Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Punctuation and Character

Teaching creative writing has altered the way in which I read a book.  I still read and enjoy the story if it sustains me, but I have all of the things I teach swirling around my brain as I work through a novel.  It is difficult to separate the two, and I'm not sure that I would even want to.  Whatever our current topic is in class, that item presses to the forefront of my brain and it is partially how I see a novel.

We are currently working on two units: punctuation and character.

In our Skype chat today with YA author Gayle Forman, I am hoping to have her explain how an author can use punctuation as a tool beyond writing with clarity.  How can punctuation help control mood, pull us deeper inside a character, or alter what the reader knows or doesn't know.  Can an author have fun with punctuation?  Also, I will ask her to address developing a character's controlling belief.

My method for trying to build up an understanding of each (punctuation and character) is through poetry.  I feel like they can play around with each so much more freely within the guise of poetry.  Instead of worrying about the logic of one sentence leading to the next, let them play with images and thoughts and moments...shuffle them around...use the punctuation, remove the with it.  See what you can create. 

Yesterday, I had my students write a poem (any style) about an endowed object.  Real or made up. 

We started with free writing as I narrated possibilities: is it something someone gave to you, or something you bought, found, its power, value, significance within where it came it fragile, sturdy, bright, dull...where is it...can anyone see is it it valuable to others, or just you...objects can be endowed with power to change people, things, can be used for good...or can bring can cause pain...the ruby slippers...Frosty's hat...a magic wand...a ring...there is always some thing in a life which carries value beyond dollars... (and so on)

Once I saw that they were all (mostly) settling in to write and were slowly tuning me out, I then narrated characteristics of many possibilities as I could think off the cuff...

At the end of the exercise, I simply asked them to state what their endowed object was.  In our case, all of this endowed objects will be actual physical objects, tangible items.

Tomorrow, I am going to ask them to begin to build the history of the object...a poem about its origin, who or what once held it, saw it, used it.

And then the object will be gone, and they will need to write someone going to find it.  They will put a character on a journey. Who wants this object?  Why do they want it?  What are they willing to go through to get it back?  And most importantly, they will learn, and learn to write another term: what is their character's controlling belief?  What drives them for this thing?

When I read now, I do keep this question in the back of my mind: what is this character's desire?  Currently, I am within the last fifty pages or so of Christina Meldrum's novel Madapple.  The protagonist, Aslaug, has one drive, one purpose: to find out who (or what) she really is.  Is she a human?  an angel or fairy?  the next coming of Christ?  the Madonna?  a child born from a rape? 

This pursuit of her answer, her endowed object, is the thing which sustains me through a novel.  She has some thing she wants, an answer.  It is clear early in the novel.  Aslaug becomes a character I believe and follow because I know what she wants and I know what drives her.

So, our task in class over the next week is to develop this concept within my students.  To apply it in their own writing, and then to seek it out the books they read on their.  Also, I am hoping that these ideas begin to inform their questioning and conversation with me, each other, and with the YA authors we are fortunate to have work with my classes this year.

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