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English 9, Lesson 175 – “So What?” In an Autobiography

This week I finished reading my last autobiography for the 9th Grade English course.  After watching all of Dr. North’s video lessons and reading the assigned autobiographies, I learnt one very important thing about writing autobiographies.  In this essay, I am going to talk about what that thing is.

When writing an autobiography the author must always have one question in mind.  “So what?”  Whenever they decide to talk about a certain event they must always be thinking “so what?”  What’s the point of this story?  Will it be interesting to the reader?  Authors that keep these questions in mind produce the best and most enjoyable autobiographies.

For example, when I had to read Henry David Thoreau’s autobiography about his time living on Walden’s Pond, it was tedious.   Thoreau would spend paragraphs upon paragraphs talking about insignificant topics that do not interest the reader.

But while reading Jim Lehrer’s autobiography in the beginning of the year, it was fun to read his book.  The stories he told was entertaining and had meaning to later parts of the book.  The stories he would tell from his childhood were so entertaining that I doubt the reader would mind if the story did not relate to a later topic.  For example, in the first chapter of his book he told the story of how he accidently wet himself as a young boy while playing on a pinball machine.  Once the incident happened, he panicked and ran to hide in the bathroom, where his father found him.

As you can see, writing an autobiography is not as simple as writing anything and everything from your life onto a page.  The writer always has to keep the reader in mind.  By always thinking “so what?” the writer will not only keep the reader’s attention, but will also make their stories unforgettable.


English 9, Lesson 170 – Equiano’s Attitude to the Navy

This week I started reading Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography.  Equiano was a man who was kidnapped from his home in Africa and sold into slavery.  In one of the chapters he talked a lot about his experience in the Navy.  In this essay, I am going to talk about his attitude towards the Navy.

Before I begin, here is some background on Equiano.  When he was 11 years old, Equiano and his sister were kidnapped from their village in Africa.  The two were taken together, but eventually separated from one another.  Equiano was placed on a slave ship heading for Virginia while his sister’s fate remained unknown to him.  He described this ordeal in great detail.  He talked about how bad the conditions were and how many people died on the journey.  He recalled how a few slaves even committed suicide by jumping off the ship and into the sea.  Equiano talked about his anxieties and fears of his future.  He knew that he would not be treated well, and that scared him.

When he arrived in Virginia, he was sold to a man who was in the British Navy.  This event changed his life.

Equiano was miserable on the slave ship, but on the Navy ships he was happy and content.  He loved the daily adventures that came with being part of the Navy, and like many young boys, he longed to go to war.  In his childlike mind, war was exciting and he wanted to do something exciting.  His fears and worries from the slave ship were still present, but considerably lessened.  He stopped dwelling so much on the future and focused more on the present.

As you can see, Equiano was still a young tween when he joined the Navy, meaning that he could be easily distracted.  In this case, the excitement of the Navy and his new surroundings distracted him from his fears of his unknown future.  He was able to find contentment on the ship, even if he was a slave.

English 9, Lesson 165 – Descriptive Note-Taking

This week, I finished reading Frederick Douglass’s autobiography.  One of the things that amazed me while reading the book was how Douglass was able to give a vivid description of events.  He wrote the book seven years after he escaped, meaning that he made lots of mental notes while the event was happening.  Today, I am going to talk about how I can take descriptive notes.

There are many ways to take descriptive notes, the most classic being journaling.  The idea sounds easy, but as a person who has tried journaling many times, it is not.  At first, you will get really excited about it and journal almost every day.  But over time, you will get lazy and try to come up with excuses to not write anymore.  Eventually, you will stop writing altogether and your journal will remain incomplete to the end of time.

That may be a little overdramatic, but you get the idea.  Now with all of the technology we have available to us, it is a lot easier to take descriptive notes.  One of my personal favorite ways is to take pictures or videos of the moment if possible.  Later on, I can look back at the pictures or videos and I can write a descriptive summary of the event.  I can even record a voice message of myself talking as a reference for a later time.

One of the most important things about writing descriptive notes is the details.  After all, descriptive usually means adding a lot of details to make the story vivid.  For this, there is no app (that I know of) that can help you.  The only thing that you can do is pay attention to the things around you.  Use all five of your senses, and then write them down later on.

As you can see, writing descriptive notes can be quite easy.  You only need the motivation and time to do it.

English 9, Lesson 160 – Life Changing Impact

This week I started reading Frederick Douglass’ autobiography.  Frederick Douglass was an escaped slave who was assumed to be born in 1818.   In one of the chapters I read this week, Douglass talked about being sent to a plantation in Baltimore.

Douglass was seven or eight when his master sent him to Baltimore to work at a new plantation.  His new master was a married man, and his wife was described to be an angel.  Douglass talked about his new mistress started to teach him how to read and write.  His lessons were put to an end after his master found out.  His master managed to convince his wife that teaching Douglass how to read would make him discontented and his wife believed him.  Douglass would try to teach himself in many ways, but he would get caught by his mistress and would be punished for it.  But Douglass would not give up.  He found other means to learn, one of them by asking the local white boys to teach him in exchange for food. 

These lessons that Douglass’ mistress gave him ignited a passion for learning within him.  He was determined to learn how to read and write, even if he had to face punishment for it.  Douglass’ new ability to read opened a whole new world to him and was the first step to him escaping from slavery.

Because of the small lessons Douglass’ mistress gave him, he was able to escape slavery.  Talk about butterfly effect.

I can confidently say that I have experienced a similar thing.  I am an aspiring actress and I have been working towards this dream since I was four years old.  My whole love for acting and performing came from one incident during the summer of 2011, when I was three years old.  I do not remember anything that happened that day, but my parents have told me the story countless times.

At the time, I was still living in America.  That summer my parents decided to take me to a street fair in one of our neighboring towns.  There was a lady putting on a small play for young children, and my parents and I stopped to watch it.  The woman was asking children from the audience to come up and help her put on the play.  I immediately raised my hand and the woman chose me.  The play she was putting on was The Three Billy Goats and I was chosen as “Billy Goat #3.” 

My parents said that they knew I had a talent for performing as soon as I stepped up on the stage.  To me, it sounded like a eureka moment.  After that summer, my parents started putting me in acting, singing, and dancing classes and I have not stopped since.

If my parents had not decided to stop and watch the show, I may not have ever been able to find my love for acting.

As you can see, both Douglass and I experienced small moments that led to something much bigger.  Who would have thought that a small decision could lead to people finding their dreams?

English 9, Lesson 150 – As a Writer of an Autobiography About Life in the Woods, Would You Spend More Pages Describing an Ant War or Loons?

This week, I continued reading Walden’s Pond by Henry David Thoreau.  In this essay I am going to answer the question “if I was the writer of an autobiography about life in the woods, would I spend more time describing an ant war or loons?”

For those that are not taking the 9th Grade English course with RPC or for students who have not reached this lesson yet, you may be wondering why the essay topic is so random.  For some background, I am currently reading Henry David Thoreau’s autobiography called Walden’s Pond.  The book describes Thoreau’s time while living the woods next to Walden’s Pond.  In one of the chapters I had to read this week, Thoreau described an ant war he witnessed and loons, a type of bird that lives on the pond with him. 

To answer the question, I would not spend time on an ant war or loons unless I found something extremely interesting about them.  When I write, fiction or non-fiction, I always make sure that the information I am giving is interesting for me and the reader.  Personally, I do not think there is anything thrilling about ant wars or loons and I doubt many will find them attention-grabbing.

Out of all of the lengthy descriptions I have read in the book so far, only the ant war makes sense to me.  Thoreau used the ant war to demonstrate his view of the political drama at that point in time.  The ‘war’ was a battle between red ants and black ants.  The red ants represented the people while the black ants represented the politicians.  He noted how there would be three or four red ants fighting against one black ant, but the black ant would always win because it had more power than the red ants.  He used the war to demonstrate that the number of people does not matter if the opponent has more power.

Thoreau also talked about loons, a type of bird that lives on the pond with him.  The common loon looks like a duck with black, white, and grey feathers.  Thoreau hated these birds with a passion and made it obvious in his writing.  He thought their calls were ‘demonic’, and I cannot blame him for thinking that.  At first, I thought that this was one of Thoreau’s odd views of the world.  However, when I found a recording of their calls on YouTube I cannot say I blame him for hating the bird.  Loon bird calls are the classic horror movie bird calls that Hollywood loves to use.

As you can see, I would not include ant wars or loons if I ever wrote an autobiography about living in the woods.  I think that Thoreau’s description of the ant war was a clever way to show his opinion on the politics of that time.  If I ever do end up writing an autobiography about living in the woods, I will be sure to look out for things that could correspond to my views on things happening in the world.

English 9, Lesson 145 – Is it Important for a Person to Summarize Their Philosophy of Life in an Early Chapter of An Autobiography?

This week I have been reading more of Walden’s Pond by Henry David Thoreau.  I have been reading the book for a few weeks now, and I am still very confused with many of Thoreau’s views of life.  For today’s writing prompt I have to answer the question “is it important for a person to summarize their philosophy of life in an early chapter of their autobiography?” 

Personally, I think that autobiographies that are focused on a certain period of the author’s life should have a quick summary of the person’s life philosophy in the first chapters, while autobiographies that focus on a person’s entire life does not require one.  However, I do think that these summaries are not necessary if you keep your writing clear and concise. 

For example, Solomon Northup’s autobiography focused only on twelve years of his life and he did not talk about his world view in the early chapters, but his writing was so clear and descriptive that you did not need him to specifically explain his life philosophy. 

In Henry Thoreau’s autobiography, he says many things that sounds ludicrous to the average person and offers no explanation.  For example, he believes that condiments will poison a person to death and owning a mat to wipe your feet is a sin.

I do not think that it is important for a person to summarize their philosophy of life in an early chapter.  However, if the author plans to say absurd things with no explanation, like Thoreau, I believe it would be very important and helpful.

English 9, Lesson 140 – Would Walden’s Pond have been a better book if Thoreau Gave More Background on His Life?”

This week, I continued reading Walden’s Pond by Henry David Thoreau.  For this week’s essay I have been asked to answer the question “would Walden’s Pond have been a better book if Thoreau gave more background on his life?”

Personally, I think that the answer is yes.  If he gave some background about his childhood life or the school he went to, some of his ideas may have made sense.

Some of the things he wrote about were overall confusing and nonsensical.  For example, he viewed furniture as a ‘burden’ and he thought that getting a mat to wipe your feet on is a mark of evil.  The latter is very confusing and I see no logic behind it.  It would have been interesting to see the reasoning behind this.  Thoreau did not give much background to his opinions, but if he did he usually ended up contradicting himself in a later paragraph.  As a reader, I started to get the impression that Thoreau himself was not completely sold on his own ideas.

Like my Dad always says to me, if you cannot explain something to someone clearly and concisely you do not understand the topic yourself.

In all honesty, the only thing that can make Walden’s Pond a better book is the writing.  If it was less riddle-like and if Thoreau kept his opinions straight it would have been an interesting book.

English 9, Lesson 135 – Did Thoreau Rely on the Division of Labor?

This week I started reading Walden’s Pond by Henry David Thoreau.  Walden’s Pond is about Thoreau’s time living in isolation in a cabin in the woods.  He spent 26 months in the cabin (before moving back in with his Mother) and eight years writing this book.  In the first few chapters of the book, he makes it abundantly clear that he despises the division of labor.  But a question arises.  Did he unintentionally rely on it?

Before I answer that question, let me explain what the ‘division of labor’ is.  The division of labor is the grouping of tasks so that people only specialize in one thing. 

One thing I would like to note is that Thoreau has a very interesting way of writing.  His chapters are long and his words are cryptic.  He usually contradicts himself four to five times in one chapter.  I would call him a bad writer as his book is so incredibly hard to read, it physically pains me but I feel that Thoreau did not realize what he was doing.  Maybe, he wanted to come off as wise and profound to his readers.  If so, he failed.

Back to the main topic: did Thoreau rely on the division of labor? Yes, he did. You cannot survive if you do not.  The world back then (1850s) was shaped around this model; it still is today.  If you tried to boycott it, you would not survive a day.  Thoreau insisted that the division of labor was horrible and he would never support it but I do not think he realized exactly what he was saying.

For example, to build the cabin he stayed in for 26 months, he hired builders to help him raise the house.  He would make weekly trips into town for seeds to grow his crops, and cloth to make his clothes.  Not only was he relying on the division of labor, he was also supporting it.  If Thoreau needed to buy anything that he could not make on his own, he would be supporting the division of labor.

For reasons unknown, Thoreau hated the division of labor.  However he never offered a reason or an alternative.  If he did, I was too busy trying to understand the his cryptic English.

English 9, Lesson 130 – Northup’s Use of Contrasts

This week I finished reading Twelve Years A Slave by Solomon Northup.  The book was Northup telling the story of how he was kidnapped and sold into slavery even though he was born a freeman.  You may be more familiar with the movie version of this book.  Northup was an excellent writer and he did an amazing job of making the story come to life in the reader’s mind.  One of the things that made his writing so great was his use of contrasts.  In this essay, I am going to talk about a few of the contrasts he made and how I can learn from him when writing by own autobiography.

One of the contrasts that stuck out to me the most was when Northup was kidnapped in the beginning of the book.  When he was first kidnapped, he was held in a slave pen in Washington.  The pen was very close to the Capitol, making it possible for the slaves to see it.  Northup talks about how cruel it seemed.  The Capitol, a place which represented liberty, justice, freedom, and equality right next to a slave pen holding freemen.

Another contrast that I remember very vividly is how Northup reacted to being separated from his children compared to how a slave mother, Eliza, reacted when getting separated from her children.  I think I remember this the most because I had to write an essay on it.  Northup knew that as a freeman he had rights.  He was convinced that one day those rights would allow him to be reunited with his children, and he was right.  But Eliza was born a slave.  She had no rights, and therefore knew that the odds of seeing her children again were very low.  A few months after being separated from her children she died of what Northup called ‘a broken heart.’

He also contrasted how the slaves acted during Christmas compared to every other day of the year.  Christmas was the only time they were allowed to see their relatives on other plantations (if those plantations were nearby).  They would have a grand feast and laugh and chat with their love ones.  Christmas was the one day a year where everyone was truly happy.  This was a great contrast to how Northup described them during other times in the year: afraid and worn out.

His contrasts not only made the story more alive, but it made certain moments more memorable.  It also made readers realize how horrible it was to be a slave.  I feel that nowadays, when children in school learn about the Civil War we never truly realize how terribly the slaves were treated until we read a book from their point of view.  I think that Northup used contrasts frequently on purpose.  He knew that majority of his readers were in the North.  He wanted to show them the poor conditions of the slaves in the South.

When I write my autobiography, I am going to try to find every opportunity to compare things.  After reading so many autobiographies in this English course, I know that contrasts make the book more memorable and realistic. 

As you can see, Northup was a brilliant writer who knew how to intrigue readers and make them remember important events.  His use of contrasts is one I will try to emulate when writing my own autobiography.

English 9, Lesson 120 – Northup Vs Eliza When Separated From Their Children

This week I started reading Solomon Northup’s autobiography, Twelve Years a Slave.  Northup was a free black man who was drugged and kidnapped into slavery.  Today, I am going to compare Northup’s reaction to being separated from his children versus Eliza, a slave mother’s reaction to being separated from her children.

Before Northup was kidnapped, he was very skilled with the violin and was asked to perform for a travelling circus one day.  He agreed and went to the ‘circus’, but he did not inform his wife or children as they were out of town.  This was a mistake as the ‘circus’ was a guise.  He was kidnapped, drugged, and shipped off to New Orleans as a slave who had “escaped from Georgia.”  During the whole ordeal the only thing on his mind were his wife and children.   

Unlike most people, Northup was still hopeful that he would be able to escape.  He was determined to escape and thought in terms of when and not if.  He was thinking of when he would be able to see his wife and children again.  Northup knew that he was a freeman and kidnapping a freeman was illegal.  He was convinced he would get justice one day.

Before Northup was sold to a master, he was kept with other slaves, one of which was named Eliza.  She had two children, Randall, who was ten years old, and Emily, whose age was never specified.  We only know that she was much younger than her brother.  Northup talked of Emily’s beauty for such a small child.  She had fair skin and smooth, silky hair.

During the slave auction, Eliza had tried to be sold to the same owner as her children, but failed.  Randall was sold to one master, Eliza to another, and little Emily was to be kept at the auction house until she grew up a little more.   Eliza’s master had attempted to buy Emily as well, taking pity on the woman, but the auctioneer refused to sell Emily.  Northup described how this ordeal affected Eliza.  She was no longer sleeping or eating well and she was not taking care of herself.  He noted how she started to get skinnier and less healthy looking.   

How come Eliza reacted so differently from Northup?  The answer is quite simple. Eliza was a born slave.  Northup was kidnapped into slavery.  While Northup knew he had rights and was convinced that one day he would be able to use those rights to get out, Eliza had none.  She was born a slave and therefore had no rights. 

I believe that Eliza also knew in the back of her mind that her children may be sold to cruel masters.  She also knew that the possibility of seeing each other again was very slim.  Not impossible, but not very likely either.  She would not know which state they would be shipped to or what would happen to them. 

While Northup would not be able to know what his children were doing and where they were, he could sleep peacefully knowing that they were free and their mother would be able to take care of them.  Eliza did not have this luxury.  Therefore she worried herself sick (literally).

As you can see, even though it seems like Eliza and Northup were in the same position, they were not.  Northup knew that he would see his children again.  Eliza knew that she would never see her children again.  That is what makes her story so heart-breaking.