Sunday, September 9, 2012

Critique of “From fried okra to sweet tea: Embracing my Southern roots”

Kim, I loved reading your story about growing up in small town North Carolina. Though I have never been to Oxford, I too grew up in a small NC town and I couldn’t help but notice the similarities in our experiences.  Each time I read your story, I notice another vivid detail or well-turned phrase.  I honestly can’t find much about your story that I would change. Great job!

I will attempt to outline the strengths of your piece and will also include comparisons to my story whenever possible.

First, I love how your story begins with your childhood in Oxford and comes full circle raising your own family in another small NC town, Holly Springs. You drew me in with your opening sentence, “The taste of fried okra from a cast iron skillet and sweet tea made with real sugar, not Splenda, defines the palate of my childhood.” And I had to smile as I read the last sentence, “And every day, when I make that hour-long commute from my job at UNC-Chapel Hill, I can’t wait to get home to Holly Springs.”   

I struggled to decide how to write this piece and it shows. I used a slightly different style, almost a flashback approach. In retrospect, I’m not sure that was the best way to go. Still I think it is workable if I add in more details about my parents, high school and work. I could detail leaving small town life for New York and Ft. Lauderdale only to come back home to care for my elderly parents.

Second, your story is rich with details that conjured images of my own childhood and made me want to kick myself for not including in my own piece.  The sentence, “I grew up shelling butter beans and picking blueberries from my parent’s garden, saying “yes ma’am,” “please” and “thank you.” had me shaking my head in agreement.  And the use of the phrase “tobacco and textiles were once king” provides historical context about your hometown. And “tobacco leaves ready to be primed bake in the sun in a field across from the high school” is such a powerful contrast to the burgeoning growth of your town you now call home.  

My story had flashes of this including the description of the Franklin bakery and the way the smell of baking bread takes me home. However, my story needed more of these descriptive elements. I should have described what Goldsboro is instead of what it isn’t, “a mythical small town where everything is beautiful…” I missed an opportunity to describe the racial disparity of Goldsboro and how my father spent the majority of his adult life working to erase those inequalities. I could have talked about how downtown was the hub of activity as a child and how it was a ghost town by the time I was in high school.

Third, I like that you included the reference to Tim Tyson’s book and related it to the loss of
your first childhood friend who suddenly moved to Butner in the fallout of that terrible racial event in 1970.

I also appreciated your inclusion of photographs. They attract your eye and provide a visual anchor to your story. Nice progression towards multimedia journalism.  I wish I had thought to do that.

Finally, your tone was descriptive and consistent throughout your story. It had a clear beginning, middle and end. You varied your sentence structure and your use of punctuation was judicious and accurate.

My story also had several technical missteps. I used quotation marks where they weren’t necessary, saying “…instinctively turn off the “circulate the cabin air” button” instead of just saying “I instinctively roll down the window …” I used apostrophe’s when the word was plural not possessive as in “The Gibson’s.”  I had at least one run-on sentence, “My Dad had back surgery last year and he couldn’t even help her get up after her fall.” At least this could easily be fixed by adding a comma after “year.”

As I said, we both wrote about small town life in NC and we both ended up with Journalism degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. But unfortunately that’s where the similarities end.  I find I don’t have any insight for improving your writing, and I’m not nearly as well versed on grammar and punctuation as I should be. I found your story artfully written and a pleasure to read. It hardly seems fair that you should have to critique mine.

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