Several years ago I stopped teaching the five-paragraph essay. I used it only in test preparation. That was it. If my students were going to be with me for such a short time, I needed them to be doing real writing. Those essays became memoirs, articles, and narrative poetry.
One day my brain made a connection between what I was teaching and what I was reading. Rick Bragg! Each month when my Southern Living magazine arrived, I turned first to the very last page to read his memoir. Funny, full of voice and style. Just what I wanted my students to do! Aha. And so I added Bragg to my list of Distinguished Southern Writers – DSW – Harper Lee, Truman Capote, William Faulkner, Pat Conroy, and now Rick Bragg.
I shared his writing with my students. We dug into it and made annotations. We found vivid vocabulary, Rules of Three and Four, allusions, short paragraphs, and sentence variety. His use of dialect is wonderful and led to a discussion of making dialogue real. And we analyzed it for what he did that made us laugh.
He writes of the SEC – that’s football, y’all – in “For the Love of the Game” and growing up poor and country. Mama and Aunt Jo. Fairhope, Alabama. There’s Thanksgiving Dinner in “The Canned Stuff” where Mama is trying to get that tube of congealed cranberries to slide out of the can. Yes! You remember…
Teach idioms and allusions? Are you old enough to get the allusion in here?
She would twist off the lid with her hand-cranked can opener—she did not trust the electric kind, which sounded faintly demonic, like a rock-and-roll record played backward—and aim the can at a clean plate. Then she went to town.
As we read about waiting for the prayer to end in “Can I Get an Amen?” we talk about double meanings and a play on words.
Of all our many blessings, we sure appreciate the short ones.
Want to convince your writers to be specific instead of general?
My mother’s turkey would already be out of the oven and resting on the stove-top, still steaming in a lake of butter and seasonings, the ancient, blackened roasting pan wedged in right next to a big pan of my Aunt Jo’s cornbread dressing. The biscuits were done, along with the mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, pinto beans and ham, creamed onions, and all the rest. The pound cakes and pecan pies waited on the sideboard.
Some Other Favorites
For teaching how to write setting paragraphs, “The Porch” is perfect. The Rule of Three – those nail heads, the squealing rocker, and the Pall Mall nubs – another allusion to things of the past, specific rather than general. Or how about visualization of the tiny comets as they arc across the air?
But the porch, now…I still see the porch. The last time I stood upon it I was 6 years old, but I still see the nail heads in the weathered pine, still hear the squeal of the rocker pressing the planks, still see tiny comets arc across the air when somebody flicked the glowing nub of a Pall Mall over the rail and into the night.
Or maybe we were working on sentence variety. Teach a Rule of Three followed by a short, simple sentence.
I remember its scent, an ambrosia of black coffee mixing in the wind with the sweet smell of canned milk, and honeysuckle, and snuff. It made the babies sneeze.
Canned milk. honeysuckle, and snuff making the babies sneeze. See? Studying writer’s craft gives us specific techniques that improve our writing exponentially.
One year I got really carried away and used Robert Earl Keen and Lyle Lovett singing “This Old Porch”, reading lyrics just jam-packed with Texas allusions. We dug around to find them all – Aqua Dulce, the LaSalle Hotel, Giant, walk-in movies, the Brazos. I mean, you just can’t listen to Lyle Lovett all day without felling mellow. We also listened to Elton John’s tribute to Elvis, “A Porch Swing in Tupelo” and did more searching for allusions. Guess I got a little carried away. But we used them in our writing! This is another great reason to read, right?
Our First Annotations
“A Homespun Ghost Story” came along at just the time we were learning annotations. Character description, literary devices, and figurative language were noted and appropriated to use in our memoirs.
Homer told me of a woman tall as a man in old-fashioned hook- and-eye shoes, with silver hair that hung to the hem of her black dress. Her face was like cut pine, and her eyes were like honey.
The place had always been haunted, old people said. Spirits swirled in the air white with cotton dust, and the machines seemed hungry.
Vocabulary? Wither, red-bricked monoliths, rabbit tobacco – think the Radley Place in To Kill a Mockingbird. They will see it again there. Bragg writes with rich language not aimed at eighth graders but not over their heads, either.
And we can even talk about the historical context of mill towns run by rich men who cared little about those who worked themselves to death to make the owners rich.
In a place where the company owned the doctor, being sick meant being fired, and the old woman made medicines for men with brown lung and picked herbs to help women with morning sickness, so they could keep their places at the machines. She protected them the best she could from the Yankee outsiders who had no respect for them or the magic of the mountains.
So Find the October Issue!
“I Ain’t Scared of You”, this month’s Southern Journal, recounts the movies of Halloween’s past that were scary to a little Rick Bragg. It has all the same treasures as the rest of his writing – “monsters on the Philco” – and could prompt some interesting writing by our students. What frightened us in our childhood that doesn’t anymore? Scary movies. Books that keep us awake at night. Top Ten Lists. A poem filled with spooky allusions.
Or just read it to laugh at his description of The Mummy plodding after it’s victims. October is such a fun time of year. Just go with it. Take Rick Bragg along.