Friday, December 19, 2008

The "Old-is-New" for Inspired Writing

A new writing instructor asked me for advice on what she could do to motivate her students to write engaging prose. Now there’s a simple question that gets an endless answer! Numerous techniques are available, so when I teach rhetorical writing I use specific prompts based on student interest, aptitude, and experience. I especially like using the old-is-new. It’s a device that many successful creative writers play, unconsciously or not, when spinning amazing tales that capture their readers’ hearts and imaginations.

When playing the old-is-new, writers look for a fresh detail about someone, someplace, or something familiar to them. Look at a photograph that has hung on a wall in your house for years, searching for a feature you haven’t noticed before. Maybe you never paid attention to what the person in the picture is wearing, or the budding oak tree, white picket fence, or sailboat in the background. Maybe you can recall an event from local or world history that was occurring around that time to make the picture more significant. When I recently saw a picture of myself as a ten-year-old boy in the peaceful country of Malta, I was struck by how at that very moment in history race riots were occurring throughout the United States. Only a month after that moment, Malta officially gained its independence from Great Britain after years of nonviolent negotiations. What made one people protest violently and another protest peacefully? Were the American protestors always violent and the Maltese protestors always peaceful? What were the similarities and differences between the two groups as well as the historical and political situations in which they found themselves? There’s something of a story in that.

The old-is-new could also lead the writers in an entirely different direction. Perhaps they can try doing something for the first time which has been accessible to them for as long as they can remember. Examples for me would include going to a professional football game, taking a tango lesson at the dance studio down the block, or walking through Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Maybe writers looking for new ideas can meet with someone whom they know by name but have never had personal company with. In my case, those folks would be the neighbors three doors down who for more than ten years have always exchanged hellos with me but nothing else. Or I could strike a conversation with the man in the newspaper kiosk on the corner of 48th Street and Broadway. Again, the goal is to uncover items of interest that you previously did not know, things that prove a common bond with, or a deep divergence from, your subject.

There are countless other examples of old-is-new. If it inspires writing by finding connections between yourself and the world in which you interact, or even between two contrasting facets of yourself, like your placid and aggressive sides, you’ll be on to something special as you write your essay.