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Plugging Into Cultural Power Sources

Here is my weekly entry to the "Write a Book in a Year Club" blog.  Do you folks find these entries worth looking at?  I have fun writing them, but the audience is high school writers.  Let me know.


Many of you are planning on writing (or have already started!) your stories for our winter holiday season chapbook.  So, I was thinking about why Christmas stories are so popular.

One reason there are a lot of Christmas stories is because a huge percentage of the audience has shared experiences with the holiday.  All the trappings are familiar: mistletoe, three wise men, sleigh rides, Bethlehem, Frosty the Snowman, angels singing, Rudolph, the shepherds, Christmas trees, a manger, Santa Clause, the baby Jesus, etc.  You might notice on that list that I alternated between religious associations and secular ones.  That's because they're pretty thoroughly mixed, and regardless of what religion you are or aren't, the symbols of the holiday are probably familiar to you.

So, how does that make the holiday a popular choice for stories, and how do the shared experiences help us as writers?

The answer is connected to how two terms you've heard in your literature classes function: connotation and allusion.  Connotation means "the emotional implications and associations that words may carry."  What this means is that a word has a dictionary meaning, its "denotation," but it also can carry along emotional associations.  A quick example is the difference between the words "mom," "mother," "mommy," and "female progenitor," which all mean exactly the same thing in a dictionary but whose effect is quite different in a sentence if you interchange them.

Christmas is loaded with richly connotative words.  As soon as the writer says "Christmas tree," for example, many of the readers will call up all their associations with Christmas trees.  They might think about when they were kids and the presents were waiting for them on Christmas morning.  They might remember going shopping for a tree or hiking in the hills looking for the perfect one.  They remember the smell, the lights, the ornaments, all of it.  And every reader brings something a little different to the word, their own associations, but the writer can depend on most readers calling up some association when they see "Christmas tree."  More importantly, for the writer's purpose, the reader not only brings up memories, but also remembers emotions, and emotions are the most effective tool in the writer's toolbox.

The other term is "allusion,"  which is "a reference to a well-known person, place, event, literary work or work of art."  Like "connotation," an allusion depends on the readers' previous knowledge.  This makes allusions potentially dangerous, especially if you depend on the allusion to carry a lot of weight.  What happens if your reader is not familiar with what you are alluding to?  A couple of years ago on the school newspaper, I had an arts and entertainment editor who was exceptionally knowledgeable about the emerging music scene.  She knew all kinds of stuff about her material.  Her problem as a writer, though, was that she assumed her audience was as knowledgeable as she was.  Her articles were filled with references (allusions) to other bands, other performances, song lyrics, album titles and group members that only she and a couple of her close friends recognized.  Unfortunately, her closest friend was also her editor, so her articles frequently made their way into the paper, where no one else in the school had the faintest idea what they were about.  Her allusions were too obscure.

References to persons, places, events, literary works or works of art about Christmas, however, are hardly ever unfamiliar to a majority of the audience.  An allusion, just like a word with rich connotations, also contains emotional connections.  So an allusion in a Christmas story will not only bring to the readers' minds all their knowledge of the reference, but also the emotional connections.

So Christmas stories have built in to them a lot of emotion and knowledge on the readers' parts.  Keep that in mind as you write and take advantage of it.



( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 16th, 2008 09:23 pm (UTC)
Since everything I learned about writing I learned either by the seat of my pants or from Clarion--or from preparing classes to teach!--I'm finding these nuggets really wonderful to read, Jim. I have a conservatory music degree. Well, a couple of them. Now that I wish I also had an English degree, I can't take time off from my career to get one, and I appreciate these little lectures. You know how it is: we know these things, on some level, but it's darned helpful to see them put into words.

Thanks, Teach.
Nov. 16th, 2008 10:03 pm (UTC)
I find them interesting! Sometimes all I do is imagine what young people will potentially do with the information, but you often detail concepts I wouldn't think to examine (the power of holiday stories, for instance).

This made me want to try writing a holiday story.
Nov. 17th, 2008 10:52 am (UTC)
I like them. I learn stuff my own high school creative writing teacher never got close to teaching...
Nov. 19th, 2008 10:19 pm (UTC)
As a teacher in training, I also like to read stuff like this. I'm looking for anything I can appropriate as I come to the end of my teacher education process.

I'm curious about how the chapbooks work. Do you distribute them about the school, to the club, to strangers on the street?

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )