ENG 162 Fall 2013

ENG 162 at Eastern Maine Community College in Bangor ME, taught by John A. (Don't ever, ever ask!) Goldfine johngoldfine@gmail.com

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Week 13, small to large, large to small

Use this sample as a spring board for large-to-small piece on your own blog. Or! Scroll down and check out option 2.

Instead of laying out a theme and offering some lecture material this week, I'm going to start by writing a piece doing what it is I imagine this week is all about--starting very big and contracting the material until it focuses right in on your area of maximum expertise, which is the things you've seen, done, thought, and felt. I start with evolution, a pretty darn big topic and end with walking a dog, a pretty darn small one (except to the dog...):

Ultra-marathoner Bernd Heinrich tells us in 'Why We Run' that humans are built not for speed but for endurance. We've evolved to be hunters of fast animals, but we don't capture them by being fast ourselves. The fast animals we like to eat--deer, antelope, and so on--sprint off at a speed we can't match, but then they stop for a bite of grass and a look-around.

Meanwhile, the slowpoke primate is jogging along, jogging along. When the antelope sees us coming, it chuckles at our foolishness and sprints off again, leaving us in its dust. Before too long though, the human with his sharpened stick appears, and it all happens again. Eventually, that naked human with his puny stick wears the antelope down, and gets his shot in.

We've evolved, Heinrich says, to be distance-runners, slow and steady. It's no accident that the fable of the tortoise and the hare still survives, and that the winner is the plodder, not the flashy speedster.

My running days aren't quite over, but I certainly am losing speed each year, not that I was ever likely to burn up a course. But I don't really worry about my speed. What I worry about is my soundness. If I never run again, it would be okay with me, and I would stop running in a second if by doing so I could save my knees and feet for the activity I really care about: walking.

My ancestors may or may not have been naked hunters with spears, but my grandfather definitely was a rag peddlar shoving a pushcart through the streets of East Boston, and even when he got prosperous, he still walked 7 or 8 miles into work every day. So walking is in my blood.

Ever since I can remember my answer to anything was to take a walk. Even before I can remember, that was apparently the principle I lived by. My mother liked to tell a story about me getting angry with her one snowy day when I was about three years old. The next thing she knew, a pounding came on the front door: when she opened it, there I was, wearing only my pajama tops and in the arms of a motorist who'd seen me floundering through the snow. The motorist shouted, "You aren't fit to be a mother! You're lucky he doesn't have frostbite! And do you know what he told me? He said he was going to walk until he found 'the little o'phans' home!"

I never did find it, but I'm still walking:Walking....walking the dogs two, three, four times a day--racking up nearly two hours of dog-walks on a good day. One reason I get along with dogs is that we see eye to eye on the importance of this vital activity. We four just got back from a walk a half-hour ago but if I stood up now and said, 'Hey guys, let's go for a walk!" I'd have three eager customers, whose only question would be why it took me so long to get some sense in my head.

Walking....walking on vacations. On my vacation I don't care to lie on a beach or to see the sights or to have a thrill a minute. My idea of a vacation is an eight-hour, sixteen mile slow walk from one English village to another, over hills, down dales, across fields, through woods, along the beach, and with a quick stop for lunch at a pub and for a peek into a thirteenth-century church. Let me do that for a week and I'm refreshed deep in my spirit.

Walking...walking off the blues. Any therapist worth jack will tell you to get some exercise, get outdoors, get your body working. My faith is that we don't need therapists very much at all--we need more hiking boots instead. When the woman I loved slipped away from me through my own foolishness, I began tramping the streets of Boston, hour after hour after hour.At first: Every happy face reminded me I'd never be happy again, every glimpse of my toe caps reminded me that there was no turning back because there was no place that ever could be home without her. The parks gave me no rest, the skyscrapers gave me no lift, the noise of the streets did not interrupt my furious dialogue with myself. My legs kept pumping, my feet kept beating the street.Eventually, I pounded pavements enough to find some calm (or maybe it was just physical exhaustion extinguishing those agitated thoughts) and to make things right with my sweetie, and for the past 35 years now she and I walk together (with the dogs usually.)
Driving home on a perfectly nice day, I see people checking their mail boxes from inside their cars, rather than parking in their driveways and walking twenty yards back to the road. I'm sure they are fine human beings, but, for the dogs and me, this is one of the great imponderable and unsolvable mysteries of the universe--people who don't walk.

That's one choice--write a big to small piece of your own. Here's choice two: small to large. And here's some lecture material:

I went to my bookroom this morning and picked the second book off the first shelf--you remember that the first book was by John Henry Abbott. I went to a lot of trouble to alphabetize the books by author, and the second book was 'My Father and Myself,' a nonfiction memoir by JR Ackerley.

It begins: "I was born in 1896 and my parents were married in 1919."How's that for a grabber!

Here's how Chapter 3 begins: "Aunt Bunny used to say that there was a strong streak of coarseness in my father's nature.... It was specially evident, she said, in some of his ideas about women. In fact, as I remember him, his social manners towards women were admirable, always courteous, indeed gallant; it is also true that in male company he was liable to refer to pleasing specimens of the female sex who caught his eye on the street as 'plump little partridges'."

Ackerley is starting with a fact and an observation. He's not unloading the whole story right off the bat. The whole story goes something like this: as a young man, his father was bisexual, a rich man's boy toy, then, as you've heard, fathered several bastards. He did marry Ackerley's mother eventually...sort of--but he happened to have a whole separate family, wife and kids, a few blocks away, and neither family knew of the other one. But it takes the whole book before we learn all this.

Ackerley starts small and lets the ripples spread outward, a fine storytelling technique.

This is not the same thing as building suspense or springing surprises, which are things authors do to their readers. Ackerley is musing, reminiscing, considering, recounting and is not in the business of giving his readers a thudding heart or a sleepless night of page-turning. He respects his material enough to let it speak for itself without hype, hokum, tricks, and fireworks. He respects his reader and his own ability enough to assume the reader will read on, even if a dead body is not swinging from a curtain rod on page 3.

And the reader does read on because of curiosity and because of the authorial modesty that shines through the writing: this is the way it was, Ackerley says, so make of it what you will. That's a writer who understands that every book (and all writing) is a dialogue with the reader, and readers do not ordinarily like being shouted at, tricked, teased, goosed, or jerked around.

Writers don't do things to their readers, they do them with their readers.

There are two classic approaches to dealing with material: one can start small and expand, or one can start big and contract. This week you're going to play with the first notion (or if you insist, the second.) I think most writers find this first approach a natural way to go.

Say, for example, you want to write about the trials and tribulations of modern life. You could start: "Modern life has many trials and tribulations: from the frustrations of losing work to computer problems and of cars not starting, to the anxiety of facing the flu season without a shot, to fears of sudden violent death, to anger at the dithering of so-called leaders."

Or, same topic: "I can't start my car without depressing the clutch. I can't start my car without having the seatbelt fastened. But, even with my clutch depressed and my seatbelt fastened, I couldn't start my car yesterday--the day's trip to the lake aborted, the dog waiting in the back window for the ride to start confused and miserable, the phone call on a Sunday for a boost hopeless.... Worst of all was the simmering rage directed inward but really generated by cars which no longer can be tinkered with in the driveway."

Examples and specifics leading to general thoughts, inductive reasoning.
My fear with this theme is that in trying to write, you'll over-perform, you'll write something you dislike because of its mechanical quality, but, hey, you say, he's the teacher, and we have to give him what he wants, or else! Most of you already instinctively embrace this style of writing--what I want you to do is be aware of it and, this week, play to your strength.And by the way--I'm certainly not asking you to write about the trials and tribulations of modern life!I am asking you to start with something close to home, something small, something humble and modest--and work outward to see what it might touch in the larger world.

So, on your own blog, write a piece that starts small and works toward the big. Or vice versa. Your choice.

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