Wednesday, November 26, 2008

College Essays

I just finished coaching and editing two college application essays, on very different topics, for different schools, by very different writers. But they had one thing in common: false starts. Many writers warm up on paper without realizing it, only beginning their essays after a paragraph or so of warm-up material. To submit such a rough piece would be tantamount to a composer actually recording the band's warm-up session as the opening to a song--not advisable for keeping an audience engaged!

My trick to redirecting both students correlates with the age-old literary technique known (in Latin) as EN MEDIA RES ("in the middle of things"), which I learned about in high school English class. At the end of both students' first paragraphs shone their perfect opening lines. Once I slashed out the bulk of each opening paragraph, and pointed out the golden lines, the students enjoyed an "aha" moment and rewrote their essays with the new opening lines. I suggested the addition of specific examples in both cases, to replace or augment general statements. I explained to both aspiring college students that the key to standing out among the applicants is to offer vivid examples that create memorable essays.

It always comes down to memorable words, doesn't it?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Masters We Mentor

I once read that we cannot measure ourselves in terms of our own mastery, but rather, in terms of the masters we help to create. Today I measured myself when one of my students, brilliant 14-year-old Erin, sent me a link to her own blogspot, full of concrete evidence of my influence as a mentor.

Many of the posts are pieces she wrote in response to my writing prompts, in our weekly class, pieces that elicited awed silence and dropped jaws, followed by heartfelt applause. Erin, master-in-the-making, sets the bar for her fellow students, and I recommend her blog to any students or teachers of writing--or anyone who simply wants a peek into an extraordinary teenage mind.

Thank you, Erin, for the chance to measure myself and discover how I have grown, as a teacher, through your success.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

“D.A.D.” and “M.O.M.”: Memorable Guides To Improve ALL Forms of Writing

Truly memorable fiction usually includes description, action, and dialogue (what I call the D.A.D. technique of creating vivid word pictures). Remember D.A.D. as a kind of checklist for your writing--even if you have only one character (the D for Dialogue could translate to a person talking to him/herself). Examine your favorite stories and novels—the ones that created virtual movies that still play in your mind when you recall them—and you’ll see the important role of D.A.D.

As for nonfiction, vivid writing has as much importance as it does in fiction, and the D.A.D. technique will liven up essays, reports, and articles, too. You may be saying to yourself, “Sure, I understand how I can use description and action in creative nonfiction…but dialogue?” Simply remember to include words “spoken” by others—QUOTATIONS—to illustrate your points. And when revising your nonfiction and checking for the D.A.D. elements, look for quotation marks to ensure that you’ve painted a vivid nonfiction word picture. Using my D.A.D. technique in everything you write will immediately improve your written works, whether you write fiction, poetry, or nonfiction.

Now, along with D.A.D. comes M.O.M. (I don't discriminate when I make up mnemonic devices!): The M.O.M. technique will enable you to revise and edit your work for maximum impact by focusing on Mood, Order, and Matter. Let me explain. Mood refers to the tone of a piece of writing. Your word choices affect how your reader perceives the images or imaginary world you’ve created. How you choose your D.A.D. elements will determine the mood of your work, and you may have to alter the descriptions, actions, and/or dialogues to fit the mood you hope to convey. For example, to set a mysterious mood, you might describe a garden as “shrouded in mist”; and a man’s action as “shifting his eyes back and forth as he tiptoed through the garden”; and that man’s dialogue lines might read: “Where on earth could he have hidden?” Similarly, those basic elements would change for a scary story. For instance, the garden might feature a description of “a hedge of twisted junipers, contorted like writhing, green monsters;” and you might show the man’s actions as: “he sweated profusely as he darted between rows of thorny stems and spider-like tendrils”; and his dialogue lines might say: “This can’t be real—heaven help me, it can’t!” One word alone can alter a piece’s mood. A boy who "trudges," rather than "walks" shows us his unhappy mood; whereas a boy who "skips," rather than "moves," shows us a childish joy. Experiment with verbs that can change the mood of a sentence, not to mention the image of your character. Thus, Mood, the first element of the M.O.M. technique, both enriches and depends upon D.A.D.

In nonfiction, think of Mood as the tone you set using either formal or informal words. In an essay written to persuade the reader of your personal opinion about something, it is sometimes appropriate to “talk” directly to the reader and use contractions (like “it’s” instead of “it is”), rather than very formal wording. In a report of information, in which you present only facts, and no opinion, the Mood, or tone, must remain “objective,” like a factual newspaper article. Order refers to the order in which you supply information to the reader. If your story, for instance, grows from a specific setting—such as a creepy old mansion—and you want to introduce the characters slowly, as they enter the mansion, building the reader’s suspense, then you must first rely most heavily on the element of Description. You might decide to change that order if you prefer to speed up the plot and engage your reader in action from the first line, rather than risk boring him with a lengthy description of the mansion. The order in which you present your story’s D.A.D. elements will determine how you affect your reader—whether you offer subtle hints about the plot in advance, perhaps even revealing the end scene at the start, and then keeping the reader guessing all along about how that ending will occur; or you might supply intriguing tidbits of description or deceptive dialogue to keep the reader wondering about the character’s true personality. Notice the order of the story elements when you read the works of other writers. Experiment with changing the order of elements as you polish your own stories, poems, and—yes—your nonfiction reports and essays. In nonfiction, the order of your points, and your summation of those points in the end, determines whether your reader comes away from your piece feeling well-informed or confused, convinced or bored. Matter, the final element of M.O.M., means two things: first, I mean “matter” as the “substance” or “stuff” you wrote about; and second, I mean “matter” as “having a definite purpose.” Thus, the Matter consists of all those details that absolutely must appear on the page in order for the reader to understand the meaning of the entire piece. If you add unnecessary artistic details that don’t matter to the reader’s understanding, then you decrease the power of the Matter and confuse the reader. Deciding which matter matters is what we do in the final editing stage of our writing process, in which we delete superfluous words that slow down, or distract from, the work’s purpose. The Matter, Order, and Mood all influence each other in your writing.

Remind yourself to heed D.A.D. and M.O.M. whenever you write, and you will progress as a writer—I guarantee it. (You will also learn to appreciate, as a reader, the effective use of these techniques by your favorite authors.) Yes, embrace your “parental guides,” D.A.D., who helps you grow as a writer, and M.O.M., who helps you grow stronger through revision and editing. Thus, remembering D.A.D. and M.O.M. while writing will create writings worth remembering!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Writing Lesson about Far More than Writing

My writing students are my favorite teachers. The other day, I led a lesson titled "An Exploration of Confronting Prejudice," prompted by a few choices of opening lines that I created to initiate dialogues between characters to illustrate various ways to confront prejudice. I told the students (13 and 14 year olds) to "create a character to utter the bigotry-laden line, and then have another character reacting to that line in a way that shows readers YOUR way of responding to such vile words." Their resulting pieces amazed me, not only in the quality of the short short stories they created, but mainly in the varied and valid responses they illustrated for dealing with blatant prejudice. Our discussion of each piece resonated with all of us, I believe, teaching them far more than writing skills. To my now almost famous "D.A.D. Technique for Vivid Word Pictures" (D=Description, A=Action, D=Dialogue), they added another D, for Depth!

The opening lines I gave them specifically targeted some of the nationalities, cultures, and races of the students themselves, who are Indian, Chinese, Italian, Jewish, and part-Irish. Here are a few samples:
  • Rahim sneezed in class. "God bless you, blurted Jacob automatically. "I mean, YOUR God, er, that is, if you people actually do believe in God, that is..."
  • "YOU made the basketball team? I didn't know Asians could play sports!"
  • "What's the matter with you? You're Asian! Why did YOU get a C?!"
  • As an African-American teenage boy walked toward their table to the coffee shop counter, Sandy whispered to Mary, "Maybe you should move your purse off the back of your chair and put it under the table."
  • "Look at that old Jewish-looking guy in front of us, the one with the big nose. He's keeping everyone waiting in this line so he can use his stupid coupons. What does a rich Jew need coupons for anyway?"
  • "Mom, can I go to a party at my friend Joe Flanagan's house tonight?" The mom comments on the last name being Irish, and then asks suspiciously whether there will be drinking at that party.
  • "I didn't invite you to my Christmas party because I know you people consider us infidels, so why would you want to come?"
  • "Darn! I got stuck with a bunch of Mexican kids for study partners. I guess I'll be doing all the work."
Well, each student selected a line, as I predicted, that pertained to their personal background, or to a display of prejudice they had witnessed before. The one who chose the line about the Asian basketball player created a scene in which the Asian player chooses the path of CONFRONTATION. The offended character refutes the bigot's assumptions about Asians by citing the successes of other Asian athletes, and by challenging the contender to a play-off. The author himself is an Asian basketball player.

Another student writer, who is Indian, picked the scenario in which a person blurts "God bless you" to a Hindu. His character shows no offense, and instead chooses the reaction of EDUCATION, by informing the ignorant person about his religion to dispel misconceptions.

The student who picked the Asian kid defending himself for getting a C in school wrote his character's response as one of SHARING EARNEST FEELINGS. The character reveals his pain at not living up to the stereotypes, and his wish for compassion, rather than castigation.

The young writer who chose the scene with the African-American teenager and the woman whose purse was hanging on the back of her chair wrote a scene that ended with the more enlightened, not prejudiced woman dumping the contents of her purse on the table. Her action, to spite her friend's biased comment, reflected a response of SIMPLE SILENT ACTION as a counterargument. The quiet action immediately silences the bigot without any fighting, violence, or lectures.

Yet another potential response to prejudice was illustrated by the student who chose the unfair comment about Irish people being drinkers. The writer showed the reaction of HUMOR and SELF-DEPRECATION as a response to meanness and ignorance. The Irish boy who finds himself insulted in the scenario replies in a Irish brogue, with every stereotypically Irish line imaginable, making the mother who insulted him feel embarrassed for her stupidity. In the end, however, the mother's daughter reveals that her Irish boy friend was actually drunk all along. Before the writing class students could protest that the writer had supported the prejudicial statement, instead of refuting it, the author read her "commentary" section. Her commentary revealed that the daughter's desire to go to a party hosted by her drunken friend was meant to imply that the non-Irish girl sought drunkenness herself, and since her interest in getting drunk had nothing to do with being Irish, the assumption about Irish people being more likely to drink appears false. Clever, huh?

Anyway, this lesson revealed a lot more than variation in writing techniques and stylistic competence. The student pieces could have comprised a presentation on the many ways of confronting prejudice. I love when my lessons do "double-duty" and my students learn more than they intended to.

Inspiring awe for words and awesome writing...that's my goal.