Nobody minds. Or do they?

A formal writing prompt

As a writing prompt starter today, I have a quote from Jane Austen.  I was reminded of it while reading a John Grisham novel about a Klansman who bombed a Jewish lawyer’s office in 1967.

Sometimes the way my mind works is downright scary.

Introduction to the writing prompt

In her novel Mansfield Park, Jane Austen writes “Nobody minds having what is too good for them.” Think about that.

  • What does it mean to have “something that’s too good for you”?
  • What kinds of things might be said to be “too good for” another person?
  • What does the phrase “too good for you” imply about the relationship between the person speaking and the person being spoken to?

Identify situations in which person A had something that person B regarded as too good for person A. Choose three such situations including at least two of these three types:

  1. A situation in which you were personally involved
  2. A situation you saw in person or on a TV/movie screen
  3. A situation you read about in a piece of literature.

The writing prompt itself

In an informative/expository text, discuss whether Jane Austen is correct when she says, “Nobody minds having what is too good for them.”

Support your opinion by describing three situations chosen from the numbered list in the introduction in which the person who has “something too good for them” is either content or discontent with his/her situation. Be sure you include the correct titles of published works to which you refer.

Please limit your text to [number] words. Your assignment is due [date].

Suggestions for success

You have three options in responding to this prompt. You can:

  • Agree totally with Austen’s comment
  • Disagree totally with Austen’s comment
  • Say that circumstances determine whether she is right or wrong.

Be cautious if any of your examples that might be embarrassing to someone your readers are likely to know. Providing you tell your readers you changed the names, it’s OK to use fictitious names.

Suggestions for teachers

This prompt would tie in nicely with a discussion of figurative language.

Instead of hoping students read the complete prompt, you may want to give students the three questions in its introduction as informal writing prompts before you distribute the assignment. That way you can be sure the entire class read the introduction.

You may want to limit the students’ choices of situations to tie them more closely to your syllabus.

Applied creative writing

Outside the English classroom, there is little demand for people to write imaginative fiction. There is, however, a great demand for people who are imaginative enough to present dull, factual material in creative ways.

Photo of tree with twisted trunk
Not everything creative is imaginary. Sometimes facts are given a creative twist.

Students planning to be engineers, money market managers, or high school English teachers will need to be creative; they probably won’t be required to invent fictional worlds. Surprisingly, many students who recoil from writing fiction relish writing assignments that allow them to be creative without asking that they be imaginative.

Today I’m going to give you a formal writing prompt that requires students to write a literary character analysis using a rather unusual approach suggested by sports writers at a newspaper for which I worked who nicknamed one of the reporters, “Miss Center of the Universe.”

Here’s the material students see:

Writing prompt on literary characterization

You’re probably familiar with the practice of people who have advanced academic degrees putting initials after their names to indicate how they want to be known: MD, PhD, DDS, FNP, CG, DMA, MIS. In this assignment, you’ll apply a similar process to a literary character.

    • Pick a fictional work you have read.
    • Identify the protagonist in that work.
    • Create a “credential” that summarizes how the protagonist wants to be regarded. The credential must be able to be initialized in 2-5 characters.

In an informative/expository text, discuss why you think that credential is an accurate representation of the protagonist’s self-concept. Consider:

    • What the character says of himself/herself that supports your analysis.
    • Incidents involving the character that support your analysis.
    • What other characters say about the protagonist that support your analysis.

Be sure you give readers a way to find the information to which you refer in the work you are discussing. Depending on the work you chose, that might be a chapter number, a page number in a particular edition of a book, etc.

Please keep your analysis to no more than 650 words.

Note to ELA teachers

You may want to modify the prompt to confine it to just literature read for your class, or to just novels, etc.

To help students get into this writing prompt, it may be helpful to have students pick characterizing phrases for how athletes or characters in movies or TV shows see themselves and build credentials from those phrases. For example, “World’s Best Dad” and “Just a Cop” would become WBD and JC.

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

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.

Worry about your learning more than your teaching

Sylvia Garrison being tutored Folks in the blogosphere have been talking a lot lately about teachers learning from their pupils, as if the idea had just appeared on the breakfast menu.

I was amused to see the same idea advanced by the heroine of Meredith Nicholson’s 1912 bestselling novel, A Hoosier Chronicle.

When Sylvia Garrison, a Wellesley-educated mathematician, determines to be a public school teacher, everyone tells her she is too good to waste her time teaching in the public schools. She says politely that what she intends to do. She views her Wellesley courses as preparation for her real learning.

Sylvia takes the pre-1900 version of Teach for America training one summer to give her the requisite pedagogical training.

As she starts her first year in the classroom, Sylvia writes a friend, “I’m a school-teacher…a member of the gray sisterhood of American nuns….it’s not what I’m required to teach, but what I’m going to learn that worries me!”

Fiction as a perceptional lens

Library seen from outside in the dark
Books are windows, too.

Reading vintage fiction is a hobby and a compulsion for me. I not only enjoy old books, but also find looking at contemporary life through the lens of another era makes patterns easier to spot.

This week I reread A. M. E. Hutchinson’s If Winter Comes. First published in August 1921, it became a bestseller, going through 34 reprints by April 1923. If you aren’t fortunate enough to pick a copy for a quarter at a library book sale, as I did, you can read a digital version from Project Gutenberg.

The story is about Mark Sabre, a young man who was called “Puzzlehead” at school because of his extraordinary habit of being able to see anything from the other guy’s side. Mark has principles that he believes are absolutely true, but he doesn’t always find it easy to know how to apply those principles. Mark’s world is complicated, full of subtleties.

Mark’s ability to see how things might appear to someone else is in singular contrast to folks around him. From his wife to his boss, they are what Marks calls people of Conviction, with a capital C.

People of Conviction have rods and cones, but their brains perceive only black and white.  They absolutely believe that their beliefs are true, and they cannot imagine that any other belief could be held by anyone who isn’t at best a moron, at worst an immoral moron.

People of Conviction are righteous bullies.

Looking at contemporary life with Hutchinson’s novel fresh in my mind, appears that people of Conviction still hold the whip hand.  Puzzleheads are scarce, even in arenas where puzzleheaded people are most needed: politics and education.

Getting rid of the people of Conviction is impossible. Shooting them’s not legal, and, as Mark says, they mean well and they are often right.

Converting them may be impossible, too. They do not listen to anything with which they know they don’t agree.

Perhaps the only solution is to give them novels that let them a look at life through a different lens.

Photo credit: Windows and Books uploaded by sphaera