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. After those words, Ward writes: “‘You just trying to scare us,’ I said. What I didn’t say: It’s working” (par. 6). With one line, Ward lets the reader hear both what she did and did not 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” (par. 2).
Writing Ideas Torn from the Prologue of Men We Reaped (and from Making Shapely Fiction)
- A scene that conveys what a character is not saying, doing, or thinking
- A description of a room that includes something that isn’t there
Stern, Jerome. Making Shapely Fiction. Norton, 1991.
Ward, Jesmyn. Excerpt: Men We Reaped: A Memoir. NPR. n.d. https://www.npr.org/books/titles/221711068/men-we-reaped-a-memoir?tab=excerpt?tab=excerpt#excerpt. Accessed 20 Jan. 2015.