On Primary Sources with Katherine Cottle

Welcome to ‘Between the Lines’ – interviews with teachers, writers and writing teachers on specific aspects of their craft.

Photo courtesy Katherine Cottle

In this week’s interview, author and Goucher College writing professor Katherine Cottle discusses the practice and possibilities of primary source research in creative and critical projects, which is embodied in several of her five books, including The Hidden Heart of Charm City: Baltimore Letters and Lives, I Remain Yours: Secret Mission Love Letters of My Mormon Great-Grandparents: 1900-1903, and Baltimore Side Show.

According to her bio, she two “feisty” children and a propensity for burning dinner (“I’m a horrible cook,” she assures me cheerfully). Cottle also writes poetry, non-fiction, cultural criticism, essays and reviews.

An Expanding World of Words

Growing up in a “farm-like” conservancy area of Baltimore County, Maryland, Cottle – the eldest of three children – sought out nooks behind rose bushes or slices of space between buildings where she could spin yarns in peace. “I was very quiet, externally. More of a listener,” she recalls. “But I was wordy internally: talking to myself, making observations, telling stories. I was writing, mentally.”

Cottle had the good fortune to attend a public high school which offered creative writing courses (“now, you’re lucky to get a unit, much less a whole class”). Her creative writing teacher, with whom she is still in touch, encouraged students to enter competitions and submit work for publication. This was important for Cottle, who was 14 years old when her first piece appeared in the local paper: “It was a big deal to have readers outside my ninth grade classroom.”

Building on her positive high school experience, Cottle went on to earn a B.A. in English from Goucher College, an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Maryland at College Park, and a Ph.D. in English/Professional Writing and American Literature from Morgan State University.

Paths and Possibilities

Asked what steered her toward teaching writing, Cottle chuckles: “It wasn’t, ‘this is what I’m going to do with the rest of my life’. I still don’t know that. But no matter what I’ve done, writing has pulled me in its direction.”

Although she has not always, or exclusively, taught, Cottle has educated writers from early teens to adulthood, in settings ranging from intensive summer programs, to tutoring, to middle and high schools, to her current full-time role at Goucher.

There, she teaches courses including first-year writing, poetry, professional writing and senior capstone courses, allowing Cottle guide students from the beginning to the end of their undergraduate studies. “Every class, every semester is a new experience,” she says. “You are starting a new adventure every time – every class, every day. That requires strength, enthusiasm and a positive attitude.”

Strength, enthusiasm and a positive attitude are rewarded by reciprocal learning. Cottle cherishes interaction with students and colleagues as means to cultivate her own practice. “It allows me to reflect on my own work [at] a helpful disconnect. I have to step back and recognise where I am in that picture.”

Her goal as an educator is to pay forward the “gifts I got from my mentors… to inspire others to develop the command and craft of their work so they feel confident as writers. Whether first year or senior capstone, [I want them] to feel that what they’re learning will help them beyond the classroom. Hopefully they see how writing will play a role in their life, how communication will help them going forward.”

On Primary Source Research in Creative and Critical Projects

Q: What is primary source research in this context?

A: Opening your research lens beyond the standard scholarly essay. It means looking for non-traditional sources, things you won’t find in Google. Some might not be valued by the academy, but provide scope for humanities documentation. For example, my dissertation focused on intimate letters from 1850-1950 in Baltimore. Some [were] online, some I had to go to a physical place to see. Others cannot be found, because they were hidden or destroyed.

Q: Why is this type of research significant in critical and creative contexts?

A: It adds unfiltered content. It allows voices which might not typically be found in public settings to be brought to the surface and validates genres beyond the scope of traditional research.

Q: How does one begin?

A: Think of yourself as your own search engine, and create an algorithm. You can start on the internet, but usually you have to go to physical locations, or call or write people to find out if something is in an archive; you might open your research to living sources.

Q: How did you approach researching the intimate letters?

A: My focus was on historical figures. I asked mentors at my university, then cast a wide net to see what I could find. After that, I decided to focus on a particular time period. There were a variety of ways to go about finding letters. Some were available online. Some were in archives. Others were archived but not accessible to the public. I contacted writers who’d been immersed in particular figures and asked them. Part of the excitement of doing a primary source search is that the process becomes part of the journey. You document the search as much as what you find. I wound up with a chapter on letters that we’ll never find, even if they exist.

Q: How do you avoid drowning in details?

A: Set parameters as you go along: here’s where I am, here’s what I found, here’s what I’m going to continue, here’s what I’m going to put off for another time.

Staying within those parameters is useful, but you need to start the process first. It’s a little messy in the beginning, but human beings are messy.

Q: How might a teacher structure a primary source research assignment?

A: I teach a 200-level writing course with units on sources such as diaries, photographs, maps, children’s books, recipes, oral histories, etc. We focus on one genre a week, look at examples, do some practice.

We usually start with photographs. First, students observe exactly what is in the frame. Next is the reflective lens when the student considers what they bring to the image as a viewer. Then they apply an analytical lens to think about the picture’s social significance.

We apply this metaphorical frame to other types of sources, asking: What’s there? What [do I] bring? Why is this important to our world?

Cottle Recommends

Q: An author who does primary source research well?

A: Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. There’s a set of photographs in the middle, you can start the framing there; but the whole book is full of primary sources, [Skloot] pieces together Lacks’ life through research. Plus [she] has such a connection to Baltimore. I like to use articles or examples connected to place, so if students are local it gives them another perspective.

Q: A piece of writing that changed your life?

A: Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir 1969-1980 by Lucille Clifton. Hers was one of the first readings I went to; she had such humor, her work was so in-depth and thoughtful. But she was also unapologetic about loving The Price is Right. It showed me you could be a writer and be real, you could bring your strengths to writing in a way that was unique to you.

Q: A classic you love to teach?

A: Poets like Lucille Clifton, Anne Sexton, Tyehimba Jess – I’m not sure I could pick just one. A collection of women’s poetry from the late 20th century would be perfect.

Q: A contemporary work you love to teach?

A: I enjoy Billy Collins work. There is a simplicity about it, with a deep foundation, but also wit. He takes the human experience seriously and not seriously at the same time.

Q: A book about writing every writing student should read?

A: Bird by Bird: Some Notes on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott. Students connect with it.

Q: A living writer you’d love to hang out with?

A: Jeanette Winterson. I’ve only read two or three of her books, including Written on the Body and The Passion, but they left a physical feeling. The impact lingers, they are so powerful. She and Toni Morrison have that – they are in a whole ‘nother category. It is hard to find the language to describe, but you feel it at a cellular level.

Q: Your perfect writing space?

A: After going through the pandemic, it’s definitely not being home all the time. I work well in an outside environment, like a coffee shop, where there is human movement or discussion, but in the background. And a comfortable spot to sit.

Q: If you could publish anything, what would it be?

A: Right now, I’m working on [a book of] recipe poems. My brother-in-law is an incredible cook and has everyone over for dinner once a week. But during the pandemic, he couldn’t. We talked about writing a cookbook, but quickly realised it wouldn’t be typical. Each recipe is a tribute to a friend or family member who attends his dinners, so different people, different types of food; each will include a narrative about the person who makes, brings or requests the food.

I like blending genres. For example, my friend and I self-published a book of illustrated poetry. Even my memoir and nonfiction include other genres.




On Revision with Elisabeth Dahl

Welcome to ‘Between the Lines’ – interviews with teachers, writers and writing teachers on specific aspects of their craft.

In this week’s conversation, Elisabeth Dahl (no, no relation) discusses the transformative power of words, with a special focus on teaching revision.

Photo courtesy Elisabeth Dahl

‘I worry for people who don’t write’

Author, illustrator, editor, educator: Elisabeth Dahl’s writing experience spans genres and professions. The through line quickly emerges in conversation – a deftness with, and delight in, words that is as contagious as a yawn. And a knack for detail that brimfills anecdotes with life and color.

The Baltimore, Maryland native grew up near Johns Hopkins’ main campus, where she completed her undergraduate degree. She returned to the city as an adult, and lives a few miles from the hospital where she was born.

“As a child, I loved school right from the start,” she writes in her online bio. “By the time I was in ninth or tenth grade, one thing had become clear: Analyzing stories and crafting sentences lit me up in a way that history, math, and the rest did not.”

Speaking on the phone, Dahl credits this to her high school teacher Joyce Brown (with whom she still exchanges emails). “She approached us as if we were college students. When we started [James] Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, we spent 20-30 minutes talking about his decision to use ‘the artist’ instead of ‘an artist’. To think this was even a question! It would have been one thing to debate writer versus artist, but to look at the article – the versus an – was incredible. As it turns out, [Ms Brown] led us to understand it made quite a big difference.”

Understanding the big differences a small lexical choice can makes is a sine qua non for a writer-educator. “I’m a better writer because I’ve taught writing,” says Dahl, who worked for Johns Hopkins’ Center for Talented Youth for the better part of a decade. “I was still making the same mistakes emerging writers were making: the stakes weren’t high enough, or I was padding the stories. Seeing these problems [as a teacher] was sort of teaching myself at the same time. It helped me incorporate the lessons into my own writing.”

Textures of language

For Dahl, a reciprocal relationship between teaching and literature was established early; her mother and grandmother (with whom they lived until Dahl was eight) were elementary school teachers who made reading a central part of her young life. They also gifted her with a fascination for the stories embedded in artifacts and moments. Her favorite space, as a child, was her grandmother’s walk-in closet. “It smelled like mothballs but had its own, not just aroma – aura. It had a history. It was a special occasion if I got to try on old dresses, like the one my mother wore to her junior prom. There was a scarlet red [dress], like what a Spanish dancer would wear, with tiers, strapless. It didn’t look like any of the other clothes in there. Jane Eyre had her red room; I had this red dress.”

The aural and visual qualities of words beguiled her: “I liked that if you said a word like ‘fork’ or ‘salad’ 25 times to yourself, it became nonsense, weird, you could almost hallucinate about it”. Another female relative, an aunt, was a graphic designer. Tracing pages in her books on hand-lettering introduced Dahl to the “tactile aspect” of language.

These formative experiences of words and stories as real and imaginative, concrete and abstract, primed Dahl to thrill to the challenge when Ms Brown assigned Herman Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener. “A light had turned on. I remember standing in her empty classroom, during a free period, talking about it with her, totally energized. I [still] don’t know if I know what the story means,” she says cheerfully. “But I love it. It’s like a Rorschach test.”

Inspired by Ms Brown’s example, Dahl prioritizes space for students to encounter epiphanies by “helping them get a new perspective, become a better observer, or express themselves better. As a teacher, you’re another voice in this person’s head. You have to take it seriously. You don’t know the other voices in their lives, all you can do is be respectful and help them grow.”

But why learn to write any more – aren’t there machines for that?

“Because to have a good relationship with writing is to have a good relationship with your own mind, your history, the world around you,” Dahl responds. “I worry about people who don’t write regularly. The memoir I’m working on has taught me so much about things I’ve been thinking about for 54 years. By laying out the words, revising the words, reconsidering the words, I’ve developed new attitudes towards certain moments, and people. It’s wonderful to be able to do that.”

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

On Revision

How do you create an open, accepting environment where students think beyond the binary of right/wrong?

One assignment I designed is based on Amelia Gray’s short story ‘Monument’. In it, the people of a town came to clean up a graveyard, then something changes, and they start destroying the graveyard, almost like Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’. I had students pick a character and rewrite the [third-person] story in the first person. We talked about what that changed, what opportunities it created, what it shut down.

This helped them realize that a piece of writing is many, many choices. It loosened students up. It was an act of playing around, like they might approach improv.

How do you push students beyond ‘good enough’?

Try to present revision as an opportunity. What if you wrote in a different point of view? What if you sprinkled some of these details throughout the story?

For students who are good but could be better, I call upon their sense of a challenge, their curiosity, intrigue. If a student is a tennis player, or pianist, say, I remind them how many hours they spend on the court or at the keyboard. Writing requires the same. It’s a lot of time, a lot of effort, yes.

I always tried to teach that we’re all on the same continuum. We’re writing. We’re writers. Getting started, revising, these things are always challenging.

How can students develop a feel for revision?

They need to be reading, copying out passages as a way of internalizing what good writing is. I encounter people who say, ‘I know I could write a novel’, then you ask what they are reading and they ‘don’t really read’. That’s never going to work.

How does revision differ between fiction and non-fiction?

With non-fiction you have to think about fact checking, accuracy, but the process is not all that different. You’re still asking about tone, voice, consistency, how the narrative is laid out, what is the best way to tell the story, whether you’ve grabbed the reader…

How do you approach teaching revision with different age groups?

With younger students, don’t talk down to them. With all ages, nurture their curiosity about where a piece of writing might go. Again, trying to relate writing to other endeavors, whether playing sports, or working at a grocery story. Remind people that revision isn’t just something we do in writing. We’re always revising things, always being asked to spend more time perfecting or altering, it’s part of being human.

What is a sign that the process is working?

When students say, this went a different direction, or, the character surprised me by doing this. That is exciting. It shows they are engaging on another level, not just trying to bang out the essay or the story.

Dahl recommends:

The piece of writing that changed your life as an adult?

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel. She explores, in a graphic novel, growing up, the truths that were presented to her and the truths she had to discover later. It was fascinating, her level of honesty. I get most of my books out of the library, but I went straight to the book store and bought that one for full price.

A classic you love to teach?

‘Why I Live at the PO’ by Eudora Welty. It’s an unreliable narrator story, very subtle, hard to pull off. Every time I read it, I see new things.

A book about writing every writing student should read?

On Writing by Stephen King. Although I’m not a King fan, this book is so good, especially if students are interested in writing books and getting into publishing. It is full of good advice, very practical.

A book + film adaptation combo you love?

Ian McEwan’s Atonement – that was a great movie and a very good book.

A living writer you’d love to hang out with?

Ann Patchett. She co-owns a book store called Parnassus Books in Nashville; she has a wonderful personality, she’s smart, she’s a good writer.

Your perfect writing space?

My house, where I live and write, is suburban, there are beautiful trees but always people walking past. I like to have people around.

If you could publish anything, what would it be and why?

It would be nice if the memoir I’m writing eventually becomes a book. What got me started was realizing how much I loved reading memoir. There is something about a well-crafted, honest memoir that stands out; they are always engaging.



On Reading Like a Writer

This is an article I wrote several years ago, based on interviews with three brilliant, inspiring writers. It is worth revisiting.



“It is impossible to become a writer without reading,” says Paul Hendrickson, writing professor at the University of Pennsylvania and award-winning author of numerous books including Hemingway’s Boat.


There is a relationship between quality of reading and quality of writing. And a distinction between reading for pleasure and reading like a writer. The difference involves attitude, approach and appreciation. Michael Schmidt, poet, professor and author of The Novel: A Biography recommends reading, “with eyes wide open, full of anticipation.”

With this in mind, here are seven ways to read like a writer:

1. Compulsively

“You can’t be a writer unless you have a hunger for print,” says Nick Lezard, Guardian literary critic and author of Bitter Experience Has Taught Me. “I was the kid who sat at the table and read the side of the cereal packet.” In Nick’s case, the lust for literature paved the way for a career as a book reviewer. But regardless of the genre or field to which you aspire, all writers are readers first.  And “it doesn’t matter whether the medium is the side of the cereal packet or a screen,” Nick says.


2. Slowly

Cereal-packet readers tend to wolf words like they do breakfast. This is a trait writers should train themselves out of – at least sometimes. Paul defines reading like a writer as slow reading: dawdling on the page, delving, soaking in the style and rhythm. Don’t read everything this way, though. “I don’t read the newspaper ‘like a writer’,” he notes. “I don’t have time. Nobody does.”

3. Broadly


Time is of the essence for the reading writer, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore everything apart from the classics. There are, to borrow Orwell’s term, good bad books. Nick mentions Ian Fleming as an example of compelling though less-than-literary fiction. Paul gives a nod to Raymond Chandler, saying writers can learn from his “hardboiled, imagistic lines.”

4. Selectively

That said, don’t make the mistake of reading widely but not too well. “Reading crap is no good for the eye or ear,” says Michael. “Read only the best, and read it attentively. See how it relates to the world it depicts, or grows out of.”

Nick, who has read his share of bad books as a reviewer, concurs: “If you just read books like 50 Shades of Grey or Dan Brown, you’re going to wind up spewing out a string of miserable clichés.”

 5. Attentively


You get the most out of good writing by reading it with real attention. Michael advises writers to pay heed to metaphor, characters’ voices, how the author develops those voices and how they change. He recommends Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children as a rewarding subject of attentive reading: “There is a strong sense of development, nothing static there. I can think of no better pattern book for a would-be writer.”    

6. Fearlessly


Reading like a writer means going out of your comfort zone. When Nick was in his teens he tackled James Joyce’s Ulysses. “It was a struggle,” he recalls. “It took me a year or two. But that’s how you [learn] – you find stuff that’s above your level.”

7. Imaginatively

Reading above your level is valuable, in part, because it challenges your imagination. Paul talks about savoring the terse beauty of poetry and imagining “everything that’s between the spaces of the words, the spaces of the lines.” By observing the work of your own imagination you gain insight into how writers evoke images and emotions.

You don’t have to read every book (or cereal box) like a writer. But the more you immerse yourself in words and cultivate these seven skills, the better your writing will be. “If you are writing a potboiler, imagine how wonderful it will be if the work you produce is actually a proper novel,” says Michael. “Read the best, and read the best in your elected genre.”


Writers’ Recommended Reading:

Ulysses – James Joyce
To The Lighthouse –Virginia Woolf
A Farewell to Arms – Ernest Hemingway 
Three Lives – Gertrude Stein
New York Review of Books

10 Great Novels for Teen Readers

Great books help develop strong readers. And strong readers are capable of learning just about anything.

One of the joys and challenges of my job as a literature teacher is to continuously find exciting, engaging stories that will resonate with teen readers. To that end I read A LOT and am always on the look out for recommendations (if you have any, please jump to the comments and share!)

In 2022, I read more than 120 books. These 10 stood out as great novels for teenagers.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

by Betty Smith

Somehow, I missed this classic coming of age story when I was a kid. Shame. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a startling, unsentimental portrait of growing up poor in Brooklyn in the first years of the 20th century (the book ends with rumors of war). It doesn’t gloss the ugliness of abject poverty, alcoholism, sexual violence and ethnic conflicts yet it neither preachy nor maudlin. The characters are given the dignity of being complex, alive and changeable. Unmissable.

Cool for the Summer

by Dahlia Adler

This contemporary novel about a teenager girl exploring her sexuality is the best of a whole bunch I read on said theme. Middle schoolers desperately need affirmative, healthy messages about sex and sexual identity. The protagonist of Cool for the Summer is awkward, confused, obnoxious and authentic. She drinks, she swears, she screws up. She starts to figure out how to figure it out. When she finally kisses her new girlfriend at the end, there is a satisfying sense of hard-won self-awareness and acceptance.

The Astonishing Color of After

by Emily X.R. Pan

Apparently, this novel about a girl coping with the aftermath of her mother’s suicide is ‘magical realism’, a genre I would cross the road in front of a speeding semitruck to avoid, in most instances. In this instance, the fantastic and surreal are an effective (perhaps essential) means for communicating the displacement of grief. The protagonist’s gradual immersion in her mother’s language (Mandarin) and birthplace (Taiwan) offers hope and challenge, and, for the reader, insight into the complexities of biracial identity.

Long Way Down

by Jason Reynolds

This novel-in-verse won all the awards, and rightly so. It follows the 15-year-old protagonist as he takes a long, slow elevator ride towards destiny. Will he use the gun tucked in the back of his trousers to avenge his brother’s violent death? Or will he break The Rules? The pacing is taut, the use of language superb, and the voices unforgettable.

A Single Shard

by Linda Sue Park

This was officially my first foray into historical fiction about 12th century Korea. Let it be yours. The amount of research packed into every page makes me quiver with admiration for its author. Middle school kids probably won’t notice or care about all the work behind the scenes, though, they’ll be too busy chewing through the crisp, lovely prose about a young orphan’s apprenticeship to a master potter and the tough choices he has to make.


by Mieko Kawakami

I’m not sure if this is properly an adult novel with YA characters, or a YA novel. In any case, it’s fantastic for 8th graders, as it is a tough, unsparing exploration of issues that many kids face: bullying, divorce, parental absence, social awkwardness, sexual frustration and suicidal ideation. Don’t be misled though; it is anything but grim. There is life, and hope, which feels all the more authentic for being complicated.

All the Broken Pieces

by Ann E. Burg

Another novel-in-verse, told in the first person by a Vietnamese boy who was adopted by a couple in the United States after the war. The struggles with traumatic memories, guilt, racism and alienation are predictable. What is not is the heart-rending yet uplifting way he learns to cope, with a little help from his parents, a disabled baseball coach and a room full of veterans.

Frankly in Love

by David Yoon

This is just your typical hyper-ambitious YA novel that deals with racism, immigration, generational conflict, sex, friendship, LGBTQ+ identity and academic pressures. Just kidding. There is nothing typical about this fast, funny but also totally serious novel about a boy leading a double life: calculus-conquering son of Korean immigrants by day and kinda clueless, hopped-on-hormones American teenager who just wants to have fun.

Going Bovine

by Libba Bray

To paraphrase Hunter Thompson, when the going gets weird, the weird go bovine. I stumbled across this while looking for postmodernist teen fiction and boy, is it that. A fast-and-loose riff on Don Quixote, it is packed with drugs, sex, bad decisions, talking garden gnomes, fatal neurological conditions, magical jazz artists and… really, just read it. Preferably in one sitting. It’s louche, loud and OTT: perfect for older teens.

The Story that Cannot be Told

by J. Kasper Kramer

Inspired by Romanian history and folklore, this ode to the power of words follows a girl growing up in the insane reality of the late days of Ceaușescu’s dictatorship. Peril is always close to hand, often due to her innocent mistakes, but stories have a way of helping make sense of things. And of changing the endings of real-life situations. This is a perfect book for kids who like historical fiction, folktales and fantasy.

Recommend a great book for middle schoolers in the comments, or Tweet @CilaWarncke