Remembering Summers and The Foundation of a Man

Remembering Summers Critique

Hi Carolyn,

I truly enjoyed reading your piece, Remembering Summers, about growing up in St. Louis, alongside the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.  Your writing demonstrated emotion and passion, which I admire in a writer.  Having grown up in Kansas City, which is similar to St. Louis, I found many parallels between our childhood environments.  The story provided a fair amount of detail about your experiences, which I felt helped me understand St. Louis, as well as visualize the specific area you were raised. Visualizations are critical to bringing a story to life, ultimately allowing the reader to see themselves in the story described.

Before I get into my “minor” suggestions, please understand I am not a professional writer.  All my comments are purely a different perspective of your story.  This is the beauty of a critique.  It’s not whether or not the writing is correct, but merely another vantage point seen through the eyes of a completely different reader.  Additionally, I have a personal history of the area you describe, having grown up in Kansas City, therefore I might have an unfair bias and greater understanding than someone who lives in San Francisco and has never visited St. Louis.

Critique:

I noticed fairly early in the story, there was an opportunity for you to use more adjectives to really describe what you experienced, which I felt could have brought some of the story to life.  Also, there was an opportunity to condense the sentence structure, as there were run-on sentences, by paying close attention to the use of commas or lack of commas.  Kate Turabian talks this use of appropriate sentence structure in A Manual for Writers.

Lastly, I noticed if a few cases you didn’t finish your thoughts and many of your thoughts were in passive tense.  As writers this can be easy to fall victim to, as we know what we are saying, but communicating those thoughts to others who don’t, is challenging.

Passive Tense Examples:

“This northern part of St. Louis County is where I grew up.”

Consider: I grew up in the northern part of St. Louis County.

 “The route to the old seminary was ridden so often, I can still clearly see in my memory the streets and houses along the way.”

Consider: I rode the route to the old seminary often.  I can still…

“There were two large windows in the corner of the room that I shared with my sister.”

Consider:  My sister and I shared two large windows in the corner of the room.

“In the space that formed between the windows and our beds was a low square table covered in beige vinyl.”

Consider: A low square table was covered in beige vinyl.  It was wedged in the space between the windows and our beds.

 Example:

“The Missouri River meets the Mississippi River just north of St. Louis, Missouri.  In the final northward loop of the river is a large area of flat river-bottom land.”

Try to think about how you might write this to a reader who has never been there or seen the intersecting of these two rivers.  Also, this is your first sentence, the “attention grabber” and I was left wondering why it was significant.  In reading the story there was some significant symbolism of the river to your life, yet it was hard to find this in your story.  You might have considered a shorter sentence; “I grew up on or I spent much of my childhood playing alongside the muddy, rocky Missouri river. ….”  You have three sentences I felt could have been condensed to one more succinct sentence, while using more descriptive words.  Alternatively, if there is symbolism in the river, to your life, which I believe there may have been, you should consider this in the remainder of the writing.

Example:

“Near an old Jesuit seminary there was a peaceful spot that was not officially a park, but a place that many people went to walk along the river bluffs.”

In this particular sentence there was an opportunity to describe the seminary in more detail, besides just being old, which helps the reader visualize the place you are describing.  Also, you mentioned this place was “peaceful.”    What was peaceful about it and was there a particular reason you were seeking a peaceful place?

Example:

“As kids we spent our summers on our bikes. The route to the old seminary was ridden so often, I can still clearly see in my memory the streets and houses along the way. Riding our bikes out to the bluffs was one way we escaped the house and the heat.”

What appears to be special about this sentence is spending your summers riding up to the seminary, enjoying the scenery along the way, with the ultimate goal of arriving at the bluffs to escape the heat.  Consider rewriting this more as I stated it, while using adjectives to describe the actual journey, the historic St. Louis homes, the beautiful riverside and the water cooling bluffs.   Think about sharing what was so special about this place you traveled frequently and why were you trying to escape your home (you referenced this in the story)?

Example:

“Summers were hot and humid”

Consider the additions of adjectives, beyond “hot and humid,” as I have personally experienced a St. Louis summer, and they are painfully unbearable.  Hot and Humid gives no reference point and leaves it up to the reader to interpret this based on his or her own personal definition of the environment you described.

Example:

“We slept in what we called summer sheets made of very thin, almost diaphanous fabric.”

Think about sheer, flimsy and paper-thin, instead of diaphanous.  Also, elaborate on what this heat meant to you.  In our readings and in the Writers Manual, both suggest using words more universal recognized when possible (i.e smaller words).  I would not assume all people reading know the definition of “diaphanous.”

Example:

“There were two large windows in the corner of the room that I shared with my sister.  We would remake our beds in the summer so the head of the bed was closest to the windows…”

Also, there was much written about the “windows” as a place to escape the heat, though you mentioned never really finding relief as you “mostly remember moving in and out of sleep, dreaming of being hot and waiting for the sun to come up.”   This is some irony, as you dream of being hot wait for the sun to come up.  What is the real issue here, escaping the heat or was it getting out of the home, as you mentioned, “escaping home” at one point in your story.

Example:

“Virgin Mary, Blacks, Music, transporting to some foreign land.”

In this part of the story I felt you could have connected with and expanded on was the symbolism you mentioned with the vinyl table.  You mentioned all the things you had on it, references to the Virgin Mary and transporting to another place.  What was the symbolism with all of these things?  It appeared there was more to this story than a vinyl table with a bunch of 12-year old items on it.

Example:

“When I turned 12, my parents gave me an AM FM clock radio that I kept on that table next to the altar. AM radio signals were strong and sometimes at night I cold pick up radio stations from Detroit or New Orleans……”

I had a difficult time reading this paragraph, as it really seemed to hit on many different things; being a teenager, favorite hangouts, prejudice towards a black neighbor, the danger of the river and your fear of its power or your fear or water.  Try to ask yourself what am I trying to communicate in this paragraph and what is most important, ultimately making the biggest impact on the story.

The focus of the paragraph could have been about the importance of the black family during this era and your views of blacks as gifted musicians.  Or you could have talked about your fear you felt of the river and what this really meant to you.  It is important to consider why the information is important.  Many authors write visually from personal experiences, John Grisham as an example.

Example:

“My family was not the outdoor type” and “we never went boating or fishing on the river even though it was so close.”

This statement was confusing, since most of your story talks about being outside at the river bluffs and why did your family never go boating or fishing?  Was it commonplace to boat and fish? Why did your family never do this?   This seemed random and you should consider explaining what is the relevance of this statement to the story.  Were you not a close family and did this shape who you are today?

Example:

“I cannot remember a time we spent time as a family near the river for recreation, but when I think of my youth, I think of the river.  It was my destination as I grew and became independent.”

Think about your use of commas and how you might have condensed these sentences into a more succinct point.  Also, within the sentence you mention “time” twice which doesn’t read as well as if you had used it once.

Suggestion:  I spent much of my time growing up, playing at the river, without my family, as it was my place of independence.  You need to explain why your family didn’t spend time together and why this is important, since you clearly feel strongly about this issue.

Also, Was it your whole family, you or just your parents?  Also, I realize this is a story about you but maybe a mention of your family (brothers, sisters and parents) could help articulate a better understanding of your childhood environment.

Closing thoughts:

On a final note:  the story was a joy to read and it submerged me into your views of lack of family, air-conditioning and fantasy travel.  Most importantly, I really feel like I garnered a deep understanding of you, where you grew up, while experiencing many of your most significant memories, both happy and sad.  To me this story was not about a hot and humid town, but a girl’s creative imagination and her ability to overcome great adversity.

Here is the original piece, so readers can see what I am critiquing:

Remembering Summers

The Missouri River meets the Mississippi River just north of St. Louis, Missouri.  In the final northward loop of the river is a large area of flat river-bottom land.  This northern part of St. Louis County is where I grew up.  It was only five miles from our house to a point above the river that we used to ride our bikes to in the summer.  Near an old Jesuit seminary, there was a peaceful spot that was not officially a park, but a place that many people went to walk along the river bluffs.  As kids we spent our summers on our bikes.  The route to the old seminary was ridden so often, I can still clearly see in my memory the streets and houses along the way.  Riding our bikes out to the bluffs was one way we escaped the house and the heat.

Summers were hot and humid.  My mother was opposed to spending money on air conditioning until late summer when her hay fever kicked in and she was uncomfortable.  Summer nights were often long and still.  We slept in what we called summer sheets made of very thin, almost diaphanous fabric.  The windows in our house were very modern for the time, floor to ceiling glass, but only the bottom 18 inches opened to let in the breeze.  There were two large windows in the corner of the room that I shared with my sister.  We would remake our beds in the summer, so the head of the bed was closest to the open windows.  Sometimes we would sleep outside on the patio in our thinnest nightgowns and just a summer sheet, hoping to catch any breeze that might be stirring.  Mostly I remember moving in and out of sleep, dreaming of being hot, waiting for the sun to come up.

In the space that formed between the windows and our beds was a low square table covered in beige vinyl.  On this table we would place our books before falling asleep.  There was a floodlight on the corner of the house just outside our windows.  My parents kept it on until they went to bed.  My sister and I could read by that light.  She would often fall asleep before the light went out, but I would read until the sudden darkness signaled that my dad would soon be looking in to check on us before going to his bed.  By the time he looked in, I would appear to be asleep.

I kept a small altar to the Virgin Mary on that table.  I had a small statue of Mary, a couple of votive candles and a vase of dried flowers.  I created the altar not out of any desire to pray, but it was easier to create it than to not create it.  I felt that the nuns would know just by looking at me if one did not exist.

When I turned 12, my parents gave me an AM FM clock radio that I kept on that table next to the altar. AM radio signals were strong and sometimes at night I cold pick up radio stations from Detroit or New Orleans.  I loved listening to the music and the accents of the announcers.  At 12, I felt transported to some distant and foreign land.  That summer in 1967, as I listened to the news of the riots in Detroit, was the first time I realized what racism meant.  Up until this point, my only contact with black people was through that radio and the music of the Diana Ross and the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and so many others.  I thought black people must be gifted with some special talent that white people only imitated.  Our neighborhood was all white lower middle class suburbia and no one exhibited any special talent.

By the time we were teenagers and driving, one of our favorite hangouts was Sioux Passage Park. There were picnic and playground areas for families.  If you were adventurous, you could take the narrow paths down to the river and swim in the muddy water.  I had grown from riding my bike with my brothers and sisters to the bluffs, to hanging out with my friends on the riverbank.  When I was 17, one black family had moved to our area and their kids, Darwin and Jean went to my high school.  At the park, we would generate stares as we gathered our bags and blankets to head to the river, a bunch of white kids and one black boy.  Along the water past the line of trees were beaches.  Not like beaches along the North Carolina Coast, these river beaches were rock, mud and woody debris, changing with each rainstorm and rise and fall of the river. The current could sometimes be very swift and we would not go into the water at those times.  Actually, I never really went into the water, not any deeper than my knees. I have never learned to swim.  The power of the water scared me, but I loved watching it move.

My family was not the outdoor type. We never went boating or fishing on the river even though it was so close.  I cannot remember a time we spent time as a family near the river for recreation, but when I think of my youth, I think of the river.  It was my destination as I grew and became independent.  The summers were hot and humid, but the constant and relentless power of the water brought me peace and let me breathe.

My target audience for this piece would have to be my high school classmates.

Abstract:  A personal reflection of summers and growing up near the point where the Missouri River meets the Mississippi River.

Tags:

Missouri River

Sioux Passage Park

Summer heat

Critique of my writing, The Foundation of a Man

My sentence structure was a bit unclear and wordy at times.  Here are some examples:

Example:

“However, it is not the attributes specifically, but the pride and integrity of the people in Kansas City, which had significant influence on who I am today. More specifically, people are hardworking, caring, mindful, intelligent, entrepreneurial and civic-minded.”

Instead, maybe:  The pride and integrity of the people of Kansas City had a significant influence on me.  Specifically, people are…

Example:

“Zappos is currently in the process of transferring their entire corporation from beautiful Henderson, Nevada (a suburb of Las Vegas) to downtown Las Vegas, arguably one of the last places one would consider for a  “community and family-friendly” place.”

Instead: Zappos is transferring their entire corporation…

Example:

“Kansas City saw this with Hallmark Cards, which is a structural, cultural and foundational entity in Kansas City, having strong influence on the city’s community attributes, instilling Hallmark’s core values of family, integrity, connectedness and fun.”

Instead: Hallmark Cards is a structural, cultural and foundational entity in Kansas City.  Hallmark’s core values of family, integrity, connectedness and fun have influenced the city.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s