Pam Webb

a writer's journey as a reader

Archive for the tag “Mark Twain”

Wouldn’t You Know–A Reflection on Desks

Where writers write is almost as fascinating as how they write. Personally, I become rather discouraged rather than encouraged to read about authors with routines that involve getting up at 4:30 am, doing yoga first, downing their wheatgrass shake, writing away until noon with no breaks because they are of the “plant butt in chair” answer to the obsequious “how to be a writing success?” Quora question.

I am more interested if it’s a wouldn’t desk or not. That’s no typo.

A “wouldn’t” desk is different than a wooden one. A wouldn’t desk involves an alter ego, as in “You wouldn’t believe that when the laundry is off this couch, this is where I work on my cow joke book.” Or “You wouldn’t think that writing in bed would be comfortable or even productive.”

Both couches and beds have served as my desks. Apparently I’m in good company because Mark Twain is famous for writing in his bed. He kept a pool table in his bedroom for when he needed a break from  writing. That’s one big bedroom.

I have yet to find an author who wrote or writes on a couch, that is, a purple one. I purchased mine as my muse and placed it next to my bed. A lovely shade of deep eggplant, it’s  in patterned plush, reminding me of the old movie theatre seats in the Rialto of my childhood years. It has since disappeared into the guest room where it lives an unfilled life as a laundry sorting station.

I ditched desks a long time ago due to two factors:

1. Space

2. Clutter

Desks take up a lot of space. Plus they are so imperiously demanding. Desks can’t go anywhere and require sitting at them. My creativity is shackled somewhat to planting my hindness in that chair. Realizing sitting at a desk feels too much like being a student expected to produce something worthy of a grade, I have since ditched the desk.

Another factor for being deskless is guilt. I could not bear allocating one of the bedrooms as my office. Kids do better not being piled up like Twinkies in a box  in terms of sharing rooms. So, my desk found itself in the living room or our bedroom which led to problem #2:

Clutter is ineviable when a flat horizontal surface beckons. Bills, library books, toys, plates, cups, laundry (which finds a place no matter in the house) all land on my desk. Like Rodney Dangerfield, my desk got no respect. Hence the switch to the couch. Which is a horizontal surface, wouldn’t you know. I ditched desks, couches, beds as writing stations when I switched to a laptop from a desktop computer. My desk is now an IKEA chair. Foot rest is option. It has yet to serve as a laundry station.

Now that I am an empty nester, I have commandeered an abandoned bedroom (after 18, unless they pay into the mortgage,a progeny’s bedroom is absorbed into the household) and have a bed, a couch, a rocking chair, and an IKEA chair as muse choices. No pool table at present, but I do have my son’s lava lamp, which is pretty good entertainment.

So–about your desk?

image: Wikipedia The secret is in Twain’s plumpy pillows

Button, Button

My usual adage of “The original source is always better” went out the window after watching The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
When the movie came out in 2008, I promptly avoided it. I thought the premise strange, that a baby would experience life backwards–going from old and decrepit to incapacitated infant. It especially seemed odd, even a bit creepy, since a romance was part of the plot.

Aging backwards. Not a new concept, apparently backwards aging is not a truly new trope. After all, Shakespeare hinted at our returning to our infancy state in his “Seven Ages” poem.

I also was a bit leery of Brad Pitt at the time. Fight Club isn’t exactly my type of genre. The male progeny tried to interest me (who can resist bonding with their sons via a movie?) but after a few minutes of gruesome artsy cinema, I deferred. However, since Fight Club Pitt has appeared in movies I do like, such as the Oceans triple, and Mr and Mrs Smith. Into the library basket went Benjamin Button as I gathered movies for the week. I didn’t realize I was committing to two and a half hours.

A sick day, and no energy for reading and in popped the movie. I sat spellbound. I even cried at the end. And was a bit indignant that Brad Pitt got passed over for an Academy Award. This trailer captures the heart of the movie well:

The most interesting part for me is that the movie is based on a F. Scott Fitzgerald short story. The fantasy genre intrigued me because I didn’t peg FSF for writing anything but brooding rebellious characters from the Roaring Twenties. The story’s biting satirical tone is very much Twain, and I learned that Fitz was indeed influenced by MT, who had made a comment about what a shame we don’t experience the best years, our older years, first. Interestingly enough, the only thing the movie and short story have in common is the title and premise. Here is the story link:


Any of you been surprised by the film being actually better than the written work?

Dash It All

I have come upon the realization I lean towards dashes instead of semi-colons–really, I do. My students upon the first introduction to Emily Dickinson notice her use of those extra big hyphens. Hey–if it’s good enough for Em–dash it all, it can’t be all wrong.

On reflection, perhaps I overindulge in my penchant for dashes–or maybe not? In my desire to correctly use them, I turned to the Internet and found my favorite grammar guru–Ben Yagoda. A writer for The New York Times, professor, teacher, and I would say humorist, he provided everything I needed to know about the dash–and then some. Check out his fabulous writing guide How Not to Write Bad (really–that’s the title).

cartoon by Peter Arkle

An excerpt from his column points out how effective the dash can be:

To get a sense of some of the things a dash can do, take a look at these pairs of quotes.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”:

Thirty: the promise of a decade of loneliness, a thinning list of single men to know, a thinning briefcase of enthusiasm, thinning hair.

Thirty—the promise of a decade of loneliness, a thinning list of single men to know, a thinning briefcase of enthusiasm, thinning hair.

Henry James, referring to Henry David Thoreau:

He was worse than a provincial, he was parochial.

He was worse than a provincial—he was parochial.

Mark Twain in “Autobiography”:

…life does not consist mainly (or even largely) of facts and happenings. It consists mainly of the storm of thoughts that is forever blowing through one’s head.

…life does not consist mainly—or even largely—of facts and happenings. It consists mainly of the storm of thoughts that is forever blowing through one’s head.

Twain’s “Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar”:

Each person is born to one possession which outvalues all his others: his last breath.

Each person is born to one possession which outvalues all his others—his last breath.

In all cases, both versions make sense and are grammatically correct. But the ones with the dash (the ones the authors actually wrote) seem to live and breathe, while the others just lie there on the page. Like hitting the right combination of buttons in a computer game, typing two hyphens on the keyboard — and thereby making a dash — can give your prose a burst of energy, as if by magic. 

Emily, Twain, F. Scott, and Henry J.–I’m in good company.

Does Our Spelling Miss the Mark?

I am discovering something shocking about myself. A habit that I never thought I would succumb to. And one I am not sure I am steeled enough in resolve to remedy this habit.  Oh, my, how did it happen.  Yes, I will admit it: technology. I’ve grown sloppy in my dependence of that little red underscore telling me I’ve slipped in my spelling. I used to be an excellent speller–pride goeth and trippeth me up. But I got quite cheered up when I came across this ditty by Samuel.

A plan for the improvement of spelling in the English language

By Mark Twain

For example, in Year 1 that useless letter “c” would be dropped to be replased either by “k” or “s”, and likewise “x” would no longer be part of the alphabet. The only kase in which “c” would be retained would be the “ch” formation, which will be dealt with later. Year 2 might reform “w” spelling, so that “which” and “one” would take the same konsonant, wile Year 3 might well abolish “y” replasing it with “i” and iear 4 might fiks the “g/j” anomali wonse and for all.
Generally, then, the improvement would kontinue iear bai iear with iear 5 doing awai with useless double              konsonants, and iears 6-12 or so modifaiing vowlz and the rimeiniing voist and unvoist konsonants. Bai iear 15 or sou, it wud fainali bi posibl tu meik ius ov thi ridandant letez “c”, “y” and “x”—bai now jast a memori in the maindz ov ould doderez —tu riplais “ch”, “sh”, and “th” rispektivili.
Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers ov orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev a lojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe Ingliy-spiking werld.

And there you have it, my students will embrace this plan for sure. I think some of them are on the trial plan already. I wonder how “vacuum,””anoint,””disappearance,” and a few other pesky bugs fair under Sam’s plan?

From SparkNotes to Sparky Sweet, PhD

Read the Sparknotes

Read the Sparknotes (Photo credit: kevin dooley)

There are two basic reasons for reading classics:
1. Pressure
2. Enjoyment

Reason One:

Pressure comes from teachers assigning novels that no one wants to read, but students must read in order to complete the course. Mark Twain hit that one spot on:

Classic–a book which people praise and don’t read- Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New

I am THAT teacher who literally pressures students into reading. Granted, I get my own pressure from the curriculum powers that be. Certain novels must be taught, which means I must find ways to entice students to read them. Over the years I have gathered up sources I point out to students so that they may better understand the stories, poems, and novels I toss out to them. Some teachers promote the erroneous idea that to utilize a resource like Sparknotes is cheating. Huh? That’s like me handing out To Kill a Mockingbird to my ninth graders, instructing them to sit down in a closet, and I shut the door. They might as well read in the dark if they don’t understand what they are reading. I know some students who never read assigned books and only Sparknote them (an AP student admitted this to his teacher, tsk 2 honesty 1). My thoughts on this are: a)it’s not like Sparknotes are contraband or are damaging to young minds b)at least he is familiar with the novel now. Some reading, even if it’s through summary, is better than no reading.

The other kind of pressure comes after we have left school and feel the need to fill in the holes of our education by reading all those classics we weren’t assigned or assigned and didn’t read. The Picture of Dorian Gray, Crime and Punishment, Robinson Crusoe, the list goes on. Just because we are in college or are college graduated, older, smarter, more aware, yada yada, that doesn’t mean we understand Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, any better. We can also get by with a little help from our friends, those marvelous lit aide sites:–the go-to site for understanding a novel. It covers content, facts, chapter summary, characters, theme, major quotes, all the biggies. There are even quizzes to test comprehension plus videos (major spoilers though).–never mind the name, it delivers the same sort of information in a somewhat different style.–if you are as old as me then you remember those wonderful little yellow and black booklets (anyone else think they resembled bees?–and if a teacher caught you with them you got stung?) that helped shed light on Hamlet, Huckleberry Finn, etc. They are now adding videos to their venue. Mmm, I’d say the videos are at about middle school level in approach, although most of my ninth graders liked the silly humor.–I used to rely on this site for my insights when preparing a unit, but then I discovered…–a most excellent and diverse site for pulling in understanding for both contemporary (mainly prevalent bestsellers) and classics. Prepared by smartypants PhD students (so they say) there is a break down of overview, analysis, theme, essay questions, characters, and a roundup of the best of the net. Videos are often a part of the lineup which are designed to evoke discussion (great for Socratic seminars) and are crafted with cunning.–another site when needing deeper analysis needs. While basic, it nevertheless provides great insights.–new to the scene, it’s difficult to know what to do with this venue. Sparky Sweets, PhD, is an erudite street talking armchair lit critic. The paradox of foul-mouthed summary offset with finely constructed analysis makes this video series a conundrum. I know the students would appreciate how he brings literature to an understandable level, yet there is need for more beeps or I would be answering to the admin. For a bit of entertainment and enlightenment I present as a choice with caution to those who prefer to not have their classics fouled.

There are more sites out there, and I would appreciate hearing your faves.

Reason Two

If you read the classics for pleasure then you will still appreciate the above-mentioned sites as they add to the reading experience.

Read the classics, no matter if you have to or want to, for they are the foundation of all we read today!

"To be successful at reading comprehensio...

“To be successful at reading comprehension, students need to …” (Photo credit: Ken Whytock)


#7: Saw the Movie, and then I Read the Book (or intend to someday)

Though a professed Book Booster, I  freely admit I haven’t gotten around to reading all that I desire, or for that matter, should.  With time and interest constraints I tend to be selective in my reading, which can be received as either justification or a lame excuse.  I view my dosing of classics like one who would rather take a vitamin rather than endure the indignities of measured broccoli consumption.  Often I will watch a movie and decide, “Well now, I get the gist of the plot, let’s test drive the book.”  Or words to that effect.  Here are some movies which have prompted me to finally read the book:

1. Huckleberry Finn: As much as enjoy Mark Twain as a personality I’m not much for reading his books.  A  couple of summers ago I attended a week-long conference on Mark Twain, complete with experts and workshops, and still did not become a fan.  I will go on professing his genius and his contributions to literature, although I am a reluctant reader.  When I watched the movie I became drawn into the complexities of how a young man, namely Huckleberry, came to shed the baggage of his culture, slavery, being the biggest bag. Twain is an unmerited expert in taking on such a huge issue and presenting it so that it palatable.  Then again, Twain’s presentation creates a lump hard to swallow for many people, which is why Huckleberry Finn continues to be a challenged list somewhere at any given point.

Cover of "Les Miserables"

Cover of Les Miserables

2.  Les Miserables: Someone told me how they suffered the reading of this classic in their French class, and it made me leery.  He said it was not the  struggling through the actual reading of it–it was the sad, sad nature of the book.  I think absolutely depressing, was the term used.  Not exactly the best encourager to check it out for myself.  I watched the Liam Neeson version and went on emotional alert.  The acting, the story, the cinematography–all riveting. I wept, I commiserated, I rankled at the injustice, I shivered with anticipation, I was exhausted when the final credit rolled by. Shamefully,  I still haven’t read the book.  I am concerned I would compare it too much to the movie.  Yes, the movie was that amazing.

3. Little Dorrit, Bleak House, Great Expectations, Oliver–okay, okay, pretty much all of Dickens.  I’ve professed in a previous post my grievance of Dickens’ penchant for overwriting; nevertheless, it is no excuse for me not to read his books.  Again, I respect his tremendous literary influence, especially in terms of how his writings brought about social reform (child labor laws, especially). There is so much profundity in his writing I cannot properly chew and digest. Literary indigestion, I’m afraid.  Hence, I pop that cinematic vitamin pill and feel vindicated that at least I’m experiencing Dickens.  This is why I adore the British Broadcasting Company. All of the Dickens adaptations watched have been BBC productions viewed via the Masterpiece Theater on-line option.  My latest viewing involved the newest version of Great Expectations with Gillian Anderson as the imposing Miss Haversham.  Wow and my goodness, she was incredible.  Having invested heavily into the Thursday Next adventures by Jasper Fforde, I thought it essential to understand who and what Miss Haversham was all about.  Gillian Anderson provided the answers.

4. The African Queen: Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn.  How could I resist such a combination? After watching their captivating performance I sought out the book.  For once I will state  the movie proved better than the book.  Especially the ending.  No spoiler. Nuff said on this one.

Cover of "The African Queen (Commemorativ...

Cover via Amazon

5.  True Grit: My dad and I watched plenty of John Waynemovies together and I couldn’t believe someone would be bold enough to remake the one movie, his signature movie.  Staying true to the Duke I snubbed the Coen’s remake and simmered.  After hearing all the good reviews, and prompted by family members I relented finally and checked out the DVD.  This was no remake, but a recreation.  The Coen’s found an actress, Hailee Steinfield, who delivered a stunning performance.  She reminded me of Mary Badham’s performance in To Kill a Mockingbird.  I promptly checked Charlie Portis’s novel and found the Coen had paid fine tribute to a beautifully written story of forgiveness and redemption.  I plan on making this a required reading for my sophomores. Unfortunately, the publisher has no plans of reissuing it in a more affordable format as can be found for TKAM.  I plan on adding this movie and the book to my favorites list and will be revisiting them from time to time.

I might revisit my #7 at a later time.  Five seemed a good number for now.  Now, I pose a question for you:

#4: Required Reading for High School English

Having recently plunked out my series list caused me to wonder about creating other lists.  Yes, I am a confessed list maker.  I have Post-It squares tacked all over the place of To-Dos, Epiphanies, Story Starts, Poem Parts, and Lesson Plan Pundits.  The Cricket List will be an on-going project.  Today’s offering is #4: Required reading in high school English.  I encourage your suggestions:

The Cricket List:

1. Children’s authors and selected titles

2.  YA authors and selected titles

3.  Picture books

4.  Required reading in high school English:

  • The Outsiders(teens haven’t changed too much in the thirty years this has been out)
  • The Miracle Worker (Helen Keller is a hero favorite and goes a long way in learning about overcoming adversity)
  • Pride and Prejudice (all man/woman hate-at-first sight movies stem from this gem)
  • Sherlock Holmes (the original, to understand why Robert Downey and Jude Law’s version is pure entertainment)
  • Frankenstein (a riveting read and shows the fallacy of Hollywood’s meddling)
  • Jules Verne (original science fiction master storyteller)
  • Julius Caesar (politics gone wrong)
  • Hamlet (love-revenge-hate-murder-intrigue-dueling-witty wordplay–who could ask for more in a plot)
  • Taming of the Shrew (Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus four hundred years ago)
  • Othello (Shakespeare was ahead of his time with this tale)
  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream (a light-hearted romp which shows not all is tragedy on Shakespeare’s plate)
  • To Kill a Mockingbird (timeless classic which showcases the South both in a positive and negative way)
  • The Once and Future King (or some version of King Arthur–I like John Steinbeck‘s version)
  • Stargirl (beautiful story of not conforming to peer pressure or the consequences when one does)
  • John Donne‘s Holy Sonnet X (Death Be Not Proud)
  • She Walks in Beauty (timeless appreciation of beauty)
  • Rime of the Ancient Mariner (To understand Pirates of the Caribbean better)
  • Beowulf (so you can boo/hiss at the animated version and hope it will be done correctly someday)
  • Canterbury Tales (when you rewatch A Knight’s Tale you will laugh at the inside jokes)
  • Steinbeck (Grapes of Wrath, of course)
  • Mark Twain (American Lit wouldn’t be the same without him)
  • The Odyssey (understanding the epicness of heroes and their journey)
  • Romeo and Juliet (umm, how could one not read R&J?)

5.  Beach Reads

6.  Must reads

7. Saw the movie, then read the book

8.  Read the book, wish it were a movie

9. Poems to know and grow on

10. GoodRead gotta-get-to-someday reads

Writerly Wisdom II

For those of you who are site stat checkers (I confess I check once, maybe twice a day) you will notice certain types of posts get more hits than others.  Such is the case with my Writerly Wisdom post.  Dunno.  I thought visitors would be wooed by my own words.  Ehh (shrug of shoulders) “if the people like it, serve it up”–C. Muse  So, here is Writerly Wisdom part II:

I try to leave out the parts that people skip.  ~Elmore Leonard

The act of putting pen to paper encourages pause for thought, this in turn makes us think more deeply about life, which helps us regain our equilibrium.  ~Norbet Platt

I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter.~James Michener

The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction.  By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is you really want to say.  ~Mark Twain

The wastebasket is a writer’s best friend.  ~Isaac Bashevis Singer

The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible.  ~Vladimir Nabakov

Easy reading is d*mn hard writing.  ~Nathaniel Hawthorne [*mine–liberties, I know]

And the best for last

Proofread carefully to see if you any words out.  ~Author Unknown

Happy Pages,


Sources: and googleimages galore

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