In explaining her resistance to a former teacher's criticisms (apparently), one of my students wrote that she didn't want to have to connect the dots for her readers. (Was she concerned for her readers' tedium, or her own? Maybe both.) Sympathetic to her position, I reminded her that it was still her responsibility as a writer to make sure that her dots indeed were connect-able, that there was a recognizable picture there to be discovered. I have been thinking lately about Connect-the-Dots pictures and how they relate to several assignments I've made in the past, the degree to which transitions/connections are necessary or desirable, and the transaction(s) between writer and reader.
- The singular dot. For several semesters I have begun my classes with a variation of the standard classmate interview. I ask students to pair up and talk to each other, with the objective of elicting the details needed to write what I call a classmate snapshot. In the interviewing role students ask about the interests and daily life of their subject, trying to catch a minute or two of him/her in action. I mention elements of physical description, setting, action, other characters, dialogue, encouraging them to reach for the specific (as always). I read an example or two, typically similar sorts of character snapshots that serve as introductions to fictional characters (or perhaps an in-action intro to a nonfiction profile of some kind).
- Freewriting: the dots approach.In discussing freewriting (typically very early on in a class), I have borrowed a technique that Kim Stafford (The Muses Among Us) calls random autobiography. I read an example or two (maybe one I've done), then ask students to start with some simple prompt ("I remember...") and freewrite their way through (a portion of) their lives (fragments of images or details only personally relevant are perfectly acceptable of course). I emphasize that the most emotionally resonant memories may be simple moments, not the big fireworks of life. These "autobiographies" may enable students to see patterns in their lives, or may be viewed as lists of possible future writing projects. A variation: invite students to limit themselves to some thread that runs recognizably through their lives (job-related memories, times of triumph or solitude, the place of dancing or some other activity in their lives, and so forth).
- Serial dots. As an extension of the random autobiography freewrite, I have asked students to write what Robert Scholes et al. (in The Practice of Writing) calls the collage. Students here choose a series of memories related in some fashion (I suggest they think if there are themes their lives seem to embody) and present them in a series of jump cuts. This is a sort of backdoor way, again, of encouraging concrete specific writing, though I certainly encourage some reflection at the end of the piece.
Geometrical analogies. Chapman (or was it McPhee?) describes the counterpoint structure as a ladder, two parallel narratives with rung-like connections supplied by the reader. Connect-the-dots writing is, of course, point- and segment-based. In either case a crucial fact is the active participation of the reader in the whole enterprise. Are there other geometrical structures that have analogous structures? How about popping up to three dimensions?
Consider these aspects of dotted pictures:
- The aim. Go back to the beginning. Pedagogically speaking, these "drawing" activities aim to teach sequencing. It's an interesting comment on the primacy of the visual that a revealed picture is the "reward" here, but it also echoes the thrill of a toddler putting names on things in picture books (that archetypal Helen Keller moment when things get connected to words). I'm also reminded of the fact that one pays closer attention to things in the process of identification.
- The method. How does one go about "authoring" one of these pictures? It seems natural to first draw the picture, then pick out the significant points (the mathematical terms: turning points, points of inflection) and erase the connecting lines. The important rule to remember: only straight lines may be erased; curves are to be approximated, not left to the imagination.
- The pleasure. How many people can see the picture at first glance? For most of us, the pleasure comes somewhere along in the drawing process, with that flash of recognition. The degree of aesthetic delight, I think, is directly related to just how far along in the process that flash comes (as in a mystery story you want to discover the murderer neither immediately nor at the drawing-room unveiling but gradually, certainty dawning at some intermediate point).
A few abstract questions. As an exercise, can minimizing transitions encourage sharper seeing? To what extent can the writer rely on the subconscious to provide rich links?