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Signs as Inspiration

posted: 10.17.11 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

The composing process involves gaining access to and wrestling with our most critical thoughts, then finding language to translate those thoughts into the action of writing. At times our thoughts, so clear and sharp as we devise them in our heads, may arrive on screen or page in muddled or muddied form. Our thoughts could be too personal or too remote, too vague or too explicit to state plainly to others. We may not have communicated our meaning according to the needs of our audience and our purpose. We need clarity. We need signs.

I especially love the signs in New York City. The signs not only mark geographic points or display rules or warnings, they also provide demographic and cultural details. Like all signs ought to, these signs help me to think beneath the printed surface to find more significant meanings. Signs give me an opportunity to ask questions that I might not contemplate otherwise.

For example, consider this sign at a busy intersection in Queens, New York:

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Who is the audience for this sign? What is its purpose? What story does the sign tell? Do you consider the sign convincing? Why or why not?

These signs were found in Brooklyn on at a public beach and in Queens on Election Day on a fence outside a public school.

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Although the signs have different messages, what connections do you see between them? How do you account for the connections? What seems compelling about the connections?

These signs were made at the Occupy Wall Street protest in Manhattan. An artist asked each sign maker to write the same quote by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., then took a photograph of each sign maker with his or her sign.

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What differences do you see between the signs? How do you account for the differences? Why do you think the artist chose this particular quote by King?  What was the purpose of asking each sign maker to write the same quote? Why do you think so?

Emily Dickinson wrote the poem on this sign, which is one of many sidewalk plaques with quotes by well-known writers. This public artwork is called the Library Walk, a trail of plaques embedded in the -4cement sidewalk that leads from Grand Central Terminal to the New York Public Library’s Stephen Schwartzman Building. The plaques are located in Manhattan on 41st Street, a crowded thoroughfare between Park Avenue and Fifth Avenue.

What do you think this poem means? Why do you think this poem was chosen for the Library Walk? How can you tell that this sign is embedded in the cement of the sidewalk and not hung on a wall? What is the purpose of public art? What do you think is the significance of placing this piece of public art on a busy sidewalk?

A sign must convey meaning in a limited amount of space. Composing a sign may be as simple—or as difficult—as writing a thesis. Yet good signs are pointed and direct.  Good signs say in a few words or sentences what often cannot be explained in one thousand pages. So when you or the writers you work with feel blocked, consider signs as inspiration. Take photos of signs that capture your attention. Try writing your own signs. Most importantly, as you write keep your audience and purpose clearly in mind. That can make all the difference in what you write—and why you write it.

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Categories: Assignment Idea, Developmental
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