A writing assignment—in tiny steps?

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This blog was originally posted on February 5th, 2015.

Flying across the country a few weeks ago, I read Diogo Mainardi’s The Fall: A Father’s Memoir in 424 Steps (you can hear an interview with the author here). It’s a slim book—166 pages—so I had time to read it twice through, which I did with pleasure and gratitude. While the story of Mainardi’s son Tito’s botched birth in a Venice hospital, which left him with cerebral palsy, is gripping from first to last, what fascinated me most about the book was its structure: it is divided into 424 brief passages, some as short as a four-word sentence (“Tito has cerebral palsy,” which opens the book), others as long as half a page.

Why 424 steps? As Mainardi reveals, “four hundred and twenty-four steps” is “the farthest that Tito has ever walked” without falling. In these 424 brief passages, Mainardi introduces readers to his family and most of all to Tito in a way so full of love that I was quickly drawn in and wanted to linger there with them long after my plane had touched down. I wanted to hear about more and more steps, get to know Tito even better (the photos of Tito that accompany the text are breathtakingly beautiful).

But The Fall is more than a father’s memoir and a love song to his first son; it is also a tightly woven meditation on the web of associations that circle Tito, from the Scuola Grande di San Marco’s façade, designed by Pietro Lombardo in 1489 which now stands at the entrance to Venice Hospital—scene of many mistakes, including the one made during Tito’s birth—to Ezra Pound’s praise of Lombardo and the “stupid aestheticism” that Mainardi had shared with Pound before Tito’s birth. The web gets more dense and full of cross-references as the steps proceed.

This 424-step-long meditation on disability and on love got me thinking about Winston Weathers, whose book An Alternate Style (1980) introduced us to the Grammar A of school discourse and the Grammar B of, well, everything else. One of the alternates Weathers showed readers was a simple list; another was a series of what he called “crots”: bits or fragments of text. But it also reminded me of David Shields’s much more recent Reality Hunger, a manifesto made up of brief snippets of text, many of them copied verbatim from other people’s work without acknowledgment.

This musing led me to consider whether the time is ripe for this particular kind of fragmented or fragmentary writing (my experience with social media writing makes me say “yes!”), and also made me want to experiment with this form, and to engage students in experimenting with it. So now I am imagining a writing assignment that would begin: “Create a series of very brief passages, all related to one topic and arranged so that they reach a climax or make a very telling point by the end.” I’d start out with low stakes—just a few pages and meant for in-class sharing rather than a formal grade. But now I’m thinking that many others may be way ahead of me and have perfected such an assignment. If you have, please share now! In the meantime, check out Mainardi’s book and get to know the amazing Tito.

[Image: The Fall: A Father’s Memoir in 424 Steps by Diogo Mainardi. From Other Press.]

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.