Writing the Vignette: A Lesson Plan for Generating Sharp Imagery
Writing about parents can be difficult for teenagers. Students don’t know whether they should mythologize mom and dad with sugary platitudes or murder them in their sleep. Whether or not a writer delivers saccharine tributes or murderous plots, student writers can benefit from avoiding clichés and thinking about their parents in vivid images and sharp, sensory details. I offer the advice given to me by my favorite farmer-poet-activist-madman Wendell Berry: See clichés as an opportunity to work.
Listen: To start this lesson, I played Boston slam poet CD Collin’s 12-minute vignette about her mother, “The Vigilantes of Vance,” from her wonderful spoken word collection Kentucky Stories. I asked students to listen actively by jotting down phrases and words Collins used to describe her mother. They listed lines like Collins’ description of her mother dropping her Derringer in her purse “like a roll of mints” and image of her mother’s cat who had been run over and his eyes poked out like “diced potatoes.”
List: Next, I asked students to draw a three-column graph in their writing notebooks, listing the five senses in the first column and jotting down phrases that would describe their mother both positively and negatively by each sense. As an example to get them started, I drew a graph on the board and walked through the senses that I associated with my own mother
Red, flashy, waxy sharp, first up in the spring, color against a dead winter
The hanging lips of petals, the yellowed stalks, ringed in a dirty car tire
The motion of work, never resting, always moving, working, industry
The spitting, cutting buzzing, ringing, slicing sound of her voice
Smell of sweat and sun on her skin, the clean, just washed, line-dried sunshine smell of her hands
Burning heat, the intensity, the relentlessness of sunshine, glaring, blaring, jangling nerves of a relentless heat
Pure, honest, clean smell of salt, preserving, conserving, familiar
Bitter, salty, brackish, briny, too much salt can make you sick,
Cold hands on a fevered forehead, holding my head while I puked, smooth, clean, cold, calm
Withdrawn, cold, nimble, sharp and slapping, hands that cut cold onions, and shredded cold meat
Write: I then gave them the assignment to write a snapshot of their mother using vivid language and one or all or none of the images generated in their graph.In my class, all writing assignments come with a caveat. If you want to write about this, you can; the activity may present you with a gift you would not have received otherwise. If you don’t want to write about this, you don’t have to. Write about something else. If you don’t understand what we’re doing, fantastic; as the Mad Farmer says, “The mind that is not baffled is not employed.”
Here are two student samples from this exercise:
Haley’s piece was bittersweet – a once close relationship with her mother drowned out by female competiveness.
When I was little, I thought I would be a singer. I’d walk around the house humming tunes all day long.
“You have your mother’s voice,” they’d tell me. That used to be a compliment.
My mother was a songbird. Beautiful melodies would spring from her throat. But like the annoying birds of spring, she was loud, drowning out peace in the early hours.
She was the reason I stopped singing. We’d stand in church following along to joyous tunes. My mother and I used to work together, combining our voices. I don’t know when it became a competition. Soon her goal became to sing louder than me, to drown out my voice, to douse my fire. I can’t hear my melody, only my mother’s overbearing one. Her voice, which used to be sweet as honey, turned sour like bad apples in my ears. Now, in church, I stand as stoic as my dad, mouthing words to lyrics as my mother joyously chirps her victory.
Serena’s poetic piece weighed on the reader with her vivid images and sharp details.
Her skin tastes different than mine, not like ashes and spice and wind, not like cares with broken mufflers and flickering streetlamps. She tastes like baggage, like the heaviness of mildewed cardboard boxes with rotting bottoms full of haggard scrapbooks that haven’t seen the light in decades. She tastes like the dust that gathers on the windowsills and in corners, like formaldehyde slathered upon freckles and dimples and creases that burns the tip of the tongue and soaks her wind-beaten epidermis until it becomes a soggy piece of paper, a wet map with the names of cities blurred by the moisture and a compass with the arrows snapped off. She tasted like a plucked eyelashes that flutter to the ground with the lightest butterfly kiss and wiry hair.