Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Show Me You're Angry, Don't Just Tell Me

Some teacher in high school told you never to use the "I" in your essays. That same teacher probably told you to "state" your evidence, rather than describe it. Well, that teacher is now my worst nightmare. Sifting through tons of diagnostic essays with sentences like, “One sees composition as an important tool for life” makes “one want to hurl.” So, what better way to get students out of the habit of generalizing than to tap into that old creative writing saying “Show, Don’t Tell”?

Because the concept of "showing" is very difficult for students to implement, the first way we tackled “showing” was in a group exercise that focused on utilizing the five senses (sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell) in our descriptions.


What to do: Take 5 note cards and write one of the five senses on each card. Then take 10 note cards (more if you have time to create more) and write down random words on each card. Mix it up a bit by writing both concrete meanings and abstractions. For example, I used silence, history, and God for abstractions and alligator, moon, and blue ink for concrete meanings.

Put your students into 5 groups. Each group picks 1 of the 5 “sense” note cards (in purple, below). Then have each group pick 2 of the random word cards (in red, below).


Directions: As a GROUP you must come up with two separate sentences. Write descriptive sentences for each word using your sense only. AVOID CLICHES. For example, if your sense is smell and you received the words “flower” and “happiness” you must construct one sentence that describes what that flower smells like and one sentence that describes what happiness smells like. “Flowers smell good” and “Happiness smells nice” are unacceptable descriptions. "The flower smells like the spicy air in grandma's kitchen" and "Happiness is an acrid sock" are more acceptable.


[my meta-moment]

The interesting part in giving this exercise, for me, is that I used it in both my Composition and Rhetoric an Contemporary American Poetry classes and had very different results. I use descriptive writing in my Comp & Rhet class for reasons I already mentioned: to avoid generalizations and cliches in essays as well as to teach different techniques that will help the writer help keep her readers engaged. But for my poetry course I am simply trying to stretch my students' imaginations by pointing out that their everyday experiences are seen, heard, smelled, tasted, and felt. I am trying to get them to  see Breton's woman with "matchstick wrists" and hear her "heat-lightning thoughts" or feel Berrigan's "pulse of the tree." The expectation was that my poetry students would have no trouble at all "showing" because they have been immersed in poetry for the past few weeks, and that my composition students would struggle to create interesting descriptions that utilize the senses. But this wasn't the case. In fact, my composition students, through their struggles ("This is so hard!"), made lots of progress after doing the above exercise. However, my poetry students can't help but to use the cliché. I suspect they default to "My love is like a red rose" because they don't want to be wrong. My composition students are much riskier and willing to say that which might be "weird."


Here is a follow up homework assignment, which we discussed in class the next day:

“Show don’t tell” has become a household name in creative writing, as well in the grammar community. Initially, it emerged as a tool for fiction writers as a way to elevate their writing. It’s a motto that helps writers realize when their descriptions fall flat. The idea is simple: don’t merely tell your reader, show your reader. How does one do this? As we have already learned in class, the five senses are important tools for creating imagery, and it is these same tools that help us show our reader (through sound, taste, smell, touch, and sight) the world around us.
Exercise 1: Identify the lines that are showing vs. the lines that are telling.
1.) She is as beautiful as a flower in bloom.
2.) The sea seemed to be filled with diamonds, seemed to be irreplaceable.
3.) The grey sky told us it was about it rain.
4.) I could feel the lizard’s tail; a tickle on my arm.
5.) Moon mirage—a thousand steps away, but in my hand.

Exercise 2: Change the following telling lines into showing lines, by using TOUCH:
1.) I held his hand so tightly because I was afraid.

2.) The summer is so hot that I can feel it in my brain.

3.) The stars are brighter here because there are not streetlights.

Exercise 3: Change the following telling lines into showing lines, by using SOUND:
1.) The wind is rough on the top of the mountain.

2.) I imagine she is afraid because she is shaking.

3.) The world will expire; there are disasters everywhere.
Exercise 4: Change the following telling lines into showing lines, by using TASTE:
1.) I might as well give up because the task is too hard.

2.) The rope hit the sidewalk and we all jumped!

3.) Defeat was closer than ever.

Exercise 5: Change the following telling lines into showing lines, by using SMELL:
1.) Today was so horrible that tomorrow has to be better.

2.) We beat the team.

3.) The scent of night was approaching.

Exercise 6: Change the following telling lines into showing lines, by using SIGHT:
1.) He sounds like a robot when he answers my question.

2.) And I'm up and off to the hospital....I get to meet my daughter today...I have dreamed of this day my whole life.

3.) I woke up this morning feeling renewed.

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