Posts Tagged ‘Jesmyn Ward’

Making Shapely Fiction (1991) and a draft of this blog post

Making Shapely Fiction (1991) with a draft of this blog post

In preparation for Jesmyn Ward’s recent campus visit—as one of the featured writers in the Lenoir-Rhyne Visiting Writers Series—my students and I read excerpts from her novel Salvage the Bones (the subject of my January 17 post) and her memoir Men We Reaped. For writers reading greedily, the first paragraphs of Ward’s memoir offer a model of what writing teacher Jerome Stern called negative positive knowledge: “the technique you use when you want to tell readers what is not happening. It addresses the problem of how to call readers’ attention to what a character is not saying, or doing, or thinking (165). In the prologue, which recounts Ward’s visits to her father in New Orleans after her parents’ separation, her brother, Joshua, tells her that there’s a ghost in her father’s house, that someone died there. Following his words, Ward writes: “‘You just trying to scare us,’ I said. What I didn’t say: It’s working.” With one line, Ward lets the reader hear both what she said and didn’t say to her brother. Ward also uses a variation on negative positive knowledge, negative positive setting, when she describes her father’s living room as “TV-less.”

Men We Reaped

Men We Reaped (2013) / npr.org

Writing Ideas Torn from the Prologue of Men We Reaped (and from Making Shapely Fiction)

  1. A scene that conveys what a character is not saying, doing, or thinking
  2. A description of a room that includes something that isn’t there

Stern, Jerome. Making Shapely Fiction. New York: Norton, 1991.

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In Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft, Janet Burroway notes the importance of becoming a reader of a “writerly sort”:

reading greedily, not just for entertainment but also focusing on the craft, the choices and techniques of the author; ‘reading the greats,’ in novelist Alan Cheuse’s words, ‘in that peculiar way that writer’s read, attentive to the peculiarities of the language . . . soaking up numerous narrative strategies and studying various approaches to that cave in the deep woods where the human heart hibernates’ (3).

Salvage the Bones (2011) / npr.org

Salvage the Bones (2011) / npr.org

Along with reading greedily, my students and I will listen greedily this semester to the observations on craft and technique offered by the writers featured in Lenoir-Rhyne’s Visiting Writers Series, beginning with National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward, who will read and discuss her work on Monday, January 19. As an introduction to Ward’s fiction, my students and I read the opening pages of her novel Salvage the Bones (2011), which depict a pit bull struggling to give birth. While China, the pit bull, serves as the focus, the beginning of Ward’s novel offers far more than the details of the dog’s labor.

In the first paragraph, Esch, the narrator, says that China “stole all the shoes in the house, all our black tennis shoes Mama bought because they hide dirt and hold up until they’re beaten soft.” With those words, Ward shows how a single sentence can reveal details about more than one character: China, the pit bull that likes to steal “all the shoes,” and Mama, the practical woman, who always bought black tennis shoes “because they hide dirt . . . .”

The second paragraph begins, “What China is doing is nothing like what Mama did when she had my youngest brother, Junior,” introducing Mama’s labor as a point of contrast, providing a transition from the present scene centering on China to the scene seven years earlier of Mama’s own labor and the birth of Junior, who “came out purple and blue as a hydrangea: Mama’s last flower.” Ward doesn’t choose between simile and metaphor; she uses both. Junior is like a hydrangea, and he is a flower, Mama’s last one.

Writing Ideas Torn from the First Paragraphs of Salvage the Bones

  1. A scene that triggers memories of (and cues a flashback to) an earlier event
  2. A sentence that describes more than one character
  3. A sentence that depicts someone or something with both a simile and a metaphor

Burroway, Janet. Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft. 3rd ed. Boston: Pearson/Longman, 2011. Print.