Category Archives: storytelling

Rewind — Twilight: Actions speak louder than adverbs

This piece was originally posted on an earlier incarnation of this blog. Three years later, it’s still one of my most highly-trafficked posts.  Most recently, it got a mention in this excellent piece on teen dating and gender roles by Sean Hackett at The Good Men Project.

From July 2009

Unexpectedly, he was on his feet, bounding away, instantly out of sight, only to appear beneath the same tree as before, having circled the meadow in a half second.

“As if you could outrun me,” he laughed bitterly.

He reached up with one hand and, with a deafening crack, effortlessly ripped a two-foot-thick branch from the trunk of the spruce.

… I’d never seen him so completely freed of that carefully cultivated facade. … His lovely eyes seemed to glow with rash excitement. Then, as the seconds passed, they dimmed. His expression slowly folded into a mask of ancient sadness.

“Don’t be afraid,” he murmured, his velvet voice unintentionally seductive.

… He sat sinuously, with deliberately unhurried movements, till our faces were on the same level, just a foot apart.

— Excerpted from Twilight by Stephenie Meyer, pages, 264-265

While camping last week I was sucked in to the Twilight book series. I’m a little slow on the uptake, but after reading the first book I see what all the hoo-rah is about. I was absorbed in the story, reading it in less than three days. But I was also irritated with the author’s writing conventions, as many word nerds are.

I’ve never been a best-selling author, so rather than write a snarky piece about Stephenie Meyer’s writing, I would like to channel my snarkery into a lesson on adverbs, which run rampant in Twilight.

First of all, what’s an adverb? The clearest answer I’ve found is in a cartoon called “Lolly, Lolly, Lolly, Get Your Adverbs Here.” I’m not kidding!

Key points from the Lollys:

  • An adjective is a word that adds description to nouns — people, places and things. (Example: I am a slow runner, even when I wear expensive sneakers.)
  • An adverb is also a descriptive word, but it has the power to describe or change verbs (action words), adjectives and even other adverbs. (Example: Very unexpectedly, he was on his feet.)
  • As the Lollys told us, adverbs are words that help answer the questions How?, Where? and When? They also help show conditions, reasons, comparisons and contrasts.
  • Often, but not always, adverbs in English end in -ly. (Examples: Neatly, sloppily, indubitably)
  • Adverbs that don’t end in -ly include very, quite and rather.

So why does it matter that Twilight is full of adverbs? Adverbs are useful, but too many can weaken a piece of  writing. As one of my professors hammered in college, if you’re depending on adverbs for description, it means your verbs don’t cut the mustard. Or that you might be burying verbs that would be perfectly effective on their own. Since a verb is an action word and an adverb is an add-on, an verb is often more powerful than an adverb.

Choosing effective verbs instead of relying on adverbs often means you’ll have clearer, more succinct sentences. And in many ways, brevity really is the soul of wit. If you’re using ten words when five would do the job, you’re not impressing anyone — you’re making it harder for readers to see your point.

Here’s my rough attempt at revising the previous Twilight passage, this time with the adverbs toned down and the verbs emphasized:

He jumped to his feet and disappeared, then reappeared beneath the tree, having circled the meadow in a half second.

“As if you could outrun me,” he laughed.

He reached for a two-foot-thick branch on the spruce and there came a deafening crack as he ripped it from the trunk.

… I’d never seen him so free of his facade. … But then his expression folded into a mask of ancient sadness.

“Don’t be afraid,” he murmured.

… With care, he inched toward me until we faced each other a foot apart.

OK, I have no idea if my revision is much better than the Twilight original. It’s still a teen vampire romance. But I will say this: The Twilight passage had 129 words. My version had 91 — about 30% less. In theory, this means the 498-page novel could be at least 150 pages shorter. But that’s another post altogether.

The point of the revision is to show how writing can change with an emphasis on verbs instead of adverbs. Why say that he “sat sinuously” when we already know he has rippling muscles? Why say he “effortlessly ripped” the branch from the tree? Clearly, a guy who can rip a branch from a tree is crazy-strong, no matter how much effort he puts into it.

I could go on and on about this, but I’ll end with a reminder: If you see adverbs pop up often in your writing, go back and identify each one, then see if you can replace it with a strong verb — a solid action word. In many ways, actions speak louder than adverbs.

The skill of listening, the power of story

This fall I’ve taken on a long-term substitute position teaching high school Language Arts. Every weekday I spend three hours teaching remedial English — grammar and spelling for the most part. Many of my students are learning English as a second or third language and many others have a hefty share of learning disabilities and personal challenges that I can hardly comprehend. It became clear to me soon after taking this job that I would need to work with these students on the skill of listening.

Initially, I wanted to teach listening skills for my own benefit. I needed students to listen to ME! We couldn’t get anything done if we didn’t address the volume levels and impulsive chatter in our classroom. But it occurred to me that listening is a skill that can help these students in their personal lives as well.

So I implemented weekly listening activities based on the ideas behind StoryCorps, NPR’s national effort to honor and record the stories of everyday Americans. Each story is archived in the Library of Congress, and many of them are arrestingly intimate, funny and heart-breaking. If it were possible to have a wild crush on a project, StoryCorps would be at the top of my dreamboat list.

So far, our listening lessons have involved students pairing up and taking notes on each other’s stories about something simple, like their best or worst-ever Halloween. I modeled the process by telling my own favorite Halloween story (seventh grade, when I wore a George Bush Sr. mask), then asked students to answer the 5 W Questions about my story (Who? What? Where? When? Why?). Then they did the same with each other. They were a little reluctant to share, but they seemed to enjoy having a lesson with built-in social time.

The next step we took showed me how well these lessons could work. I had them watch an animated video based on a StoryCorps piece called “John & Joe,” which is about two brothers who were killed on 9/11. After we watched the video, students answered the 5W Questions and spontaneous discussion erupted. “Can we watch another of those videos?” “Did Saddam Hussein cause 9/11?” “Was 9/11 a government conspiracy?” It was the most engaged I have ever seen them.

For me, the real proof of the effectiveness of the StoryCorps activities was when I checked in about them with one of my most difficult students. He has academic challenges that are baffling even to veteran teachers, and just sitting in a classroom can be a struggle for him. But I asked him to answer the 5W Questions about “John & Joe” this week and he recounted the story in surprising detail. It was one of the most affirming moments of my life. He showed me that, as rambunctious and reluctant as my students can be, they’re starting to understand the power of listening and the power of story.

My student featured on Smithmag.net

I love me some memoirs. And I love brevity. So when Smith Magazine rolled out the Six-Word Memoir project, I knew it would be part of my life in some way.

Oddly, I’ve never posted my own Six-Word Memoir on SmithMag.net. But I bring it up in conversation and compose mini-memoirs in my head all the time. It’s a brilliant vehicle for sharing personal stories that are razor-sharp.

This month, as a warm-up for their writing exercises, I started asking my high school English students to write six-word memoirs at the beginning and end of our free-writing sessions. I hoped that my students would eventually find meaning in the practice, and I soon found out that one student had taken ownership of the six-word craft in a way I hadn’t expected.

“Ms. Thompson, I love six-word memoirs!” she said when she came to class one morning. “My mom grounded me from my computer, but I told her I had to log on to SmithMag.”

A week or so later, she came to class radiant.

“People are reading my six-word memoirs now!” she said. “I’m getting comments and people like what I’m writing. One of them recommended that I write posts on SheWrites.com.”

Today we were preparing for our last day of the in-class state writing test. I was trying to cross a hundred ‘t’s while dotting a thousand ‘i’s before we started our session. But my mentor teacher asked me to pause and hear some good news from this student.

“They gave me the featured memoir of the day!” our student reported.

I was about to tell her how proud I was of her when she showed me the chosen memoir. Now I’m more than proud of her. I am awed. And grateful.

On William Stafford, Katy Perry and a grave teenage illness

“The Way It Is”
By William Stafford

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

 

 

 

Last week I was all geared up to teach a journalism lesson when an email brought me and my mentor teacher to a screeching halt.

We learned that one of our students landed in intensive care over the weekend for an infection that sneaked up on him quietly and powerfully. Even in the last class we held before he went to the hospital, I was marveling at his positive attitude and academic performance.

My students put together a stack of get-well cards for their friend and I was fortunate to meet his family when I delivered the cards at the hospital. His mother told me that they had seen small improvements in his condition, but that they were still taking things minute by minute. These are scary times.

I think about this student often — every time another student asks how he’s doing, every time I come across one of his assignments, or sometimes when my mind drifts. We don’t know what will happen to him, and it is hard to accept that he might not have the future we imagined (I was convinced he would at least become a high school news editor, but likely much, much more). It’s even harder to tell his classmates that we’re not always hopeful.

During my 45-minute commute home from the high school, I was thinking about all this when Katy Perry’s “Firework” song came on the radio. Usually, I’m irritated by this song and its ubiquity on the radio waves. But on this day it reminded me of the high school assembly I’d seen where a student was playing this song on guitar and another was singing its chorus, his voice completely earnest. The school auditorium was filled with at least half of the student body, and the entire crowd erupted into song, supporting their friends on the stage. I know that if they thought their friend in the ICU could hear them, they would sing this song again for him.“Do you ever feel already buried deep, six feet under scream, but no one seems to hear a thing … Baby, you’re a firework. Come on show ’em what you’re worth…”

So much of a high school teacher’s work involves wrangling teenagers’ overpowering social tendencies. Developmentally, teens can’t help but see the world through a social lens — to them friendship is often more important than anything else. This can be irritating for a teacher who has an academic agenda to follow, or for a parent who is trying to instill values of discipline. But when I think about my students’ concern for their friend in the hospital, and when I think about hundreds of teenagers bursting into song to support a friend singing on stage, their compulsion to friendship strikes me as remarkable, even miraculous.

Perhaps this is why people reflect so often on their teenage years — for many people, they are a time when friendship is more important than anything else. And when friendships are rich, life is rich.

Already I get funny looks from people when I tell them that I’m choosing to teach high school as a career. I always tell them that I just like teenagers, but I haven’t figured out why. But now I can be clear on at least one of the reasons — I enjoy being in a work environment where friendship and community are a top priority to most of the people in the building. I appreciate a teenager’s compulsion toward friendship.

2012: My story will be in “Our Portland Story”

Great news! One of my stories has been selected for publication in Our Portland Story, Vol. 2, which is set for publication in the summer of 2012.

It’s still early in the process, so I’m not sure which story they will include from my two submissions, but I know it will be one of my favorites — either “For an Anxious Cowdog” or “No One Will Believe Me. Oh Well.

Our Portland Story is published every other year, and is described as “part yearbook, part insider’s travel guide, and part collected memoirs […] all about Portland by Portlanders.” Volume 1 is available at numerous Portland book stores, and was released in the Fall of 2010. My friends at NeighborhoodNotes.com listed it in its “Nine Must-Reads for Locals, Visitors and ‘Portland-Curious‘” in December.

What I especially love about the publication is that it emphasizes creative design as much as creative writing. Each story is assigned to a designer who will create an unique color layout for it. The stories aren’t always printed in columns, but in forms that match the sentiment of the story and its accompanying design.The results are unique and gorgeous, as you can see on Our Portland Story’s splash page. (Under ‘Featured Stories,’ you can choose ‘design view’ or ‘story view.’)

I will post updates on the project as it moves along, but for now, I am thrilled to know that a publication like this even exists, and I feel honored to be part of it.

Here is a link to Oregon Public Broadcasting’s interview with one of the book’s creator’s Melissa Delzio.

And here’s a video that wonderfully captures what Our Portland Story is all about:

Like Bridget Jones’ worst day

This week I showed up in a public place with my slip hanging six inches below my skirt. I arranged for my book group to meet at a restaurant that was no longer in business. I showed up to a graduate class precisely at the moment the session ended. I read Twilight instead of textbooks. I accidentally retweeted Kanye West on my public, grown-up Twitter account. I mistook a pillow in my darkened living room for my dog and told it to get off the couch.

Thank you, common cold, for turning my brain into pudding, and for keeping the punishment brief.

Read Scott Dannemiller!

My buddy Scott Dannemiller is on a roll with his blog, The Accidental Missionary. He’s the kind of writer who makes you get teary-eyed and think about the big picture, all while revealing the fact that he once peed in a Big Gulp cup while driving. Read it!

To give you a flavor for his blog, here is a photo of me (far left) in 2004 at a Guatemalan textiles museum with Scott (guy in the back) and his amazing wife, Gabby (front and center), and our dear volunteer friends, Jennifer (lady on the right) and Brian (also on the right). All wrapped up in Guatemalan culture and laughing hysterically. Par for the course.