What follows are some recent posts from the Writer-L listserv which speak to much of what we discussed yesterday and much of what we'll be discussing tomorrow. Read, ponder and be prepared to discuss them tomorrow.
Lynda C. Ward on details and descriptions:
The problem with the descriptions Janet Somers posted from the New York Times is that I don't really care about the "gray goatee" because it tells me nothing about the character, nor do "alert eyes and a quick laugh" (at least not out-of-context like this), and, anyway, don't "alert eyes and a quick laugh" border on cliche? Same with salt-and-pepper hair. And what exactly is a "casual mustache"? The writing seems too heavy handed; you can see the strings.
I've been reading Susan Orlean's _The Orchid Thief_ and, after looking over the WriterL posts, I noticed that even though I feel like I know the main character, Laroche, quite well, I have no idea what color his eyes are, or his hair, and, frankly, I don't care. The writer has let me into something more important: his soul. I know Laroche because I know what he cares about: his priorities, passion, and focus. Sure, Orlean adds description occasionally, but always in the context of "painting a picture" of a man obsessed. Consider Orlean's description of Laroche entering a swamp on the hunt for a rare ghost orchid:
"His face was puckered with concentration, but he caught me looking at him and broke into a smile. He had mentioned a few weeks earlier that he was thinking about buying teeth to replace all of the ones he had knocked out in the car crash that had killed his mother, but he hadn't gotten around to it yet, so his smile was holey, a fence missing pickets." Orlean DOES describe his smile/teeth but only to underscore the fact that this man is so obsessed that he can't even fix his teeth that were knocked out years ago.
Jerry Miller on detail and inserting yourself into an article:
Yes, it paints a picture, but this is not painting, it's storytelling - if the picture doesn't help us understand what's going on, what good is it? It's just a little vanity break in which the (imaginary) author treats us to seeing what he saw, hearing what he heard, and so on. (And is the picture of the doctor eating his waffle in the cold dark morning any less vivid or compelling without it?)
Sometimes, I agree, it's good to see what the writer saw and heard what s/he heard. What I am arguing against is the belief that it is *always* useful or desirable, or "never irrelevant." A lot of young writers (and older ones who are just not very good) seem to feel that it's almost mandatory: Gotta get some DESCRIPTION in there, all the best stories have it! I don't know the context of William Least Heat Moon's "as blue as lake water", but I would argue that if he isn't trying to connect that character with water or nature in some way, it's just showing off.
Part of a writer's development and maturation - a very large part, I would argue, and I know I'm not alone - comes in shedding the vain conviction that what's important is the writer's experience rather than the story s/he is trying to tell. The awful truth is, most readers don't care about your narrative unless it has a point. And they don't care about what you saw and heard unless it helps you make that point.
Do not fear direct quotation. A number of you have chosen, for whatever reason, to incorporate everything into interior monologue. IM is a device, as is dialogue, and they both have their own strengths and weaknesses. One of the strengths of dialogue is that makes the reader feel like someone is talking to them, whereas IM is more conventionally novelistic. IM fleshes a character from the inside-out by impressing upon the reader the existence of a rich mental life. But if you present the entirety of your article from the perspective of the richness of your subject's mental life, there's a strong possibility that your reader will get the impression that your subject is a recluse, a hermit, who never speaks or leaves his or her house. So, as I said, don't fear direct quotation.
A few of you have expressed concerns about overwhelming your readers with the number of details you include in your article. I have a couple of things to say about that. First, at the draft stage, it's better to have too many details than not enough, since that gives you more to choose from as you revise. Second, the litmus test for including or excluding a detail is your ability to explain its presence at that particular moment in the text. For example, if your subject has three children, that's a significant detail, one which should probably be included somewhere your profile; however, if she works in a candy shop and you're describing the way candy canes are made, that may not be the best time to include it . . . unless you're being counter-intuitive deliberately, which is something you're allowed to do. But then the answer to the question is "I'm being counter-intuitive, trying to jar the reader blah blah blah." In other words, you should be able to justify the presence of each detail in its particular place in your article.
. . . and I have some points I think everyone could benefit from hearing. (These are in the order they appear on my scratch pad, i.e. no particular or logical one.)
Try to avoid beginning sentences with "there is," "there are" or "this is." Doing so not only locks you into predictable sentence structures, but it forces the subject of the sentence into the tail of it. Of course, you can do this for effect on occasion, but it needs to clearly be for effect.
As the reader's surrogate, you need not call to their attention that something comes to yours. For instance, "As I entered the place, I noticed X, Y and Z" can easily be rewritten "X, Y and Z dominate the place." In the second sentence, the focus is on the object of observation instead of the person doing the observing. Of course, sometimes the person doing the observing is important, as in "As Sally entered the place, she saw the chair her father had his stroke in, the table corner her little brother cracked his head open on, and the floor where her mother had bled to death." You see what I mean: unless the observer is important, you can focus on the objects being observed.
Write in scenes. Long exposition works only if it is a digression from a scene to which you will return. You can't more from expository digression to expository digression and expect your reader to remain involved.
A number of you have written emails asking me whether I received your essays. I would've responded to them, but I started cooking Wednesday--witness the breathtaking erudition of my Wednesday post--and didn't stop until the Cajun-style butter-injected bird, Southern dressing, stuffing, mashed sweet potatoes, string beans, and this stunning pie hit the makeshift table. (I'm not kidding about the pie, either. I know people find one of those ingredients dodgy, but I assure you that is The. Best. Pie. Ever.) Enough about why celebrating my childhood memories of a tradition whose mysterious origins and unsavory implications unsettle me. (I can be serious and scholarly about this too. Sort of. But I digress.) The point being (deep breath) I thoroughly enjoyed my Thanksgiving and hope you enjoyed yours and now I can eat leftovers for the next two weeks and concentrate on helping you write the best articles you can because I don't have or feel all that inclined to cook anymore and so now you know why I haven't responded to your emails with my patented promptness.
So here's a list of the people whose essays I have (or know why I don't) in the order I received them:
Sri Diana Monica Lauren Sally Charla Beth Joy Whitney Zach Sire Ge Karen Rachel Rachel Rachel Audrey Jamie Dzovak Janet Zach Gale
If your name is not on that list, email me immediately as I'll be working on these all weekend. (Also, before you ask, of course I did it on purpose.)
So the first paragraph is always the hardest for me. That and of course the last paragraph or the end. Smooth transitions between paragraphs are crucial too and always hang me up. So, yeah. It's all hard. But really, the first paragraph, the hook, the reason someone would bother to keep reading.....it's the hardest part for me to nail down. You might find it funny, but it took me almost two days to finish this first paragraph. Yes, there were bathroom breaks and food interruptions, a little sleep and tons of brainstorming/outlining/staring blankly at the wall, but in the end, this paragraph took me two days. Depressing, I know.
The question is, after reading it, would you want to read more? Oh, and assume you're stranded on a desert island and this paragraph just washed up on shore inside a bottle while answering this question. Any and all feedback will be greatly apppreciated not to mention reciprocated! --Zach S.
A pack of menthol cigarettes can always be found resting atop the air conditioning unit attached to Stephanie Lane's one bedroom apartment.
Keeping them there, even overnight, helps the single mom enforce a self-imposed habit of smoking outside. Inside, there are tools to moderate other behaviors, namely those of five-year-old Patrick Lane.
A dry erase board on the refrigerator monitors the frequency with which he brushes his teeth, daily instances of successful listening skills, and whether or not he naps between 3:00 and 4:00 p.m. He's rewarded traditionally with ice cream and toys. Not being tracked on a dry erase board is the maintenance of Stephanie's reclaimed virginity. The purity vow she took eighteen months ago allows for dating privileges and some physical activities such as kissing, but in order to have sex, she must be married. Ironically, not having sex now isn't what impedes her love life; it's the sex she had five years ago that keeps her alone.
I personally enjoyed reading David Finkel's "The Last Housewife in America." I thought it was interesting how the main character, JoAnn, was first portrayed as the stereotypical housewife, but as the story progressed, we found out that she had more depth. I couldn't help but think of the Stepford Wives or Pleasantville when I first read about JoAnn: "There is a smile on her face, and soon she begins to whistle" (62). It almost seemed surreal to me, and I was immediately reminded of the stereotypical 1950's nuclear family when first reading about JoAnn, her husband, and their two sons. I was surprised that there was no mention of a nice, big golden retriever anywhere. But yeah, we'll discuss all that in class tomorrow! Meanwhile, here are some questions to think about:
1. Do you think Finkel is able to put JoAnn past the stereotype of a
housewife? As the narrative progresses, does your opinion change of JoAnn?
2. Do you think the reader is able to relate to JoAnn at all? How does
Finkel portray her?
3. Is the language used satiric at all, or completely sincere?
4. There are numerous digressions throughout this piece. What do you
think Finkel strives to do by constantly digressing from JoAnn's narrative?
5. What are your views on the ending? Do you think Finkel once again
shows JoAnn as a part of the stereotype?
6. Finally, do you think JoAnn is at all similar to Bonnie of "TV
Without Guilt?" If so, what characteristics do they share?
And that's it. Mallory still needs to update us on what essay she'll be discussing, but from this point on, we'll be wading through the slowing sludge I call "the time of reporting and writing." What we'll be doing after we finish reading is quite simple: we'll be addressing questions you have about your articles. We'll be discussing the progress you're making on your interviews and talking about how to write an article. We've amassed quite a bit of techinical know-how this quarter (whether you realize it or not) and we'll be putting it to use these last weeks.
So . . . you all know how to post on this here blog--since I explained how in the syllabus--and I expect to see some posting these next couple of weeks. Questions, comments, portions of your article or, if you're brave, your "finished" article. We'll be discussing matters of peer review in the coming weeks, but needless to say, I expect to see some cooperation up here.
It’s hard to believe just how much television Americans do end up watching in the course of one day. For this reason, Finkel’s "TV Without Guilt" was a really interesting article and I think Finkel did a great job of portraying the Delmars. I used to average about 5-6 hours of television per night when I was younger, so I was able to relate a bit to this article. However, it was still hard for me to believe that this family was averaging as many hours as they did. And, although I enjoyed the article (quick and easy read!), at the same time, I found it somewhat annoying, but we can save such opinions for class. In the meantime, following are a few questions. They’re focused mainly on Finkel’s use of quotes because that clearly played a huge part in his article:
Finkel integrates a great deal of quotes into this article. Is this a good decision? How does this shape your views/opinions of the family?
What is your opinion of the family after reading this article and why do you think you came to this conclusion? What was it about Finkel’s writing?
If you dislike the family, by what part in the article did you form this opinion? Early on? Toward the end? Why?
In "Lifelike", Orlean didn’t necessarily point out how odd the taxidermists were because the quotes did the job for her. Are the quotes within this article similar? Are Finkel’s quotes as powerful?
How do you think parents would react to this article? Good/bad parenting?
How does the ending hook the reader? How would you answer the last question that Bonnie poses (pp. 92 “Who am I?”)?