Thursday, January 29, 2009

Writer's block

Just so you know . . . writing 1,000 words about a brick is hard.

I need the work this exercise requires as much as my students do, which is why I am doing it as well. I introduced the assignment on Wednesday and, along with them, began making some initial notes in class; today after my morning class I began working on it in earnest.

So far I have about 500 words. The problem, if that's the right way to put it, is not exactly a shortage of things to say but, rather, how most accurately to describe those things for a reader. A brick is a rectangular solid, a geometric form; I've spent a considerable amount of time, therefore, just figuring out how to make distinctions between and among its six surfaces so as to describe certain things found on one surface but not on others. What's also been interesting to me is how I will write a sentence, think it's done, get ready to move on to the next one, then "watch" as that sentence I've just written seems to expand from within. In other words, the actual features I'll describe won't be all that numerous; the word count will come mostly from words that serve to orient the reader as to where those features are and from the nature of the descriptions themselves. (As one example: one surface of the brick is "a red the color of iron that has just begun to glow from heating.")

I'm sure my tens of readers are just dying to read 1,000 words or so that describe a single brick; so, when I finish up I'll post it here. In the meantime, I would encourage those of you casting about for a good writing exercise, whether for a class or for your own edification, to give this one a try. It's a healthy reminder of just how much we gloss over when describing things or people, even when we think we're doing a good job of it.


Doc said...


I can't believe I'm admitting this, much less in "public", but...

After your original brick post I went my merry way, doing this and that, think I even took the girls sledding.

Later that night I decided to 'use the Google'.

One thing led to another and I am even now awaiting a reply from a small village in Holland about your freakin' brick...


John B. said...

Heh. Would that I had students as susceptible to suggestion as you are. But I'm also deeply flattered that that post had that effect on you.

But why Holland? I didn't post it in the post you refer to, but stamped on the brick is "Pittsburg," as in "Kansas"--I've since learned that back in the 19th century there were several brickyards in southeastern Kansas.

But that's the thing about "traces," isn't it: Their physical existence links us to a past that we might otherwise have no connection to, much less interest in. It's a kind of nagging borne of curiosity about a small slice of the world's time that precedes us and that might possibly have something of value to tell us today.

Doc said...


you foul creature, you.

what i grabbed was the mesch imprinteur on the brick, which wended me off across the sea to the netherlands where a town by that name just happened have once had a working brickyard because...well, you know, they have one or two levees over there.


i expect those poor people are even now wracking their brains, delving into ancient town records to see if their erstwhile brickyard ever shipped MESCH bricks to a Kansas in the New World...

ah, the things we decide to include or omit in our tales...

; ' )

Pam said...

Oh, I do need to come back to this. A 1000 words? I want to do this! No, what I want to do is go back to school, and be a professional student. What am I doing employed (oh, I speak too quickly here...).

But I want to write about a brick in 1000 words. I have a grant due. After the grant, I might try this. I hope I do.

And for now - I'll look forward to read what you write (but I shouldn't read it first, should I?).

I think I'd write about it's origin: clay.

John B. said...

Thanks for the vote of confidence. Colleagues of mine whom I've told about this exercise seem interested in it as well. But they also decide that staying employed, at least for a while, is important, too.

Right now, my students' assignments consist of not describing their objects but saying things about it in relation to themselves and other people and --considerably easier tasks, relatively speaking.

[Side note: my students all noted that the description exercise, which they turned in yesterday, was difficult, but no one said s/he couldn't do it.]

Being that you're a scientist--a trained observer attuned to minutiae of various sorts--I think you'll be good at this--plus, judging from your blog, you'd have fun doing this, too.