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Mirror Language Exercise

I'm setting my 10th grade honor students up for reading Something Wicked This Way Comes, so I told them a little about Bradbury yesterday, then had them read "The Veldt."  We debriefed a bit today, followed by this really fun writing exercise.  I'd heard about this years ago, but never tried it, so I wrote my own version.  The results were spectacular!  Bradbury is such a rhythmic sentence writer, and he so often leads his sentences to resounding booms that the kids can hardly help but be successful.  This is the right group of students for it, also.  Many of them can hear rhythms, and they were excited by their own efforts.  It's pretty cool when kids start spontaneously reading the results of their work to each other.

Here's the exercise:

Mirrored Language Writing Exercise

A useful and interesting way to look at how language works is to do a mirror exercise.  To do this, you take a poem or section of prose you find that is interestingly constructed, and then write a piece that mirrors all of its grammatical choices but says something new.  For example, Langston Hughe’s poem, “I, too, Sing America,” starts out like this:

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong. 

To mirror this poem, you would replace every word in it with another that is grammatically the same (a pronoun with a pronoun, a verb with a verb, etc.), so that the new poem maintains the same structure and rhythm, but now says something different.  You may need to keep some words the same, like articles (a, an, the) or prepositions (in, on, over, etc.), or conjunctions (and, when, or, etc.), but the goal is to try to say something completely different in the same form.  For example, a mirror of the Hughe poem might look like this:

He, also, drinks school.

He is the smarter student.
We told him to study in the basement
When the popular visit.
But he reads,
And learns perfectly,
And becomes brilliant.

The same exercise can be done to prose.  To do this exercise, find an example of interesting language in Ray Bradbury’s “The Veldt” and mirror it to tell something different while keeping his form and rhythm.  Pick a section that is at least 50 words long.  On your own paper, copy his words and then write your mirror.  Your example must make sense on its own.  Do not choose a section with dialog in it.  Some students have liked the following passage, but you can choose your own. 

And here were the lions now, fifteen feet away, so real, so feverishly and startling real that you could feel the prickling fur on your hand, and your mouth was stuffed with the dusty upholstery smell of their heated pelts, and the yellow of them was in your eyes like the yellow of an exquisite French tapestry, the yellows of lions and summer grass, and the sound of the matted lion lungs exhaling on the silent noontide, and the smell of meat from the panting, dripping mouths.


I relearned some lessons about rhythm while doing this today.  Sometimes just a change in syllable count, like the substitution of a double-syllable word for a single syllable one, can throw off the line.  The difference is subtle, but noticeable.  However, there are small rhythms and large ones.  Bradbury's sentences have rhythms, but so do his paragraphs, so a small change that upsets a smaller rhythm may not damage the larger one.

The other lesson for me is to remind myself to listen to the prose.  Sentences and paragraphs can be exciting on their own terms.  I'm reminded again that story rules (for me, at least) but style matters.



( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 11th, 2008 06:38 pm (UTC)
Thanks for posting this. There's a book -- I forget what it's called -- that has "madlib"-like versions of the best paragraphs from novels. Basically the same thing you're doing here, just fill-in-the blank. It was very interesting to do.
Apr. 11th, 2008 06:47 pm (UTC)
I did something similar in a workshop at Foolscap. We were given the first thirteen sentences of a novel and told to rewrite it. I got Octavia Butler's Wild Seed. It was a pretty loose exercise. One lady rewrote the pretty opening of ET to sound sinister. I analyzed each of the sentences to determine its function -- establishes conflict, description, character. Was the sentence long and complex or short and to the point? Then I wrote my own piece using that structure.
Apr. 12th, 2008 03:57 pm (UTC)
Jeez, I wish you'd taught at my high school... :D
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )