Nonfiction about why people misread and misinterpret the world

Literary nonfiction books, aside from true crime and biographies, are rather hard to find and those I do find are rarely books I’d pick for use in writing classes. 

Today I’m going to introduce you to three nonfiction books that, unlike books such as Harry Truman’s Great Adventure or The Fever of 1721, are not literary nonfiction: They include narrative but are not themselves narratives.

covers of the 3 books to be discussed
Three books, different topics, same color scheme

My three choices deal in very different ways with how individuals or groups of people incorrectly perceive and misinterpret the world either because of their prior experiences or because of the way humans’ brains work. As the author of one of the three books says:

quote from Wilson's "Redirect"
Wilson’s Redirect, discussed below, is about changing behavior by story editing.

The End of White Christian America

Cover of "The End of White Christian America"
Symbolically, “White Christian America” is set against a black background.

The End of White Christian America is a history of white Protestant churches’ influence on America’s national policy and the country’s ideals with particular emphasis on the churches’ role throughout the twentieth century and into Barak Obama’s second term.

Author Robert P. Jones set out to discover why white Protestantism, hugely influential in the first 240 years of American history, faded. He found that during the 20th century, Protestant churches divided into two groups according to their theology, beliefs about race, and what Jones calls “accommodations to the modern world and science,” specifically their positions on evolution and racial issues. 

Jones says: “This is a story of theology and culture, but it is also a story of powerful demographic changes.” His findings may help students bewildered by what may seem to them to be hysterical behavior over what they may consider to be settled issues of science, race, and gender. 

The End of White Christian America. Robert P. Jones. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, © 2016. 322 p.  Available in hardcover, paperback, Kindle, and audiobook versions.

Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change

White Protestant America might be different today if its adherents had had psychologist Timothy D. Wilson’s Redirect.

"Redirect" had broken directional arrow. rWilson’s work builds on the long-known fact that how people interpret events has much more influence on their behavior than the events themselves. What’s more, human brains jump to make sense of what just happened to their owners, and they do it so quickly people don’t realize that what their brains report is an interpretation of what happened not an observation of what happened. From that foundation, Wilson built techniques he calls story editing, “which is a set of techniques designed to redirect people’s narratives about themselves and the social world in a way that leads to lasting changes in behavior.”

Redirect has multiple applications in a school setting. Several chapters deal with prevention issues:  pregnancy prevention, prevention of abuse of alcohol and drugs, violence prevention, discrimination prevention. There’s also a reading group guide.

Redirect is particularly useful for writing teachers because in the first chapter it gives a simple tool—perfectly suited to use in writing classes—for shaping students’ behavior in positive ways. To use the tool, you need to view students’ situation from their perspective and get them to redirect their narratives about that situation, which is pretty much what you need to do to teach students to write.

In a writing class for adult students who are parents or who supervise employees, Redirect could be used as nonfiction reading. While it’s not as engaging as narrative nonfiction, it’s well-written and should be well within the reading skills of adult learners.

Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change. Timothy D. Wilson. Back Bay Books; Little, Brown. © 2011. Paperback edition 2015. 297 p. Available in paperback, hardcover, Kindle, and in audio CD

A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives

Cover of "A Mind of Its Own"The cover of Cordelia Fine’s A Mind of Its Own shows a middle-aged, bald guy whose thought bubble reveals his brain tells him he’s a muscular, iron-pumping type. Inside, Fine describes in well-documented facts that human brains are so well built to put the best possible interpretation on any of its owner’s experiences that only a few people have anything like a realistic view of themselves.

Fine doesn’t delve deep into the brain’s anatomy and physiology. Her interest is on the observable human behaviors that brains trigger in their owners. Fine’s writing is witty and charming, but you can’t speed-read it. Just because her writing isn’t academic and dull, doesn’t mean it isn’t thorough and precise.  You need to pay attention.

Chapter 7, “The Weak-Willed Brain: The Prima Donna Within” holds ideas of particular relevance to teachers because we phrase many of the tasks we give students  in ways that disassociate will, determination, mind, imagination, behavior, conscious effort, think, and even make up your mind from the congregation of cells we call the brain. Fine deliberately connects those terms to the brain.

For example, she says, “The conscious is not every good at multitasking,” and “the will is feeble, drained by emotions; it is thin-skinned, and has woefully limited powers of concentration.”  Because of those limits, she says, when you need to change behavior (your own or those of a student), you should concentrate on one behavior at a time.

Fine’s book is relevant to older teens and adults and might be used in the second semester of a two-semester course as background reading for writing prompts. It’s certainly is a good book to have on your classroom shelves for students to browse.

A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives. Cordelia Fine. W. W. Norton. © 2006. First published as paperback 2008. 243 p.  Available in hardback, paperback, Kindle, and MP3 formats.

©2021 Linda G. Aragoni

 

 

When is more practice all that’s needed?

Ball player and musician each practicing .
What’s the point at which practice will improve writing skill all by itself?

Underlying most educational programs is an assumption that beyond a certain point all that’s necessary for students to become better at that subject is more practice. Whether or not that assumption is true across the curriculum is debatable, but I find the premise useful in teaching writing.

Students don’t need to know a lot of stuff in order to learn to write nonfiction. Most of what they need to know is really about how to plan a piece of writing. Unlike something like grammar, where the rules are the same for every sentence, planning a piece of writing is tough because very writing assignment is different. That’s why learning to write seems like such a long slog for students and their teachers. But once students master the skill of identifying a single assertion to discuss and picking three reasons why that assertion is true, they’re two-thirds of the way to being able to pull together a document that focuses on that single assertion and mostly makes sense.

I know that even in a half year course that meets three full hours a week in person or online, I can’t get a group of adult students to all write comfortably. A couple students may have enough previous experience to write quite well, but the majority will still have to push themselves to complete each writing assignment. The best I can do—what I’ve decided must be my goal—is for each student to write three competent papers in a row.

When a student can write three consecutive papers that are competent work, that tells me that all that student needs get better at writing is more practice. They don’t need me any more. They can get that writing practice in other courses and in other subjects.

What for you is the point at which all your students need only more practice—without additional input from you—in order to become better writers? Define that point and you’ve defined your goal as a writing teacher.

When you reach that goal post, you’ll no longer have to drive students through the basics. Instead, you’ll be able to talk to each student as one writer to another. That’s when teaching writing becomes fun.

©2020  Linda G. Aragoni

Teaching writing online: Three practices that work

If you’ve been required to become an online writing teacher during the Covid pandemic, the difficulty of teaching students to write in an online class may have driven you to the point of despair.

I know that feeling all too well.

In recent years, I’ve typically been expected to provide an entire writing course online to employed adults in eight weeks. A writing course should provide a minimum of 100 hours of actual writing practice to get students to the point at which all that’s required for them to continue improving their writing skills is more practice. It is clearly impossible for me to give my students that amount of writing practice within an eight week period: They would need nearly two hours of free time a day to accomplish it.

In order to get anywhere near the minimum amount of practice, I’ve developed unorthodox procedures to eliminate any activities that are not absolutely necessary and give students as many hours of actual writing practice as I can possibly cram into eight weeks. The process is flexible, easy-to-learn, and it works for all kinds of expository nonfiction writing: It’s the process I’ve used for newspaper reporting, magazine articles, nonfiction books and what is politely called ephemera. (You may refer to ephemera as junk mail, but you won’t sound nearly as well-educated.)

You can reduce the stress of online teaching by adopting three of my practices. They’re equally applicable to teaching students grades seven through 12 as they are to teaching college students.

Here are three strategies that enable me to give students a maximum of writing experience in a minimum amount of time.

1. Don’t use traditional textbooks.

Icon represents textbooks
Teach writing without textbooks.

In lieu of a textbook, I have a list of eight writing strategies for expository writers. My list condenses what students must learn to do into eight imperative sentences, none longer than five words.

By learn, I mean not only that students memorize the 34-words list, but that they also are able to apply the concepts and skills inherent in those strategies to different expository writing situations. In some writing situations students encounter, they won’t be able to apply the strategies in their pure form, so they must understand the objectives of the strategies well enough to be able to accomplish them via some non-standard method.

If you’ve seen old films about World War II, you may recall situations in which the good guys in a risky situation have to devise a new way of achieving an objective. Soldiers might have needed to blow up a bridge, but they couldn’t accomplish that objective in the way they’d practiced, so they had to improvise to make use of resources at hand. A similar ability to improvise to achieve a writing objective when the actual writing situation is different from the “typical writing situation” is what I mean when I say students know the eight strategies.

2. Limit learners to prompts you assign.

one-way sign
Limit students to your choice of prompts.

I don’t allow a great deal of learner choice in the way you probably would define the term. All my writing assignments require expository nonfiction writing on communications-related topics. That’s how I give students authentic “English class” topics and still provide a way for them to bring in their out-of-class experiences. 

One of the writing prompts in my PenPrompts collection Ready, Set, Write for not-yet-competent writers is this:

“In an I/E text, discuss 2 to 5 words used to change public perception of some topic, issue, or product in each of three fields of human endeavor.”

Word choices are definitely an English class topic. My writing prompt allows students to draw on both their in-school and their out-of-school knowledge to identify fields in which the choice of terms affects public perception. This year, politics would probably be on most students’ lists. Other fields where word choices matter include such different fields as sales and marketing, education, science, law, economics, real estate, and teaching.

3. Provide everything writers need in one place.

a double-sided sheet of paper
Put all students need in one place.

All the formal writing prompts I assign to students I embed  in a self-contained writing lesson that’s rarely longer than both sides of a single sheet of paper. In lieu of having students look things up in textbooks, each lesson gives students all the information they need to get started on the assignment. For not-yet-competent writers that includes a working thesis that responds to the prompt and a writing skeleton™ so they can quickly “prime their brains” to notice information that may be relevant to their assignment. As they do each assignment, that writing prompt’s lesson drags them through a single  problem-solving process that is repeated in greater or lesser detail in each writing prompt’s lesson material.

A few final words.

I’ve been fortunate so far in being provided with learning management systems to use in teaching writing online rather being required to use a business presentation technology. My students and I have communicated entirely in writing, so every student-teacher interaction reinforced the need to communicate clearly in writing. If you are stuck with Zoom or some other program developed for oral presentations rather than for online teaching and learning, you will have much more difficulty teaching writing online and students will have much more difficulty learning to write in the online environment. I wish that were not the case, but that’s reality.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Making decisions that make sense: 3 nonfiction books

covers of featured literary nonfiction
Three very different works of literary nonfiction.

From my third quarter literary non-fiction reading, I have three paperbacks to recommend, which each use true historical accounts to illustrate each author’s thesis. None of the books is ponderous reading, but each is likely to present some challenge for teens or young adult readers, beginning with the fact that none of the three is about pleasant subjects. However, each of the books tackles an important topic and each could be used by teachers in several disciplines, either individually or as a team with each teacher contributing the perspective from their own discipline.

Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation

The Greatest Generation. Tom Brokaw. Delta, 1998. 412 pages. Paperback

Greatest generation book cover
He went overseas. She stayed behind.

The Greatest Generation is TV journalist Tom Brokaw’s tribute to the men and women who served in America’s armed forces during World War II. Brokaw presents a scrapbook-like collection of his interviews with military personnel and the families they left behind. Combat plays a minor part in their war years’ experiences.

I’d hoped to find The Greatest Generation useful for classroom use, but I’m not sure today’s high school and college students would see the characters in the same light Brokaw does.  His stories are snapshots of what would be today’s students’ great-great-grandparents. The names of most of the famous people Brokaw tells about would draw a blank stare from today’s students.

I’m not sure young people today would understand why Brokaw admires heroes who rejected the spotlight: American culture no longer values reticence. And in some ways, even to me, Brokaw’s adulation seems overly sentimental (as well as overly long).

Stories in the book that are most likely to gain traction with young people are those about people who were discriminated against during WWII: women, Blacks, and Japanese.  Because Brokaw’s work is relatively unemotional reportage, students might not find even these true stories understandable unless a savvy teacher pairs them with fictional accounts of similar situations.

Blunder by Zachery Shore

Blunder: Why Smart People Make Bad Decisions. Zachary Shore. Bloomsbury, 2008. 260 p. Paperback

Cover of Shore's book "Blunder"Blunder is a book about how people think and why their thinking goes wrong, even if they are very smart people with very good intentions.  Zachary Shore approaches his topic as an historian, rather than as a cognitive psychologist, using famous (and some infamous) historical figures to show how and why leaders in fields such as government, the military, and business made bad decisions with widespread impact.

Shore devotes one chapter to each of eight different types of blunders. He gives the blunders memorable names like “Exposure Anxiety,” which he defines as the fear of being seen as weak, and “Static Cling,” the refusal to accept a changing world. Readers won’t have to look further than each week’s news to some authority figure somewhere in the world making the blunders today.

Shore draws heavily on his knowledge of 20th century events such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam Conflict, and George W. Bush’s post 9/11 War on Terror.  I suspect today’s teens and young adults would have little familiarity with those events. They probably would more readily grasp stories of individuals dealing with issues of narrower impact, such as unhealthy eating or depression.

Shore devotes a final chapter to how individuals can mitigate the effects of their own blundering impulses.

Blunder would be a good book for use by classes in two or more different disciplines, such as history, psychology, and English. Such use would allow students to get direction from three perspectives about how to understand and use Shore’s insights.

Voices from the Holocaust, Jon E. Lewis, ed.

Voices from the Holocaust. Edited by Jon E. Lewis. Skyhorse, 2012. Paper. 305 pp.

Cover of Voices from the Holocaust
Concentration camp survivors freed by Allied forces.

Anti-Semitism had a long history in Germany; Hitler made it government policy.  Germans readily accepted it because they blamed Jews for their defeat in World War I. Anti-Semitism was Hitler’s way to make Germany great again.

Editor Jon E. Lewis arranges historical documents in chronological order, without comment other than to identify the writers, if known.  Beginning with the years 1933-38, the documents reveal how outsiders initially saw the SS as a sadistic type of criminal gang, only later realizing they were getting ready for a war against their enemies, including the Jews within their borders.

Part II (covering events from 1939 until Jan. 19, 1942) shows Germany setting up its extermination program. Documents in this section include Rudolf Hess’s description of the Zykon B gas trial at Auschwitz on Sept. 3, 1941, at which a sickened Himmler, who had never before seen dead people, had to be led away.

Part III is devoted to the Final Solution, 1942-1946. It includes diary accounts of deportations to concentrations camps and descriptions of conditions in the camps. When the British arrived at Bergen-Belsen, there were 35,000 unburied corpses and about 30,000 living inmates.

One of the most poignant stories in Voices is that told by Franciscek Zabecki about an incident he observed at the Treblinka Railway station in which an SS man’s dog found a baby in a thicket beside its dead mother. The dog whimpered and licked the baby, refusing to kill it. The SS beat the dog, killed the baby, and finally dominated the dog into obedience.

Voices ends with a list taken from the Nazi’s own records of the estimated number of Jews killed, listed by both country and by the percentage of the Jewish population annihilated.

It might be good to pair Anne Frank’s Diary with Voices from the Holocaust to show students that Anne Frank’s misery was a broken fingernail compared to what other Jews experienced.

what to look for in literary nonfiction
Literary nonfiction works that include illustrations are a plus.

©2020 Linda Aragoni

Pattern recognition is a life skill

Three apartment floor plans identical except for colors
A single floor plan is used in three apartments, each of which has a different owner.

The ability to recognize patterns is an essential life skill. Whether a pattern is learned by association, the way a very young child learns to associate certain sounds with being fed, or at a sophisticated level using spreadsheets and graphs, the ability to see and derive meaning from patterns in data is vital to humans’ existence.

Not all students come to school able to recognize patterns. Absent direct instruction, some of them will remain unable to recognize patterns throughout their schooling. I’ve had students in their thirties who couldn’t recognize patterns. Most students can develop pattern recognition skill simply by having their attention called to patterns in the class content they need to learn. You need to deliberately, habitually, draw students’ attention to patterns in the class content they must learn.

Deliberately look for patterns.

If you’re going to teach successfully, you need to be sensitive to the presence of patterns in the material you teach. If you can see patterns in a large number of individual cases, you can—and should—condense that vast number of cases to a fraction of its original size. The condensed version—the pattern— can be more readily taught to students than the dumpster-sized loads of individual cases.

Patterns don’t produce replicas.

It’s very important to note that individual examples of a pattern are not replicas of the pattern. A paper pattern may be used to produce objects made from fabric, sheet metal, or cardboard boxes. In the hands of a skilled workman, a single pattern can produce objects with very different appearances and very different functions.

A visitor to the apartments of the Blacks, the Greens, and the Browns, shown at the top of this blog post, might not be consciously aware of the common floor plan even though all three were built by the same construction crew from the same blueprint. The owners put their individual stamps on their homes with different furnishings and distinctive decorations. Similarly, writers put their own individual stamp on writing they built following a pattern.

Patterns simplify.

Part of your teaching job is to impress upon students that being able to see patterns simplifies their lives.  Something as simple as putting your house key in the same place every day or putting your mask in the same place every day is a pattern that saves you from a frantic turn-the-house-upside-down search before you can make a 10-minute run to the grocery. Identifying a new place to put your keys/mask every day wouldn’t be efficient; it would be dumb.

In just that same way, having a pattern for planning a piece of nonfiction writing lets students concentrate on what they need to accomplish, instead of trying every day to invent a new way to organize their writing. If you can teach students that patterns automate routine procedures, they’ll have time and attention to devote to the task at hand. When there’s already a pattern available for organizing most nonfiction writing—thesis and support—it isn’t efficient to expect students to identify a new way to organize their writing every day; it’s dumb.

Identify course concepts.

For convenience—I’m a big fan of convenience—I suggest starting with one course for which you have what you think is a pretty good textbook. Use that text’s table of contents to help you identify the essential concepts within its subject matter. There are usually a lot of concepts, but far fewer of them than there are individual facts.

Identify concepts that are also patterns.

If possible, reduce the list of concepts by identifying those that are also patterns. For example, when the Common Core State Standards were compiled, they realized that all the different ways of organizing short, nonfiction writing—that long list of “types of essays” in English books—boiled down to just three patterns:  narrative, argument and informative/expository texts.That was a stroke of genius. They distilled what students needed to learn to about 20 percent of its prior size.

When you have a list of essential course patterns, you have all the information students will need to memorize before they can begin to work with individual data points.  (Actually, you’ll have more than just essential course patterns, and you’ll have to put the other stuff aside to concentrate on the patterns.)

Teach concepts via descriptions.

Most of the time, we can start teaching using descriptions to identify objects or concepts rather than taking time to teach course vocabulary. Were you required to learn the correct names of the parts of a shoelace before you learned to tie your shoes?  I’ll bet you weren’t. I’d also bet a small sum that you can’t tell me right now the name of the hard things on the ends of shoelaces. There are many objects and processes and other thingies you engage with daily that you can’t identify by their proper names. The world doesn’t come to a screeching halt if you don’t know an aglet from a piglet.

You can plunge into having students work with specific examples rather than presenting abstract and theoretical content and they will pick up the correct terminology as they work. Working with examples—even if the examples are written descriptions—is more like hands-on activity than listening to your lecture, stimulating as that may be. Even students who think they hate your subject would rather do something—anything—than listen to a teacher lecture.

Related post: Boys need help to see patterns.

© 2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Literary nonfiction for teachers

covers of 3 featured works of literary nonfiction
Their covers reveal the tone if not the content of these literary nonfiction books.

The literary nonfiction I read during the second quarter of 2020 was disappointing in terms of finding books that could be read by teens and college students. All three books I chose turned out to be more appropriate for teachers of a certain age. (You know who you are.) The three are Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, and The Great War in America by Garrett Peck.

Gift from the Sea

by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Vintage Books, 1991, 138 p.

Photograph of a shell is on cover of book
The writing is as calm as the cover image.

First published in 1955, Gift from the Sea is a tranquil account of a brief vacation by the sea during which author Anne Morrow Lindbergh reflected on her life in particular and the lives of women in general. Just under 50 when she wrote the book, she had had a far from tranquil life, as Wikipedia will tell you. She was an aviation pioneer along with her husband, Charles. The couple’s first child was kidnapped in 1932 amid national hysteria.

In Gift from the Sea, Morrow Lindbergh writes as wife, mother, and writer, reflecting on her different roles and how best to deal with the conflicting demands on her time and attention. She finds solitude essential for her if she’s to be able to connect to others.

Gift from the Sea is a lovely, lyrical book, but it’s not a book for teens and twenty-somethings, nor a book for men. It’s for nurturing women, desperate for time to be nourished.

Outliers: The Story of Success

by Malcolm Gladwell, Little Brown, 2008, 309 p.

One marble is separated from a group of marbles
What makes one individual stand out?

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell tackles the question “Why do some people succeed far more than others?” After extensive—and fascinating—research Gladwell found that while intelligence, personality, and hard work play a part in success, many of the most important factors are that successful people were just lucky. They were born at the right time in the right place and those factors gave them unusual opportunities to do things for which they had the interest, training, and skills that permitted them to seize those opportunities.

Gladwell can make complicated material easy to read. Adult students and teens in dual-enrollment programs could read Outliers, but not all of them should. Folks who already think the world is against them could find Outliers depressing. Like Gift from the Sea, Outliers requires readers have enough maturity to be able to accept unpleasant realities without feeling victimized.

The Great War in America: World War I and Its Aftermath

by Garrett Peck, Pegasus Books, 2018. 414 p.

A dark photo of the celebration in New York City of WWI's end
Celebration is dimmed in the context of WWI’s impact on America.

Many historians have written about the impact of World War I on Europe, in particular about how the war’s end held the seeds of World War II. Garret Peck focuses his study on how America’s involvement in the war and more particularly Woodrow Wilson’s role in the peace negotiations afterward reverberated throughout the US. I’ve written in another post about Peck’s discussion of the 1918 flu pandemic.

Most general readers will need a map of Europe and lists of who was who in the European capitals  and the American government in 1918 to help them sort out what’s happening at the international level.

Peck writes well. Some of his scenes are almost cinematographic. They make me wish for TV series about Wilson’s life in the White House done in the BBC manner.

© 2020 Linda G. Aragoni


In accordance with my normal practice of posting about literary nonfiction books the first Friday of each quarter, I had intended to post this on July 3. I not only failed to post the material, but I deleted what I’d already written. I apologize to anyone who had been waiting with bated breath for the latest installment. I just recently realized my mistake.

Senior moments are lasting a lot longer these days than they used to.

Good writers must be good planners

To do competently the writing tasks ordinary people get stuck with, a person doesn’t need to be a really good writer, but the individual needs to become a really good planner.

Target with unusually large bull's eye
The writer’s goal should be important and unmistakable.

Planning separates the wannabe writers from real writers. The wannabe writer is wrapped up in himself. Real writers are focused on the one really important point they must make in the piece they are to write.

Real writers push themselves to identify their central point quickly. They realize that getting an early start is an insurance policy against unpredictable events close to deadline.

Real writers focus all their attention on the main point they’ve decided their work must convey. That point dictates what supporting evidence they’ll need.

Real writers understand that the quality of their sources will largely determine the quality of their information. So, they systematically look for people who have genuine expertise: a combination of personal experience plus study of the work of other individuals whose experience is even broader or at an even deeper level.

person at start of path to distant place
Having a clear goal lets the writer to take advantage of evidence sources on the way.

Having a systematic way to identify people with expertise gives real writers a fast start, which, in turn, gives them more time to dig into the evidence, to see where it leads, and to follow up if it leads to new evidence or new sources of evidence.

Planning, fortunately, is a skill whose foundations can be taught fairly quickly. Ripple strategy is a simple, easy to learn process for developing an initial list of sources to consult. In a very few minutes, writers can have an initial list of sources to contact.

Water droplet has set off ripples in a pond
Writers start from their knowledge and work outward to find evidence sources.

Moreover, ripple strategy alerts writers’ brains to watch for additional evidence sources even when the writers are seemingly immersed in other activities.

Having a familiar planning strategy gives a writer a significant edge over someone who treats each new writing project as totally new and totally unfamiliar. Time saved by reusing a strategy can be devoted to researching and writing.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Real writing is necessary writing

In 2020, real writing doesn’t mean an essayist at Walden Pond, or a poet in an attic, or a novelist in a retreat in the Berkshires.

https://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/walden-site-of-thoreaus-hut.jpg
1908 photo of the site of the cottage near Walden Pond in which Henry David Thoreau lived 1845-1847.

Real writing is necessary writing. It’s everyday, nonfiction writing. It’s not “lovely,” or “powerful,” or “gut-wrenching.” It’s ordinary, routine, mostly dull, and mostly unmemorable.

Real writing answers real people’s questions:

  • Why did your daughter miss school Wednesday?
  • Where can I buy 3 dozen rolls of toilet paper?
  • How many days will we need a dump truck when we gut the Jericho Inn?

Real writing is writing before it’s been scribbled out, worked over, and revised for a fourth time.

Real writing is what the customer service representative types in the chat window. Real writing is fast writing. It’s adequate, competent, good enough.

The aim of real writing is first drafts that say clearly everything that needs to be said in no more words than are absolutely necessary. And real writing aims at clean first drafts, free from mistakes that either force people to reread sentences twice to figure out their meaning or that make people laugh out loud.

Real writing is what is expected from writing teachers.

Real writing is what teachers are expected to teach their students to do.

Real writing is what every high school graduate should be able to do.

© 2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Two young people’s true adventures

My 2020 first quarter literary nonfiction reading included two books that focus on the formative years of two very different people: twentieth century aviation pioneer Beryl Markham and eighteenth century wannabe author—and surelywas forger—William-Henry Ireland. Both books are readily available, new and used, from booksellers and in libraries.

West with the Night

Beryl Markham. West with the Night. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1983. (paperback) ISBN: 0-86547-118-5

Beryl Markham in aviator attireWest with the Night is an autobiography written by a pioneering woman quite different from the calico and wagon train pioneer typically encountered in American classrooms. Beryl Markham was born in England but,  from the time she was four, the motherless child was reared in Kenya where her teachers and playmates were the natives.

Markham’s story opens with her childhood adventures going hunting barefoot with her Murani friends, seeing “dik-dik and leopard, kongoni and warthog, buffalo, lion, and the ‘hare that jumps.'” She relates an incident which her friend Bishon Singh told her father Beryl had been “moderately eaten by the large lion.”

Markham’s father clawed a farm out of the land, in true pioneer fashion. It was beginning to be profitable when a drought killed it. Markham’s father moved to Peru to raise horses. Beryl, 17, decided to stay in Africa and try for a job training thoroughbreds. Her father advised she saddle up and move to Molo, a town where he knew a few stable owners would be willing to risk having a girl train horses. “After that, work and hope,” he said. “But never hope more than you work.”

Markham was becoming a successful trainer when a chance encounter with a pilot changed her trajectory for a few years. She took flying lessons and became a bush pilot.

In 1936 she decided to try to become the first person to fly solo from London to New York, which meant flying for more than 24 hours in the dark. In the cold atmosphere, the fuel tank vents iced over. Starved of fuel, her plane went down on Cape Breton Island. West became the first woman to fly the Atlantic solo from east to west, but hadn’t made it to New York as she’d hoped to do.

photo of Markham's downed plane
Markham’s crashed plane shares space with Hemingway’s praise.

Markham ends her autobiography with that Atlantic flight, but she went on to have further adventures. She went back to Africa and resumed her career as a trainer, becoming the most successful horse trainer in Kenya for a time.

When first published, West with the Night was included in the U.S.A.’s Armed Services Editions, and Ernest Hemingway praised the book, but it wasn’t a great commercial success. The autobiography was rediscovered and republished in 1983. It ranks eighth in National Geographic‘s list of best adventure books. It’s a beautifully written story that both teenage boys and girls can appreciate.

The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare

Doug Stewart. The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare: A Tale of Forgery and Folly. Cambridge, MA, Da Capo Press, 1910. ISBN: 978-0-360-81831-8

Shakespeare peeks from right hand side of old manuscriptIf students are inspired by Markham’s autobiography, let’s hope they won’t be inspired by William-Henry Ireland’s story as told by Doug Stewart.

Stewart, a freelance journalist, tells the true story of 19-year-old William-Henry Ireland who in 1795 began writing documents that he passed off as the works of Shakespeare.

His father, Samuel Ireland, who thought William-Henry a dolt, got him a job as an unpaid apprentice to a lawyer who was never in the office. Most of William-Henry’s work was sorting through old documents.

William-Henry’s father, an ambitious author and illustrator of a series of travel books, had a keen instinct for what appealed to the public taste and he was obsessed with everything Shakespearean. He collected memorabilia, particularly items associated with famous or notorious figures. Samuel was not adverse to fudging the truth when it was to his advantage to do so.

William-Henry was not stupid, but he had been a failure in school. He had seen no reason for learning Latin or math since he had no plans to use either. (Does this sound like anybody in your classes?) However,  he read voraciously, was fascinated by the theater, and loved to copy verse by his favorite authors in an elegant, Elizabethan script.

William-Henry penned his first forgery more or less as a joke. When his father and his father’s friends were taken in, William-Henry was both amused and angry: He was amused that experts didn’t recognize the deception and angry that his father didn’t think him smart enough to have concocted the forgery and its cover story.

Samuel saw fame and profits if William-Henry could get him more manuscripts. Samuel particularly wanted something by Shakespeare: no handwritten copies of his plays were knows to exist. Samuel pushed his son to produce the desired scripts, not realizing that William-Henry would literally produce them.

Stewart takes readers on a tour through late 18th century London using the psychologically damaged William-Henry and his crazy family as the tour guides. Stewart’s text includes 16 pages of intriguing images, and his descriptions of the English playhouses at the end of the 18th century will entertain anyone with even a passing interest in theater.

The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare will probably be heavier reading for high school students than Markham’s story, because Stewart’s book requires wider background knowledge. You might to have students for whom the book is too tough read Stewart’s article about William-Henry Ireland’s forgery career  “To Be…Or Not: The Greatest Shakespeare Forgery”  in Smithsonian magazine. On the other hand, the emotional and personality issues that the book raises may make it worth the extra effort for students who have what are politely called “issues at home.”

 

© 2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Pandemics in historical perspective

photo of armistice celebrationI intend to recommend Garrett Peck’s The Great War in America: World War I and Its Aftermath among my second quarter literary nonfiction picks, but since Covid-19 has made Peck’s information about the “Spanish flu” pandemic that began during World War I timely now, I’ll share some passages that got my attention—who knew there was an army installation called Camp Funston?— and save my overall comments for July 3.

Because it’s hard to get books now, I’ve quoted passages that English or social students teachers in particular might find useful to help students look at current events in an historical perspective. (Book details below.)

Precursor to the influenza epidemic: measles

As conscripts and enlistees were assembled to go to war, “close proximity became a breeding ground for infectious diseases. Measles struck the U. S. Army in late 1917, killing 5,741 soldiers from secondary infections, mostly pneumonia.”  (p. 174)

The “Spanish flu” epidemic began in Kansas

The so-called Spanish flu “probably began in Haskell County, Kansas in January 1918, then soon spread to Camp Funston (now part of Fort Riley) in March.”  The flu spread when soldiers were transferred, principally via New York City, for transport in cramped shipboard quarters to France. (p.174)

The name Spanish flu was given to the influenza outbreak because the King of Spain got sick from it. Prior to that, the flu hadn’t made headlines because the press in the U.S., Great Britain, France and their allies was censored. “Spain was not at war, their press was not censored.”  (p. 174)

The initial flu outbreak wasn’t particularly deadly. “Most people recovered after three days.” (p. 174)

The Midwest virus turned lethal in Boston

The first lethal strain of the flu virus appeared at Camp Devens near Boston.
“People suffered severe headaches and bodily pain. Bodies turned blue like they were being strangled, while victims coughed up blood and their eardrums ruptured. Many became delirious. The deadly influenza could kill someone in half a day. The flu was especially lethal for young adults, whose vigorous immune systems filled their lungs with fluid and white cells, resulting in higher numbers of deaths from pneumonia.” (p.175)

“Influenza struck the nation’s capital with a vengeance in fall 1918. Thousands were sickened….hospitals ran out of space…morgues soon ran out of coffins. Gravediggers were in short supply as well….About 3,500 people in Washington, D.C. died from influenza.” (p. 176)

Flu was more lethal than war

In World War I, “more American troops were killed by influenza than by German bullets.” (p. 190)

Influenza continued after the Great War ended

“A third wave of influenza would strike [America] as the virus mutated again, but it was not nearly as deadly….People continued getting sick into 1920 and even beyond, though the virus was losing its virulence.” p. 176

The flu went global

“The influenza of 1918 killed at least twenty-one million people worldwide, more than the combat deaths from the Great War. Later estimates ranged from fifty to one hundred million deaths worldwide. In the U.S. alone, an estimated 675,000 people died from the flu. The influenza was the deadliest plague in human history.” (p. 176)

About Garrett Peck’s book

Garrett Peck. The Great War in America: World War I and Its Aftermath. Pegagus Books ©2018. 415 p. ISBN 978-68177-878-5 garrettpeck.com

History and English teachers will find lots of “trivia” that they can use to make the events and the literature of the first quarter of the 20th century come to life for students.

People who care about book design will want to hold a copy of the book. The cover design is by Faceout Studio, Charles Brock. The photo is a familiar one of the welcome given troops returning from World War I.  The lettering is embossed so you can read the letters with your fingers.

This content previously appeared on my PenPrompts blog.