Observation Journal: Fairy bread and bodysnatching

On this page of the observation journal, I was testing out a version of an activity I call “bodysnatching. It’s related to a sentence analysis exercise in Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One (first recommended to me by Katharine Coldiron)— it’s just in this case you have to write your own sentence first. As such, it’s also connected to an art approach I heard from Todd Lockwood at Illuxcon in 2012 (more on that later).

(It has echoes of MadLibs, of course, but in this case you know what the original was, and trade in all the elements, so it’s more a ship of Theseus situation.)

Double page of observation journal, densely handwritten. On the left, 5 things seen, heard, and done that day. On the right, a "bodysnatching" exercise.

I’ll also get into the Stanley Fish approach in more detail at another point. But basically, you take a sentence you like and start swapping words out until you find out why it works (leading, in one of the grammar classes I tutored, to the memorable sentence, “It was the best of dogs, it was the worst of dogs…”).

The bodysnatching exercise involves describing a thing you admire (business idea, movie) in one sentence, and then swapping out the elements.

Handwritten page of observation journal with "bodysnatching" exercise based on Emma.

In this case, I was still thinking of Emma (see Observation Journal: The Emma heist and concert strategies), so I summarised it as:


Whether or not it’s a “correct” summary is beside the point, and it could be different every time — it’s the features that particularly appealed to me at that moment.

The first attempt resulted in an ungovernable traffic-disrupting robot avoiding work, and what that brought out was the sense of glee in the original.

The second involved a pianist in a hotel providing a soundtrack to guests’ hijinks, which highlighted something about the aloofness/status-negotiation of the original.

Very small pen drawing of a pianist in a hotel lobby.

The third involved a habitual liar embroidering the pasts of other members of a commune, which emphasised the element of not being able to avoid being part of a community.

The exercise revealed a few things:

  • The various points about how and why those aspects of Emma worked for me.
  • That the adjectives and adverbs were actually a very important element, and quite difficult to come up with on the fly. Fortunately I keep a half-hearted list of favourite genre-specific modifiers (jaunty, dashing), which came in handy.
Very small pen drawing of fairy bread for sale at a sausage sizzle.
Fairy bread for sale at a sausage sizzle on campus

Art/writing/other exercise:

  1. Pick a thing in your field you admire.
  2. Summarise it in a sentence. Keep it fairly simple, but try to catch some of the elements that appeal to you.
  3. Go through and swap out the elements of the sentence one by one. You can be thematic or sensible or silly.
  4. Make a note of what it reveals to you about how and why the original works.
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 several times, and see what they reveal.
  6. At the end you might have some new ideas, but you should also have a deeper understanding of the original, and why it works — and why it works for you.

3 thoughts on “Observation Journal: Fairy bread and bodysnatching

  1. Pingback: September post round-up | Kathleen Jennings

  2. Pingback: Observation Journal — staring at sentences | Kathleen Jennings

  3. Pingback: Observation Journal — First Sentences | Kathleen Jennings

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