“You’ve seen this baguette before,” or, How the Cliche Makes What’s Interesting Disappear

Inexperienced writers use lots of cliches. So I tell my students things like: “Don’t use a comparison if you’ve heard it before. Your reader will have heard it too, probably, and will zoom over it without thinking much about what you’re trying to show them.” Maybe they’ve heard that before, considering how often they don’t seem to think much about what I’m trying to show them.

Blogger Alec Nevala-Lee may have solved my problem:

What else is this man carrying? Who cares–he has a baguette!

You’ve seen this baguette before, he writes.

In any movie or television show in which a character is shown carrying groceries, a big loaf of french bread is invariably seen peeking out over the top of the bag.

And that baguette is there for a reason. For one thing, it’s a convenient prop that is unlikely to wilt under hot studio lights or after hours spent on location. It’s also a handy bit of narrative shorthand. If we see a character carrying a paper bag without any clues about what it contains, we immediately start to wonder what might be inside. The baguette poking out over the top is a visual flag that, paradoxically, actually makes the bag less visible: as soon as we understand that it’s just a bag of groceries, we stop worrying about it.

That’s it! Any image, any figure of speech, any phrase that our readers notice so casually and familiarly that they don’t care what else is in there, they don’t worry about it. If the sack of groceries is incidental, go ahead, stick a baguette in it. But if. There’s. Something. In. That. Sack, by golly, make sure it’s not french bread showing.

(Now, off to use this baguette metaphor–Baguettaphor? Sure!–so often my students ignore everything else in my bag…)

(Read Nevala-Lee’s whole article here.)

“Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer,” by Roy Peter Clark

Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every WriterClark’s book is more about style than content or correctness. And the 50 strategies are so practical, readable, entertaining, and genuinely helpful that writing with “style” becomes just as substantial and reachable a goal as writing good content with correctness.

That’s fantastic. And maybe even better is the book’s structure. Clark has built this book like a fractal image: Its pattern and value is the same from far as from near, and it’ll make you a better writer in 50 ways, no matter how closely you examine it:

It takes *5 minutes* to read the table of contents—each item of which is a complete piece of instruction. (“Begin sentences with subjects and verbs”… “Cut big, then small”… “Seek original images”… “Build your work around a key question”… Turn procrastination into rehearsal”)

Double the value by flipping through and reading each chapter’s subtitle, too (*15 minutes*). (“Watch those adverbs: Use them to change the meaning of the verb”… “Let punctuation control pace and space: Learn the rules, but realize you have more options than you think”… “Learn the difference between reports and stories: Use one to render information, the other to render experience”)

If you have *a couple of hours*, read through the first few paragraphs of each chapter. Clark explains each strategy and includes one or two examples right up front.

If you have *a couple of weeks*, read the entire book, three or four chapters a day. Each chapter builds from explanation and example to a fuller discussion of the importance and effects that using each strategy has.

And if you have *several months*, dive into the workshop ideas at the end of each chapter. These are tremendously balanced—between prompts to reflect and to act, between analysis of others’ writing and my own, between my past writing, and my present and future writing; between simple/brief activities and complex/time-consuming ones. Not every workshop activity seems equally fruitful to me (how could they?), but there will be something productive here for any writer at any time.

This is the kind of writing book I’d buy to send off to college with my kids, regardless of their majors.

(Click here to buy Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer.)

“Wishes, Lies, and Dreams: Teaching Children to Write Poetry,” by Kenneth Koch

Wishes, Lies, and Dreams: Teaching Children to Write PoetryFirst of all, what a joyful book!

Only the first 20% or so of the book is prose, and this is divided between Koch’s story of finding success teaching  elementary kids to write poems in 1960’s New York classrooms and Koch’s observations about what qualities and attitudes in their teacher bring kids and their writing to life. The remaining 80% of the book is an anthology of poems his young students wrote. These are divided according to the assignments Koch used to help the kids get started.

Koch focuses on the kids’ accomplishments and creative capacity throughout the book, but it’s clear he was as willing and enthusiastic to learn as any of them. The result of his humility and energetic work was a great experience for him and his students and a genuinely encouraging book for any of us who teach.

It’s likely that Koch’s writing prompts and classroom techniques will seem familiar, maybe even tired, to those of us who grew up even a few years after this was published in 1970. Really, though, that’s a sign of Koch’s success. The respect with which he treated children’s imaginations and the hopeful seriousness that runs through all his advice about teaching informed the attitudes of many, many writing teachers after him. If this story seems well-worn now, it’s because he did it and told it so well in the first place.

And the kids’ poems? They’re a sign of Koch’s joy in his students’ work as well as his evidence that the teaching methods he writes about are successful and that teaching kids to write poems at all is entirely worthwhile. Also, many of them are a lot of fun.

I’ll come back to the first 60 pages again whenever get tired teaching and to the 240 pages of poems if I ever start to wonder whether my students actually have imaginations.

(Click here to buy Wishes, Lies, and Dreams: Teaching Children to Write Poetry.)