Posted in Teaching, Writing

ENG 111: Beginning the Literacy Narrative

The first draft of “A Bridge to Words,” the literacy narrative that I wrote with my students in September 2020

This week’s classes will be devoted to planning and drafting your literacy narrative, the first of the three essays that you will write for English 111. The assignment file is posted in Moodle and I have included an additional copy here. (See the link and rectangle labeled download below.)

Although I have emphasized the importance of revising and editing your writing, I am asking you to resist the urge to revise and edit this week. Your primary goal for now is getting your ideas down on paper. In Bird by Bird, author Ann Lamott’s guide to writing, she offers these reassuring observations about beginning the process:

Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something–anything–down on paper. A friend of mine says the first draft is the down draft–you just get it down (25).

Brainstorm and Freewrite

If your initial plan doesn’t seem to be taking shape, turn away from your draft for a while. Try brainstorming or freewriting in your journal. Don’t concern yourself with spelling and structure; attend to those matters later. The aim of brainstorming and freewriting is to get your ideas on paper as quickly as you can.

For more on brainstorming and freewriting, see A Writer’s Reference (6).

If you write on one topic in the list of options and that doesn’t seem to lead anywhere, return to the list and try writing on another topic–or two, or three . . . . The complete list of options is in the assignment file, and I am including an additional copy below.

  • any early memory about writing, reading, speaking, or another form of literacy that you recall vividly
  • someone who taught you to read or write 
  • someone who helped you understand how to do something
  • a book that you found significant in some way
  • an event at school that was related to your literacy and that you found interesting humorous, or embarrassing
  • a literacy task that you found (or still find) especially difficult or challenging
  • a memento that represents an important moment in your literacy development
  • the origins of your current attitudes about writing, reading, or speaking (one of those, not all three)
  • creating and maintaining your WordPress blog

Write Your Uncertainty into Your Story

If you’re unsure of some details, make your uncertainty part of your literacy narrative. Art Spiegelman does just that in the epigraph for Maus when he writes, “I was ten or eleven . . .” (5).

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

Look to Maus and An American Childhood as Models

Continue to examine Maus as a model. Study how Spiegelman creates tension in the panels of his comic. Also reread the excerpts from Annie Dillard’s memoir, An American Childhood, included in my class notes for February 8 and 10. Look to Dillard’s words as models for creating dialogue and shifting back and forth from scene to summary.

More Models for Your Literacy Narrative

Remember that I am writing a literacy narrative along with you and will post mine as a model next week. In the meantime, I offer links to six literacy narratives, three that I wrote with my students in previous semesters and three written by students of mine at Catawba Valley Community College.

You’ve Got to . . .

For the second installment in our You’ve-Got-To series, I offer an assignment that focuses on Counter Strike: Global Offensive (CSGO). In it, the writer observes how the skills he has developed as a player differ from those of his teammates. As you read his assignment, ask yourself if a similar experience of your own–whether as a video game player or an athlete–might serve as the subject of your literacy narrative.

Drop AWP Bro

Counter Strike: Global Offensive (CSGO) is the third installment of the video game series Counter Strike. It is a competitive first-person shooter game with a strong player base, a real-life economic system with skins in the game being able to be sold for real life money, and a big professional scene. The game is different from most shooters as it’s round based and you can earn in game money to upgrade your kit for each round, from getting armor to an upgraded pistol or if you have the money you can buy a sniper or a rifle. In most shooter games you just go in and shoot’em up but in CSGO you must use your brain because of the in game economic system of needing to buy new guns.

I really enjoy the game because my skills in the game aren’t the best but my skills in what we should buy for the next round or how to set up with different kits, like where to throw smoke grenades to block vision or flash bangs to have the other players blind and easy wipes to be able to win the round. My friends can win almost any fights they get themself into but with the addition of the utility sets that I set up with them makes it almost impossible for us the lose the first engagement of each round and then hopefully when the second fight happens when the players who were on the other side of map move to take us out, I can hold them off with the sniper.  The Sniper in the game is called the AWP and it’s my favorite weapon because you can lock off a hold side of a map if you place it in the right spot and can change the whole round with one player. 

Notes on YGT: “Drop AWP Bro”

  • The writer has crafted a title that engages readers. Those who aren’t gamers may not catch the reference to CSGO, but presenting an imperative sentence that begins with a concrete verb (one that describes a literal action) indicates that the paragraphs that follow will be action-filled. That said, note that AWP should be followed by a comma because the title is a statement of direct address (Drop AWP, Bro).
  • Among the additional details that the writer could include in the summary are these: the game’s developer and publisher (Valve), the designations of the two opposing teams (Terrorists and Counter-Terrorists), and the game’s sequence in the Counter-Strike series (it’s the fourth).
  • In the second paragraph, when the writer turns to the specifics of his own game play, he might identify the mode in which he plays (there are a total of nine). He might also mention the five categories of weapons. On first reference in the second paragraph, the acronym AWP should be followed by Arctic Warfare Police enclosed in parentheses (Arctic Warfare Police). The writer should also specify that “skins” are virtual goods and identify the type of kit he mentions.  
  • As a guide for addressing trouble spots, the writer should consult these pages of A Writer’s Reference: 145 (hopefully), 193 (pronoun-antecedent agreement), 259-71 (commas), and 291 (hyphens in compound words).

Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. 1994. Anchor, 1995.

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 /
Anne Lamott /

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 /
Professor Kathy Ivey interviewing Anne Lamott /

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.