Yesterday, I published a memory from my first grade year — “The Day My Teacher Died.”
Today I am writing a piece that is a snapshot of my thinking as I crafted it. However, before I begin unfolding my thinking, lest my narration of the crafting make the writing seem easy and sequential, a single day accomplishment, I must assure you it was not. That is to say, I drafted, threw away, and drafted again many times. My last draft was over a year ago. Early this month, I pulled it out and began working on it again, hoping I would complete it and publish it during SOL16. Having shared that, here are my thoughts as I crafted the story.
Off and on, over the years, I have attempted to write this memory. My recall of details and sequence of events is vivid. I remember names and what people said and did. I can see their faces; I can see the room. But that was not enough. There were always three problems that I couldn’t seem to solve. First, I didn’t know how to begin. No words would work. Second, I couldn’t decide when in the story to tell that my teacher died. The tone was all wrong no matter what I tried. And finally, I needed an ending that would pull it together, bring closure. So until I could solve those three problems, the story would remain tucked away. Perhaps I will never write it, I thought.
Then, in an airport bookstore, I picked up Henning Mankell’s Bridge to the Stars. On the first page I saw what I was looking for.
I could begin with an animal, adding something that was not in the real story, something that would help me tell it. (Remember in the prologue I wrote that the story was true, the account accurate, except for one detail in it?) I could begin tersely, with a fragment. And maybe I could use juxtaposition* to achieve the tone I wanted. I could imitate Mankell.
So, I chose a cat because my second grade teacher had a cat. And with two words, The cat, my story begins. My first problem was solved.
With the phrase “the cat” punctuated as if it were a sentence, I move into a simple sentence construction with descriptive details about the cat — useless details (big, marmalade) as far as the events in story are concerned. However, important to the story tone. I didn’t want the cat to make the mood dark, which a black cat might have done. So I choose a marmalade cat; the color has warmth in it. The idea of a big cat suggests that it is well-cared for, someone’s pet. So, I use the big marmalade cat to create a juxtaposition–the warm image of a pet just before I introduce the stark image of death.
Also, I use the grammatical structure of my sentences to further support the juxtaposition–a simple sentence about the cat, a complex sentence about death. And starting each sentence flush at the left margin much like a new paragraph helps accentuate the increasing importance of information. All in all, this sets my tone. And so my second problem was solved. Here is my final copy of those three sentences.
It was a big marmalade cat.
When I see a marmalade cat, I always remember the day my first grade teacher, Miss. Rogers, died.
Telling the story was not difficult because it is woven into the fabric of my life.
At the end of the piece, I use the cat again to create a juxtaposition with multiple facets. The cat, warm and friendly, contrasts with the cold and fear we feel as we wait. The cat, soft and inviting, contrasts with the harsh reality of the sirens and flashing lights. The cat, moving and rubbing against our legs, contrasts with our motionless waiting. The cat, meowing to us, contrasts with our silence. I also use the cat to create object placement–a technique of placing an object that is not a critical element of the story plot at the beginning and again at the end, using it to pull the story together. I had solved the third problem.
Whether I have done well or not, you will have to decide. But I am satisfied that I have at last written and published my memory. One day, perhaps, I will add more, but not right now.
© 2016 Alice Nine All rights reserved.
*Juxtaposition is a literary technique in which two or more ideas, places, characters and their actions are placed side by side in a narrative or a poem for the purpose of developing comparisons and contrast.
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I read your first grade story, then didn’t get back to read this until this morning. I would never have guessed the cat wasn’t real either, it fits so perfectly into the story. This will be a perfect story to share with kids, to talk about how mentor texts can help us tell our own stories. I still have a million questions about your first grade teacher though. Did she have a heart attack or a stroke? How old was she? What did they do with your class that day and later?
You are welcome to share it as a mentor text, Carol. And include the classroom picture if you like. I’m trying to “Write about my writing” more. I’ve embedded it in a few of my posts. Your questions tell me that I need to compose an epilogue. Perhaps I will do so for a Tuesday SOL.
WOW! I love hearing about your choices as a writer. It makes me think so much more deeply about what I’m reading and what words/ phrases I choose to write. I am completely inspired by your work and your post. I urge you to continue to write, but also explain your choices! Fascinating!
Thank you, Cindy. Your comments inspire me. I do like to reflect on the process of crafting. I’ve done some at the bottom of a post, but this was the first time I did it as two parts. I like that it lets me put both the writer and the teacher in me into my post. Thank you again.
I loved reading about your process. The maramalade cat fit so well into your story that I never would’ve guessed he wasn’t really there. It even feels like he is very symbolic to the story. Thank you for sharing such a powerful moment and the story behind the story.
You are so welcome. And thank you so much for sharing. 🙂
This was such a powerful piece Alice. When I read it I couldn’t comment for some reason but I have been thinking about it for days. I connected to having to tell a group of young students that their teacher had passed away – they were in Grade 2. I really appreciated hearing about your process here. And how that page of writing gave you your beginning.
Thank you, Carrie. Oh, to tell a class of students would be most difficult! They didn’t tell us that day although some of us knew it was bad. We carried a sealed letter home to our parents, and they told us. Then the next day, someone from the school talked with us. The funeral home had a special time for just our class to attend with our parents. My mother took me; I think most did. That was good.
thanks for sharing the process. This will help me teach others how to get started on a different story.
Love how you shared your process — great example of using a mentor text – so important that you included why you made the moves you did and how it impacted your writing. This is great to use with writers to show how one uses a mentor text to craft.
Thank you– I think it worked!
Thanks for sharing your reflection, Clare. I really appreciate it.
Alice you were so right – I was really happy to read about your process and the three problems you needed to solve. I love seeing into your thinking. It helps me to think about the story I am currently stuck on. I love how the cat seem to bookend the story but give it the simple rhythm you needed for writing. Thanks –
Thank you, Joanne. It is interesting how all three problems were resolved with the addition of the one item–the cat. I’m such a purest that when I tell a story I hate to add anything that wasn’t really there. I mentioned on an earlier comment that as a kid, I remember adults saying that certain people embellish details or add things that weren’t really in the story. But you know what, theirs were the stories we all hung on. Right?
What an interesting process to share with us. As much as I love to create video pieces, I love thinking through the process even more. So wonderful that your focus is so clear. Bravo!!!!
Thanks, Bonnie. Yes, the basic processes of composition are what they are whether we write, paint, compose music, or like you, create video. We must reflect, repeatedly reflect. And reflection can’t be done in a vacuum. We have to know our tools and develop skills to use them fully.
Thanks for this reflection about the writing process. It wouldn’t have worked to put it all into one post, especially since that story itself was so moving. I like seeing here that you used a mentor text and framed your piece with the cat. It worked so seamlessly that if you hadn’t told us, we never would have known. Thanks for sharing.
You are so right, Margaret. I tried a single post but each part took away from the other. So I thought, why not two. When I was a child, I remember adults saying that so-and-so (who happened to tell great stories) added stuff to the stories. I think I understand that now. Some stories don’t need help; others do.
Thanks for sharing the story behind the story and the way you solved your writer’s block for this.
I think I need you beside me coaching me as a I write. Thank you for sharing your insights and ideas about writing your piece. I have never used juxtaposition, but now that I understand its use. I think I might dabble.
That could be fun, Meg. I love coaching. Three things have helped me: thoroughly learning English grammar, using imitation to practice, and free writing (that’s the dabble part). All of those developed after I was teaching. I studied old grammars, I mean really old, from 100 or 150 years ago. I’m such an advocate for the grammar because it provides the tools to analyze your writing or analyze a piece you admire, thus learning from it. I’d love hearing from you again.
I so appreciate this unfolding of your writing process, Alice. To think that this story was a slow burn, over time, and that the three problems, as you call them, to telling the story were always hovering on the outskirts of the story is helpful for all writers. I know I have stories that I cannot yet find a way to tell, and yet, I am hopeful, as a writer, that the pieces will one day fall into place. For you, it was the cat. Or first, it was the dog, and then the cat. For me, for us, it will be something else. To know the writing is the thing — your piece was powerful, and this post brings it up to the surface of another level.
Thank you, Kevin. I appreciate your comments. Writing is truly an art; we craft stories. It was when I began to dig deep into English grammar that I began to understand how to craft my writing because I could analyze it. The explicit knowledge of grammar also enables me to analyze another author’s work, to learn from it. It also enables me to look at the structure of my writing objectively. I can identify why something is almost there but not quite or why it is just right. It also helps me know alternatives. For me, mastering English grammar has flung open the shutters of writing. When I enjoy a passage, I find myself analyzing it. Lots of times it is just a sentence or two. Then I try to imitate it, just the sentence. I’ve created an activity that I do with students based on this. Perhaps, I will share about it …sometime. -A9
Thank you so much for sharing your process. Fascinating.