Monday, August 06, 2007
Flexing a Writer’s Perspectives
Every classroom of writing students requires flexible group dynamics. Teaching, in general, requires an open-minded ability to facilitate learning for all personality-types and individuals of diverse backgrounds, including gender, job experience, lifestyle, age (meaning life-experience skills, in this sense). College instructors, secondary school teachers, and all teachers certainly need energy to teach any subject to all students.
The best memories from my college English composition course lessons linger from my students’ diverse perspectives and the infinite number of ways each one could perceive the same subject. When I taught three courses with thirty-five students per class, and I used the same writing exercises for each one, I came away with 105 different writing perspectives.
Two of my favorite exercises involved teaching description, how to look for it, and how to write it down on paper so readers could sense objects and subjects through the writer’s eyes, ears, nose, taste buds, and finger tips, or whichever senses applied. Of course, this involved teaching how to be aware of one’s sensory perceptions and how to capture them on paper. For example, I’d used one of Annie Dillard’s passages from “Death of a Moth” to illustrate the use of details. Here it is:
“One night a moth flew into the candle, was caught, burnt dry and held. I must have been staring at the candle, or maybe I looked up when a shadow crossed my page; at any rate, I saw it all. A golden female moth, a biggish one with a two-inch wingspread, flapped into the fire, dropped abdomen into the wet wax, stuck, flamed, and frazzled, in a second. Her moving wings ignited like tissue paper, like angels’ wings, enlarging the circle of light in the clearing and creating out of the darkness the sudden blue sleeves of my sweater, the green leaves of jewelweed by my side, the ragged red trunk of a pine; at once the light contracted again and the moth’s wings vanished in a fine, foul smoke. At the same time, her six legs clawed, curled, blackened, and ceased, disappearing utterly. And her head jerked in spasms, making a spattering noise; her antennae crisped and burnt away and her heaving mouthparts cracked like pistol fire. When it was all over, her head was, so far as I could determine, gone, gone the long way of her wings and legs. Her head was a hole lost to time. All that was left was the flowing horn shell of her abdomen and thorax--fraying, partially collapsed gold tube jammed upright in the candle’s round pool.”
In the previous passage, I’d asked my students to consider the following questions:
1. How many abstractions do you find in the passage?
2. How many specific and concrete terms are there?
3. How does Dillard achieve startling precision and grace?
I’d provided more questions for my students, but this is just a sample. By examining Dillard’s perspective, students had a clear example from which they could practice their own writing.
Another exercise to push students beyond the day-to-day “thought box” included particular 3-D images or optical illusions.
A great place to go for practice is the Third Side Perspective.
As students decided on their perspectives, on various pictures like those provided at the Third Side, I asked them to write a descriptive passage as detailed as possible. These exercises enabled students to approach writing from a reader’s perspective and learn how to apply their senses like Dillard. They had to think about how to “show” their subjects for readers.
For instance, when you glance at the picture atop this Blog, what do you see? Of course, you might see one of two images, or both: an old lady and/or a young woman. How would you describe the picture provided here?
These exercises can work for anyone. Our perspectives can be captured on paper or on a blank screen for others to see, hear, touch, taste, or feel. We need only think outside ourselves.
How do you flex your perspective or practice drawing pictures and scenes with words?