Wednesday, January 30, 2008

By the Way, It's an Ugly Room. All Things Considered When It Comes to Your Artful Nonfiction, Ugly Works

Here's my exercise for today in feature writing. I warn the kids against pathetic fallacy, that literary technique in which inanimate objects display emotion, especially when that emotion reflects the emotional states of fictional characters. But it is certainly reasonable to make note of objects in the real settings in which nonfiction characters present themselves that resonate with -- or possibly contradict -- the writer's judgment of who these characters are. It's a nice way to foreshadow or imply, a kind of artful editorializing.

Or so I argue. Like everything else in this whole business of literary journalism, a little more than a little is by much too much. Try it, I tell them. If I don't like it, I'll trim but give me something to work with, please.

Describing the room: An exercise for feature writing

You have arranged an interview in this room with the person named below. You arrive 30 minutes early. Since you will be writing on deadline, you decide to do a brief sketch of the room before your subject arrives, thinking you might be able to use it as part of your story.

You are interviewing a 60-year-old architect who has been hired to remodel all the classrooms on this campus.

A 35-year-old nun who is leaving holy orders to get married.

A 40-year-old USF employee whose job is cleaning this building.

A 70-year-old priest who is about to retire from USF.

The 40-year-old widow of a USF professor who died of a heart attack in this room last year.

A 20-year-old student who has just been expelled from USF for drinking.

A 10-year-old child prodigy who has just started college at USF.

A 50-year-old prison inmate who has a day pass to take classes at USF.

A 16-year-old high school dropout who is part of a campus tour run by an organization devoted to getting kids back in school.

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