PARAPROSDOKIAN, EXERCISE #5

Yesterday morning I was reading the Brevity blog, one of my favorite sites. Jeanne Bonner explains “The Obituary We All Need (To Write)” citing the one she wrote for her father. At 250 words it utterly failed to capture her father, the person he was, the parent, the complications of their relationship, her grief at his death. She felt she had to write more. She argues that many of us need to do this, to write the complete obituary with more thought, and that words pressing the bruise might be just what we need for our pain to begin healing. That a more complicated view might return the brightest moments we treasure.

A close-up of the backing and front of a quilt sewn entirely of vintage Indian cotton.

I am skipping my original Exercise #4 because it is only about how to express the same idea several ways in an academic essay (especially the thesis), which was what I was teaching. We’ll skip ahead to something more interesting.

THE EXERCISE
5. Paraprosdokian is a rhetorical term for an unexpected shift in meaning at the end of a sentence, stanza, series, or short passage. A paraprosdokian sentence is a tricksy and humorous verbal trick. It might begin with a compliment, often a cliché, and ends with an unexpected twist that forces the reader to reexamine or reinterpret the phrase preceding it. It is sharp evidence of intelligence and humor on the part of the writer. However, it can be the kind of a smart-aleck sentence you’d have to be careful of indulging in a serious essay. Here are a few famous and student examples:

• “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing—after they’ve tried everything else.”—Winston Churchill
• “I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it.”—Groucho Marx
• “She looked as if she’d been poured into her clothes, and forgot to say ‘when’.”—P.G. Wodehouse 
• "His wife and he were deeply in love; just not with each other."—William Leroux
• "I was given excellent advice about how to study, but I can’t recall what it was."—Kainlyn Cepeda
• “If I could say a few words, I’d be a better Speaker.”—Homer Simpson 

EXERCISE #5: Just to prove you can, write a paraprosdokian sentence. It’s better as nonfiction. Then explain.

Please note that I used the concept above in my admiration of Bonner’s essay. When we lose someone we love, we are expected to gradually recover from grief and sometimes indulging that grief fully, detailing that person’s quirks and all that we miss about them is the only way to let it go.

I will also suggest something I think is rather risky, a riff on the Paraprosdokian exercise: Write 750 words in praise of someone you know well. Show them in all their kindness and complexity. Make it a love letter, but don’t use that word; instead describe very specific small things you recall—their favorite meal, a funny saying, the way they chose their socks. Then write another 750 words about the same person, but select all the elements that made that person difficult or ungenerous, maybe even , frightening. Again, be specific by citing the specifics, staying as concrete as you can. You might try writing the sentences in the reverse order, going bad to good? I always believe in saving the best till last.

This is a risky process, I think, because revisiting someone we know well can be unsettling and painful. I have thought for years that I could tell two stories about some people I love, making them seem heroic or villainous depending on the events and habits I selected to reveal. I’ve been certain this dueling character revelation could be done—and is done often, but maybe not by the same people. Some people see only the good and others the bad. I am certain I could write such a pair of character studies about myself, detailing my failures as well as the better angels of my nature. But I won’t write about myself. And I am not certain I will share. We’ll see.

Some of these cottons had a red edge, which I used to make the + on the back, and another red I used for the two red frames on the front and the binding. I am not entirely happy with the center diamond, which was meant to be a much darker, bolder print. But I ordered these fabrics at the beginning of the pandemic and the fabric intended for that center turned out to have a navy blue cast that didn’t work for me at all. Visible beneath the quilt is the edge of a wool blanket I wove for our condo.

8 thoughts on “PARAPROSDOKIAN, EXERCISE #5

  1. Gorgeous quilts! I love the red around the black and white. I see what you mean about the blue in the diamond but at least in the picture I think that works well too.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I appreciate the exercise and may very well give it a whirl in the next few days.
    As far as obits go, I was asked to write something for my mother’s funeral and wrote a poem that was read aloud. The same was true for my oldest sister’s. They worked the way they were meant it to…as poems can crystallize feeling and telling details, but they still–of course–spoke to only a fraction of what might have been shared. I’d have sung them if I had thought I woul not break down entirely. I am tired of poems–even if not my own– at funerals–the last being for a granddaughter.
    The well designed quilt is attractive and I enjoyed hearing about it. Thanks for that!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I wrote obits for my step-grandmother, a woman who treasured family and had almost none, and for my mother. I used to write poems during events, “occasional poems” they are called. I understand your reluctance to do that again. So very hard.

      Liked by 1 person

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