Writing from a reader’s perspective means that we seek to understand a writing through our own experience, yet we try also to understand how others who may be very different from us seek to understand the same writing through their experience. We will explore this perspective by writing the following sections/paragraphs:
Pattern 1: First Impression
Pattern 2: Favorite Lines
Pattern 3: Different Perspectives
Pattern 4: Selective Reading
What is my “First Impression?”
Read the work through carefully one time. Try to get an overall sense of what the work seems to be saying. Answer all the questions below with at least one complete sentence each (the more the better). Put your sentences together in a paragraph or two (or as many as you need). Do not include the questions in your writing. Please put a heading on your document according to MLA conventions. Maximum length: 2 pages.
- What seems to be the (or a) "gist" or main idea of the work?
- What seems to be the (or a) subject?
- What does the author or narrator seem to be saying literally?
- What does the author or narrator seem to be saying if I "read between the lines?"
- What seem to be some "meaningful" words?
- What seems to be a primary emotion evoked by the work?
- What does anything in the work remind me of?
- Overall, I find this work ______________ (use a descriptive word that seems to describe the whole work.)
Most Common Question: “Why can’t I ever figure out what a selection or work of literature means?”
One answer is because many writers try to make you react to a reading and meaning is only secondary to them. For this reason, don't try to "figure out" what a poem, story, article, etc., “means,” at least at first. Authors generally don't write by trying to "get a meaning across." Describe what a work is doing, or what it does to you, or the effect the work has on you. Authors generally try to bring about some kind of effect in a reader.
For the same reason, don't "look up" what someone else has said about the work. In general, professional interpreters have very narrow perspectives, and their experience (in life as well as in reading) is usually much different from yours. Their interpretations may seem strange because they are trained in one of those narrow perspectives.
Don't worry about "being right" in your explanation of the work's effect. It will affect everyone differently, sometimes extremely differently. Be honest. Thoughtful and reflective, but honest.
Expect your impressions to change as you read the work throughout the semester.
The “gist” of this selection seems to be [insert what you think is the main idea]. This falls into the subject area of [insert a broad category that the main idea falls into]. Literally, the author is saying [insert a literal paraphrase of the main idea]. However, if I read between the lines, the author seems to imply [insert whatever you think the author might be implying]. The author uses words like “[insert a word or phrase that seems particularly meaningful to the author in this selection]” and “[insert other meaningful words or phrases].” This work wants me to feel [insert an emotion, like “angry,” or “more aware”] because [insert the reasons you think the author wants you to feel this way]. This reminds me of [insert an experience, another reading, a movie, a situation, or any time you feel or have felt the same way]. Overall, I find this work [insert a descriptive word for the whole work].
The “gist” of this selection seems to be that Chief Joseph is defeated and his proud history and heritage are gone. This falls into the subject area of inhumanity and how it can be so eloquently expressed. Literally, the author is saying he is surrendering. However, if I read between the lines, the author seems to imply that a much greater and terrible deed had taken place. The author uses words like “forever,” “dead,” death,” “killed,” “cold,” “we have no blankets,” and “I shall find them among the dead.” This work wants me to feel the weariness he feels (he says “I am tired” once at the beginning and once at the end of this very short speech) and the desperation that a leader and a father and a brother feels when one has been overwhelmed by misfortune because most of us have some idea about how it feels to be desperate, responsible for helpless people, or related to people we love for whom we can do nothing to help. This reminds me of times when I have been overwhelmed by responsibilities that I could do nothing to change or improve, like having a family but not a job. Overall, I find this work desperate and hopeless.
What are my “Favorite Lines?”
Most readings contain a phrase, a line, a sentence, a short paragraph or some other group of words that we tend to remember, particularly if the work had some kind of impact on us. This line, etc., could be the statement that you quoted in your summary/introduction.
Remembering favorite lines gives us something of great depth to allude to in future writings (as well as in our future lives). This is similar to stating a "famous" line from a play, song, movie, or even a commercial, in order to make a point by alluding to that line.
Here is a line I (sort of) remember:
"Some men look around at the way things are, and ask, 'Why?' – I dream about the way things might be, and ask, 'Why not?'"
If you have never heard that line, it still might have some kind of meaning to you. However, in the context of the play it is (roughly) taken from, it has several more layers of meaning to me. Add to that context the fact that it was roughly quoted by Bobby Kennedy's brother at Bobby's funeral, after he and John F. Kennedy had both been assassinated, and that all of those events occurred in my lifetime, and the words have still more dimensions and layers of meaning for me.
How do I choose “Favorite Lines?”
Read the work all the way through once again, or skim the prose in your favorite part or the work. Look and listen for a particular group of words that seem to have the greatest impact upon you. Answer all the questions below with at least one complete sentence each (the more the better). Put your sentences together in a paragraph or two (or as many as you need). Do not include the questions in your writing.
- What line (or group of words or phrases) particularly strike me personally?
- In what context are these words placed?
- Of what situations in my life do these words remind me?
- Of what people in my life do these words remind me?
- Of what places in my life do these words remind me? Of what emotions in my life do these words remind me?
- Of what events in my life do these words remind me?
- To what kind of people in general do I think these words might have particular meaning?
- To what people in particular (people I know) do I think these words might have particular meaning?
Something that strikes me about this reading is when the author says, “[insert a phrase or statement quoted from the selection].” These words fit into the context of [insert a setting, background, or context for the quoted words]. These lines remind me of [insert a situation from your life that these words remind you of]. They also remind me of [insert people of whom these lines remind you in your life]. They also remind me of [insert places that these lines remind you of in your life]. They remind me of when I felt [insert emotions you are reminded of with this selection]. These lines also remind me of [insert events or experiences that these lines remind you of]. These lines might have a deeper meaning for [insert the kind of people who you think might find these lines meaningful]. They might also have special meaning for [insert people in particular who might find these lines meaningful].
Something that strikes me about this reading is when the author says, “Hear me, my chiefs, I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun stands I will fight no more forever.” These words fit into the context of literally losing the battle and the war for a life that this man had known for decades and his people had known far into the past. These lines remind me of once when my father’s death seemed imminent, even though he later pulled through. They also remind me of people like the Pope and Mother Teresa, who seem to fight against human nature itself. They also remind me of places like Zimbabwe – and the United States for that matter – where whole populations have been wiped out. They remind me of when I felt hopeless and helpless as a teenager. These lines also remind me of when I finished writing a dissertation – in a silly way; I thought to myself that I would write no more forever. These lines might have a deeper meaning for those who have known the quiet desperation in their lives of losing a loved one to cancer or some other prolonged illness against which they had little to fight. They might also have special meaning for parents who have lost a child in similar circumstances.
What is writing from Different Perspectives?
Reading and writing from different perspectives means changing your perspective. You do this by “putting yourself into someone else’s shoes.” In other words, you imagine yourself as someone completely different, but who might still have some connection with your work. You then argue for or against, or analyze, whatever point you think the work is making. The first step is to think about a point the work makes (see writings above). Then think about how you responded to the point.
Ask yourself how you might respond differently to the same point, if you were somehow a different person. For example, when I first read the poem “Prufrock” I was in high school. One point to the poem seemed to be that part of being middle-aged was worrying about your own mortality and the life you have lived. As an adolescent middle-class male who valued action over self-contemplation, I thought the point was pretty whiny. I thought the speaker was a simpering weakling, whose fears had overtaken him (how I wish I could have said so then!). As an actual middle-aged dude, however, I have much more sympathy with the poem’s speaker now, since I have had some of the same thoughts lately. The two perspectives from me here are “young” and “old.” Other variations on perspectives might be caused by gender (what would his wife have thought?), social class (what would a manual laborer think?), cultural background (what would someone from a different part of the country say?), values (what would a politician say?), religious beliefs, economic status, experience, and so on.
- What seems to be the point to this work? (you may have to repeat it).
- How might someone with a *different or contradictory perspective respond?
- How might someone of a *different gender respond?
- How might someone of a *different age or time respond?
- How might someone from another country respond?
- How might someone from a *different social, political, or economic background respond?
- If I had to argue against whatever conclusions I have drawn from this work so far, what might I say?
*different from you, and/or different from the speaker(s).
The whole point to this selection seems to be [insert point again – only in different words]. In contrast, [insert a person who might disagree with the point] might argue that [insert what that person might say to disagree]. In terms of gender, [insert the effect gender might have on how one sees the point]. A person’s age might change the way we see this point by [insert how you think age might affect the point, or stage of life, or history might see the same point]. Cultural background will change the way people see this idea by [insert a perspective you imagine someone from a different country or culture might take towards this point]. A person from [insert a social, political, or economic background that you think might affect a person’s way of thinking] might react to this point by saying that [insert what he or she might say]. If I had to argue against this point, I might say [insert what you feel is a statement that contradicts the main idea].
The whole point to this selection seems to be that the human spirit is magnificent, even in defeat. In contrast, Machiavelli might argue that some people want to be controlled, even oppressed, if it means security. In terms of gender, I suppose some women might argue that wars and oppression are merely outward manifestations of many males’ need for dominance. A person’s age might change the way we see this point by what experience with success and failure he or she may have had; older people may better understand the utter desperation in personal defeats in their lives, whereas young people may tend to be much more hopeful. Cultural background will change the way people see this idea by how they see conflict. I imagine some will be far more willing to accept change than say Israelis or Palestinians, who seem ready to fight about anything according to the media. A person from a poor family might react to this point by saying that it reflects the daily, grinding poverty that they are used to already. If I had to argue against this point, I might say people might sometimes be very easily intimidated by power, or the perception of power, and they give up easily.
How to answer the Prompts
How do I start?
This time, read and respond the way you think someone else might respond to such a point or points. One way to get started is to ask someone who you know is very different in his or her way of thinking about the world, and different from you in other major ways, to read the poem and tell you what they think. Another class member, or your roommate, won’t cut it.
What do I write?
Answer all the questions with at least one complete sentence each (the more the better). Put your sentences together in a paragraph or two (or as many as you need). Do not include the questions in your writing. Maximum length: 2 pages.
Be specific with your answers above. “A girl might say...” is pretty non-specific, wouldn’t you say? “A poor single mother without a car, but who is earning a degree while working part time at an office might say...” is a little more specific. Remember, the perspectives you write from should have some connection to the poem or work (see example, above).
What is Selective Reading?
Has anyone ever said to you, "You pretty much hear whatever you want to hear, don't you?" Me, too! That is how selective reading works. You hear certain words in a conversation, or commercial, or lecture, and decide, based on some connections among those words, what the conversation is about.
For example, there is a long-running commercial about men's suits that always ends the same way: "I guarantee it." Unless you listen closely, you might get the idea that the suits are guaranteed. They aren't. Right before "I guarantee it" the handsome bearded guy says something that has nothing to do with guaranteeing suits, like "You'll leave happy. I guarantee it." or "We will do our best. I guarantee it." What you "perceive" is based on selected words.
In poems and prose, it is not that easy. Many words are ambiguous, which means they can mean more than one thing at the same time. Writers know this, and make some works ambiguous purposely. The point is this: If you think a work is saying something, you should be able to point out the words that make you think that.
- What words, phrases, lines, images, passages, and so on, stand out or are most noticeable to you in this work?
- How do these words, etc., reinforce what you think the author/narrator is trying to say?
- What is the general attitude that these words suggest on the part of the author/narrator?
- What do these words, etc., seem to be saying by themselves?
Some words [or phrases or passages or images] that seem to stand out in this selection include [insert particularly meaningful words or phrases, etc., from your selection]. Taken together, these words indicate that the author [or narrator] is trying to say [insert what the words seem be saying if you only look at those words]. They also show that the author’s [or narrator’s] attitude is [insert the attitude these words suggest to you]. Within the context of the whole selection, these words seem to be saying [insert what you think these words might mean within the selection].
Some words that seem to stand out in this selection include the “death” and “dying” words and the words that show Chief Joseph is full of worry (“No one knows where they are…maybe I shall find them among the dead”). Taken together, these words indicate that the author is trying to say something about the worth of struggle, especially the struggle of a whole people faced with insurmountable odds. They also show that the author’s attitude is hopeless, indeed utterly hopeless. Within the context of the whole selection, these words seem to be saying that some struggles, though they seem worthwhile, ultimately may not be worth the price.
How to answer the questions
Extended Practice in Selective Reading
Try the following exercise for practice with a group of other readers:
Read the poem "My Papa's Waltz" (below). When you are finished, write down what you think it is saying. Then list the key words in the poem that support what you think. (Do this individually so you can compare answers).
My Papa's Waltz
by Theodore Roethke
The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.
We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother's countenance
Could not unfrown itself.
The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.
You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.
As a group:
Compare what you wrote for the poem above. You should find some differences. Contact the instructor when you have finished this exercise and tell him what differences you found.
Now go back to your original work and apply what you learned about Selective Reading to it. You have finished the first section of your analysis essay!