Stretch A Little, Stretch A Lot: Using Hyperbole to Enhance Memoir Writing – NVWP Summer ISI – Day 11

Welcome to the Northern Virginia Writing Project’s 2016 Invitational Summer Institute! I’ll be blogging the demonstration lessons and the various activities occurring during our four-week duration. Find out more about the NVWP and the National Writing Project.

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Today’s first demonstration lesson comes from Katlyn Bennett, an amazing colleague. She’s going to show us how to study a mentor text, Roald Dahl’s Boy: Tales of Childhood, in order to use hyperbole to enhance details in a personal memoir.

The context of this lesson is an author study unit. Students pick an author they’re interested in and then read a variety of works by that author. This helps students tease out a particular author’s voice (syntax choices, literal/figurative language usage, tone and mood, etc.). Katlyn uses Roald Dahl as the mentor author for this project because his collected works run the genre gamut. She got the idea from Roald Dahl’s website. Today’s demonstration lesson comes from a unit with the following objectives and essential questions.

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Katlyn links this unit and lesson to Kelly Gallagher’s two central premises from Write Like This:
1. Introduce young writers to real-world discourses (express and reflect)
2. Provide students with extensive teacher and real-world models.

She also discusses reading as a process. First draft reading is for meaning and second draft reading is for techniques/craft/nuance/etc. Another way to think about this is as reading as a reader (immersion) vs. reading as a writer (analysis of rhetoric). This assignment and this unit focus heavily on reading and writing on process.

Quickwrite: Look back in your memory. Think about a time you got in trouble, were injured, were angry, were happy, etc. Now write down what happened. This is a no-nonsense summary of events. 

When I was in 7th grade I wrote stories back and forth with a classmate and friend. These stories tended to be pretty gross depictions of comical sexual acts and explosions of bodily fluids. This is pretty standard stuff for hormone-addled middle school boys. I know this because I teach 7th graders. Oh wait, this is supposed to be no-nonsense.

I wrote a gross note to a friend. My English teacher confiscated it and I went to the principal’s office. I had to read it to my parents, apologize, and write an apology note.

Katlyn sets our purpose for reading (an excellent technique). What details stick out to us?

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The section she reads is amazing. Dahl presents a truly grotesque depiction of a mean-spirited candy store owner. He knows how to zoom in on a key detail and then twist it into a disgustingly wonderful description. Dahl is also adept at immersing the reader in the memory and then sliding out of it to address the reader in a more authorial fashion. We discuss what we notice. Voice, point of view, hyperbole, characterization, and perspective are all mentioned. This is our first draft reading.

After she finishes we read the section again ourselves. At what point do we question the truth of Dahl’s writing? What images stand out? Is it okay if he’s not telling the 100% truth in his memoir? Katlyn comments to us that middle schoolers have a much harder time believing the veracity of every word or phrase, whereas adults don’t. Our conversation about truthfulness in memoir becomes wonderfully complex. Personally I believe that exaggeration and detail-massaging are not only acceptable techniques in a memoir but are essential to crafting an interesting narrative. It’s possible to tell the truth of the moment without being 100% factual, I think.

Now we return to our original quickwrite and look for details.

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I wrote a gross note to a friend. It was funny! My English teacher confiscated it and I went to the principal’s office. He grabbed it from a kid. I had to read it to my parents, apologize, and write an apology note to the teacher. I got in trouble. It was embarrassing. 

Katlyn puts up the following organizer to help us pick out details to stretch, and then stretch a lot. We’re looking for specific details to exaggerate. This is a great way to help children begin seeing writing as a series of rhetorical decisions. You can see the way she exaggerates and then hyperbolizes the facts.

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Here’s mine! 

-The note was gross ->
-The note was the stuff of schoolyard whispers. ->
-The crumpled paper oozed/was soaked the blunt, comical perversion of early adolescence.

-My friend sat on the other side of the room. ->
-I could barely see Jackson’s flat top across the tiled expanse of the class. The note had to travel quite a distance to reach him. ->
-As Jackson and I sat on opposite sides of the room (a familiar teacher tactic for dealing with disruptions), our notes had to travel the precarious distance of the entire length of the room.

-The teacher was watching us. ->
-His eagle eyes scanned the crowd for morsels. ->
-The teacher’s eyes swept over the class like searchlights hunting down an escape prisoner.

I realize that I exist in the hyperbole zone. This is my truth, the way my brain perceives and processes things. This makes sense with my earlier position on being liberal with the ‘truth.’ Oh, this is just so much fun. It really makes you focus on the purpose of every word. What choices would a journalist make? What about a comic? How do expectations about audience play into word choice? It’s probably best to finely tune the writing so it’s not either 100% over the top or 100% dry. Katlyn ends her presentation with a couple samples of student work.

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Outstanding!

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