Timothy A. Grady
Nearly everyone who reads has had the experience being transported to another world--of becoming so engrossed in a narrative that he becomes almost unconscious of the act of reading. In these cases, the prose an author constructs becomes so vivid as to replace, in a small way, reality in a reader's mind for a time. We see Chekhov's gun and Faulkner's dilapidated antebellum mansions. We, as readers, cherish these vivid interactions with text and measure the soundness of other works through them. Consequently, the successful evocation of images is a hallmark of well crafted fiction.
Over the course of the last five years I have taught the craft of fiction in the Creative Writing department at Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School in New Haven, CT, and helping students to evoke image in the fiction they create has been a continual goal. Aspiring writers struggle to produce successful works of fiction due, in large part, to ignorance as to how to evoke mental images through prose. Contrary to what one might expect, it is not the rich or central images that students struggle with--it is their more mundane cousins. Students struggle with basic settings, character description, and action. Where an experienced writer might write, "John, staring at his old threadbare converse sneakers as he shuffled down Kensington Avenue, walked right into a woman, making her spill her coffee all over her crisp, tan raincoat," a student-writer is more likely to write, "he bumped into her." As the example illustrates, student-writers omit the sort of commonplace visual details that make a story vivid in readers' minds. The above example compounds itself in the works of student-writers, creating another problem of continuity, in other words, their works are not only devoid of visually descriptive detail, they are consistently devoid of it. While these two issues, lack of visual detail and consistent lack of visual detail, may seem similar, they are radically different. To clarify, the consistent lack the visual detail means the stream of various mental images necessary for a narrative to flow event to event, scene to scene, is missing. Further, their initial works, lacking the consistency and power of descriptive visual detail, often omitting entire visual aspects (i.e. setting), that help to captivate a reader, fail to to transport readers to the fictional world of the story. For instance, say a student writes a story about a man who falls down a manhole while reading the obituaries; rather than spend time setting up the visual aspects for the narrative (physical details pertaining to setting, time, character--never mind accentuating the images to emphasize the cosmic irony in the story), the student spends a good deal of time writing about the man's history, stray thoughts, or the sports article in the paper the man is reading; and if any of the narrative evokes images, they happen to be about something incidental and relatively unimportant such as the man's hat. The student-writers difficulty with evoking mental images through prose creates problem after problem for successful narrative.
The unit, Conjuring Sight, addresses those problems student-writers have when trying to evoke image in fiction. It fills in the missing pieces about how to write that typical books on writing fiction leave out. Over the years of study, creation, revision, and publication, I have found that success or failure lies in the construction of the prose--not in exercises or anecdotes, nor in passion or vision. The word-by-word labor of crafting prose is king in the writing game. Unfortunately, it is just that word-by-word instruction that is missing from most texts dealing with the creation of fiction (and thus about evoking image). For beginning writers, directions like, "make it more visual" or "try to establish a sense of setting," are essentially useless; such imperatives produce the barest of cursory changes to students' works. If one is lucky, a student might change "he fell" to "the man walked into the hole." While such improvements are laudable, they do not really qualify as the sort of deep understanding or skill that teachers hope for in their students or that successful fiction demands. This unit avoids those sorts of broad exercises; rather, it lays out word-by-word guidelines that helps student-writers to thoughtfully experiment with evoking image and ultimately to crafting captivating fiction that flows.
While the unit rests on the work of several educational theorists and writers, the overall guiding vision for its construction comes from my practical experience as a writer of fiction. In teaching my students, I have become aware of the price I have paid to develop the instincts for the working of prose; I would spare them the years of self-instruction, study, and reflection I found necessary because no practical guide existed. I experimented and experimented; always trying to emulate techniques I found in the works of others. When I became a teacher and studied several theorists, I discovered that I had unknowingly engaged in a inquiry-based learning process. Inquiry-based learning is a "strategy that actively involves students in the exploration of the content, issues, and questions surrounding a curricular area or concept...The activities and assignments...[are] designed such that students work...to solve problems."
As I had experimented, trying to solve problems in crafting prose fiction, the inquiry-based learning process had allowed me to discover for myself the deep guiding principles of fiction. As such, the general framework of the inquiry process, moving from knowledge through experimentation to creation, is a theoretical support for the unit's sequence.
In the course of the unit, it is tempting to fall back on hackneyed adages, like "it takes practice," but that is ultimately an evasion of the question: how does one teach a beginning writer to effectively evoke mental images through prose? Considering the question when teaching fiction to teenagers, who are sometimes reluctant, self-conscious writers, it is critical to remember that the processes beginners uses to think, do, and perceive are different than those of established practitioners. This unit is laid out in distinct stages and promotes writing predominately as a craft (composed of techniques and principles), with less focus on the inspirational, intuitive aspects of writing. While such an approach is artificial to how most writers write, it promotes an environment conducive to learning as it sets up what the educational theorist Robert Gagne refers to as the the necessary "conditions of learning"--nine discrete, sequential instructional stages ranging from "gaining attention" to "enhancing retention and transfer"
. These stages, implemented in this unit via Arts PROPEL, a instructional framework for teaching art from Project Zero at Harvard, provide beginners the safety and support of concrete, step-by-step, instructions while still allowing immense creative freedom. In addition to these foundational design sources, this unit also uses John Gardner's
Art of Fiction
, Scott McCloud's
, and Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe's
Understanding by Design
as major supports for teaching students the effective evocation and use of mental images in the works of fiction. Each of these sources will be discussed in more detail as the arise within the unit.