Teaching the art of writing a description that defamiliarizes the familiar

When I taught theatre at the University of Sheffield, I taught students about the Bertholt Brecht's "Alienation" effect. "Alienation" is an unhelpful word for it, because it's got nothing to do with either Freud, or Marx's "alienation of labor". There was a better word that we used, but I've forgotten it. In any case, the basic concept is that it causes you to look at something with fresh eyes, casting aside your assumptions about it. 

"A Typical Day" by Zack Bornstein does this really well (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/02/26/a-typical-day). 

I'd love to use this as a model text for students. Here's how I think I'd do it: 

  1. Divide up the text and give a section to a group of 3-4 students with no explanation. Let them puzzle out what it's describing.
  2. Bring the full class back together to popcorn out ideas about what the text is describing
  3. Go back to small groups to "translate" their section into more familiar language
  4. [At this point, I think it would be good to call it a day]
  5. The next day, start with groups reading out the full translation - possibly reading Bornstein's passage followed by the translation
  6. Students start writing their own descriptions of their own lives

Stuff students can learn from this:

  1. Decoding text, close reading
    1. In order for this to work, there needs to be some kind of accountability for the quality of the translations. Possibly we could have the group verify that the translation is correct and adequate, but this will take a long time, so we might want to split up the performance of the original text and the translation.
      1. Another possibility would be to have one person act out the scene, while another person narrates what's happening, and their inner monologue
        1. Example: you could act out 8-8:05 by having a phone alarm go off, with the actor lying down, who jerks up and looks around. Meanwhile the other performer narrates their inner monologue: "wow, that was a crazy dream. What's that sound? Oh yeah, my alarm clock. I've gotta get up." Then the actor hits the phone, tells it to shut up, general stage business until the phone goes off. 
  2. Specific descriptive writing (albeit in an eccentric form)
  3. Looking at their own life and recognizing its absurdities - a key to both amusing writing, and self-knowledge ("the unexamined life is not worth living, and all that)
  4. If students are able to go deeper, they can also notice how the apparently dispassionate description contains a lot of pathos, as well as social commentary (the products made by children, the misery of an office job).
    1. I'm not great at teaching this, so I'm not quite sure how it would come out. Maybe by drawing attention to those moments and saying "why does the author include this?"
      1. Students could write about their own lives in ways that makes a social commentary purely through observation and defamiliarization (Brecht would be proud).