Monday, September 19, 2011

Narrative from Chaos: Learning to Tell (and Retell...) the Story

Writers create meaning from disparate sources, bringing together ideas from across vast swaths of human experience.  For this unit, we'll be looking at how this process occurs and how you can use it to deepen your writing.

Unit 2 / Music Videos - Parody Videos
Intro to Chaos and Narrative

Thoughts of Chaos: The Food of Your Writing

In her article "Learning the Uses of Chaos," Ann Berthoff states that:
"Meanings do not come out of the air; we make them out of a chaos of images, half-truths, rememberances, syntactic fragments, from the mysterious and unformed" (648).
As writers, our role is to gather disparate images and then - somehow - share them on the page with our readers.

Unit 2: Expressing the Story
If you haven't already, be sure to view the two blog posts on storytelling through Music Videos and Parody Videos.  From these two posts, I hope you'll see that a single story can be told in more than one way.  As writers, we have the ability not only to share what's happened, but also the power to shape our readers' response to that event.

To start, today we'll take a brief look at my own writing process.  In the following image, you'll get a look at how I mapped out an essay using Prezi:
To make similar diagrams for your own work, take a look at  Their presentation software allows a "limitless canvas," which is great if you're not sure where exactly your ideas will go.

If you'd like to understand my planning in greater detail, visit my blog article Planning an Essay the Prezi Way.

As you'll note in the picture, my original idea was simply to write about my understanding of Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC).  WAC is a new approach to teaching writing which emphasizes ongoing writing instruction which takes place in all departments, not just English, and my professor wants to make sure that my classmates and I understand the ideas behind this new paradigm.  When I began sketching my ideas for the essay, I focused on the history of WAC and the potential benefits to students (visible in blue).  You'll note that there isn't much written in this space - the history is pretty straightforward.  To summarize: First Year Composition (FYC) doesn't help students learn writing, but we think that WAC will because of it's focus on examining theories and teaching useful genres.

But then I had some pesky questions come up.  For one, how do we know this is true?  Does the research on WAC actually show that students benefit from studying writing while taking science, business, or other humanities courses?  Are we actually conducting valid research?  And - just as importantly - will people actually understand the research produced?  These questions began to bother me, and you'll notice that I began writing more about the questions than I previously had about the history (visible in green).

From there, the ideas really began to flow.  As if by magic, I started thinking of other relationships between the research, the role of WAC in the schools, and the fact that it's hard to adapt a new paradigm to a social setting.  Although it's too small to see, I began including my reference citations here.  Much of what I'd been reading for class began to suddenly make sense, and it was kind of fun adding those references to this section of my graph (visible in magenta).  Note that here I've begun writing out whole paragraphs.  In the earlier section, I'd been simply summarizing what I'd read for class - a boring process.  Once I figured out what I was writing about, though, it became much easier to begin expressing my opinions.

The important part is that as the writing became more interesting, I began to write more.  Not only that, but I began to express my own opinions - some of which agreed with articles we had read for class, but some did not.  Because WAC is new doesn't necessarily mean it's better - for teachers outside of writing, WAC might be a tough sell.  Despite some good evidence, we don't have any "proof" that it works.  I believe in the system, but I had to question why I believe in it and how much we actually know about the teaching of writing.

As writers and critical thinkers, you'll need to learn the same skill, this technique of finding interesting ideas from the mishmash thoughts burbling through our minds and then analyzing them from multiple perspectives.  Which is why today we'll focus on exercises to help us think critically.

Exercise 1: Freewriting for Write for Ten Minutes About Anything
Yes, write about anything.  You may use a computer if you like, or simply scribble on a sheet of paper - whichever feels more comfortable.  For this exercise, your own comfort is the most important aspect.

The one rule is that you must continue writing as fast as you can regardless of whether or not you "like" what you're writing.  We aren't looking for "good" - we're just looking for ideas.  We just want to see what's on our minds at the moment.  And you won't be turning this in or sharing it, so please feel free to go wherever your thoughts take you.

Exercise 2: Harvest Your Themes
Now go through what you've just written.  Write out the top three or four themes you see in your writing.  For example, "childhood" might be a theme, or "the weather."  If you like, you can be more specific: "childhood days at my friends house," or "calm weather on a sunny day."

Exercise 3: "Turning" Your Themes
Now we get to the fun part - twisting your themes.  Think back to the videos you watched before class.  Think about how changes in details and tone could vastly change the feel and the message of a given song. I'd like you to do that for the themes you've written down.

The easiest way to do this may be to switch perspectives.  Taking "childhood," for example, you might write "parenthood."  Instead of "I loved afternoons at Joey's house," it might be "I can't believe that neighbor kid keeps coming over right when I'm sitting Joey down for lunch."

Feel free to be creative with these.  None of what you write here needs to be "true" or "factual" - just see where it goes.  Again, you won't be turning any of these in.

Additional Articles of Interest

Listing Your Way to a Good Prompt
Using lists of words to generate ideas.

Freewriting Exercise - "The Door"
This exercise can help you revisit past memories.

Freewriting with Heroes and Fruitcake
That's write - because you need at least one quirky prompt to keep things interesting.

Berthoff, Ann E.  "Learning the Uses of Chaos," The Norton Book of Composition Studies, ed. Susan Miller.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009.

Intro to Chaos and Narrative


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