Friday, June 21, 2013

Sliding In and Out of Focus - Jeff Anderson's 3rd THING

     In case you didn't read the last post, I'm knee-deep in Jeff Anderson's 10 Things Every Writer Needs to Know as a part of my quest to develop further in my practice as a teacher and a writer.  I'm finding his advice very helpful.  I neglected to write about his first THING, Motion, figuring that an entire blog post about it wasn't going to be very helpful in the long run. (I'm probably going to regret that later.)  In summary, he exhorts that writers must write every day, and that quality writing most often stems from a quantity of bad writing that the writer has done just to fill up that most frightening of abyss's - the blank page.
     The last post was about his second thing, Models, and it's really begun to take hold of my thinking and planning as a reader, writer, and teacher.  I find myself making lists of the texts he and other thought leaders have mentioned and even adding my own as I come across them.  Example, while at the library with the Niece and Littlest Nephew today, I made them practice hunting for specific books in the library by call number (I'm the evil-est aunt ever) by giving them a list of model texts and picture books I wanted to look at.  One of the books really stood out as a gem in my mind.  Rick Reilly, a national sports columnist and humorist for Sports Illustrated and various national publications, had a book of 100 of his columns published called Hate Mail From Cheerleaders.
     If you aren't familiar with Reilly's writing, this book is a simply wonderful introduction to his snarky, big-hearted voice.  The columns are short, but wonderfully engaging reading. Yes, his audience are sports fans, therefore, the majority of them have a sports theme.  But, what's wrong with that, I ask you?  He most often uses the vehicle of different sports, teams, events, or celebrities as vehicles to make larger points about life.  I teach sixth grade, and out of the seven that I read while at the library, I've already tagged for use four of them as short model texts.  Witness:  who wouldn't like to  learn how to describe characters with an opening like this?
"He was a UPS truck of a man, 6'4", maybe 250 pounds, 55 years old, with a chin you could use to crack open coconuts." (Reilly, p.112)
     I'm in love with Reilly's accessible voice and stories of events and people, big and small, but always full of heart and wisdom and humor.  Again, a GEM!
     Speaking of FOCUS, I should get some in this blog post, yes?
     Jeff Anderson's Third THING is FOCUS.  He talks about it in the most practical of terms, and gives some great ideas for helping students find ways to narrow the focus of their writing.  For narrowing the description or scope of a scene:  Write only about what you could see through a paper towel roll tube.  Answering questions about the audience and purpose of your writing can help you narrow it.  The demonstration of the "slice" of a story that you want to tell - using the analogy of a pizza.  The whole pizza is a big topic, like "My Best Friend", one slice of that pizza might be "Gayle's Menu of Laughs; From Silent Shaking to Raucous Guffaws".  He introduces ways to narrow the focus of non-fiction writing through Hayakawa's Ladder of Abstraction to simple vomiting words onto the page for five minutes around a general topic, picking one phrase from that and focusing a free-write on that phrase, lather, rinse, repeat until a sufficiently narrow focus is discovered.  He talks about maintaining your focus from lead to conclusion and finding threads or patterns to use as lenses to focus a series of writings.
     That's as far as I've gotten, and I'm not nearly done with this section yet.  It's dense with activity and suggestion and my brain is fairly bursting with ideas from the reading so far.  But how can I start putting it into practice to model it for my students?  Once again, Write Club to the rescue!
     This week, Write Club is electronic since many of us are out of town.  The prompt was sent out via email, and it's perfect for this post.  Another page from the ever-inspiring SARK was sent out and it is up to us to respond as we wish.  A rainbow-colored bouquet of circles/dots with short prompts in them (and outside them as well) was sent out, and we have been asked to choose one or a combination of them that inspires us and write.
     First, I narrowed the 25 topics down to several that I had general ideas for, the short list looked like this:
  • Lost
  • Imaginary Friend
  • Invented Life
  • Treeclimbing
  • Travel Moment
  • Grief Lesson
  • Clown Reunion
     I wrote a few brief lines down about each to see if an idea would jump out at me or if any of them would refuse to coalesce on the page.  Sure enough, Clown Reunion and Imaginary Friend refused to fully form into solid thoughts. Next, I chucked Grief Lesson because I'd just written about that same emotion in my last post about my grandmother's blue pitcher.  Treeclimbing was rejected for the same reason - the story was too close to that same area of my life.  I knew I needed to write something different - something not so childhood memoir, and more contemporary viewpoint/opinion.  For that reason, Travel Moment hit the road too.  I had Invented Life and Lost left.  I free wrote about both for a few minutes.  All my Lost ideas came down to personal memoir or were too fuzzy to pinpoint, but an interesting idea popped out of my free-write for Invented Life.  I had been writing about my life as a writer, when I started writing about karma and the life I felt I was owed.
     I took the phrase, "the life I am owed", and went to town on it.  Here's my first draft of this poisonous little piece:

A Blip In My Karma
by Jessica Wisniewski

     The rational part of me – the part that realizes karma and destiny are altogether lovely but frightening fairy tales used to scare us into behaving as adults – fades from existence after ten minutes in stopped traffic.  A hot day, a car full of melting groceries, an overripe bladder, and traffic-snarling road construction send the level-headed pragmatist on vacation, and invite all manner of crazy thoughts and conspiracy theories to roost in my mind and feed upon my growing ire.
     Perhaps it was fate intervening when I chose not to block an intersection that fed into our clogged vein, and instead waved the overlarge pickup truck to go ahead and enter the line ahead of me.  My act of charity earned no recognition from the driver of the pickup, but it did receive an angry horn BLAT from the car behind me.  I felt a tiny seed of resentment take root against that massive, double-wide, wide-bed, extended-cab gas-aholic monstrosity in front of me, now blocking my view.  The shadow head of the male driver talked animatedly to the curly shadow wife sitting next to him in the passenger seat.  Not even a wave for a thank-you?  The nerve.
     The license plate of the truck didn’t look like any license plate I’d ever seen before, and creeping a bit closer, I noticed that it was from the US Virgin Islands.  The Virgin Islands?  I’ve been to the Virgin Islands, and this Bubba Truck didn’t look as though it would fit on a single road I travelled on there, not to mention – what was it doing in ILLINOIS? Wouldn’t the driver have to have shipped the truck to the continental US from an island?  How much would that cost?  It sounded expensive. Psh.  Rich people.
Finally noticing the forest through the trees, I saw that they were vanity plates (OF COURSE!) that said KARMA.  Karma.  Really.  A tiny bumper sticker, practically lost on that sea of metal, intimated that the driver lived his live POSITIVELY.
     I was pretty positive that Mr. and Mrs. Karma in their Island-Hopping Bubbamobile had some karma coming to them, all right. The rational side of me fought to the surface of my bubbling anger and squeaked, “They are probably perfectly lovely people!”
     Shut up, you.  Get back where I stuffed you.  I’m in charge now, and in this newly minted universe where KARMA is more than just a vanity plate, I’ve decided that this tank in front of me will lead the way to my home where Mr. Bubba Karma will parachute gracefully out of the driver’s seat and offer to carry my dripping groceries inside.  Indeed, Mrs. Karma and I will have a lovely conversation while he lugs bag after bag up my steps to my kitchen door.  We’ll laugh and make a date to have coffee someday soon or come over for umbrella drinks by their pool.  Eventually, we’ll become the greatest of friends, and be invited to join their family at their estate in the Virgin Islands over the holidays. 
     Oh, Mr. and Mrs. Karma, Bubba and Rowena, the times we’ll have!  The laughter!  The inside jokes!  The fruity drinks! Your children will become like my own and our photo albums will be full of each others’ smiling faces.  Indeed, when the end of our lives come, we will look back at the rich lives we have lived in friendship and be amazed that we deserved such truckloads of blessings.  All because of one fateful traffic jam!
     Or not.

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