September 11, 2008 Archives

Yesterday I had a conversation with my colleague, Laura Patterson, who said she had a breakthrough while trying to explain to a student how literary authors will write about one thing, while they are really making a point about something else.

As I try to encourage my freshman writing students to avoid coming right out and stating the emotions they want to express, it occurred to me that Dr. Patterson's solution might work.

She asked her students to think of a literary work as a piece of subliminal advertising, and the act of interpreting a work of literature is like trying to find the messages that were placed there deliberately by the authors, but not on the surface, in an obvious position.

For a recent "My Passion" paragraph, instead of writing something direct like "My passion is.." or "I am so obsessed about X that I can't think of anything else," I want students to SHOW that obsession through actions.
A sign on the "Country Time Fruit Stand" advertises apples that are "unbelievably sweat." them's fighting words. I don't want any fruit, but I find myself slowing down enogh to notice that the "a" in sweat is pencilled in as an afterthought. That's the last straw. In a heartbeat, I've unholstered my pen, and I'm blazing a trail of marked-up signs for "hole potatoes" and "fresh cabigge," neither of which are even fruits, so what the hell are they doing at the "Country Time Fruit Stand?"
I didn't come right out and say "I can hardly think about anything but proper English."  Instead, I wrote a passage that SHOWS the depth of that obsession. I don't say "I'm like a sherrif from the Old West, and my pen is like my gun, spraying ink on lawless, no-good signs."  But I carefully choose words and incidents in order to convey that impression.

So... what is the subliminal message that you want to get across? How can you arrange the sequence of words and actions in order to convey that message without simply announcing it?
A 200-word paragraph that SHOWS your strength, without simply coming out and TELLING the reader "My strength is..." or "If I had to choose one thing that I could do better than anyone else, it would be..."

Rather than list many occasions on which you have demonstrated your strength, choose one specific incident when you demonstrated your strength, and make me feel like I am there with you, experiencing that event through your senses.

Showing is not about using lots of adjectives, or fancy words, or quoting the words of other people who do the TELLING for you (such as "Jimmy, you're an amazing trombone player!")

One paragraph, 200 words, formatted according to MLA style (see your SF Writer text). Choose one specific incident that SHOWS the reader an unexpected detail about your life or personality.

So far, I've asked you to write paragraphs that demonstrate your ability to focus on one topic (Ex 1-0), to show with vivid, specific details (Ex 1-1), and to use evidence to support your main idea (Ex 1-2). 

The next step is to retain your ability to focus, show, and support, while developing a new strength -- the ability to surprise the reader.

As before, avoid coming right out and TELLING the reader that "My secret is..." or "Nobody knows this about me, but..." or "I try to hide this from my family and friends, but..."

I remember many years ago watching the opening episode of a new cop show. I have no idea what the name of the show was, but it seemed like a typical show, with a hard-edged police captain dealing with infighting among the officers, nosy reporters, greedy politicians, and of course the death and destruction he faces everywhere he looks. At the end of the episode, this gravel-voiced action hero strides into a wing of the hospital, where he is apparently a regular visitor because the nurses greet him by name.  He sits in a rocking chair, and the nurses hand him two tiny newborn babies, as the closing credits roll, he rocks them to sleep, singing a lullaby:
On the day that I was born, said my father said he
I've an elegant legacy waiting for ye.
'Tis a rhyme for your lips and a song for your heart
To sing it whenever the world falls apart.
The message I got from that scene was something like this: "This tough cop deals with death on a daily basis, and the only thing keeping him going is the time he spends cuddling these newborn babies, so that he can remind himself that the world isn't only full of death and destruction and the world falling apart -- that it is also full of fragile beauty, and that's why he puts on a badge and faces the tough streets every day."

The scene not only SHOWED a silent side of this guy's character (nobody else on the show seems to know about his volunteering), it was also unexpected (popular culture doesn't often depict men as nurturing, particularly in cop shows).

My wife's grandmother was a long-time fan of the World Wrestling Federation, and watched the show every week well into her 80s.  (I still don't know whether she thought it was all real, or whether she just pretended to believe it for my wife's sake.)

Why Practice Surprising the Reader?

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