4/19 – Motif, Riff, and Juxtaposition

Daily warm up: Make a case for your favorite fruit. Do not turn this into an academic/persuasive essay. Focus on stories or experiences with the fruit as your “case.”

Today’s focus: We’re going to look at the lyric essay together. It gets its title from the fact that writers often use some of the techniques of poetry in this type of essay:

  • Attention to how things sound
  • Section breaks, line breaks
  • Free association (how things connect is sort of intutitve)
  • Connections to emotion

But lyric essays also use three tools we are less familiar with: motif, riff, and juxtaposition. We’re going to focus in on learning these tools today.

  • motif – a recurring image, object, or idea that often points to a symbol or a theme.

FOR EXAMPLE: In “The Scarlet Ibis,” a short story most of you read as 9th graders, the scarlet ibis is a bird, and an important symbol in the story.

But if there were several different birds (robins, blue jays, geese), and even lots of words that had to do with birds in the story (bird, hover, fly, soar, peck), then it would be a MOTIF.

  • riff – a short combination of notes that you might come back to again and again in a piece of music, using it as a starting point and then doing something different afterward

FOR EXAMPLE: In STAR WARS, there is a “riff” that’s played every time Darth Vader comes on screen (or is coming on screen). You know it?

There is also a famous riff for JAWS when the shark is lurking nearby.

You never know what’s going to happen next, exactly–but it’s a great clue that someone familiar is going to be there soon. Riffs in creative non-fiction work the same way–a phrase or type of phrase or point we keep returning to that gives readers clues about what to expect

  • juxtaposition – putting something where it doesn’t seem to belong, typically next to something that shows us something new

FOR EXAMPLE: I recently read a YA book called WINGER. In that book, there is a high school student who is gay, out,  and also an active, successful player on the rugby team. It’s pretty unusual to have a gay student play a hyper-masculine sport like rugby in a YA novel.

That’s a juxtaposition that got me thinking about why there aren’t MORE books like that…and that maybe there should be.

Next, we’ll look at a sample lyric essay called Fat Studies from Phoebe, a respected literary journal.We’ll read the first few sections together and talk about the motifs, riffs, and juxtapositions we see. For example:

  • motif – the experts she refers to
  • riff – the Kennedy family
  • juxtaposition – the structure of the essay juxtaposes a lot of different scenes, memories and experiences (one in each section) with each other, showing lots of facets of the writer’s life. This juxtaposes with the title “Fat Studies” to suggest that many people often see fat as the only or the defining characteristic of a person.

Our experiment: I’m going to ask you to write a “________ Studies” lyric essay of your own. Fill in the blank with something meaningful for you. I might write “Mom Studies” or “Marriage Studies” for myself.

Your requirements

  1. Write FOUR (4) sections of a lyric essay (sections are separated by a * in the “Fat Studies” essay). Most sections should be at least 4-5 sentences. But one (and only one) of your sections could be a single sentence, if you like.
  2. Use the tools we’ve discussed today: motif, riff, and juxtaposition.

This is not an assignment you’re likely to finish in one day. As a result, it will not be due until Monday, 4/24.


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