Posted in Reading, Teaching, Writing

Welcome Back to English 126: Dovetails and Q-tips

This post serves as both a welcome back note and a blog entry on the writer’s craft, the second one I’ve written with you. (I posted the first one on January 22.)

I’m always grateful when I discover that readings and assignments in my various courses dovetail. It reminds me that although the particulars of the courses differ, communicating effectively in writing and closely examining written texts are fundamentals they all share.

Two dovetail discoveries occurred earlier this semester. The first one happened when I was reading the composition students’ weekly assignment in The Norton Field Guide to Writing. It was in the chapter devoted to description. There the textbook’s authors include excerpts from two pieces of writing about multiple sclerosis that together illustrate lucidly the differences between the general description of objective nonfiction and the concrete, significant details and voice that bring creative nonfiction to life. Read the two excerpts that follow and consider both the differences between the words and how the words in each excerpt affect you.

First, a description from a brochure published by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society:

Multiple sclerosis is a chronic, unpredictable disease of the central nervous system (the brain, optic nerves, spinal cord). It is thought to be an autoimmune disorder. This means the immune system incorrectly attacks a person’s healthy tissue.

MS can cause blurred vision, loss of balance, poor coordination, slurred speech, tremors, numbness, extreme fatigue, problems with memory and concentration, paralysis, and blindness. These problems may be permanent, or they may come and go. (qtd. in Bullock et al. 444)

Second, an excerpt from “On Being a Cripple,” by Nancy Mairs, a writer with MS:

During its course, which is unpredictable and uncontrollable, one may lose vision, hearing, speech, the ability to walk, control bladder and/or bowels, strength in any or all extremities, sensitivity to touch, vibration and/or pain, potency, coordination of movements–the list of possibilities is lengthy and yes, horrifying. One may also lose one’s sense of humor. That’s the easiest to lose and the hardest to survive without.

In the past ten years, I have sustained some of these losses. Characteristic of MS are sudden attacks, called exacerbations, followed by remissions, and these I have not had. Instead my disease has been slowly progressive. My left leg is now so weak that I walk with the aid of a brace and a cane, and for distances I use an Amigo, a variation on the electric wheelchair that looks rather like an electrified kiddie car. I no longer have much use of my left hand. Now my right side is weakening as well. I still have the blurred spot in my right eye. Overall, though, I’ve been lucky so far. (qtd. in Bullock et al. 443-44)

Another dovetail discovery occurred when my composition students were studying Chapter 11 of Tara Westover’s memoir, Educated. The latter half of that chapter, “Instinct,” depicts Westover’s brother Shawn reining in the frightened gelding, Bud, preventing him from throwing Tara.

As my composition students and I examined the series of conflicts that propel the chapter forward, it occurred to me that the concluding pages of Chapter 11 would serve as an ideal segue from our study, in English 126, of creative nonfiction to our study of fiction. That scene exemplifies the structural similarities between fiction and memoirs, such Westover’s, that follow the same narrative arc.

In the span of only two and a half pages, Westover presents five conflicts: (1) Bud, the gelding, in conflict with the angry mare, (2) Tara in conflict with the frightened Bud, (3) Tara in conflict with herself (Should she let go of the saddle horn?), (4) Shawn in conflict with the mare, and (5) Shawn in conflict with–and ultimately prevailing over–Bud. Thanks to Brennan for pointing out the fourth conflict, which I had overlooked earlier.

Lastly, I’ll address our final in-class reading on March 12, Christopher Durang’s For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls. Not only did Durang’s play let us exit laughing, it also showed us how quirky, well-wrought parody can pull readers into a play regardless of their knowledge of the source. When Lawrence says: “I call this [cocktail stirrer] Q-tip because I realized it looks like a Q-tip” (19), readers will laugh even if they don’t know that he’s a spoof of Laura Wingfield.

Remember to check your CVCC email and Blackboard regularly for updates and assignments. We will get through these days–and exit laughing again, I hope.


Bullock, Richard et al. Chapter 42: “Describing.” The Norton Field Guide to Writing with Handbook. 5th ed., 2019. pp. 443-44.

Durang, Christopher. For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls. Christopher Durang: Twenty-Seven Short Plays. Smith and Krauss, 1995. pp. 12-27.

Posted in Reading, Teaching, Writing

“Bird by Bird” and Word by Word, or Anne Lamott on the Page and the Stage

Anne Lamott / visitingwriters.lr.edu
Anne Lamott / visitingwriters.lr.edu

As a lead-in to Anne Lamott’s appearance on campus—as one of the featured authors in Lenoir-Rhyne’s Visiting Writers Series—my students and I read and discussed the chapter “Shitty First Drafts” from Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life (1994). It’s a chapter that I’ve read with my students several times throughout my years of teaching, one I should probably assign every semester because it offers some of the most valuable advice about writing and life that I’ve read.

Lamott advises her readers to give themselves permission to write awful—or as she puts it, “shitty”—first drafts because they’re an essential part of the process. Later in the chapter, she refers to the first draft as the child’s draft, “where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place.” That’s the same way that I, and many other writers and teachers, envision freewriting. When my students and I freewrite in our journals, I tell them to keep writing even when they think that they have nothing to say, because eventually they will have something to say. And until then, it’s okay to write over and over I have nothing to say, or blah, blah, blah. In Lamott’s words:

[T]here may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would have never gotten to by more rational, grown-up means. There may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you’re supposed to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go—but there way to get to this without first getting through the first five and a half pages.

I wasn’t able to see Lamott when she spoke Thursday night at P. E. Monroe auditorium. (While she was there, I was standing on another stage a mile or so away, wearing a nun’s habit and screaming at monks—but that’s another story.) I was, however, able to attend her Friday-morning talk in Belk Centrum, where she told the students not to get bogged down in trying to please people—that they shouldn’t aim to write what they think other people will like but instead write to express their own truth.

Professor Kathy Ivey interviewing Anne Lamott / visitingwriters.lr.edu
Professor Kathy Ivey interviewing Anne Lamott / visitingwriters.lr.edu

In response to an audience member’s question about outlining, Lamott replied no, she doesn’t write outlines but plans her work on oversized sheets of graph paper on which draws large circles like lily pads for her ideas. She said she loves paper and pencils and pens, adding that she steals pens and actually stole one the night before from the Hickory Public Library.

Lamott told the audience: You don’t need to know more than you know, but you start somewhere—an idea that echoes the first line of the second paragraph of “Shitty First Drafts”: “Very few writers really know what they’re doing until they’ve done it.” She recommended reading The Paris Review interviews, especially the ones with novelists, because they show us how the writers got their work done.

In response to a question about the unfathomable questions—such as why do awful things happen to good people?—Lamott said that the most offensive thing that you can do is offer an answer that you could put on a bumper sticker. The way not to be, Lamott said, is to have little answers to unfathomable questions. Instead she said she responds by saying, read more poetry, and I will, too. And I’ll stay if you want me to, and maybe tomorrow we’ll go buy some make-up or go on a field trip . . . .

After a student said that she identified with Lamott because she, too, was a liberal and a Christian, Lamott simply said: “It’s very hard to be the things you are.”

Lamott added that if you’re pretending to be someone you aren’t because you’re addicted to people-pleasing, then you’re never going to be able to be yourself. She concluded with these words: I hope my writing gives you the confidence to be who you are—to be yourself, not someone focused primarily on loyalty to family or country but someone with a passionate commitment to yourself.

Both her words on the page and on the stage Friday morning have led me toward that self-assurance, and I hope that they have led my students there as well.

Works Cited

Lamott, Anne. Visiting Writers Series Interview by Kathy Ivey. Lenoir-Rhyne U. 8 Apr. 2016.

—. “Shitty First Drafts.” College of Arts & Sciences Writing, Rhetoric & Digital Studies. U of Kentucky, n.d. PDF. 6 Apr. 2016.