kids. Mostly a black kid. How some kids grow up. And how some of them did not have a happy childhood experience like other had. Why other been kill before they could even be done with high school.

In this story it tell you about a black girl name Starr and her family and friends. She and her friends when to a party and have a little bit of drink cop came to the party, she and her friend decided to leave. On their way home they get stop by the police. And her friend get kill that day by the cop. She and her family went to a restaurant. Why the was eating her father get pull outside by the police and embarrass him in from of his family by pushing him on to the ground in from of everyone. People try to protest about what was going on in their community, but it did not go well, the protest turn to a violated one. Gas was everywhere, stores and houses get burn down.


Many of us have been surprised to discover enjoyment in something that we were required to do (and wouldn’t have done otherwise). If the YGT assignment above reminds you of one of those occasions, try writing about it in your journal.

Notes on YGT: “The Hate U Give

  • The assignment requirements specify that the subject’s title–in this case, The Hate U Give–may be part of the assignment’s title but not its complete title.
  • Additionally, the assignment stipulates that the first paragraph consists solely of summary, which is objective. Neither first-person (I) nor the writer’s opinions should be present.
  • Among the details that should be included in the summary are the subject’s genre and subgenre (novel and YA or young adult) and its author (Angie Thomas). In the first paragraph, the writer might also mention that The Hate U Give, though a work of fiction, was inspired by the 2009 shooting of Oscar Grant in Oakland, California, and that a film adaptation of Thomas’ novel was released in 2018. 
  • As a guide for addressing trouble spots, the writer should consult these pages of A Writer’s Reference: 149 (to, too, two), 186-89 (verb tense), 207-12 (sentence fragments), 213-18 (run-on sentences).

Dillard, Annie. An American Childhood. Harper & Row, 1987.

Spiegelman, Art. Maus I. Pantheon, 1986.

Posted in Reading, Teaching, Writing

ENG 111: Of Maus and Memoirs

Spiegelman, Art. Maus I. Pantheon, 1986. p. 12.

Last week, in my notes on Maus, I asked you to consider how Spiegelman’s  book is not only a memoir, or a narrative of memories, but more precisely a dual memoir, a story of both Vladek and his son, the comic artist Art, and a meta-memoir, a memoir about the memoir-writing process.

I also noted how the panel above, from Chapter 1, illustrates the concept of meta-memoir.

In the panel, Art says to his father, “I still want to draw that book about you . . . .” (12). When we read those words of Spiegelman’s, we know that the book that he’s referring to is the one that we’re holding in our hands. He is writing about the process of writing and drawing his father’s story, and we see that on the page as he draws himself recording his father’s memories.

At the end of Chapter 1, Spiegelman creates another meta-memoir moment when he argues with his father.

Spiegelman, Art. Maus I. Pantheon, 1986. p. 23.

Vladek doesn’t want his son to write about Lucia Greenberg, the girlfriend he left behind after he met Art’s mother, Anja. In the last panel of the chapter, when Art promises his father that he won’t tell that story in his book, we as readers know that Art has broken his promise because we have just read the story of Vladek and Lucia’s tryst.

Dialogue

As you prepare to begin writing your own memoir (your literacy narrative), examine how Spiegelman develops the chapters of Maus primarily through dialogue. Every page of his book demonstrates the important role that dialogue often plays in narrative, but it doesn’t show how dialogue is presented in an essay. In comics, dialogue appears in speech balloons. Prose narratives (essays, short stories, novels, and book-length  nonfiction) present dialogue with lines of speech enclosed in quotation marks and with dialogue tags. A dialogue tag is a short phrase at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of the dialogue that attributes the dialogue to a particular person or character.

“Have you chosen a topic for your literacy narrative?” she asked.

In the sentence above, she asked is the dialogue tag.

When you write dialogue, you begin a new paragraph whenever the speaker changes. That’s why paragraphs of dialogue are generally short, often only one line.

Consider the dialogue below, from Annie Dillard’s memoir, An American Childhood:

Dillard, Annie. An American Childhood. Harper & Row, 1987. p. 112.

In the first paragraph, Annie Dillard summarizes how her mother would tell her to spell words. In the second paragraph, Dillard moves to the scene of one particular evening, the night when her mother says there’s a deer in the hall.  Only the first of the three short paragraphs that follow the summary includes a dialogue tag. The other two don’t need tags because the new paragraph itself, the indentation of five spaces, signals a change in the speaker.

Once you’ve established who the speakers are in a dialogue between two people, you don’t need to include dialogue tags.

Notice that the first and last paragraphs include single quotation marks within the lines of dialogue. In the first paragraph, the words poinsettia and sherbet are enclosed in single quotation marks because words referred to as words are enclosed in quotation marks. Since the two words are contained within a longer quotation, Dillard’s mother’s line of dialogue, the words are enclosed in single quotation marks.

In the last paragraph, the words I know are enclosed in single quotation marks because the mother is quoting her daughter.

Words referred to as words in dialogue and quotations within lines of dialogue are enclosed in single quotation marks.

For more information on quotation marks, see A Writer’s Reference (279-80).

A Writer’s Reference

  • One of your reading assignments for the first week of class was pages GT-3-24. Although additional readings in A Writer’s Reference are not listed on the course calendar, I will ask you to refer to your handbook throughout the semester.
  • My notes on your introductory blog post direct you to pages that cover some of the trouble spots in your writing. If I asked you to consult pages 259-71, that means that there are comma errors in your post.
  • On the days when you will revise your second and third essays in class (see the course calendar for dates), you will be required to have your copy of A Writer’s Reference. I may conduct book checks on those days. If I do, those book checks will serve as grades in the participation and preparedness category. 

Introductory Blog Posts

  • If you haven’t visited your classmates’ blogs and read their introductions, please do so ASAP.
  • Also consider writing replies to their introductions.

WordPress Help

  • If you have encountered issues creating your blog or publishing your first post, visit the support page, https://wordpress.com/support/. If you cannot find a solution there, email help@wordpress.com ASAP.
  • Also look to the Titan Hub as a resource. Located on the third floor of the Learning Resource Center on campus, the Titan Hub is open 9-4 Monday-Friday. The Hub can help you with all technical matters related to your course work at GTCC. If you need to download and install Microsoft Word (you will need to type many of your GTCC writing assignments in Word), if you need help with MS Teams, or if you have trouble with your password, Titan Hub, https://www.gtcc.edu/student-life/tutoring-center-for-academic-engagement/titan-hub.php, can help. In addition to visiting Titan Hub on the third floor of the LRC, you can contact the hub by phone or email: 336-334-4822, ext. 50318, cae@gtcc.edu.

Dillard, Annie. An American Childhood. Harper & Row, 1987.

Spiegelman, Art. Maus I. Panteon, 1986.

Posted in Reading, Teaching, Writing

ENG 111: Field Notes

To begin our last class meeting before Super Bowl LV, we will turn to a piece of writing about football–not simply to read about a sport that’s on the minds of many of us this week but instead as an opportunity to explore how skillfully the writer Michael Lewis dramatizes a few seconds on the football field. 

In the passage that follows, Lewis recounts the moments in the November 1985 Redskins-Giants football game leading up to the injury that ended quarterback Joe Theismann’s career. These are the words that begin Chapter 1 of The Blind Side, now widely regarded as a nonfiction masterpiece.

From the snap of the ball to the snap of the first bone is closer to four seconds than to five. One Mississippi: The quarterback of the Washington Redskins, Joe Theismann, turns and hands the ball to running back John Riggins. He watches Riggins run two steps forward, turn, and flip the ball back to him. It’s what most people know as a “flea-flicker,” but the Redskins call it a “throw-back special.” Two Mississippi: Theismann searches for a receiver but instead sees Harry Carson coming straight at him. It’s a running down—the start of the second quarter, first and 10 at midfield, with the score tied 7–7—and the New York Giants’ linebacker has been so completely suckered by the fake that he’s deep in the Redskins’ backfield. Carson thinks he’s come to tackle Riggins but Riggins is long gone, so Carson just keeps running, toward Theismann. Three Mississippi: Carson now sees that Theismann has the ball. Theismann notices Carson coming straight at him, and so he has time to avoid him. He steps up and to the side and Carson flies right on by and out of the play. The play is now 3.5 seconds old. Until this moment it has been defined by what the quarterback can see. Now it–and he–is at the mercy of what he can’t see.

What Theismann cannot see is Lawrence Taylor. A second later, as Taylor sacks Theismann, Taylor’s knee drives straight into Theismann’s lower right leg, leading to the “snap of the first bone” that Lewis mentions in the first sentence. He hooks the reader by linking the beginning of the play, “the snap of the ball” to the gruesome “snap of the first bone” that will follow. Lewis develops the paragraph using the common one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi method of marking seconds to present the events leading up to the compound fracture that ends Theisman’s career.

Lewis doesn’t dramatize the injury itself because his interest lies instead in the blind side that led to it and subsequently elevated the status and salary of the left tackle, the player who protects the quarterback’s blind side.

When you’re struggling to develop a piece of writing, reread the opening paragraph of The Blind Side. Study how Lewis dramatizes 3.5 seconds–yes, only 3.5 seconds–with 224 words.

And now we turn to a game of another sort: Scrabble, the subject of my version of the You’ve Got to . . . assignment, the sample that I wrote for you.

A Game for Hardscrabble Times

The Guardian article “Spell Bound” notes that the exact beginning of Scrabble is “debatable,” adding that “Scrabble experts are the kind of people who like to debate it at length.” In a piece of writing such as this–one that begins at the beginning of the game–the starting point could be Lexico, which is the game that Alfred Mosher Butts developed before he invented Scrabble–which, by the way, wasn’t named Scrabble until Butts sold the game to Jacob Brunot. That’s when the game that Butts had christened Criss-Cross Words became the game that would multiply to more than 150 million sets worldwide, a game that can now be found in a third of homes in America (Bukszpan 16).

If that description of Scrabble’s beginnings doesn’t capture your interest, perhaps because you don’t think of yourself as a word person, consider this: Scrabble’s inventor wasn’t a word person either. Butts was fascinated by games of all sorts and saw word games as the category that offered the most opportunities for innovation. For him, that innovation meant creating a game in which the frequency of letters corresponded with their frequency in the English language. As part of his research, he documented how often each letter appeared on the front page of the newspaper. E is most common, so there are twelve E’s in Scrabble but only one tile for each of the rarest of letters: J, K, Q, X, and Z. For many players, including me, part of Scrabble’s appeal is the combination of skill and luck. Word power alone won’t win the game. You don’t know which letters you will draw or which seven letter tiles are on your opponent’s rack. And for many players, another source of the game’s appeal is its synthesis of crosswords and anagrams.

Since creating words from anagrams is a process of letter scrambling, James Brunot may have chosen the name Scrabble in part for its similarity to scramble, but the word scrabble itself is apt for a game that often requires players to struggle (or scrabble) to make a word from a seemingly impossible combination of tiles. It’s notable, too, that Scrabble’s beginnings date to the 1930s, when its inventor was an out-of-work architect. He wanted to create a diversion from the dark days of the Depression. Now it’s a game that many of us have returned to, pantomiming the ghosts of those first-generation players. Once again, it’s a game for hardscrabble times. 

Works Cited

Bukszpan, David. Is That a Word?: From AA to ZZZ, the Weird and Wonderful Language of Scrabble. Chronicle, 2012.

“Spell Bound.” The Guardian, 27 June 2008, https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2008/jun/28/healthandwellbeing.familyandrelationships.


In addition to including my model of the assignment in the body of this blog post, I am including it below as a PDF along with an additional copy of the assignment file. (See the links below and the rectangles labeled download.)

You’ve Got to . . . Assignment Notes

  • Unlike my sample, yours does not have to include sources. If, however, you do quote or paraphrase a text, follow MLA style guidelines and look to my sample assignment as a model.
  • You are welcome to write more than two paragraphs, as I did, but be sure that the first two paragraphs comply with the directions outlined in the assignment.
  • Approach your writing as a process. My model did not begin with what is now the first sentence. Instead, it began this way: “Designed for two-to-four players, the board game Scrabble begins with each player randomly drawing a letter tile from an opaque bag. The player whose letter is closest to the beginning of the alphabet is designated the first player.” My first draft fulfilled the basic requirement of the first paragraph, but I was doubtful that it would hold the reader’s interest. I asked myself where else I might begin, and it occurred to me that I could begin with the debate about the origins of the game.

Preparing to Submit Your You’ve-Got-to . . . Assignment

  • Review the assignment file, and look to the guidelines as a checklist. 
  • Reread the notes on revising and editing in my January 27 blog post.
  • Remember that you will submit your assignment to Moodle as a Word document, not a PDF, and you will not post it to your blog. A Word file template is posted in Moodle for you.
  • If you would like for someone to review your assignment before you submit it, the Center for Academic Engagement offers  a variety of resources, which are outlined on pages four and five of the course syllabus.

Lewis, Michael. The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game. 2006. W. W. Norton, 2009.

Posted in Reading, Teaching, Writing

ENG 111: You’ve Got to . . .

You’ve Got to Read This, edited by Ron Hansen and Jim Shepard, the book that inspired the You’ve Got to . . . Assignment

Today we will return briefly to our study of Maus, but we will focus primarily on your second short writing assignment, the “You’ve Got to . . .” assignment, which is now posted in Moodle. I have included an additional copy of the assignment below. (See the link and the small rectangle labeled download.)

I am in the process of writing a model YGT (“You’ve Got to . . .”) assignment for you and  will publish it on my blog on Wednesday morning.

Because this is a brand-new assignment, I cannot offer you samples from previous semesters. But remember, you will have a sample on Wednesday morning. In the meantime, you can look to the two paragraphs devoted to Maus in my January 27 blog post as a model of sorts. The first paragraph is a summary, as the first paragraph of yours will be. The second paragraph is an analysis; similarly, your second paragraph will be a reflection or an informal analysis. Together, my two paragraphs on Maus are 172 words long, which is slightly longer than your minimum requirement of 150 words. 

Continuing Our Study of Maus

Last week, in my notes on Maus, I focused Spiegelman’s  book as a memoir, or a narrative of memories. Unlike an autobiography or a biography, which aims to  present a comprehensive account of a subject’s life, a memoir usually focuses on one period of a person’s life or one aspect of it. Maus I centers on the life of the writer’s father, Vladek Spiegelman, in the years leading up to the war and during the war and the Holocaust. But Maus is also a dual memoir, a story of both Vladek and his son, the comic artist Art, and a meta-memoir, a memoir about the memoir-writing process.

Consider how Chapter 1 demonstrates how Art Spiegelman’s book is both a dual memoir and a meta-memoir. Note how the panel below illustrates the concept of meta-memoir.

Spiegelman, Art. Maus I. Pantheon, 1986. p. 12.

In the panel, Art says to his father, “I still want to draw that book about you . . . .” (12). When we read those words of Spiegelman’s, we know that the book that he’s referring to is the one that we’re holding in our hands. He is writing about the process of writing and drawing his father’s story, and we see that on the page as he draws himself recording his father’s memories.


Spiegelman, Art. Maus I. Pantheon, 1986.

Posted in Reading, Teaching, Writing

ENG 111: Revising and Editing . . .

Today we will explore the processes of revising and editing and continue our study of Art Spiegelman’s Maus.

If you have already written your introductory blog post and published it on your blog, I recommend that you review it at least once more before the noon deadline on Friday. If you haven’t yet created your WordPress blog, please do so as soon as possible to give yourself ample time to troubleshoot. If you encounter issues, email help@wordpress.com

Revising and Editing

The processes of revising and editing aren’t the same. As the authors of A Writer’s Reference note, when you revise “you focus on clarity and effectiveness; when you edit, you check for correctness” (29). Before the noon deadline on Friday, set aside some time–even if it’s only ten or fifteen minutes–to revise and edit your introduction.

Checklist for Revision

  • Is the paragraph unified by a main point?
  • If the introduction consists of more than one paragraph, is each paragraph unified by a main point?
  • Have you presented ideas in a logical order?

Proofreading

A Writer’s Reference presents excellent advice on proofreading, which I am including verbatim below. Note that I have added the boldface for emphasis.

“Proofreading is a special kind of reading: a slow methodical search for misspellings, typographical mistakes, and missing words or word endings. Such errors can be difficult to spot in your own work because you may read what you intended to write, not what is actually on the page. To fight this tendency, try one or more of the following tips.

Proofreading Tips

  • Remove distractions and allow yourself ten to fifteen minutes of pure concentration–without your cell phone.
  • Proofread out loud, articulating each word as it is actually written.
  • Proofread your sentences in reverse order.
  • Proofread hard copy pages; mistakes can be difficult to catch on-screen.
  • Don’t rely too heavily on spell checkers and grammar checkers. Before automatically accepting their changes, consider accuracy and appropriateness.
  • Ask a volunteer (a friend, roommate, or co-worker) to proofread after you. A second reader may catch something that you didn’t.” (31)

If you would like to receive feedback on your introductory blog post before Friday at noon, the Center for Academic Engagement offers a number of options for you. Those options are outlined on pages four and five of the syllabus.

Continuing Our Study of Maus

On Monday we examined the two-page comic that precedes Chapter 1. In my notes to you, I observed that “you might ask yourself why the first pages of the memoir are set in New York, thirteen years after the war” and that “[y]ou might also ask why those two pages precede Chapter 1. Why might Art Spiegelman have chosen to begin the memoir with the two-page story ‘Rego Park, NY c. 1958’?” 

“Rego Park, NY c. 1958” serves as the epigraph for Maus. By definition, an epigraph is a short quotation that appears at the beginning of a book, one chosen by the author to convey one or more of the book’s themes. 

Rather than offering a quotation as an epigraph, Spiegelman presents “Rego Park, NY c. 1958.” What story does the two-page comic tell, and what does it indicate to readers about the longer story that will unfold in Maus?

Spiegelman, Art. Maus I. Pantheon, 1986. p. 5.
Spiegelman, Art. Maus I. Pantheon, 1986. p. 6.

In the two paragraphs that follow, I offer a summary of the epigraph and a short analysis that examines what the epigraph conveys.

In Art Spiegelman’s epigraph for Maus I, “Rego Park, N.Y., c. 1958,” he recounts the events of a summer’s day when he was ten or eleven years old. He and two of his friends are racing together on roller skates until one of Artie’s skates comes loose and he falls. Rather than waiting for Artie, the other two boys skate away, leaving him behind to be the “Rotten egg” (5). After Artie returns home, his father asks why he is crying. When Artie tells his father what happened, his father questions his son’s use of the word “friend.” He replies, “If you lock them together in a room with no food for a week . . . / . . . Then you could see what is, friends! . . .” (6).

The cutting remark that Spiegelman’s father makes as he saws wood illustrates the communication breakdown between him and Artie. Spiegelman’s depiction of that gulf foreshadows the trials he will encounter: struggling to understand his father and himself as he aims to make meaning of their lives through his comics.

Notice how the first paragraph, the summary, does not express my opinion. By definition, summaries are objective. When you write a summary, you aim to convey a text’s main ideas in your own words but without offering your own opinion.

Analysis

In the second paragraph, I turn to analysis. I connect the father’s cutting, or unkind, remark to the sawing of the wood, which is itself an act of separation—a detail that I might add to the paragraph if I choose to develop my analysis.

Summary and analysis are building blocks of both academic and professional writing. We summarize to increase our understanding of texts, and we analyze them to demonstrate our ability to think critically.

For more information on summary and analysis, see pages 63-64 of A Writer’s Reference.

Writing about Maus in Your Journal

After you complete each reading assignment in Maus, summarize it in your journal. You are not required to analyze each reading, but you should make note of any questions you have and points that you would like to address in class.

What to Focus on as You Read Maus

As I noted on Monday, because Maus is a memoir and your first essay assignment for English 111 is a literacy narrative, a form of memoir, focus on this question: How can Maus serve as a model for my own memoir, my literacy narrative?


Hacker, Diana, and Nancy Sommers. A Writer’s Reference. GTCC Custom 9th ed., Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2018. 

Spiegelman, Art. Maus I. Pantheon, 1986.

Posted in Reading, Teaching, Writing

ENG 111: Writing the Introductory Blog Post . . .

Today we will focus on your Introductory blog post assignment, due at noon on Friday, and we will begin our study of Art Spiegelman’s Maus. An additional copy of the blog assignment is included in this post. (See the link and the small rectangle labeled download below.)

I am in the process of writing a model introductory blog post for you, which I will publish on my blog as soon as I have completed it, no later than Thursday.

In the meantime, I am including here for you a list of links to model introductory blog Posts that I wrote for my students in previous semesters. The first one in the list was written for my students last fall at Guilford Technical Community College. The second, third, and fourth posts in the list were written for my students at Catawba Valley Community College, and the fifth and sixth posts in the list were written for my students at Lenoir-Rhyne University.

To offer you additional models, I am including below a list of links to a few of the introductory blog posts written by my students last fall.

To prepare you to review and revise your own introduction, today we will examine two introductory blog posts from previous semesters.  (See the link and the small rectangle labeled download below.) Remember that you can edit blog posts after you publish them. If you have already published your introductory blog post and today’s exercise demonstrates that your post needs additional revisions, you can make those changes before noon on Friday, January 29.

If you would like to receive feedback on your Introductory Blog Post before Friday at noon, the Center for Academic Engagement offers a number of options for you. Those options are outlined on pages four and five of the syllabus.

Beginning Our Study of Maus

What have you learned about Maus already simply by looking at its cover and skimming its pages? The authors of A Writer’s Reference notes that “[p]reviewing–looking quickly through a text before you read–helps you understand its basic features and structures.

A text’s title, for example, may reveal an author’s purpose; a text’s format may reveal what kind of text it is–a book, a report, a memo, and so on. The more you know about a text before you read it, the easier it will be to dig deeper into it. (57)

With that in mind, consider the front cover. Near the top, below the name of the author, Art Spiegelman, the title appears in large red letters that run or drip like blood. For readers who do not know that the title, Maus, is the German word for mouse, the crouching figures in the bottom half of the cover offer a context clue. Above the mice looms a large swastika overlayed with a cat face marked by a Hitleresque mustache. Below the mice, near the bottom of the cover are the words of the subtitles: A Survivor’s Tale and My Father Bleeds History.

Spiegelman, Art. Maus I. Pantheon, 1986.

From those details, you might infer that the author’s father was a survivor of the Jewish Holocaust (1941-45), the state-sponsored murder of six million Jews and others, including gays, persecuted by the Nazi Regime during World War II (1939-45).

Maus is a memoir, or a narrative of memories. Unlike an autobiography or a biography, which aims to  present a comprehensive account of a subject’s life, a memoir usually focuses on one period of a person’s life or one aspect of it. Maus I, focuses on the life of the writer’s father, Vladek Spiegelman, in the years leading up to the war and during the war and the Holocaust. 

Knowing that Maus focuses on World War II and the Holocaust, you might ask yourself why the first pages of the memoir are set in New York, thirteen years after the war.

Spiegelman, Art. Maus I. Pantheon, 1986. p. 5.
Spiegelman. Art. Maus I. Pantheon, 1986. p. 6.

You might also ask why those two pages precede Chapter 1. Why might Art Spiegelman have chosen to begin the memoir with the two-page story “Rego Park, NY c. 1958”? That’s a question that we will return to on Wednesday.

In the meantime, as you continue to read Maus, consider that like Maus, your first essay assignment for English 111 is a memoir, more specifically a literacy narrative (a story about learning). Ask yourself what a close reading, or study, of Maus can teach you about writing a memoir. Though your memoir will be far shorter than Maus and will be told exclusively through words (rather than through words and drawings), Maus remains a valuable model for its presentation of narration and dialogue and for its development of conflict.


Hacker, Diana, and Nancy Sommers. A Writer’s Reference. GTCC Custom 9th ed., Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2018. 

Spiegelman, Art. Maus I. Pantheon, 1986.

Posted in Reading, Teaching, Writing

ENG 111: Letter on the Letter from Birmingham

Martin Luther King, Jr. in jail in Birmingham

Dear Students,

This morning as I reflected on the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., I sent you an email message, encouraging you to read the letter that he wrote from jail in 1963 after his arrest for leading nonviolent protests in Alabama.

Although you could have listened to a recording of King reading his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” I recommended that you read it instead, or read along as you listened. As I noted in my email, King’s gift for oratory is well known, but for students of writing, closely examining his words on the page is a more pertinent exercise than listening to his voice.

What makes it an effective piece of writing? With that question in mind, consider these words in the eleventh paragraph: “Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, ‘Wait.’” Here King is addressing his initial audience, the eight white Birmingham-area clergymen who criticized his protest as “unwise and untimely.” He suggests to those men that waiting to act isn’t difficult when you yourself aren’t the victim of injustice, when you haven’t, in King’s words, “felt the stinging darts of segregation.” The sentence is notable not only for the contrast it illustrates between King’s reality and the lives of his readers but also for the words that King uses to show that contrast.

Consider King’s sentence and the paraphrase that follows:

  • Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.”
  • Maybe it is simple for people who have not experienced segregation to say, “Wait.”

King’s sentence is stronger than the paraphrase that follows it because of the “stinging darts.” Writing that someone has not “experienced segregation” is abstract. Readers do not feel the general experience in the second sentence, but they feel King’s “stinging darts.” Sensory details strengthen sentences by appealing to readers’ senses, and figurative language invigorates writing by making the unfamiliar familiar. King’s white readers have not been the victims of segregation, but his choice of words makes them feel the sting.

While King’s “stinging darts” sentence—a relatively short one—is laudable, the long, winding sentence that follows is nothing short of staggering.

It starts with these words: “But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim.” King presents those atrocities in an introductory dependent clause, one whose full meaning depends on an independent clause that follows. But rather than immediately turning to an independent clause to complete the thought, King expands the sentence with this series of dependent clauses:

  • when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters;
  • when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society;
  • when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people;
  • when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”;
  • when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you;
  • when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”;
  • when your first name becomes “n—,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”;
  • when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments;
  • when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–

The independent clause that readers have been waiting for, the statement that completes the thought is this: “then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.” Those words could have immediately followed the first dependent clause, but instead King offers nine more dependent clauses, ten darts that sting his readers.

Ten dependent clauses connected by semicolons followed by a dash and an independent clause, a total of 316 words: That is not a structure I recommend for the sentences you write in English 111, but it’s a valuable model, nevertheless.

Now in the wake of the violent insurrection at our nation’s Capitol, King’s message of civil disobedience may be more critical than ever. As a citizen, I hope you will read every word of his letter. As your writing teacher, I hope that you will return to the sentence that I have examined in detail here. Along with showing his readers why his nonviolent protests could not wait, that sentence of King’s demonstrates how to develop a piece of writing through the accumulation of detail—not just the when, but the when and when and when . . . .


King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford University, https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/sites/mlk/files/letterfrombirmingham_wwcw_0.pdf.