My survival instincts as a teacher are very poor. When my body tells me, “No, you idiot!! Stop!! This is unreasonable!!! YOUR BACK IS PERMANENTLY FUSED IN A SAD AND STRANGE ARCH AND THE ONLY PART OF YOUR BODY YOU CAN STILL FEEL IS YOUR EYELIDS,” I respond with “Shut up, you stupid idiot. What do you know!!?? You’re a stupid sack of skin and weird spindly blood vessels, and don’t think I’m impressed by your ability to keep me alive. You’re barely keeping it together, you piece of crap, and I have formative assessments to re-design!!!!!!” Then I raise my purple Paper Mate felt tip into the air with triumphant defiance like Arthur would Excalibur, and my arm falls off.

In an effort to save myself from self-destruction, let me momentarily wring out my oversaturated brain and leave you with the leakage to sort the solute from the solvent.

In English 9 lately, we’ve been talking about Elements of Plot and Style. And by “talking about,” I mean, “modeling, practicing, forming and achieving mastery of the skills required to identify and analyze the elements of an author’s craft” AND DON’T YOU THINK I DON’T. My students just finished their final test, wherein they had to read my shabbily abridged version of a story from The Decameron (famous bunch of quirky stories-within-stories by famous dead Italian guy), and identify and analyze various elements of plot and style: inciting incidents, climaxes, types of characterization, foreshadowing, mood, tone, forms of irony…

And boy howdy, most of them are doing it! And it matters. In life. If you would like to tell me it doesn’t, please be certain that there are not any knives in the room before doing so.

It’s interesting to me, though, to consider fictional narratives and their links to life. In our school chapels, we focus a lot on the power of “story.” In Christian circles we often hear “The Story” emphasized; we’re encouraged to tell “The Story,” and we sing of “The Old Old Story,” mostly around Christmas and Easter (the Biggies). I find many people in my life using this narrative language. So what does the ability to analyze elements of literature do to our ability to analyze the elements of life? It’s an interesting concept to consider when you’re lying in bed and the room is too cold to fall asleep but you don’t want to get up to close the window.

Take plot diagrams for example. What’s the climax of my life? Though the nice answer would be “there isn’t one,” or perhaps even something much nicer like “the climax is the extension of God’s grace upon my sad, sorry behind,” it seems to me that many people around me are pretty focused on figuring out whether or not they’re currently living the climax. “Have I peaked??” we all wonder, as we look at our moderately unblemished faces, mostly post-acne and pre-wrinkle, and our moderately unblemished permanent records, mostly post-MIP and pre-divorce.

And what about setting? Many of us seem pretty convinced that where we are really matters, that if we could just schlepp ourselves to Florence, we’d live more adventurous, self-fulfilling narratives with global impact, or maybe if we taught in the inner city, we’d be writing a future that’s really worth telling. GO TO NEW ZEALAND. FRODO LIVES THERE. And yet, when I talk about setting with my students, we discuss the implications of a change in the setting, but not once have we discussed the superiority of one setting over another. Change the setting, the story is different. But does changing the setting make the story better?

Then consider characterization. There’s direct characterization, where the author tells us that “Dragomir is neat and tidy.” My boyfriend grows increasingly frustrated with my continual attempts to characterize myself. Am I an ENFP? An extrovert? A leader? A game-changer? An elf or a hobbit? A good teacher or a bad one? Indirect characterization is when the author shows us what a character is like rather than telling us, which I think is a perfectly lovely stylistic element that comforts me with the cozy reassurance that not everything in life is quantifiable. “Dragomir rearranges his succulents on his bedroom shelf, rearranging them in such a way that each will get the appropriate amount of sunlight at some point during the day. He stacks his copy of the newest Philip Yancey above The Bhagavad Gita on his bedside table and tucks the corners of his bedsheet under one more time.” Well, isn’t that nice. Dragomir certainly seems neat and tidy, but maybe he isn’t. He might be a well-read gentleman, but we certainly can’t be jumping to conclusions here. Perhaps Dragomir is quite concerned with the cleanliness of his living space, but the back seat of his car is positively apocalyptic. Maybe he’s the sort of guy who color codes his Google Drive folders, but he has an unhealthy obsession with McDonalds. Maybe Dragomir’s girlfriend is a literature major, or his uncle is trying to get him interested in Eastern religions. Perhaps it’s possible that Dragomir is ever so much more complex than just one thing.

It’s also possible that I’m bat-guano* crazy (*I have to say that; I’m an example to the youth). It’s also possible that I haven’t gotten enough sleep in three weeks and I read too many student essays and I spend too much time at Barnes and Noble not buying anything. It’s also possible that you quit reading long ago. If you didn’t, my perma-spine and over-sensitive eyelids thank you for your time and encourage you to thank your English teacher for being so-so.

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