institute for documentary studies

{Week 12: Writing}

Week 12: Writing

In class on Wednesday, Mira handed out an article about the author Claire Messud. It begins, “Claire Messud isn’t wearing her wedding ring,” and goes on to tell the story behind this minor detail; she was making sixty heart-shaped shortbread cookies with red icing for her child and left her rings on the windowsill.
By drawing out this surface detail, the writer of the article hopes to illuminate a deeper truth about the writer.
The many roles and responsibilities of a successful author could go as easily unnoticed as an absent wedding ring—an analogy the writer drives home. The ring “offers a convenient metaphor for the vortex, or competing vortices, of novelist, wife, teacher, and mother that define and constrain many writes, but that quite often go unacknowledged when considering the lives of even the most accomplished.”
Is it possible to sum up the inner complexities of a person’s character by a phrase? Probably not, but the minor details—the way they smile with their eyes, or what they carry in their purse—can say something bigger about who they are and what they value.
I do not want to condone racial and ethnic stereotypes, especially when they foster prejudice and discrimination. But as writers, we do rely on a kind of “literary stereotyping” to describe our subjects or characters, using the least amount of words possible to create a realistic portrait of a person.
Here’s a list of phrases or actions that, standing alone, might be all you need to understand a person, maybe someone you already met.
Argues with you about your own height.
Is getting their Zumba teaching license.
Has six types of cheese in the fridge.
Substitutes tomatoes for onions and pickles for cucumbers and chicken for beef, and oh wait, actually, can I order something else?
Once had the screenname PrincessRawr69.
Cannot decide which is their favorite cat video.
Strokes the back of their iPhone like a pet.
Returns an overripe avocado to the supermarket.
Updates Wikipedia articles.
Hangs up stock photos of beaches and inspirational quotations around their cubicle.
Uses the word ‘summer’ as a verb.
Has a thing for mass movements.
Can’t meet you for lunch because they’re on a cleanse.
Knits tea cozies to sell on Etsy.
Shortens words, including ‘abbrev’.
Before biting into the last piece of cake, asks “Wait, does anyone else want this?”
Thinks vegan girls are “hot.”
Unfortunately, it seems easier to think of more negative than positive examples, which I suppose is the danger of stereotyping—it is derivative by nature, and limits our perspective. So then, how do we do justice to a subject and their endless complexities while still staying under the word count?