Wednesday, March 29, 2006

A History Lesson

Last week, I assisted a group of 5th graders as they strove to turn Civil War biographies into poems. Though the kids were fascinated with pictures from the era - think walrus mustaches and sweeping gowns - in the end, they found the best prose came from focusing on bold and meaningful action, like being a “conductor” for the Underground Railroad.

A blog thought was born.

We’ve all read books that over-describe the physical (“her glistening blue eyes,” “his cleft chin,” etc…) as well as high-lit books that barely mention a character’s looks. Sometimes a character’s appearance is very important to the story itself; take for example, Gone with the Wind’s Scarlett O’Hara. But not even Scarlett could be neatly summarized with a description of her arrogant attractions. What defines her? What makes her an unforgettable character?

I'd argue that Scarlett is memorable for her struggles and accomplishments, for being human and needy and manipulative, and for eventually growing beyond her selfishness into someone even she admired. (See now, not a single mention of the red sparkly dress, or the green tassled one, the curly brown hair, the parasols, the tiny waist...)

The 5th graders were asked to make their poems brief: about 7 lines and no more than 2-3 words per line. Not a lot of room for wordsmithing, but it was a good exercise in choosing facts and being concise. Here’s my attempt at a simple verse for Ms. O’Hara.


Indulgent Southern belle
Loathed the war
Lost husbands, child
Married a Northerner
Battlefield nurse
Sold her pride
Saved her home
Found new strength

Not the best thing I've ever written, but the point remains: It's important that all characters have “good bones” and present something more than long eyelashes and dimples - even if they are gorgeous. What would the biographical details be for your chararcters?

Anyone care to tackle a biography-poem on Mr. Butler or a character you've created?


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