Author Archives for jennasauber

Go Set a Watchman: Time To Reevaluate Our Heroes — and Our Conscience?

Go Set a Watchman

As I started Go Set a Watchman, Harper’s Lee’s highly anticipated sequel that is now being labeled as a first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, I tried to manage my expectations. Early reviews and quick takes from the chapter released online a few days before told me that Atticus Finch wasn’t quite the beloved everyman hero that we all grew up with, and that Lee’s writing wasn’t exactly of TKAM standards. And of course, there’s all the controversy just over the actual discovery and publication of the novel – how could I not go into this without some sort of bias?

Upon finishing the book, two things were very clear to me: 1) yes, this definitely had the markings of a first draft that was then reworked and revised into what became TKAM, a novel that many call the greatest American novel of all time; and 2) adult Scout’s revelations about herself and her father quite closely mirror those of Americans during the Civil Rights Era – and if we’re being honest with ourselves, all the more today. If what they say is true, that Lee’s publisher thought her first draft of Watchman was too harsh and too real for those times and that’s why she vigorously edited it for a softer landing, one would think that in reading Watchman now, we would be ready and welcoming, rushing to give ourselves pats on the back for overcoming racial tension and accepting the federal government’s interference into our lives for the purpose of equality. But based on some reactions, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

There’s no need to spend a lot of time discussing the stylistic merits of Watchman. I plan to reread TKAM to remind myself of that masterpiece, but I do think Watchman misses the mark in a few spots. Filler and backstory take up too much time, and some of the extended flashbacks don’t seem to serve a purpose to the larger plot, which doesn’t start to get moving until late in the story. Then all of a sudden, there’s an explosion of dialogue, lots of yelling, and a somewhat unsatisfying ending. The entire book takes place over the course of three days: a short amount of time to have a second coming-of-age journey and major life revelation. Despite all this, Lee’s distinctive details shine through, and old characters come to life again, even those who only appear in flashbacks, like Dill or Jem.

So what’s the real fuss about? Watchman comes during a pivotal time for Americans, while we are still absorbing months of seemingly unending racial unrest and injustice. At its heart, Watchman is about reevaluating our heroes – whether they are parents, police, politicians, explorers, innovators, sports champions, or characters on the page and screen. TKAM is written from the point of view of 5-year-old Scout who adores her father with the rest of us; she’s blind to his faults, and blind to the world beyond Maycomb, perhaps even beyond her own front yard. Watchmen shows us Atticus Finch and the world from the eyes of an adult; Scout goes by Jean Louise, and she’s no longer innocent, naïve, or completely enamored with her father and her hometown.

Jean Louise’s experience isn’t anything new. Haven’t we all experienced a second coming-of-age at some point, in which we realize that the people that we once perceived as perfect in nature and in principle are actually flawed and susceptible to change? The people who make us laugh, who inspire us to be great and to go the distance, who make our world a bit brighter (and perhaps more rose-colored) – many of them eventually let us down as they fall victim to human foible and or give in to pressures from society and themselves, for better or worse, right or wrong. Lance Armstrong, Bill Cosby, Bill Clinton, Steve Jobs, and the Founding Fathers; all revered for their strength, wit, leadership, ideas, or courage, and yet all examples of (and in some instances, certainly not excusable) the capriciousness of the human spirit. Atticus Finch, to our dismay, now falls into that category, but are we truly surprised?

Humans love to watch people rise and fall, but they often deny their involvement in the process, even if that means turning a blind eye or a deaf ear, only to be indignant after the fact. We have always searched for individuals we can prop up on pedestals engraved with titles of our choosing: hero, warrior, champion, leader, genius, changemaker. And yet, we are unwilling to recognize that these labels are only a part of what makes them who they are, and that they are vulnerable to displaying their other, not so well-liked attributes just as easily as we are. So when it does happen, we are shocked, or perhaps outraged. But are we more upset that our hero messed up or that our carefully tended ideals have been tarnished by the realities of life? Or is it, like in Scout’s case, realizing that we won’t always believe the same things as the ones we loved and learned from? Is it not realistic that a younger Atticus Finch could defend a black man and promote racial equality, yet grow jaded and even prejudiced over the course of 20 years as he faces tremendous change in his life? While we may hope that everyone always changes for the better, we must recognize that it is hardly representative of what actually happens. A week’s worth of news is example enough: just when we feel we have taken a step forward as society, embracing tenets of love and tolerance and progress, we take two steps back and are inundated with rape and murder, hate and treachery.

Reading Go Set a Watchman does not have to destroy a long-held image of a favorite character (and by the way, he’s just a character, not a real person), nor does it have to alter our view of Harper Lee, who for many years was known as a one-hit wonder. Watchman has given us a chance to look behind the scenes at what it takes to write a brilliant and enduring work of fiction. TKAM can still stand on its own, whether or not you read Watchman and whether you love it or hate it. But more importantly, Watchman also invites us to take a closer look within ourselves to discover what we believe and stand for as individuals, who we look up to and stand by and why, and how we can find a way to meld those two together to bravely go forward in this world.

Have you read Go Set a Watchman? What did you think?

It’s all in the details

don note
When I was in elementary school, my parents would check my homework each night. Math problems, language arts, all of it. They’d point out errors (before there was a thing called typos) and make me go back and fix it, until I had a clean assignment to turn in. While it would sometimes frustrate me, it taught me early on the importance of attention to detail. At that time, I was rushing through things quickly because it wasn’t much of a challenge, and I just wanted to be done with my homework so I could read. My dad impressed upon me as early as age six that sloppy work doesn’t cut it, whether it was in my homework assignment, while completing a chore, or playing sports. It definitely made an impact – I am a self-acknowledged neat freak, I once organized my CDs and books by genre and artist/author, and I have a solid membership in the grammar snob squad.

In my very first semester of college at Miami University, I learned another important lesson about details from my English professor. For each book we read, Don had us write our analyses in the form of a letter to him. “Dear Don,” each one would begin, and then we’d outline our thoughts on stories from Hemingway, Fitzgerald, James, Wharton, and more, weaving in our own experiences with love, loss, travel, and friendship. Don would write us back with little Post-its and margin notes, filled with bits of wisdom and words of affirmation or understanding. “Me, too!” or “I agree!” were common. But the best ones were his gentle critiques and prompts to get us to show more and tell less, to use real examples, and to dig deeper. “Do you have a story, Jenna?” he’d write. Or “I need more details!” My foundation was all there, and I got the concepts, but I was too vague in my examples and not detailed enough in my descriptions. Don knew my writing could have more to it, and he pushed me to explore it.

I continued to look for the details as a reporter on my school paper, and then in my newspaper internships throughout college. Once I began work in digital communications for nonprofits and foundations in 2007, my writing took a different turn. While I had to be accurate with stats and program information, I was frequently told that shorter is better, and so long-form stories about the people these organizations supported went out in favor of 200-word blog posts and soon, 140-character tweets. General descriptions and umbrella messaging took precedent over exact details and deep dive storytelling to appeal to multiple audiences and drive actions and donations. On the side, I continued to write in my personal blog, alternating between specifics and big concepts about self-reflection and growth.

In recent months, I’ve picked up storytelling again as I pursue a more focused freelance writing career. While I adore reading fiction, I’ve always preferred nonfiction or historical fiction to creative writing, which is why I so loved my days at newspapers. As I’m interviewing people for their stories, I’m put back into a place where the details matter: ages, names, physical traits, quirks, interests. There is no fudging here or creating a character upon which someone is based. These are real people, with real stories. As I get back into this pattern, I’m applying it to my work with nonprofit clients when they want stories, and ultimately, I truly believe the details that make a person who they are resonates with donors more than anything else.

I recently sent Don an essay I wrote for submission to a travel writing contest. The subject was near and dear to me: illustrating a strong sense of place in my hometown in Louisiana. In the 12 years since I had his class, Don has never ceased to be a friend and mentor, encouraging me to keep writing and even convincing me to attend and participate in the International Hemingway Conference next summer. When Don sent back his thoughts on my piece, I had to smile. He really liked my work, and said it was “evocative.” But what came next was even better: “If I were to suggest anything to make it even more effective, it would be to be more specific in a couple of key places. But, Jenna, I almost always want more specifics! I’m especially enamored of proper nouns. And dialogue.”

It was so like Don to ask for more detail – and I needed the reminder. He pointed out a few places that could use specifics, and when I added them in, he was right of course. The story really was better for all of its tiny little details.

Just think of all the things you read each day or shows or movies you watch, or music you listen to. Or think about your own experiences and memories. While the theme or the action or the beat may provide for a great foundation, it’s the specifics that bring it all to life – the colors, tastes, sounds, or the words. When we care about the details, it makes our work and our stories more complete, more real, and more impactful.

Say “Hello” and Change Your Life Story

Photo credit: Jen Collins

I have always been a people person. While I cherish my alone time and am happy to amuse myself and relax, I usually thrive in an environment that requires me to meet new people, ask questions, and get personal. Perhaps that’s why being a writer was always top of mind for me; I recognized early on that everyone has a story to tell. Choosing journalism in college was a no brainer: it gave me a chance to pound the pavement and then write about what I learned.

Making conversation with the person in line next to me at the coffee shop or grocery store? No problem. Showing up at a wedding/party/event and knowing only the host? Perhaps intimidating at first, but nothing that can’t be handled. While I’m never going into the telemarketing business (I have my limits), I give a lot of credit to the act of simply starting a conversation with someone that’s near you, whether physically or virtually. In fact, many of my relationships and experiences have been started with something as little as saying “Hello” to the person next to me. I have countless examples of how my life was influenced or impacted in this way; you never know where it will lead you.

At least once a week, I visit a coffee shop that’s near the library where I volunteer. At one point, I realized an elderly man and a younger man were there working behind laptops every time I went in. It seemed like the younger guy (probably around my age) was helping the older man with a project. I was immediately curious. Who were these guys? Why were they always at the coffee shop, no matter when I stopped in? I was determined to find out, and while some people might think it brash, it’s what I do. So one day about a month ago, I went over to them and said, “Hello, I may sound a little nosy, but I see you here all the time. What are you up to?” The older man, whom I learned is Mo, smiled and told me about an online platform they were creating to help communities connect with each other in times of emergency. Then he said, “What are you doing here?” Now, every time I go to the coffee shop, I get an update from Mo on his project; I get the sense he looks forward to our little mini meetings as much as I do. Who knows where it will lead?

In the same coffee shop, I observed a woman’s laptop background was all Elvis. I asked her about it, and next thing you know, we had a half hour discussion about the book she was writing on the King of Rock and Roll, and how you don’t hear singers like Sinatra and Presley anymore. Next time I see her there, I’m going to get an update from her, too. And the same goes for another elderly man who sat down next to me one day when I was writing and started telling me about the book he’d published and some of the jobs he’d held in his lifetime. He, too, said that he can’t help but talk to people when he sees them; it’s just what he likes to do. I was happy to oblige him for a few minutes.

So I got to thinking about some of the other people that have played a role in my own story because of a chance meeting or what started as a simple introduction. Here are a few that are top of mind, and I’ve also included a few from friends who shared their own experiences.

  • A nice lady started talking to me on the plane on one of my many trips down to Louisiana as a child. Mrs. Mercedes and I became pen pals for years until she passed away.
  • When I posted this question on Facebook, my friend of 18 years, Molly, said of our own friendship, “Gym class!” As I told her, “And the rest was history!”
  • A sweet young woman named Brooke started chatting with me in the bathroom of my residence hall sophomore year at college. I was a bridesmaid in her wedding, and although we haven’t seen each other in years, we talk on the phone every couple of months.
  • Another friend named Molly came across a crowded DC bar at a networking happy hour and introduced herself after seeing my nametag. I’ve since attended her wedding and celebrated the birth of her baby.
  • I followed up with a guy who spoke at a college journalism conference when I moved to DC and he connected me with the person that would become my first boss.
  • Two people that I admire very much and look to as mentors and inspirations are in my life because I met one at a conference happy hour (Matt) and because I emailed the other after reading her blog (Sloane).
  • I exchanged polite background information and email addresses with a woman next to me at the library volunteer orientation last summer. Now, Linda and I see each other weekly and text like high school girls.
  • My friend Michael says he met a good friend in 2005 at a conference when he had to “rescue her from a creepy old guy that was half drunk.” She’s in NYC, he’s in Portland now, but they still remain in touch today.
  • Former coworker Karin says “False fire alert at the university residence. Both in our PJs outside at 20 degrees. Hubby and I, 15 years ago.”

I could go on and on of course. There are also many instances of starting conversations with someone on Twitter and those interactions leading to in-person meetings and friendships or pen pals (Leslie, I’m looking at you!). But you get the idea. Say “hello” to someone today and they may become a part of your story forever.

Got an example to add? I’d love to hear how a “Hello” turned into a significant relationship or opportunity – how did your story combine with someone else’s?

The persistence of memory: boiled seafood and family

boiled seafood

I’m headed to visit extended family in my hometown in Louisiana this weekend, and I admit, with no shame, that one of my top priorities is sitting down to a table heaped with hot boiled crawfish and crabs, corn, potatoes, and sausage. My mouth waters for a year in advance between each trip south, especially as I peruse Facebook photos of the ongoing crawfish boils starting in the spring. It’s like looking forward to Thanksgiving dinner, but this is a Cajun supper of which I feel I can never get enough.

I don’t remember the first time I tasted boiled seafood, but I know it was probably before I could walk or even talk. To that end, I can’t remember when I first would have truly enjoyed, or looked forward to sitting down to a seafood boil, an essential element to family gatherings back home. I only know how much I’ve craved it and relished it in the years since.

But there is one particular image that sticks in my head and won’t go away: I was a little girl, perhaps about seven or eight, and my parents and I had already moved from Louisiana, so we were in on a visit, probably at Christmas. We are at my grandparents’ house, in their avocado-colored kitchen and avocado dining room (The chairs, the buffet, the bar, the table, the cushions, the carpet, the cabinets, the countertops! All avocado.). My grandfather, Richard, obtained a few dozen crabs, and probably as many pounds of shrimp, and it was all laid out on newspapers. I recall my mother drinking a beer, and at that young age, it seemed surprising. “I like a beer with seafood,” she told me. I wouldn’t understand that until I was of drinking age myself years later.

This is a Cajun supper of which I feel I can never get enough.

There was no music and no commotion; I think it was only a handful of us eating. I remember PawPaw cracking crab claws in a way that produced the most amount of meat, and saving the good ones for me. I remember my tongue and lips burning, and the juice squirting onto my shirt and down my forearms. I hear the small talk at the table, my mom and MawMaw catching up, and PawPaw chiming in here and there, in between crabs. I already knew how to use a butter knife to crack crabs and clean out the meat, and that I dared not to waste any of it, or someone would call me out. I knew to pinch, twist, and pull the tail off the shrimp, and that it’s best dipped in cocktail sauce. I knew the potatoes were a great way to take a break from the spicy meat, but if you didn’t let them cool enough, they too, would burn your tongue.

That evening eating a favorite meal with my grandparents was uneventful, yet momentous. It was simple, yet delicious. And it was fleeting, yet ever-lasting in my mind. Perhaps that was the first time that I truly appreciated the deliciousness of boiled seafood – and the delight in a family tradition. While I have eaten crabs and crawfish and shrimp many times since, and will in the future, that early enduring memory provides nourishment to this day, to my belly, and to my soul.

School’s out: My year as a tutor

Photo credit: Clemson Libraries/Flickr

Photo credit: Clemson Libraries/Flickr

As the school year comes to a close in the next few weeks, I will be finishing my final sessions with the students I’ve been tutoring since last summer. When I went into this gig, it was to explore the idea of teaching, to see if I wanted to go into education in some capacity, and because I’ve always wanted to try tutoring. I walked into the tutoring and test prep center in my neighborhood and cold applied, acknowledging that I had no teaching experience, no experience working directly with kids, and no experience in special education. But I did have a passion for the English language, and for helping students communicate better and succeed in school and in life.

All these months later, I hope that I’ve made an impact on my students’ work, now and in the future. For some, I know I have – the test scores and the grades prove it. And beyond the grades, I think that I’ve been able to expose these kids to new ideas and concepts, empower them to express themselves more confidently and creatively, and to utilize their resources and surroundings to find solutions, not only for their homework, but for some of the bigger questions and challenges they will face as they grow up.

For me it’s been a test in patience, a challenge to be creative (with curriculum and style), an opportunity to learn about new things, a refresher in some of the basics (hello, functions and graphing), and a chance to nerd out on some of my favorite subjects and topics. Browsing NPR.org and The Atlantic for articles for my ESL student to read wasn’t homework for me – it fit right into my daily routine. Rereading Much Ado About Nothing, or The Bell Jar for the first time, or working through the rhetorical and literary devices in prose and poetry are all up my alley, and while my students may not be over the moon about those assignments, I got to be a little excited and I hope some of that rubbed off on them. And even when I was working through middle school math, I got to explore different learning styles and approaches to fundamentals that I hadn’t touched in 20 years, and it gave me a new appreciation for what it’s like to be the student – it helped me to be a better teacher.

As with any job or extracurricular, there were tough moments, too. You’re dealing with parents, juggling schedules, disinterested kids, and sometimes really tough subject matter. And while I won’t be pursuing a new career in education right now, the frustrating moments of this past year have been as enlightening as the satisfactory ones. I am grateful for the opportunity to have worked with all of them, and I’m glad I took on the challenge for myself. I look forward to continuing it in the future.

Have you worked as a tutor? What have you learned from the experience?

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