Wednesday, June 22, 2011

An Immodest Proposal: Use Absurdity to Jump-start Your Creativity

As writers, we often get hamstrung by the demands of the craft: the need to write something every day, to say something relevant, insightful, or pithy.  We can give ourselves writer’s block if we strive too hard to say something meaningful on the first draft.

There’s another way to approach writing.  Be absurd.

Be silly.  Be outlandish.  Make an argument that no one would take seriously. 

I experienced the value of doing this in my comp class this week.  While preparing to write a proposal, the class read an essay that was pure satire—a genre that ridicules a particular foible or shortcoming to make a serious point, usually by shaming the audience into changing its ways.  The classic example of satire is Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” in which he advised that the way to solve the problem of overpopulation in 18th century Ireland was to eat Irish babies.

No one, of course, took Swift seriously.  But his “proposal” called attention to the callous attitudes many had toward the poor.

As an exercise, I told my students to write an “outlandish” proposal to some major societal issue of their choice, such as immigration, texting while driving, or political squabbling.  I wrote my own outlandish proposal, too, for the issue of smoking on campus.  Here’s how it turned out:

The trend toward college campuses banning smoking has led to furor among those who smoke. They protest that, as American citizens, they have a right to smoke and that they are harming no one but themselves. Besides, they argue, smoking calms them down before stressful classes or tests. Non-smokers counter that second-hand smoke endangers their health and, therefore, smoking should be banned everywhere.

My solution to this problem would be for every college to create a separate campus only for smokers. Students would have to smoke in order to attend classes on campus. If you decide to quit smoking, even for awhile, you would have to transfer to the non-smoking campus or face academic suspension.

Now, I can hear some protest that creating a second campus would be costly and might even foster a second class in society—a class of learners who might never interact with non-smokers and, therefore, would not understand or sympathize with them or be able to work with non-smokers to solve mutual problems such as wars, high taxes, and gas prices.

To the first problem, I propose that tax revenue on cigarettes, cigars, and even smokeless tobacco be used to pay for the new campus. The smoking campus could even promote the use of cigarettes to bolster enrollment. The dangers of smoking could be downplayed by comparing them to other dangers students face on a daily basis—carpal tunnel syndrome from typing, brain cancer from cell phones, and anxiety disorders brought on by tests.

As for creating a second-class society, this concern can easily be overcome by requiring students at either campus to do a practicum at the other. Sure, non-smokers would have to start smoking in order to take classes on the smoking campus, and smokers would have to quit before they set foot on the non-smoking campus. However, special withdrawal clinics could be set up to help students through these difficult transitions.

A smoking-only campus would alleviate tension between smokers and non-smokers and allow the former to indulge freely in their right to pollute their bodies and the air and ground around them. And what could be more American than that?

Of course, I’m being totally non-serious in the above.

Writing absurdly accomplishes several things.  It forces the writer to really look at the issue and see the absurdity behind it (and, no matter what issue we’re talking about, there’s bound to be an absurd angle somewhere).  It gives the writer permission to express a view without worrying overmuch about offending someone.  (There are, of course, those who will not pick up on the satirical intent and be offended.  There are, likewise, those who will pick up on the satirical intent and insist on being offended anyway.)

And it gives the writer carte blanche to do the one thing we all learned to do as children which helped us be creative: play.


Miss Good on Paper said...

Love it! I haven't taught satire in a while, but I like the way it makes them think. I'm in the process of revising my course and this would be a great addition. Did you have them read Swift's essay or did you pick something else? There are so many great modern examples of satire, too.

Great post!

Greg Gildersleeve said...

The essay we read was "Don't Make English Official -- Ban It Instead" by Dennis Baron. It's in the Norton Field Guide to Writing, 2nd edition. Glad you liked the post.

Mike Sullivan said...

Greg stated: "(There are, of course, those who will not pick up on the satirical intent and be offended. There are, likewise, those who will pick up on the satirical intent and insist on being offended anyway.)"

You forgot the third option: There are those who will agree with the idea, totally failing to understand that it is satire.

I'm just sayin'.

Greg Gildersleeve said...

Someone might actually think that eating babies or setting up a smoking-only campus is a good idea? Possible, but scary.

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