Why fiction has value: informal writing prompts

If you believe the 20th century novels, there was a time at least one student in each high school and college English class aspired to produce the great American novel.

Today we’re hard pressed to find one student in each high school and college English class who’s even interested in reading a great American novel.

rounded squares of varying sizes suggest need to analyze meaning of unfamilar content
A visual analogy: The shapes look familiar but what are they supposed to mean?

Introduce today’s students to fiction

When we “introduce a novel” or “introduce long fiction” to today’s students, we need to forsake the language of Literature with a capital L and speak to the students who speak the language of bits and bytes and augmented reality.

Unlike technical documents, good literary fiction is rarely obvious. In fact, part of the attraction of literary fiction is identifying and interpreting the clues to what the story means.

Many of today’s students are familiar with analyzing computer code to see how it delivers its message. We need to seduce them into learning to analyze linguistic codes to see how a work of fiction delivers its message. With luck, some with learn to enjoy the process.

Instead of lecturing, I like to give students verbal puzzles embedded in informal writing prompts to get their little grey cells moving.

Informal prompts about fiction

Here’s the sort of thing I’d use in introducing fiction reading to literature-phobic students. I begin with a quotation, which gives students a tiny bit of close reading. I chose a quote from Stephen King because he’s a living author—so much more relevant to students than old, dead guys—and because even students who hate to read are likely to know his name from the film versions of his books.

In “The Body,” one of the novellas in his book Different Seasons, Stephen King writes about why people write fiction. He says this:

The only reason anyone writes stories is so they can understand the past and get ready for some future mortality; that’s why all the verbs in stories have -ed endings…even the ones that sell millions of paper backs.

Informal writing prompt #1. What does Stephen King mean by “-ed endings”? In your answer, give two or three examples of the sort of verbs King means. Please keep your response to no more than three sentences. You have 1 minute to write.

This informal prompt can be answered just with grammar knowledge. Students don’t need to know anything about fiction to get it right.

Informal writing prompt #2. Why do you think King ignores the present when he talks about the purpose of writing fiction? Please keep your response to no more than three sentences. You have 1 minute to write.

Prompt #2 requires an understanding of different ways of defining the word present. Here, again, no knowledge of fiction is required.

Informal writing prompt #3. Why does King say “get ready for some future mortality” instead of just saying “get ready for the future?” Please keep your response to no more than three sentences. You have 1 minute to write.

Prompt #3 is the tricky one. King uses the term “future mortality” because there’s nothing certain in the future other than death. It’s the only event that’s likely to happen to everyone. Even the most irreligious typically want their deaths to be mourned by the people whose opinions they valued. By extension, then, the purpose of fiction is to give guidance in how to live.

I don’t expect students to figure this prompt #3 out in an hour, let alone a minute. I just want them to try to figure it out on their own before presenting them with fiction to read.

Other informal prompt options

You needn’t use my informal writing prompts. You could look up quotes on fiction at GoodReads.com or some similar site, or pull some out of your own reading to get students thinking about the value of fiction.

What’s important is that you include both prompts to which students can readily respond with a correct answer and some that present a puzzle with no obvious correct answer. Easily answered prompts encourage techie-type students to experience success in something to do with fiction. Puzzling prompts gives them a mental itch to find out the answer.

Literary nonfiction reading: The Warmth of Other Suns

During the fourth quarter of 2018, I dipped into a couple of nonfiction books that required more attention than I could give them at the time. The only one I read with anything like the attention it deserves is Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.

The Warmth of Other Suns is the sort of nonfiction book the folks who devised the Common Core State Standards had in mind for students to read: The Warmth of Other Suns is truly literary nonfiction.

Wilkerson tells the story of the migration of six million southern blacks to the North in the period between World War I and 1970 through the experiences of three of those people.

Ida Mae Gladney, an unremarkable black woman in rural Mississippi, migrated in 1937 to Chicago where she remained true to her traditional southern roots—family, church, hard work, neighborliness—and earned the respect of even the criminals and addicts who repudiated her values.

George Starling, denied the education he wanted in Florida, migrated to Harlem in 1945, where he took the only job he could find: working as a railway porter on routes that took him regularly back into the Jim Crow South. Lacking his work ethic, his family fell apart, becoming statistics in the sociological studies and inside stories in newspapers.

Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, already a doctor and former Army surgeon when he left Mississippi in 1953 to set up practice among the black community in California, found the only way he could attract patients was by pandering to the blacks’ ideas of what success meant—a white Cadillac and flashy clothes—and giving personal attention white doctors were too busy to provide.

Wilkerson interweaves the stories of these three individuals with the broader historical picture of race relations in the United States and the socioeconomic changes that were occurring during the twentieth century.

One thing Wilkerson doesn’t do is find scapegoats.

There are plenty of people who share in the blame for the causes of the Great Migration and plenty who share in the blame for its consequences, including those who participated in it.

Wilkerson writes clearly, using the most common terms that will accomplish her aims. Hers is a scholarly work without scholarly pretentiousness.

It is also a work of journalism.

Wilkerson, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing when she was Chicago Bureau Chief for The New York Times, sent hours talking to people, visiting in their homes, eating with them, going to church with them, retracing the routes they took out of the South. From all she sees and hears, she selects telling details.

Isabel Wilkerson.The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.  Random House. ©2010. 622 p. ISBN:9780679444329

(FYI, during the third quarter of 2018, I was reading and writing reviews the bestselling novels of 1980, 1981, 1982, and 1983, which  I’ll be posting at GreatPenformances  between Jan.12 and May 28 this year.)

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni