Think like a stick

A good day involves water. That’s an axiom for Tollers. So retrieving sticks or balls from a river is about as good as life gets on a summer’s day. Human talks about the warmth of the sun, and the chuckling of the current, and the polished beauty of stones, but Trouble knows what’s important. Where’s the stick?

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A really really good day brings children to the riverbank. They are less likely to stand still and blather about chuckling warmth and polished currents. They tend to bounce up and down and shriek, and the smaller ones aren’t very good at throwing sticks, but they’re generous with belly rubs and don’t seem to mind getting wet.

Last summer some of the Human’s young cousins were visiting, and were almost as keen as Trouble to go down to the riverbank. Their dad’s a school teacher, even when he’s on vacation. So he kept pointing out the plants (Indian Paintbrush; invasive purple loosestrife; joe pye weed) and giving them tips on how to throw a stick farther and more accurately. Then he got all excited pointing out how, when you throw a stick into the river, Trouble doesn’t really swim after it, but heads across the current to intercept it. Words like “angle” and “geometry” went flying overhead, but Trouble paid them as much attention as she paid the midges in the air.

Where’s the stick? And where is it going to be?

Wayne Gretzky is famously said to be able to skate to where the puck is going to be. Neither his ability nor Trouble’s is any magic quality, nor is it really the ability to think like a puck or a stick. It’s an ability to assess the situation and figure out what’s required to meet the significant other where it’s at.Trouble stick crop 2

And of course, that’s a challenge for writers, too. It’s what we call thinking rhetorically: assessing the whole rhetorical situation, but specifically, who my readers are. What do they need to know about my subject to understand what I’m trying to say? How much do they already know, and can I safely assume that they will draw on that knowledge, or do I have to prompt them? Where are they coming from? And where would they be going if I didn’t intercept them? Are they keen to hear what I have to say – have they even sought me out to hear my views? – or do I have to fix them with my glittering eye, or nab their attention somehow? How much evidence will they need to believe me?

Because, as Trouble would say, swimming upstream is wasted effort. You want a stick? You go where the stick is going to be.

Not that it’s always easy … especially for students doing academic writing, or for bloggers with multiple self-selected readers… but to start thinking about writing as a matter of connecting with a reader, well, that’s the beginning of writerly maturity.


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