07 December 2007

Limited Literary Sensibilities

It’s raining in Holland. There are fat drops and small drops and periods of fine mist. The sky, which must be a fine shade of blue, has been carefully packed in a thick layer of clouds. It will incur no damage in shipping. Rather, it will incur no damage in storage. If past experience counts for anything, that beautiful blue sky won’t be unpacked again until May.

Especially in this kind of weather, I consume a lot of words. But sometimes, no doubt due to my limited literary sensibilities, it feels like I’m just going through the motions of scanning words and turning pages. Nothing sinks in. So yesterday, I was pleasantly surprised to be inspired by a podcast, Garrison Keillor’s News from Lake Woebegone. It’s a weekly monologue from his radio show, A Prairie Home Companion, in which he talks about his imaginary home town, Lake Woebegone, Minnesota. The residents of Lake Woebegone are descended from Norwegians who immigrated to the United States and are inordinately proud of their heritage, if a little misdirected at times. For example, they seem to know nothing of the joys of brown cheese.

Yesterday, I realized how well Garrison Keillor structures his ten to twenty minute monologues. Each begins with a general comment on the weather or an event that leads to a story of something that happened that week. That story then requires some explanation, so there’s a back story and then the topic shifts to another person or event and so on until you’re no longer sure where he started or where he’s going. Then, in the last couple minutes, it comes back, circles around, returns to the beginning and he leaves you right back where you began. It’s like a narrative joy ride. You’re not really sure where you went, but the trip was great fun!

Using this kind of structure must be useful for any columnist or regular writer. Every week, you pull out your trusty frame and dress it up with new ideas. This kind of technique could be effectively applied to any sort of writing or presenting. As a listener, I really enjoy the reliable structure of Keillor’s monologues. After about ten minutes of listening, I’m starting to listen for the catch, the link, the return to the beginning that I know is coming. Every week, it’s entertainment to listen to how he is going to get it done. Any kind of regular audience must appreciate the same. Sitcoms and radio shows do it, so why shouldn’t teachers or academic writers do it, too?

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