Making It Personal

Defining Concepts

For this exercise, you’ll be writing a paragraph about a term used by environmentalists. Some of these terms are so common that we don’t stop to think what they really mean. Your challenge is to explain the concept in a way that is personal, clear, intriguing, and insightful. Don’t just rely on boring definitions, abstract language, or scientific explanations. Make the subject your own and write something creative and coherent.

Sample Paragraph

The following writing sample explains what is meant by a carbon footprint. The writer hooks us with references to myths and monsters, and explains the concept using clear language and vivid imagery.

For some reason, the term carbon footprint reminds me of Bigfoot or the Yeti, fabled monsters known for the size of their tracks. I imagine future visitors to earth will marvel at the mysterious carbon footprints that tell the story of our extinction. Except that a carbon footprint is not easy to visualize. It is simply an estimation of the amount of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide and methane) we emit in our daily lives. The fact that a carbon footprint is merely an approximation delights climate change skeptics, yet this is a mythology I can believe in. It is not difficult to see that my activities have an effect on the planet. As long as I depend on sustainable resources, my carbon emissions will remain close to zero, but when I use electronic devices, travel by car, or consume imported foods, my carbon footprint gets bigger. In this sense, anything that produces carbons has a footprint, whether is a person, a product, or a people. This makes it easy to blame others, as I did not captain the ship that transported the bananas from Ecuador or the suit made in China. Our footprints, like our shadows, overlap, but that is no excuse for inaction. I personally need to reduce my electricity bill, insulate my home properly, avoid air condition, limit air travel, and so much more. It’s impossible to avoid some impact on the environment, but I don’t want to leave a carbon footprint of monstrous proportions. Or, if I must be a monster, let me be a monopod, that mythological being described by medieval travelers, a creature typically found lounging on his back, using his single large foot as a sort of umbrella to ward off the heat of the sun.

Pick Your Topic

Please choose one of the following concepts. Then do a bit of research and write your paragraph.

  • Biodiversity
  • Biofuels
  • Carbon offsets
  • Compost
  • Consumer goods
  • Ecology
  • Ecotourism
  • Fuel poverty
  • Greenhouse effect
  • Microplastics
  • Shared Commuting (carpool, ride share, carshare)
  • Sustainability
  • Traffic calming
  • Walkability
  • World Bicycle Day
  • Zero waste

Pataphors

Introduction

A pataphor is an absurd version of a metaphor. To create a pataphor, take a metaphor and treat it as a literal reality. Then elaborate.

Here is an example:

Metaphor: Whenever Professor McDonald had to lecture at 8:00 in the morning, he was a bear.

Pataphor: Whenever Professor McDonald had to lecture at 8:00 in the morning, he was a bear. Coming out of hibernation, he would stretch and yawn, and roll around in a playful way. Then, noticing the rumbling in his stomach, he inevitably turned to look at his pupils, frightened in their desks, and devour one or two of the slower ones for breakfast.

In other words, a pataphor functions at two removes from the real world. Just as pataphysics (or ’pataphysics if one insists on the apostrophe) is the surrealist version of metaphysics, so the pataphor allows one to explore alternate universes, do thought experiments, and simply be creative.

Exercise

For this writing exercise, challenge yourself by writing short snippets based on an interesting pataphor. Here are a couple more examples to get you started:

“You are the apple of my eye,” whispered Jordan.
“I wish you hadn’t said that,” said Lucy, peering out through Jordan’s eyelashes. “My new living quarters are somewhat spartan.”
“Don’t worry,” said Jordan. “The harvest is not far away. You look delicious, my dear.”
Lucy blushed. “You’re making me all mushy inside.”
“Please don’t. I wouldn’t want to toss you straight into the compost bin.”

Our news coverage begins with the election, and it is increasingly apparent that the Liberal Party has no grassroots movement. They’ve tried stronger doses of fertilizer, but that has only left some of their supporters in the hospital with first-degree burns. By contrast, so many farmers support the Conservatives that journalists have complained about the smell of manure at their town halls.

And that’s how you write a pataphor. Have fun!

The Devil’s Dictionary

Introduction

In 1911, the American writer and satirist Ambrose Bierce published The Devil’s Dictionary, a collection of amusing and witty definitions. Here is a small selection:

ADMIRATION, n.  Our polite recognition of another’s resemblance to ourselves.

CHILDHOOD, n. The period of human life intermediate between the idiocy of infancy and the folly of youth—two removes from the sin of manhood and three from the remorse of age.

GRAMMAR, n. A system of pitfalls thoughtfully prepared for the feet for the self-made man, along the path by which he advances to distinction.

HAND, n. A singular instrument worn at the end of the human arm and commonly thrust into somebody’s pocket.

HOMICIDE, n. The slaying of one human being by another. There are four kinds of homocide: felonious, excusable, justifiable, and praiseworthy, but it makes no great difference to the person slain whether he fell by one kind or another—the classification is for advantage of the lawyers.

IMMIGRANT, n. An unenlightened person who thinks one country better than another.

PATIENCE, n. A minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue.

TWICE, adv. Once too often.

Perhaps Bierce was destined to write this work. He was the tenth of thirteen children and all their names all began with an A (Abigail, Amelia, Ann, Addison, Aurelius, etc.). Let’s hope his parents were not planning to get to the rest of the alphabet.

Exercise

Writing is a continual process of defining one’s meaning. We distinguish between denotation and connotation, we drill down for an etymology, we single out a nuance or application. It is a real skill to capture the essence of a word in a startling manner. Sometimes a witty definition is more revealing than an exact one.

Here, for instance, is how G. K. Chesterton defines a Puritan, in his book on George Bernard Shaw: “A Puritan meant originally a man whose mind had no holidays.” Chesterton could have simply written that a Puritan must always remain vigilant or serious, but the effect would not have been the same.

Bierce’s definitions, sampled above, also function as a form of social satire. The definition of grammar reveals how an artificial body of rules about language hurts the aspirations of people without formal education. His definition of immigrant makes us think about the motivation for moving to another country.

Be careful though: some definitions have lost their originality and now sound hackneyed. Nobody wants to hear that a dog is man’s best friend, or that laughter is the best medicine.

In this exercise, you’re asked to provide interesting and clever definitions of the following words (your instructor might provide additional ones):

  • Coffee
  • Irony
  • Hypocrisy
  • Osmosis
  • Gluttony
  • Culture
  • Gap year
  • iPhone
  • Anarchist
  • Infatuation

As you work on these, first consult the traditional dictionary definitions. Then, see if you can’t come up with something more clever. Have fun!