Close Reading & Writing Exercises
by Jordan Hartt
Terry Tempest Williams’s short essay “An Unspoken Hunger” creates, in only seventy-seven words, two characters, two wants, two obstacles (thus creating a central conflict), gorgeous descriptions of the act of eating an avocado, and a tactile setting.
Again, all this in seventy-seven words.
Craft Lecture: “Reading As a Writer”
Note: there are many, many writing exercises suggested in this close reading of “An Unspoken Hunger,” designed to put into practice the story’s craft techniques. There are too many to do all–pick and choose the ones that appeal to you as practice exercises!
It is an unspoken hunger we deflect with knives—one avocado between us, cut neatly in half, twisted then separated from the large wooden pit. With the green fleshy boats in hand we slice vertical strips from one end to the other. Vegetable planks. We smother the avocado with salsa, hot chiles at noon in the desert. We look at one another and smile, eating avocados with sharp silver blades, risking the blood of our tongues repeatedly.
It is an unspoken hunger
In any short-short piece (anything under one-thousand words), the first and the last line take on added weight/importance–as does the title. In this instance, we see that the first line and the title not only express the same concept, but are written in exactly the same way: an unspoken hunger. This cues us in to its importance: and since these are abstract words, cues us in that we are to read it thematically: this essay will concern an unspoken hunger. It raises the question: why would an actual, stomach hunger be unspoken? We’re cued in to read for some other kind of hunger.
Writing exercise: write a short piece of one-hundred words or fewer in which the title and the first line are the same.
we deflect with knives—
We know that the abstract “hunger” is unspoken; and now we see it’s deflected “with knives.” So we’re reading on both a literal and abstract level. There is an actual hunger, we see: but we’re also expecting something else. Nine words into this story, we’re already reading on two levels: the abstract level where something is remaining unspoken, and the physical level which involves knives of some sort. (We don’t know yet what.)
Writing exercise: find a title that can work on both an abstract and a physical (using the body) level. “A Taste for More,” or something along those lines. “An Unrelenting Ache.” “The Joy of Pain.” Use this title to write a one-hundred-word story that is both about something physical, but also something mental/emotional/spiritual/social.
one avocado between us,
So know we know what the knives are for! Notice the language: the avocado is not “with us,” or “near us,” or “next to us.” It’s “between us.” It’s separating them.
Writing exercise: put a physical object between two people. Follow the scene.
cut neatly in half, twisted then separated from the large wooden pit.
The physical sensation of the avocado is on full display, here. Sometimes, as writers, we simply mention the object (boat, cloud, hammer, shoe, apple, tire, paint can) and sometimes that’s the right move. But sometimes it’s good to linger on the object itself, in order to bring it more fully to life on the page.
Writing exercise: find a past story, poem, or essay you’ve written, and find an object within that text. See if you can draw it out a little more/go more fully into it. What makes it unique?
With the green fleshy boats in hand we slice vertical strips from one end to the other. Vegetable planks.
I’ve taught this essay over one hundred times in various settings. People tend to love this first sentence, above, but think that “Vegetable planks” is unnecessary. What do you think?
We smother the avocado with salsa, hot chiles at noon in the desert.
Note the number of words here that deal with heat: salsa, hot, chiles, noon, and desert. In addition to creating the setting (which we’re getting now only for the first time), these words reflect what the characters are trying to deflect.
Writing exercise: write a sentence that emphasizes either heat or coldness. Perhaps it relates to the characters involved, perhaps it doesn’t!
We look at one another and smile,
Placing these two (un-named, un-gendered, un-aged, un-raced, un-socio-economically known) characters into a physical interaction heightens the intensity of their connection. We don’t know anything about these people except that they are eating an avocado, in the desert, and there is something intense and “unspoken” happening between them.
Writing exercise: read Toni Morrison’s short story “Recitatif,” available online. In that story, she suppresses direct relation of the character’s racial characteristics. We know that one is black and one is white, but it’s never directly said which is which. Here, Williams supresses even more. We know nothing about these characters’ backgrounds. The exercise: write a story (say, one-hundred words) where you do the same thing!
eating avocados with sharp silver blades, risking the blood of our tongues repeatedly.
Note the language, here: sharp, blades, risking, blood, and tongues. There is a sense of danger and also desire being created here, and because of the title of the essay and the first line, we’re given to understand we’re not just reading about the avocado!
Writing exercise: write a short piece of up to three-hundred words in which two characters prepare and eat something. Evoke a larger mood around that seemingly simple action: joy, sadness, frustration, anger, loss, whimsy, betrayal…apple, pine nuts, yam, pizza, steak, pasta, wine…
Additional Writing Exercises
- Rewrite “An Unspoken Hunger” in only 55 words! What is kept? What is omitted? (This exercise is all about getting to the true heart of the story and is useful to apply to your own work, as well. What is essential?)
- As titles are not copyrightable, write a short work of 55 words that also uses “An Unspoken Hunger” as a title, but uses the phrase in a different way than this story. What is the particular resonance of the phrase for your specific story?
- Write a short work of 101 words in which one person doesn’t speak to another person, but does some kind of action with them. Food preparation, or some other task.
- Write a short work of 300 words in which a person doesn’t speak to another person: but they are intimately connected, somehow.
- Write a short work of 500 words in which one character is deeply attracted to another character, but cannot tell them. Don’t tell us the reason they can’t tell them.
- Write a short work of 750 words in which a character is in a desert of some kind. Go into lavish detail on the desert, and no detail on the character!
- Write a short work of 1,000 words in which a character is in a desert of some kind. Go into lavish detail on the character, and none on the desert!
- Write a short work of 2,500 words in which two characters are eating something, but they each despise the other.
- Write a short work of 5,000 words in which two characters eat something using knives, but one of them cuts their tongue, literally. Where does the piece go from there?
- Write a short work of 7,500 words in which two people have had something unspoken between them for a long time, and are finally meeting to talk about it.