Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Wednesday Writing Workout: The Reader’s Role



Meet my fellow Chicago writer, debut author Zakieh Mohammed, an award-winning teacher and Chicago public school administrator who kindly created today’s Wednesday Writing Workout.
Ripple Grove Press released Zakieh’s picture book A Girl Named October, gorgeously illustrated by Andrea Tripke, this past spring.

October’s story is especially timely, given the current demand for children’s books that address the importance of kindness and empathy.  She navigates her days, unaware how even the smallest memory, interaction and expression can impact the larger world.

It was Zakieh’s hope that by reaching the Reader and meaningfully interacting, October’s questions become the Reader’s.
She notes on her book’s dedication page that October was inspired by her youngest sister who spoke the central line - “I’m touching the world.”  The spirit and depth of those words stayed with Zakieh, even after her sister lost her battle with leukemia at the age of nine.

The flap copy notes, “Touching the world is no longer an abstract idea, but a concrete action that reveals how everything we do affects everyone around us.”

Reviewers lauded the text’s poetry, the lighthearted approach, yet the powerful message that everything around us holds value and offers connectivity.

Thank you, Zakieh, for reminding us of our role as authors.  We pose the questions, not answer them for our Readers. Answering them is our challenged Reader’s Role.

Enjoy today’s Wednesday Writing Workout!

Esther Hershenhorn

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The Reader’s Role


     A Girl Named October asks a great deal of the reader. The pictures the illustrator drew capture the tone and spirit of the story, but the text itself is ultimately a series of unanswered questions about our place in the world and the power of our presence in everything.

     When I taught, stories expanded my students’ exposure to literature, demonstrated elements of writing, and allowed my students to become more reflective and ask themselves questions through the lens of their value system, bias, expectation, and hope.

● Why are we afraid to try things that are new or different? Green Eggs and Ham
● Why can telling the truth be difficult? The Emperor’s New Clothes
● Is the loss of one’s ideal equal to the loss of one’s life? Things Fall Apart

     The authors do not answer the questions for us, but pose them, and challenge us to consider the questions through ourselves and our own sensibilities. Whether the author is asking an overarching question, or a series of questions, creating an interplay between the printed story and the Reader is important, and an exercise all writers should undertake.

     Asking your Readers to reflect on their beliefs does not mean you are challenging their beliefs; rather you are allowing the reader space to unpack and better understand their truth. When developing a character or storyline, do you want the story to read in a monologic way or do you want to create opportunities for internal and external dialogue?

     A story allows us to do something so many mediums do not; we get to explore and discover even after the words have been formally printed onto a page. It is important to become the Reader to determine if what you as the author intended, does ask the Reader to reflect and struggle. In A Girl Named October, the Reader is part of the quest for answers, and is asked to respond for the silent protagonist:

● “I’m touching the world,” she said, her world seeming pleasant, calm, and full of purpose.
“There are so many ways, aren’t there?
● “I’m standing on the world,” she responded with certainty. Then, pointing at my feet, she asked, “Aren’t you?”
● “October smiled, handing me one [a book]. “When I read them, I can see farther. Can’t you?”
● “I speak loudly when I say nothing at all. You heard me, didn’t you?”

     Whether a picture book, chapter book, young adult novel, or adult novel-- whether a simple idea, humorous narrative, dramatic tale, or epic thriller, a writer needs to establish whether their story asks anything of the Reader,  whether what they are asking will resonate, and whether their story can ask more of the Reader.

     Using your manuscript(s) draft, write down your answer to the question: “What question(s) am I asking the Reader to explore?”

Consider what question(s) you want your Readers to ask themselves that go beyond the character and story, and towards reflection. You are asked to write down your response because, as writers, we know our stories backwards and forwards, in our head and in our heart, and assume our story’s message is clear; but, oftentimes, feedback suggests the motivation behind a character’s actions needs strengthening.

     If the story is about sharing, are you trying to teach a child about fairness? Equity? Kindness? There is no wrong answer, but it has to be the right question. Whether it is for a picture book or novel, the question you are posing to the Reader is critical to the engagement and investment of the Reader. This technique is different than being asked to write down the theme of your story. The theme can be a word or phrase, but it is static. Establishing the question you want to explore with your Readers makes your manuscript dynamic.

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