Thursday, October 15, 2015

Creative Writing Sparked by Dialogue

          Snippets of dialogue serve as excellent writing prompts when they are ambiguous enough to suggest various possible tones, and in turn, various contexts for scene development. Often I propose that my students write two separate scenes founded upon the same line of dialogue interpreted differently. That writing exercise is part of a lesson on tone and how to convey specific moods in literature. I sometimes craft my own fictional scenes based on one line of dialogue uttered by a character's voice in my mind; from those scenes, novels are born. 

          Given two dialogue lines--"'re welcome...," and "I just wanted to tell you how much you've inspired me..."--as prompts to create a piece of short fiction, my young teenage student wrote this:

by L.Z.

          I am so excited, but also very nervous. I’ve never done anything like this before, but

missing a chance to meet her in person would leave me in regret for the rest of my life. So here I am now, standing in the back of a line so long that I cannot even see the actual author and her desk, but then, suddenly, through a gap in the crowds, I get a good look at her. She looks just like the woman on the back cover of my book, with her beautiful smile, signing for her loyal fans.
          In a flash, I am in the front of the line. “Hi,” she said smiling, “Would you like me to sign your book?”

          I breathed deeply trying to calm my nerves. “Actually, I just wanted to tell you how much you’ve‐‐”

          She interrupted me, her smile disappearing, “So you don’t have a book for me to sign?”

          “No,” I responded, “But I just wanted to tell you how much you’ve inspired me. I also read your books everyday.”

          “Okay... Thank you?” the author replied impatiently.

          “’re welcome.” I trudged out the exit towards my car.

          Only now, after discovering who she really was, have I realized that her smile was
cold and fake, and unlike what she wrote on the back of the book, she did not actually respect her supporters. There are many other people in the world who deserve more fame and respect than someone like her. 

          The dialogue-based writing prompt could have evoked other scenes so different from the student's scene (above) that a reader might not even notice that the same dialogue lines appear in both. For example, "'re welcome" could be uttered by a humble person who is uncomfortable accepting thanks; or by a rude person who has no intention of giving anything in the first place; or by a person who is unsure about why he is being thanked; or by a snide person who says these words to remind an impolite person to say "thank you"; or, as in this piece, by a disillusioned person who doubts the sincerity of the thanks she has received. Similarly, the speaker who tells another person how much s/he has inspired her could declare those words effusively, with sincere admiration for a warmly appreciative role model; or she could shyly murmur them and evoke tears from the mentor in return; or she could sneer as she utters those words snidely to someone she has no respect for at all. Thus, you can see how even a single dialogue line can serve as a path that branches off in various directions via the literary landscape planted by purposefully chosen, vivid verbs and memorable descriptions. 

Monday, October 12, 2015

Doing My Student's Homework

          A writing teacher should not assign prompts without attempting to write her/his own model responses, too. If I can't write passionately to a prompt I assign, then I cannot expect a student to tackle the task with any enthusiasm. Here is an essay I wrote in response to a thought-provoking cartoon that I assigned today to a 16-year-old student (as homework). The prompt is intended to evoke a personal opinion essay (four paragraphs) about the overuse of cell phones and the current American obsession with staying "connected." I purposely wrote with a plethora of specific details and figurative language to encourage him to choose similarly precise and creative words. 

Cell Phone Sabbaticals for Sanity
By Susan L. Lipson

A cartoon from The New Yorker depicts a woman reclining on a beach while searching through her purse for her cell phone and saying to two fellow beachgoers: “I’ll be on vacation until I find my cell phone.” The warmth of the sand on her bare toes, and the hypnotic shushing of the ocean, will immediately vanish once her fingers touch the cool screen of the smart phone, and her ears tune in to the insistent beep of notifications. Although cell phones act like stabilizing anchors by keeping us connected and reachable even as we continue to make waves, they simultaneously restrain us from floating off to relax at sea, away from responsibilities, in stress-free vacation mode. To truly enjoy a vacation—uninterrupted by telephone calls from home or work, disconnected from emails that demand responses or dictate tasks, unaware of social media campaigns and calls for attention to a tiny screen—we must “dumb down” our smart phones and develop a “vacation mode” (or at least a vacation mindset) that would restrict cell phone usage during preprogrammed travel dates.

Ironically, we cannot fully recharge ourselves while attached to fully computerized phones that are never unplugged; we must unplug and power down in order to empower ourselves to experience the temporary freedom known as “vacation.” Communication, while essential to human existence, requires energy, sometimes from electronic devices as well as from the humans who operate them. Conservation of that energy is the purpose of a vacation—like a reset button on a continuously running computer. If we tune out of business-world communications via electronic devices, and instead tune in to face-to-face interpersonal communication or introspective communication via meditation or quiet time, then we can truly experience the bliss of losing ourselves in our thoughts, in new activities, and in the company of our fellow vacationers.

The paranoia of powering off keeps too many people from finding the peace they need for their own health. They worry about missing “Something Important”—whatever that might be. Thus, this over-connectedness may even be a new kind of anxiety disorder (not to mention an addiction). The symptoms of this contagious disorder manifest themselves as cell phones left on dinner tables between diners; as darting eyes that attempt to appear engaged while checking for flashes and notification banners; as vibrating pockets and purses that frequently evoke dashes to bathrooms or lobbies; as excessive interest in Wi-Fi availability in selecting public places to meet with others; and as avoidance of any communication that does not involve typing. In the days when phones were only for calling people, we left our computers in our offices, along with automatic “vacation responder” messages to notify contacts that we would be incommunicative for a certain time period. We traveled, back then, not with Bluetooth devices in our ears, but with headphones to listen to our favorite music. Today, however, our phones are pocket computers, enabling us to take work and obligations with us wherever we roam, turning us into stressed-out workaholics who even use “silent mode” to communicate stealthily in every context.

The stress-related health risks associated with over-connectedness point to a need for phones to offer to a new, user-programmed “vacation mode." This self-regulated mode could be restricted to: 1) phone calls to designated Vacation-Approved Favorites (family and close friends); 2) camera shots that could automatically be stored in a folder titled “Vacation Photos”; 3) travel information apps (for transportation, lodging, maps, restaurant and tourist site reviews); and 4) music players. Time off can only serve its rejuvenating purpose if we turn off, as much as possible, our connections to the working world.