Tag Archive for David Sedaris

Non-Fiction: Letters of Note & Letter Writing

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In February of 2011 Catherine Field wrote an op-ed for The New York Times that argued the attributes of letter writing.  Using her mother-in-law as an example, Field suggested that while email provides immediacy, letters establish intimacy.  While true, consider the last time you actually received a letter.  Not just a birthday card but an actual letter.

Time taken on letter writing seems non-existent, yet we see evidence of correspondence everywhere.  President Obama reads 10 letters each day, often answering two or three of those in his own hand.  Carolyn Hax, a syndicated advice columnist for The Washington Post, responds to a variety of correspondence on a daily basis.   Most major publications allow for “letters to the editor” regardless of their format.  Still, how many of your students actually know how to craft a letter or even an email in a way that is both engaging and appropriate?

We’ve spent this entire week discussing how to use Letters of Note as a “textual” resource.  But the site itself is evidence that fan letters do get answered.  The exercise today uses the resources from of Letters of Note and the Maria Popova’s post on Brain Pickings, a resource we’ve highlighted in the past, about a high school student’s Symbolism Survey.

  1. Have students read Popova’s overview as well as original story from The Paris Review that provides a bit more background.
  2. Have students discuss what would motivate an author or any celebrity to respond to a “fan.”  Have them examine letters from fans at Letters of Note.  I’ve included a moving example below from a parent to Patrick Stewart in regards to her son’s love of Star Trek before Duchenne muscular dystrophy ended his life.
  1. Ask that students review responses to fan letters from Letters of Note. You will want to select examples in advance as some of them have language inappropriate for school.  I’ve included some examples below.  Consider having them SOAPSTone, etc.

Letter Project to a Living Author or Journalist

You might then assign students the task of constructing their own letter based on those characteristics necessary to engage a person in the public eye.  A person they believe has little chance of responding to them.  Now, that could honestly be anyone but you might want to theme your focus.  You could set limits making it a living author or writer you’ve studied.  Have them write to columnists at The New York Times or The Washington Post.  Consider having them write to Brian Williams or Anderson Cooper.  Think about having them write to David Sedaris, Jonathan Safran Foer, Amy Tan, Ian McEwan, Khaled Hosseini, Sara Gruen, Aravind Adiga, or any author represented in your course.  You might even have them write a documentary filmmaker if you’ve used any in class.  The end goal is to have students practice voice and to get a response. They should come up with a way to do this without many limits/parameters.  A “fictionalized” conversation with Hemingway simply won’t do.  They need to struggle with the idea that this could actually be read and that filling in space won’t suffice.  Finally, have them give you a copy and have them mail one.  I’d even suggest displaying the best ones with the student’s permission of course.

Weekend Tech: Tweets are still #funny

 

In yesterday’s post I referenced The New York Times Article, Writer’s New Form: Tweet-Up Comedy.  One of the most interesting components to the piece was WitStream, an aggregator of humorous tweets.  Now I think WitStream is simply genius.  It helps that Michael Ian Black is one of the brains behind it, and I do like the idea of a “24 hour live comedy ticker.”  I am not recommending that you show the website/posts in their entirety to your students.  It can be a minefield.  Instead, take a screenshot of appropriate WitStream posts.  See example below:

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Writing & Voice: Day Two

Sometimes I forget that students struggle to understand the reasoning behind teaching literature.  Sure, they are very good at understanding plot, but how much of that is a result of sparknotes?  And yes, they are very good at seeing blatant symbols; what else is The Scarlet Letter to most them but a visible discussion about human sin and failing?  Where they struggle is in understanding how texts serve as professional models of writing.  And I struggle to teach them the importance of mimicking good writers in their essays and journals, paragraphs and reflections.

Creating student voice begins by having them blend their own ideas with the style of authors they’ve read.  Finding pieces that are accessible to students is a good place to start.  50 Essays: A Portable Anthology is a wonderful resource if you’re already using it for your classes.  If not, David Sedaris and Amy Tan, both of whom have featured essays in the anthology have works available online.

 

Give students a non-fiction text to read.  Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue” and David Sedaris “Us and Them” or “Let it Snow” are perfect for this type of an exercise.  They’re also enjoyable to read for both students and teachers.

These non-fiction pieces are great for classroom discussion since they examine the idea of family.  Have students focus on identifying:

  1. Phrasing and word choice that contribute to author voice
  2. Punctuation that helps to uncover author voice
  3. Details and storylines that create intimate conversations between author and reader.
  4. Engaging elements in the introductory paragraphs and reflection in the concluding paragraphs.

After your class has made a list of unique author characteristics, ask students to write, employing the characteristics of either Sedaris or Tan.  This can be a perfect way to practice learning voice for personal narratives or college application essays.

Beginning Assignment

Mimic David Sedaris’ style as respond to the prompt below. Your response should be one paragraph of 8 or more sentences

Discuss your favorite food related memory from elementary school.

Include:

  • Sensory descriptions
  • Witnesses-Who saw this occur?
  • Exaggeration-but only if it’s funny

 

 

Since creating good voice in student writing means “throwing out” bland sentences, know in advance that this paragraph will probably only manufacture 1 or 2 meaningful sentences.  Use the revision exercise below to work with those sentences.

 

Revision Assignment

  1. Choose the best two sentences from your food memory written in Sedaris’ style.
  2. Reread the Sedaris story (or give them a second story) in order to remember his writing style.
  3. Revise your best two sentences in order to completely create the “Sedaris effect.”

 

You can use this type of exercise multiple times and even ramp up the level of difficulty or change the outcome.  If you prefer argumentative or analytical writing, choose columnists like Maureen Dowd or Charles Krauthammer.  Instead of writing about the personal, have them write about research topics or current events mimicking the style of newspaper columnists.