That’s My Middle West

“That’s my middle-west—not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns but the thrilling, returning trains of my youth and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow. I am part of that, a little solemn with the feel of those long winters, a little complacent from growing up in the Carraway house in a city where dwellings are still called through decades by a family’s name. I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all—Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.”

Nick Carraway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Over the past twenty years, I’ve discovered that most writing success begins with an example. Students need concrete models of introductions and thesis statements, topic sentences and embedded quotations and commentary, statements of theme and parallelism. Name the skill, any skill, an example provides the training wheels.

In my bag of teacher tricks, I dig for a creative writing assignment that I must credit to F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby, not to mention Plano ISD, where I taught English and learned my craft for fourteen years, and the intensive two-week Plano Writing Leadership Academy, which I attended twice, and my writing mentors, Lisa Thibodeaux and Marsha Cawthon, who facilitated those game-changing professional development opportunities.

The directions for said-teacher-trick go something like this:

Think about where you are from and use F. Scott Fitzgerald’s description above to inspire one of your own. Use some of his words as needed, and pay attention to his phrasing and punctuation.

That’s my _________—not the _______ or the ________ or the ________ _________ ________ but the ________, _______ _______ of my ________ and the _________ _______ and _______ _______ in the ________ ______ and the…  

(You understand where this is going.)

As the teacher, I can’t escape the upcoming high stakes testing, but I know the students need breaks from the test prep and loads of confidence. Did I mention bonus points for sharing aloud? You should see their little faces beaming with pride as they string their ideas together like Fitzgerald, and my eyes get a little misty, too, as I learn something new about my kids and their journeys, their hearts and the insides of their heads.

Today’s Post Brought to You by the Letter F and the Number 49

“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’” 

—Nick Carraway, The Great Gatsby 

F is for F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of Gatsby and master of human insight wrapped in poetry. His novel begins here, his narrator Nick Carraway, grappling with his father’s caution of criticism—

“All the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

In short, people judge, and Nick tries to refrain because his father said so. I think about Nick’s words and my life. I remember how often my mother would stop herself mid-criticism and say, “I’m not going to say that. It wasn’t very nice.” Then Philippians 4:8 comes to mind about thinking on excellent, praiseworthy things.

Speaking of excellence and praise, what about this one for its sheer lyricism? “It was dawn now on Long Island and we went about opening the rest of the windows downstairs, filling the house with grey turning, gold turning light. The shadow of a tree fell abruptly across the dew and ghostly birds began to sing among the blue leaves. There was a slow pleasant movement in the air, scarcely a wind, promising a cool lovely day.”

I want to write like that—grey turning, gold turning light. How beautiful! Fitzgerald makes writing seem effortless. Writers know better.

F is also for Florida, where on the beach, I soak up the sun, snap a few photos, tap a few phrases into my phone, and attempt to be Fitzgerald:

It was spring break now on the Emerald Coast and we went about lounging on Crystal Beach, filling the day with a sparkle of sunlight, turning glittering foam. Tides of translucent sea rolled rhythmically onto the sand and the gulls floated on wings and Sunday prayers. There was a peaceful simple luxury in the pause, scarcely a word, promising more of the same.

Sands to Remember
Destin, FL, USA

49 is for my 49th year of life and my 49th blog post. Somehow I saw neither coming, but there is a peaceful simple luxury here, with words of reflection, promising more of the same.