Thursday, September 11, 2008

This is not a political post!

My paper recycling bin is overflowing these days. I have several mailing addresses, so I receive multiple copies of every bulk mailing – and these days that means political adverts! I’ve already made up my mind about most of the races, so the glossy postcards and fake newspapers and pretend greeting cards all wind up in the with yesterday’s scrap paper. But along with the glut of tv ads, these promotional pieces have reminded me of two things that are very important to us as writers, particularly writers for children.

The first of these is the power of pairing language and image. We know this, of course, but these political guys REALLY know it. And they work it deliberately and skillfully.

Take for example a John Sununu ad that’s currently playing about every other inning on the Red Sox broadcasts. It shows us John climbing mountains and playing with his family, and almost all of the narrative is just a series of adjectives and phrases. “Faster” “Stronger” “Funny” “A good dad.” The first three times I saw the ad I thought it was a joke – it seemed like one of those parodies you see on John Stewart or SNL. Eventually I figured out that it was a legitimate ad—but I still didn’t get it. I said to my husband “What is this? None of those characteristics have any relevance to whether or not he is or would be a good senator?” Tom, however, nailed it – “That ad is all about making Jeanne Shaheen look old.” Boy do I feel dumb. But I'm still not sure whether or not the ad works.

Lest anyone think I’m being partisan, there is a glossy flyer out with a really nice photo of Sununu and Bush arm-in-arm, waving to the crowds. The text is all about the troubles that face ordinary people today. You get well into the piece before you realize it’s NOT a Sununu “trust me, and send me back to continue working for your interests” piece but a Shaheen “look, it’s all their fault” piece. But seriously, if you didn't read it, you'd think it was pro-Sununu. Is that a risk the Shaheen people were willing to take, or did they not realize it?

The point is, the images make the words more powerful, and this is a critical piece of what we do in our writing. Whether the images are actual illustrations in a picture book or the word-pictures we conjure in our readers’ minds, they ramp up the impact of our language, reinforcing our message – if they’re done well. If they’re ill-chosen, they may equally powerfully undermine our message, or weaken our story. We need to be exquisitely aware of them, designing them carefully and placing them deliberately throughout our work. This is what makes the opening vignettes in our Women You Should Know series so valuable. It’s not just that they “hook” the reader, it’s that they place an image in the mind of the reader that encapsulates the story and personality of the woman profiled.

The other lesson of these campaign bits is a long-standing personal peeve, but bears restating. People believe what they read. Paired with images, those beliefs become powerful and set in the mind. As writers, particularly as writers for children, we bear an enormous responsibility to make sure that what we are teaching our readers is as accurate as we can possibly make it. In politics it has apparently become acceptable to make blatantly false statements without fear of reprisal or even embarrassment (I used to think it was illegal?). As writers we cannot allow ourselves the luxury of sloppy or inaccurate research and writing. Our readers will believe what we write. In most cases they will not double-check our facts. In a few cases they will tell others what we told them. Our quasi-facts will take on a life of their own. (Most people know that I harbor a particular antipathy for a well-known New Hampshire author whose fiction is supposedly based on fact, but whose “research” would put a 7th grader to shame.)

So that’s it from my soapbox today. Write powerfully and write accurately, but write on!


Andy said...

I enjoyed the post, Sally. You're so right about word association. When I first heard the Sununu ad touting his virtues -- younger, faster, quicker, inexhaustible, energetic, tireless -- I immediately thought, Sounds like one of my preschool students rather than my senator!



Excellent post! I worry about the "stretching of truth" and the manipulation of language. What kind of message are we sending our children? It's okay to lie if no one calls us on it? It's okay if our language is intentionally convoluted? It's okay to take other people's words completely out of context?

I truly despair that our kids will ever be able to hear an honest and straight answer to any political question.

Mur said...

Well done, Sally! You nailed yet another difference between writing for adults and kids.