Mermaids, Goats, and Moses Malone

Ari Zeiger | February 23, 2016

To start class today (à la Nancie Atwell), I brought in this lyrical vignette by Mary Oliver where she writes oh-so tenderly about her dog Ben. The last few lines of her sketch are as follows:

“Ben. Joyful Ben. Because of his joyfulness, my own is increased. It is no small gift. So, perhaps it’s why we should honor and love our own dog and also the dog down the street, and all the dogs not yet born. What would the world be like without music or rivers or green, tender grass?

What would this world be like without dogs?”

Using Oliver’s work as inspiration, I asked my students to freewrite using this sentence to get them going:

“What would this world be like without ___________?”

Here’s what one student wrote (and read aloud for us):

“What would this world be like without restaurants? The first restaurant was an inn. People needed to eat, but the butcher’s guild had a problem with the inn keepers selling hunks of meat, and moving in on their territory. Those clever innkeepers found a loophole to the ancient laws: they cooked the meat. They made giant pots of stew and sold it by the bowl to their hungry customers. So many people started going to inns to eat that new businesses opened up solely for the purpose of selling prepared food. I think people who could afford to eat this way loved it because it saved them the time it would take to make a proper stew themselves.”

I love the structure of the above freewrite. It’s almost a formula for composing on any topic that a writer knows well. Take a look at those first two lines, because that’s where the magic happens. The first sentence asks a (somewhat) rhetorical question that establishes both the mood and topic. The next sentence arrives as a kind of origin story for said topic.

With that pattern in mind, I tried sketching a few openers of my own. With any luck, I could bring these starts into the classroom as a “try it” for my students.

What would this world be like without Kobe Bryant? The first basketball player to leap straight from high school to the pros was Moses Malone.

What would this world be like without coffee? The first coffee drinkers were goats — Ethiopian goats.

What would this world be like without love? The ancient Egyptians were the first culture that associated love with the heart.

You get the idea.

Coda: Yesterday, I posted the “restaurant” paragraph on Facebook; a former student saw the post and commented: “I‘ll do one on ships!!” A few hours later, this showed up:

“What would this world be without ships? We would still have places to go, but how would we get to them? By planes, trains, and automobiles? Well, I guess, if that’s your thing. But, where would young lieutenants go to become old and crusty, and where would deckhands have to daydream about cash, girls, and pints if they have no place to labor, cuss, and fight? What about mermaids? Wouldn’t these beautiful creatures of the deep miss peeking up through the sea to steal a glimpse of a young sailor? Would their sorrow be so great that their hearts would break and they would all together cease to exist? Who would pretty young girls and sweet old ladies have to miss if their men folk were always home, and what stories would fathers have to pass down to their sons in this world without ships?

What would the world be without ships? It would be a world without mermaids, deckhands, and crusty old captains. It would be a world filled with women with no one to miss and a world filled with fathers with no stories to tell their sons. This is what the world would be without ships.” — Jon Yeomans