Posts Tagged ‘memoir’

“Trust the Gush” to “Second Genius”

True confession:  sometimes I am as bad as my students when it comes to revision–or as it may more truthfully be called–resisting revision.  You see, I can write pretty good first drafts.   I tell myself that I revise as I write, and it is true that I agonize over my words and even cross out as I draft.  But the truth is, once I have a draft down, I want to be done and go on to the next thing.

Yesterday, I had a chance to revisit my resistance to revision as I spent the day in a workshop with Tom Romano.  (If you ever have a chance to work with Tom Romano, run to sign up as fast as you can.  He is wise and witty and one of the most intense listeners I have ever encountered–a master teacher.)  Through reading and discussing and writing, Romano asked me to do the things I ask of my students but that I don’t often do myself.  It was good to take on the role of a student and remember the power of the things we do as teachers.  I came away with a wealth of ideas, but I want to focus now on two aspects of writing:  drafting and revising.

We started with a picture.  I don’t know how many times in the past year I have come across writers sharing how they use sketches and doodles and images in their writing process.  I even ask (insist, really) my students to draw when writing or responding to literature.  I assure them that it’s not the artistic ability that matters.  It’s the focus on images that is powerful.  Can I draw?  No.  So I don’t use drawing when I draft or revise.  I might be missing out on a powerful writing tool.  Yesterday, I started with a picture because Romano asked me to.  I didn’t follow the directions and create frames for a storyboard.  Mine is more free-flowing, centered on the indelible image I chose to write about.  Don’t laugh at my stick people..


The next words of wisdom offered were “Trust the Gush.”  I hope Romano won’t mind if I steal this phrase to use with my 7th graders next year.  Trust the words that pour out and don’t worry about them….yet.  Even though I was sleepy after lunch, I did get started on a story that has been at the top of my mind for some reason this summer.  I didn’t finish the draft, but I got a good start in the fifteen minutes or so we got to write.

I stared at the window crank on the car door.  Which way was I supposed to turn it to close the window?  For the life of me, I could not remember.  And it was for my life that I had to remember.

Bees covered the outside of the window.  One by one they crawled through the tiny crack that had been left open.  Once inside the care, they immediately dive-bombed the two largest targets they could find–my little brother and me.

As the first few bees wormed their way in and buzzed around, I began screaming and flailing my arms around.  So did my brother.  It didn’t do any good.  The bees kept  coming in.  Ten, twenty, thirty bees.  I could feel  jabs of pain on my head and across my arms, but I couldn’t stop it.

After what felt like an eternity, I tumbled over the seat to land behind the steering wheel.  I knew I had to shut the window.  My brother was beyond hysterical.  My dad had run off to avoid being stung.

Not bad for a quick draft, but Romano then asked us to look for “second genius” by revising, tinkering with our words.  I didn’t change much in the time we had, but I could see the impact those few changes gave to this piece of writing.  That’s the power of revision that I want to share with my students.  They, too, can tinker with changing verbs, cutting extra words, adding sensory details.  I hope they see the power for themselves.  Here are the changes I made in the third paragraph:

As the first few bees wormed their way in and buzzed around, I began screaming and flailing my arms.  So did my brother.  It did no good.  The bees swarmed through the invisible crack in the window.  Ten, twenty, thirty bees.  The buzzing swelled louder than our screams.  I could feel hot jabs of pain on my head and arms, but I couldn’t stop it.

I’m still tinkering and excited about where it will lead.


Two more memoir book trailers

Here are the last two of the book trailers my morning classes did over the memoirs we read.  I am thrilled with their productions.  I’m not so thrilled with the technological problems we encountered.  We did learn much from this experience, including patience and perseverance.

Here is another book trailer for Night by Elie Weisel:

The last one (but not least) is over The Lost Boy by Dave Pelzer:

Ghosts of War by Ryan Smithson

Ryan Smithson was just a teenager when terrorists flew airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.  After graduating from high school, he joined the Army Reserve.  At age nineteen, he was sent to Iraq.  His book, Ghosts of War (Harper Collins 2009), chronicles that year in Iraq.

Like most people here, I learn about what happens in Iraq through the news media–television, newspapers, and magazines.  Smithson gives a glimpse of what the war is like from a different perspective–that of the soldiers living through it every day.  The war in Iraq looks pretty different through those eyes.  I am glad I had the opportunity to read and learn from his story.  I want to thank my student, Jeremy, who donated a copy of the book for my classroom because it is not the kind of story I would have picked up on my own.

For my students who are still wondering why we read and write so much, I want to share with them from Smithson’s story.  Once he is back home, he struggles to readjust to the life he had before.  His family wants to know what it was like, but how can he find the words to describe it?  It is literature that gives him the answer.  First he describes how reading helped him during his time in Iraq:  ”Every book was alive as I read it, lying in my sleeping bag.  I wasn’t in the godforsaken Middle East fighting a war.  I was in my own country:  a country of the mind…High school defines literature with terminology…But experience defines literature as more than words on paper.  Not just escape, but more important, words that have the power to heal” (Smithson 295).  That’s what I hope my students learn to take away from the reading they do.

While taking a college composition class (that’s a writing class), Smithson first writes about one of his experiences in Iraq.  With his teacher’s encouragement, he shares it with his classmates ate the end of the semester.  It is difficult to read, but doing so changes both his classmates and himself.  I love how he describes the power of story:  ”It’s funny, but all I did besides sit in a dump truck during the ambush was write a story about it.  It’s funny, but the story is what matters.  The story is what changes, at least for a moment, the way these people feel.  And what an empowering sensation it is to share it” (Smithson 300).


Memorable Memoirs

Once again, I am blown away by your writing.  Here are some of my favorite memoirs that you’ve posted on your blogs.  If you haven’t yet, click on these for some amazing reading!

It is definitely worth your time to read these.  As always, leave a quality comment to let the writer know how much you enjoyed it!

Maus II by Art Spiegelman

I’m not a big fan of graphic novels, but sometimes I will read one that I can’t put down.  That was the case with the very first graphic novel I ever read, Maus by Art Spiegelman.  The same is true of its sequel Maus II.   My thoughts are still haunted by the words and images Spiegelman uses to portray the horror of the Holocaust experienced by his father Vladek.

Maus II picks up Vladek’s story when he enters Auschwitz.  By a combination of luck and wits, Vladek survives the horror of Auschwitz and is even able to help his wife Anja, but the horrors never leave him.  The horrors continue to haunt him even until the present day.

Spiegelman alternates Vladek’s survival of Auschwitz with scenes from the present.  Vladek’s second wife has left him (his first wife, Spiegelman’s mother, commited suicide).  Now Art and his wife must help Vladek through this crisis and failing health.  Art is torn with guilt.  He loves his father, but his father drives him crazy.

Maus and Maus II are powerful introductions to the Holocaust.  If you have never tried a graphic novel, these will convince you that the form is not just for comics.

Where Were You?

I was at school, teaching a class of eighth graders.  Here is my story:

September Sky 

            “Where did I put that stack of papers?”  I muttered to myself as I looked for the copies of the handouts I needed to give my first class of the day.  “There they are!”  I seemed to always be scrounging at the last minute to find what I needed for class.  When would I ever get organized?

            “Mrs. McGriff, did you hear what happened?  A plane ran into the World Trade Center!”  Josh told me as he came into homeroom that morning.

            I looked up at Josh in disbelief.  “Josh, you can’t believe everything you hear.  That’s how rumors get started.”  I was always amazed at how quickly news traveled around the middle school.  Somehow without radios or televisions, my students seemed to know what had happened as soon as it had happened.  Of course, by the time the news made the rounds of the school, it had often changed quite a bit.  I knew from past experience that Josh—like many middle school students—was quick to pass on news, but did not often check the accuracy of what he heard first.

            Soon homeroom was over, and students in my second period class came into the room.  Small groups of students stood around the desks, talking and laughing before beginning the work of the day.  I hastily checked one more time for the handouts on using commas that we would go over in a few minutes. 

            “Hey, Mrs. McGriff, did you hear that a plane ran into the World Trade Center?”  Cory asked just as the bell rang.  Several other students looked up at me.

            Oh no, I thought.  Would this story not ever go away today?  But still, Cory was generally a pretty responsible student.  There was only one way to put an end to this and get on with class.   

            “All right, class,” I said.  “Let’s turn on the television.  If something like this really happened, it will be on all the channels.”  I couldn’t imagine an airplane running into the World Trade Center in New York.  It’s not like the pilot couldn’t see them from a long ways off.  And besides, I knew from my experience as a pilot that small planes couldn’t just ride over New York and buzz the tops of apartment buildings.  With as many airplanes that flew into and out of New York, small planes weren’t even allowed without meeting specific guidelines. I never imagined that someone would deliberately fly an airplane into a building.

            I turned on the classroom television, hoping to put an end to this latest rumor floating around school.  Little did I know that my whole world was about to change because Josh and Cory had been right.  I stepped back from the television, expecting to see one of the morning talk shows.  Instead, the somber faces of Peter Jennings and other reporters filled the screen.  The classroom grew silent as the reporters related that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. 

            Over and over again we watched the video play of the second airplane crashing into the other tower.  Plumes of white smoke poured into the bright blue sky.  I struggled to grasp the enormity of what had happened.  Before our eyes first one tower collapsed and then the other.  There was no hope for the people left inside.  The twin towers had their own zip code.  How many thousands of people were killed when the towers crashed?  What was it like for the people on the plane, knowing that they were going to crash into a building?  Did they know what was coming?  Not even the news reporters seemed sure of what was going on.   I could not get my mind around the fact that terrorists had hijacked two, three, four airplanes and deliberately crashed them into buildings.  Every time I thought of what it must have been like for the passengers on those planes, my mind ran into a brick wall.  It couldn’t be possible.

            Fear began to fill the room as other news reports filtered in.  A plane had struck the Pentagon in Washington.  Another plane was headed for the White House.  A plane crashed in Pennsylvania.  All airplanes had been ordered to land at the nearest airport.  Where was my brother?  He was a flight attendant for Delta.  Had he been working on one of the planes that crashed? 

            Several students began to cry.  I looked around the classroom.  My students’ faces reflected the questions in my own mind.  I was the teacher.  I was supposed to have the answers to their questions, to know how to lead them through this crisis.  But I didn’t have the answers.  I didn’t know what to do.  All I had was more questions.  Could I cry in front of my students?  How could I listen to their questions when my mind was racing with unanswered questions of my own?  I struggled to think of what to tell them that could help them cope with what was happening. 

            All through the rest of the day, I watched the news reports with my classes.  I still didn’t have any answers to their or my questions.  I still don’t have answers today.  I don’t know why any one would hate our country so much that they would be willing to die and to kill so many innocent people.  As I seek to find a sense of peace and safety in a world that has been changed forever, I echo the prayer my daughter repeated before dinner each night for months after this day:  God, please be with the people on the airplane and in the building.   


Ten years later I still don’t have answers.  I relate so well to Alan Jackson’s song “Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning.”  I will take time today to remember, to reflect, and to pray.  I mourn for those who died and stand in awe of those who rushed to help.  I give thanks that our country not only survived, but we have grown stronger as we pulled together. 

How will you remember and honor the legacy of 9-11 today? 

I Am a Star by Inge Auerbacher

iamstarInge Auerbacher was one of only 100 children to survive the Nazi concentration camp of Terezin in Czeckoslovakia. Over 15,000 children passed through the gates of Terezin from 1941 through 1945.   She tells of her family’s horrifying experiences as the Nazis loom every larger and closer over their fates in I Am a Star: Child of the Holocaust (Scholastic 1986).  Through a combination of luck and determination Inge survived with both of her parents.

Inge was just three on the night of Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass, November 9, 1938) and just seven when she was taken to Terezin.  She recounts the growing terror her family experienced as they lost their German citizenship, their home, and finally, their freedom within the walls of Terezin.  Against her personal memories, she provides the context of the Nazi’s rise to power in Germany and across Europe.  Photographs of Inge, her family, and Terezin bring the story into sharper focus.  Poems written by Inge shine light into the dark of the camp and make my heart ache for those who suffered and died.

If you have read Anne Frank:  The Diary of a Young Girl and want to learn more about the Holocaust, I Am a Star is a good place to start.

Homer’s Odyssey by Gwen Cooper

homers odysseyHomer’s Odyssey (Bantam Books Trade Paperbacks 2009) was not written for a teen audience, but it is the kind of book I would have read and enjoyed as a teen.  If you love cats or inspiring animal stories, you will like Gwen Cooper’s epic tale. 

Homer was a stray kitten with a slim chance to live.  An eye infection required the vet to remove both eyes completely.  Who in their right mind would want to adopt a totally blind kitten?  Gwen Cooper, that’s who.  Even though she already had two cats, Gwen opened her home and her heart to Homer.

Rather than letting darkness limit his world, Homer lived large.  He could scale seven-foot bookcases even if he couldn’t figure out how to sneak up on the other cats.  For some reason, they always saw him coming.  I was amazed at Homer’s feats.  He could catch flies in midair–just like the old man in Karate Kid.  He survived being trapped in an apartment near the World Trade Center for several days after September 11.  My favorite story, though, is how he chased away a midnight intruder from Gwen’s apartment.  That burgular didn’t know what was after him. 

I found Homer’s story to be inspiring and funny and amazing.  I hope I can face the world with as much gusto as Homer does, and I hope I can learn to see with my heart as well as he does. 

What is your favorite story of an amazing animal–real or fiction?

Some of my favorite memoirs

I know.  I took way too long to get these up here, but I hope it’s better late than never.  Some of your memoirs were fantastic.  I wanted to point you to some of my favorites so you can enjoy them, too.  Please visit these memoirs and tell the writer what you thought.   I’m just sorry it took me so long to put them up for you to enjoy.

If you are a sports fan, you will want to check out these stories.  Harrison writes about a homeroom that almost didn’t happen in “Baseball Revelation.”  Ashley makes a surprising catch at a baseball game.  Kate discovers that even swimmers can make “The ‘Homerun.‘”  Adam tells another baseball story in “The Ball that Hit the Fence.”  Keenan hit a homerun in “The Best Homerun Ever.”  Baseball and softball aren’t the only sports.  Courtney sets a new cross country record in “Every Second Counts.”  Archery is the new sport in school, and you guys have had tremendous success with it.  Read about the experiences of Meegan and Mistina at different tournaments.

For those of you who enjoy the great outdoors, I have a new blog to introduce you to written by a friend of mine from high school.  He is an avid hunter and fisherman and teaches hunter’s ed courses.  His new blog is Bill Howard’s Outdoors.  (I put a link to it on my blog under Fun Stuff.)  He’s looking for stories to share, so if you wrote one of these great hunting/fishing memoirs, you can email it to him at [email protected].  In the meantime, enjoy reading these stories.  Chase recreates the time he shot his first turkey in “Adrenaline Rush.”  I want to see the pictures of that turkey!  Ethan shot his first turkey in Ohio.  Anthony set his sights on a deer rather than a turkey.  If fishing is more your thing, check out what Blake pulled out of the water.  Maddy found “A Keeper” on her first fishing trip.  Keegan caught “The Big One” when he went fishing.  Carleesa won’t ever forget her first catfish. 

Sometimes experiences don’t go exactly as planned.  Sometimes the results are humorous as Alan describes in “Camping is Scary.”  Monica discovered the thrill of “The Loopty Loop” while riding four-wheelers.  If you haven’t figured it out yet, four-wheelers and dirt bikes can be dangerous.  Just ask Elliott as his dad learned “What to Expect from Me.”  Lexi had an altogether different “driving” experience.  Gee brings to life a very close call in “The Feeling of Being Scared.”  KK describes a different scary experience in “Shards of Glass.”  Sara discovered the hidden dangers of bobby pins in “What an Appetite.”  Riley had to leave home in the middle of the night for “The Evacuation.”  Trinaty had to leave home as well as she shares in her memoir.

People and pets go together, whether it’s the first or last time together.  Scarlett describes “Where It All Began” with her horse Prince.  Brooklyn describes her last moments with her cat Little Bit in “One More Minute.”  Sometimes the moments with our pets are not smooth sailing.  Imagine what it would feel like if a horse fell on top of you, for example.  You don’t have to imagine, just read Hunter’s “Excitement as a Teacher.”

Some of my favorite memoirs capture the daily moments of life.  That’s what these last stories do.  Adam Do. visits the Civil War, right here at the county park.  Katelyn discovered the best hiding place in “The Best Place.”  Ashton describes a scary moment with “The Stray Dog.”  Brittany recreates her first flight and discovers comfort in an unexpected place  in “We’ve Made It.”  Cole recreates the excitement of Christmas morning in “A Wrapped Up Christmas.” 

Memoirs can also be a tribute to someone you’ve loved and lost.  Ariel and Allie reflect on how much they miss their grandmothers.  Adi reflects on the death of a friend. 

Which ones are your favorite memoirs?

How to Write Your Life Story by Ralph Fletcher

I will definitely be turning to this book the next time I teach memoirs. This slim little book (under 100 pages) has much wisdom to share about writing the stories of your life. My favorite part is the variety of forms explored with memoir–from poetry to picture books to narratives.

In addition to sharing several memoirs from his own life, Fletcher interviews several popular YA writers who have written memoirs and explores different ways to craft your writing.

If you are interested in telling the story of your life, check this one out and pick up a pen and paper while you read.

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