Timothy A. Grady
While the general problem this unit deals with is students' difficulty with the evocation and use of mental image when writing fiction, the problem itself is unwieldy to think about. Without elaborating upon its nature, it would be all too easy to slip back into familiar pedagogical ruts such as more practice, more models, and more discussion. Sound unit design first requires careful statement of the learning goals one wants their students to achieve--"what should students know, understand, and be able to do...What enduring [deep] understandings are desired"
. Again, it would be easy to summarize on this point, to jot down four or five goals, but, "Unless we begin our work our design work [curriculum planning] with a clear insight into larger purposes, it is unlikely that students will understand...the goal is far too vague: The approach is more 'by hope' than 'by design'"
. Consequently, it is useful to break down the larger problem of the evocation and use of mental image when writing fiction to the smaller root causes that create that challenge, and then to derive clear, valid objectives based on those causes. Chief among those root causes are: 1) the lack of an accepted paradigm about how words evoke image in a narrative, 2) the novice writer's confusion between reading fiction versus creating it, 3) no understanding of how image affects the audience, 4) the lack of understanding about the role of continuity in a prose narrative, and 5) the difficulty in teaching art. Ultimately, it is these root causes that serve as the justification for the design (sequence, objectives, assessment, etc.) of this unit.
The Lack of a Paradigm
There are countless writing manuals, by authors of note and of obscurity, that touch upon the evocation of image in fiction, but few offer a guiding paradigm towards which instruction can be aimed. Writers and scholars have known for a long time that a relationship where, "certain transitory images are attached to certain words: the word is merely as it were the button of an electric button that calls them [the image] up"
, but how that effect occurs is still up for debate. Perhaps this is because the exact relationship between how language, concept, and image work in the mind is still unclear, and "there exists a good amount of scholarly debate about it"
. While it helps to have some background about the scholarly debate, for the purposes of the emerging practitioner, hoping to write fiction effectively, having the exact relationship is unnecessary. In fact, "no amount of intellectual study" will tell the young writer what to do
, but too often these truths promote teachers and students of writing to take a wild-west-anything-goes attitude to the problem. In the end, this leads to a hundred different bits of advice from a hundred different writers--difficult at best to wrap into a clear, effective course of instruction.
Confusion between Reading and Writing
For a young writer, taking his or her first initial stabs at fiction, the difference between writing fiction and reading fiction looms large. The student, seeking to create gripping verisimilitude but uncertain how to, falls back on their most powerful experiences with narrative in their personal life and other narratives they have read. Unfortunately, most of these are primarily concerned with feeling and emotion
. They recall some expressive or affective quality that they experienced when engaging in life or fiction, and then try to whip that feeling up within themselves while setting pen to paper; they hope with all their might that the magic will happen and award-winning narratives will spill from their pens. The young writer's confusion between consuming and producing stories, most of this simply inexperience in thinking about narrative. The concept that fiction is a construction, an artifice, is a new, and therefore, a difficult one for them to grasp.
Understanding How Image Affects the Audience
Born out of young writers' inexperience in thinking about fiction as artifice is their lack of understanding about how image affects the reader. The distinction between making students aware of fiction as artifice and how to engage in artifice may seem subtle, but it is critical. In a sense, understanding how image affects the reader is the flip side of young writers' lack of awareness of fiction as artifice--in the former, students don't read like writers; in the latter, they don't write like readers. They have not yet learned to write with a reader's point of view in mind; they don't anticipate how prose constructions (its content, sequence, and shape) will unfold the story in the readers mind. Having consumed narrative passively for most of their lives, they are ignorant of its techniques and effects. Even after they come to recognize fiction as a careful constructed simulation for a reader, they don't know how to do it because they have not thought about how they, themselves, have been affected.
Lack of Understanding about Continuity
For fiction to be effective, it must not only be vivid, it must maintain continuity in its vividness. Again, this may be a subtle distinction, but it is vital. The young writer may learn to effectively evoke image in a description or a scene, but unless he or she develops a sense for how a narrative uses a sequence of images to affect the reader, the race is only half won. It is the continuity of vividness, the sequence of images the words evoke, that helps to create what the literary theorist Richard Gerrig calls captivation. Attention, emotion, and construction (of image, detail, etc) are vital according to Gerrig to an effective narrative, and he notes that once those three elements emerge in a narrative, they must continue functioning to maintain captivation
. It is the continuity of vividness that produces the dream-like flow of consumption by a reader that every writer, at points, seeks.
The Difficulty of Teaching Art
It might go without saying, but teaching art is not quite the same as teaching math or English. Teaching students to become fiction writers is about cultivating their artistic sensibilities, instincts, thinking processes, etc. There are times when a particular student work is a total failure, but their performance on the unit was a stunning success; and vice-verse. As a teacher of creative writing, I find myself challenged to find ways to evoke, train, cultivate, and assess my students that would never work in my time as an English teacher. The act of the scholar and the act of the practitioner are fundamentally different, and while they may join together at times (and often to great effect), trying to fit any sort of learning into the standard progression of bloom's taxonomy or neatly assessable, scaffolded exercises is fraught with difficult. Art is messy; learning art, messier. While this specific aspect of the unit is not particular to the unit's content, it is key to its aim--producing better writers of fiction.
From Problems to Objectives
Due to the sometimes complex nature of teaching student-writers to create fiction, as demonstrated by the list of root causes above, the unit focuses on achieving several things at roughly the same time so that student-writers can experience authentic inspiration and learning. For instance, while the student-writers must become deeply aware of how language evokes imagery in themselves while reading a narrative sequence before they can begin to consciously employ those techniques in creating effective fiction, it is neither necessary or particularly useful to force the aspiring writers to master their ability to recognize how image is evoked through language before moving on to creating it--in fact, such attempts tend to destroy any sense of enthusiasm or personal connection a young writers have to the process. Utilizing a workshop model that encourages self-directed study, practice, and reflection, the unit tackles five objectives (born of the five difficulties outlined above). Specifically, the unit objectives are: 1) students will understand a paradigm for successful evocation of mental image in fiction, 2) students will understand and utilize the difference between reading and writing fiction, 3) students will be able to apply techniques to evoke image through the text, 4) make students perceive the need for continuity when evoking image and be able to do it, and 5) students will experience an environment that cultivates artistic learning and growth.