"I am a Minnesotan by birth and a traveler in wild places by vocation and compulsion." -Paul Gruchow

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

National Geographic Writing Exercise

I did this last night in my Intro to Fiction class (not my English 150), but the exercise went well enough that I thought I would share it. I got the original idea to use National Geographics from the epic awesomeness that is Jonis Agee (about three hours before class, so I really made the whole thing up as I went along), so I went to various thrift stores around Lincoln, looking for anybody who had National Geographics. The ARC on 27th and O had a great stash and I bought 60 of them, spanning four decades. I couldn't have been more thrilled, except that they weighed a ton and I did not account for this as I was getting them to my office.

I had my students choose an issue and flip through it, looking for something that caught their eye, whether it was an article or an image. Since the day's focus was on details, I first had them write a basic snapshot description of the image. Basic details: this is what I see.

The next slide on my Power Point was a definition of synesthesia and I strongly recommended that they read Diane Ackerman's A Natural History of the Senses if they considered themselves any tiny bit a writer. That book should be required reading for everybody. I directed my students to look at the basic description they'd just written and I wanted them to incorporate at least one sense-switching detail.

From there, I read them the first paragraph of Andrea Barrett's "The Forest," contained in Servants of the Map, which is one of their assigned books for the semester. I wanted them to turn that basic description into a scene, like they might find in a story.

The next step was to consider perspectives, points of view, and characters. I told them to look at the article itself, other photographs in the article, and make a list of possible characters. I was looking at an article about the Ice Man, the 5,000 year old mummy found in the Alps. My character list included the Ice Man, the hikers who stumbled over him and thought he was an accident victim, the archaeologists who were digging him up, the journalist covering the story. And there could have been more. Who has the most interesting story to tell? I asked my students.

I did not do any more with the exercise to pull out characters or plot points, since the idea was to work on details. But I pulled back a little bit and asked the class how many of them were looking at an article they found pretty interesting. Almost the entire class raised their hands. I asked if anybody was willing to share and two did: one was reading an article about the Iron Curtain and the environmental destruction that had gone on behind it, because there was no regulations and such on steel plants. He was looking at a photograph of a man whose job it was to walk a four-inch balancing beam and open and shut vents at the steel plant all day. If he fell off his beam, he died. Another student was interested in his article on the Korean DMZ.

These are the stories to tell, I told them. These are where the interesting ideas are. These are the stories they should tell. Nobody's really interested in dorm stories. The world is a very cool place and there are stories around every corner. It's the writer's job to find them, make them real to the reader, no matter where or what or how or why. I would like to read a story about the man who shuts the vents at the steel plant. I would like to read a story about the hikers who found the Ice Man. There's a reason why we're told to Write What We Know, because that's how we get the details of what it feels like to be on a sailboat--but there are lots of stories in other details that are often left untold.

This class has a place focus, just like my 150 does, but we're going to be approaching it in ways that while they're important to me, may not be relevant to my focus in this 992 class. We're reading William Kent Krueger's Iron Lake, set up in the Iron Range of northern Minnesota. Place, in that book, is as much a character as any of the humans. It has just as much agency. It is absolutely more than setting. We're reading Andrea Barrett's Servants of the Map, which I want my students to read with an eye towards writing the untold stories of science and place. And we're reading John Keeble's short story collection Nocturnal America, in which place is a driving force of those stories, affecting everything from action and plot to character development and identity. These are conversations that I'm fairly sure my students have never had before--and I'm really looking forward to hearing what they have to say.

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