A Single Word


courtesy freedigitalphotos.net, “Live and Dead Trees” by njaj.

Sometimes an entire idea pivots on a single word. A part of me has always known this theoretically, but I got an object lesson in it yesterday, when speaking to a class of third graders in New York. We were talking about what makes a story, and had gotten started with the idea that you need a character that has some kind of problem. I once heard this called, brilliantly, “something to worry us” by my good friend and wonderful teacher Judith Hillman Paterson. Trying to illustrate for them the difference between the beginning of a story and a simple statement of fact, I offered them two sentences:

The tree stood in the woods.

The tree stood, alone, in the woods.

Alone. Wow did that word get a response. Suddenly, they saw the tree as a character, something they could relate to, and feel for. Alone is something to worry us. For them, that single word – alone – turned the second sentence into the beginning of a story. I wasn’t exactly expecting that. The words just came out. But it’s certainly given me food for thought. 

5 thoughts on “A Single Word

  1. I don’t know what it was but this post was so powerful. I think it was connected to how people have a base need to feel connected and “alone-ness” is so scary and dangerous (but only for humans, not trees). The response is so strong that when we are reminded of our “alone-ness” we reach for any kind of connection, even to objects. I would love if you could do a post on the profundity and importance of social relationships and connections in evoking this kind of extreme empathetic response and how it might be used to train a weakly empathic individual to greater empathy.

    • I’d love to do that. I think one answer is stories, because stories make connections, and show us how other people feel, what it’s like to be them. It’s not a physical social interaction, but it is a kind of interaction, because stories let you make connections with others. That actually came up in the class discussion yesterday. I asked the kids why human beings tell stories. The answer that evolved was that we tell stories to let other people feel things and know things. I’d like to explore that more. Maybe next week . . .

  2. Love the example and totally have to remember to use it, if that’s okay :). Makes a great point so effortlessly. I love that it has a touch of humor in it too, if inadvertently, because it’s suddenly double philosophical to have a tree in a forest alone. Challenges you to think what it means to be alone . . .

    • You can definitely use it! 🙂 One of the things I love about blogging is that we get to share ideas. I thought about that question too (how can a tree be alone in the woods) especially when I chose a picture for this entry. And maybe that’s what the kids responded to, you never know. But the word alone is potent in almost any context, I think.

      On that note, I loved your post on reading to kids in Vienna. The Frog and Toad stories are real favorites of mine, and their friendship is the other side of the alone coin. In one of the great moments in children’s literature, Arnold Lobel deals with the psychology of dreams, egotism, and how terrible it is to be alone when Toad dreams he’s on stage and Frog just gets smaller and smaller until he’s gone.

      • When I was a boy, I loved the dream story, it was really spooky. I always (almost always) close my readings here with a relatively quiet reading of the Spring story, which is also totally about being alone and being with friends. What will I do without you the whole Spring? Frog asks Toad. Not only is it such an awesome story, I just love telling the story and being both Frog who wants to go hüpfen through the fields and Toad, who just wants to sleep a little longer :). And yes, the story absolutely translates very well to the Austrian culture, which not all stories do.

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