Making “Almost Famous” Stories

Samantha MillerSamantha Miller
Student Advisor, 2016-2018
Alpha Epsilon Alpha Chapter
The College of New Jersey, Ewing, NJ

When I first read Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” in eighth grade, I was struck by one primary thought: I wanted to write like that someday.

Almost Famous Women Book Cover

Jackson was one of the many eerie authors who influenced my taste today, her stories read alongside those of Poe, Asimov, and Bradbury. Yet, in non-English major company, when I fondly name “The Lottery” as my favorite short story I tend to get blank stares. Though Jackson is a canonical author and her work is still studied regularly in schools, the fantastically chilling story seems to have been pushed to the edges of their consciousness.

Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman, the 2017 Common Reader, centers around women who likewise have been shifted aside. Some are on the outskirts of history—for instance, Dolly Wilde, Allegra Byron, and Norma Millay—while others are downright obscure, such as Hazel Eaton. Some, like Butterfly McQueen and the conjoined Hilton twins, may receive vague recognition even if their names have been mostly forgotten. All of their stories are told by outsiders peering into these women’s lives, and twelve out of thirteen stories construct a world where we might know their names as well.

The Lottery by Shirley Jackson

The outlier hails from my one of my favorite works—“The Lottery,” of course. Unlike the other stories in this collection, “The Lottery, Redux” does not reconstruct a person’s life but recreates another story. “The Lottery, Redux” shifts the setting to a matriarchal society that inherited its exile to a small, isolated island, and explores the perspective of a town leader who is exempt from the annual draw. I won’t give spoilers for the original or this masterful retelling, but I can say the piece retains all the elements that made me love “The Lottery” in the first place, while also expanding to encompass themes that Jackson skimmed over. Bergman pushes mob mentality to the side in lieu of complicated consciences and resentment; the characters meet their fates readily, with heads held high. No one—except the narrator—ever thinks it won’t happen to them.

Like the matriarchs in “The Lottery, Redux,” the women in Bergman’s collection are visibly the backbones of their communities. Whether the woman in question was already famous, on the edges of fame, or completely obscured by history, the collection recognizes them as important and worthy parts of history. Jackson has inspired me to write; Bergman has inspired me to explore the obscured corners of culture. She has written stories that span decades, ages, and perspectives; she has finally given these “almost famous women” the spotlight they deserve.


Submit Your Common Reader Work for Convention

Feeling inspired after reading the Common Reader and discussing it with your chapter? Compose a critical or creative piece based on Almost Famous Women and submit it to the Sigma Tau Delta 2017 International Convention, which will be held in Louisville, KY, on March 29 – April 1, 2017.

Awards of up to $600 will be given at the international convention for critical essays or other genres of work that deal with the 2017 Common Reader. To be eligible, students need to indicate on the convention submission form that their work is in the common reader category (presentation type). Members can submit a total of two works for the convention as long as they are in different categories.

Submission guidelines will be posted to englishconvention.org on August 1.

Submissions will be open from September 26, through October 24.

How to Use English to Create Cultural Connections

Martin HeadJonathan Martin
Associate Student Representative, Southwestern Region, 2015-2016
Rho Mu Chapter
Oklahoma Christian University, Oklahoma City, OK

Last summer I gained a new appreciation for language. I spent the six weeks between May 17 and June 28 in Yaizu City, Shizuoka, Japan. The value of language as a method to exchange ideas has never been clearer. My trip’s purpose was to converse with local residents who were interested in increasing their English conversational skills.

During my time there, I met some incredible people and had some wonderful conversations about the different ways we viewed the world. One of my regular conversation partners brought an aged copy of the King James Bible in English she’d found on her grandfather’s bookshelf of Buddhist texts. She asked if I would be willing to read through it with her, and I was. We only made it about nine or ten chapters into Genesis, but every single time we met, the conversation covered definitions of obsolete words, archaic grammar rules, ancient Babylonian mythology, and our individual views on what we were reading. It was an intelligent, respectful trading of thoughts and ideas across gender, age, and cultural gaps.

Japan--MartinThese days, I feel this type of enlightening conversation is lost in the constant stream of shouting matches dominating social media every other week. Language isn’t about who can yell louder and longer than their opponent. It’s about communion, the coming together to share both commonalities and differences.

Too often, people become caught up in “right vs. wrong” or “me vs. you” debates that divide rather than bring together. I know in my own heart, I am guilty of wanting to be proven “correct” rather than sitting down and conversing with a friend about a topic of mutual passion. I’m striving to change this about myself so I can better engage with and understand the world around me.

I can say with certainty my trip changed my life for the better. My eyes have seen the community, love, and tolerance that are possible when two people treat each other with respect and sincerity.

Tell us about your experiences sharing the English language with someone from a different culture in the comments below.

Announcing Our 2017 Common Reader

Shannin SchroederShannin Schroeder
2017 Convention Chair

Make sure to carve some time out of your summer reading schedule for our 2017 Common Reader, Megan Mayhew Bergman’s short story collection Almost Famous Women, which details the colorful lives of these intrepid women. Read on for our 2017 Convention Chair’s brief introduction to this thought-provoking book.

Almost Famous Women CoverIn Almost Famous Women, Megan Mayhew Bergman draws our eye not only to the nearly famous but also to the women surrounding them, ancillary characters who seem stranded in their lives, adjacent to title figures who define who they are and how much they can love or be loved. In choosing to approach her eponymous women through these outside (almost exclusively female) voices, Bergman challenges our attempts to understand the complicated women around whom the action revolves.

The unnamed narrator of “Who Killed Dolly Wilde” says, “[S]he was a dying woman, in many ways. There was the cancer, of course, but also the sort of dying that happens when the beautiful person you once were wears off and all that’s left is someone frightened and ugly, this hard and cruel kernel of a self that’s difficult to look at.” Bergman’s words resonate for many of the women she revisits. Artists, entrepreneurs, self-made women, her characters simultaneously cling to an imitation of celebrity and reveal the flaws in the notion of notoriety itself. While the author does not shy away from death or dying, in their last throes, her characters are not any more or less approachable or likeable: instead, they are reduced to their base natures—hurting those who care for and about them.

Interspersed among these famous figures are the softer, but no less tragic, stories: works that make us ache for the conjoined sisters incapable of individual autonomy, the daredevil who gives up her daughter, or the Holocaust prisoners called back into womanhood by a hint of luxury. The most heartbreaking character may be the youngest, Allegra Byron, whose short life is documented by the postulant who watches it cut short. Of the convent’s image of the Virgin Mary, the narrator says, “You could tell she hadn’t enough mercy for all of us.” Figures we might expect to be most compassionate, from family members to religious icons, are found lacking. The collection instead leaves the burden of mercy to the tangential women who will bear away the extraordinary, complicated secrets of the titular characters.

Almost Famous Women questions whether it is a cruel world that renders the women in her stories knowable in limited ways, or whether the women themselves have held something back, something essential, from their friends, families, and lovers. The distance Bergman provides through her narrative style leaves readers wishing these women had been better known … to her readers, at least, if not to the public that could have made them famous.

Once you have finished reading Almost Famous Women, take some time to peruse these interviews with Megan Mayhew Bergman and learn more about her desire not to write these stories, her personal battles with the historical fiction genre, and which of these characters she loves most.


Common Reader Convention Awards

Feeling inspired after reading the Common Reader and discussing it with your chapter? Compose a critical or creative piece based on Almost Famous Women and submit it to the Sigma Tau Delta 2017 International Convention, which will be held in Louisville, KY, on March 29 – April 1, 2017.

Awards of up to $600 will be given at the international convention for critical essays or other genres of work that deal with the common reader. To be eligible, students indicate on the convention submission form that their work is in the common reader category (presentation type). Members can submit a total of two works for the convention as long as they are in different categories.

Submission guidelines will be posted to englishconvention.org on August 1.

Submissions will be open from September 26, through October 24.