Friday, January 2, 2009


Context is so important. You can't forget it. In Out of the Dust, the family sits down to eat. They shake out their napkins, spread them on their laps, and then --- because Billy Joe has followed her Ma's rules for setting the table by placing the plates upside down with the glasses bottom-side-up and the napkins folded over the forks, knives, and the spoons --- they can make jokes about their conditions, their environment, their context. Billy Joe's father says the potatoes are peppered plenty, Polly, and goes on to say that they are having chocolate milk for dinner, aren't they rich. Of course the peppered potatoes and the chocolate-colored milk arise from the dust from the dust bowl they live in.

You can never forget social context.

Well, I guess you can, but you shouldn't. That isn't to say that people within a context cannot or do not draw false assumptions about its meaning. They do, and often. Even the media does.

Having a clear sense of context allows the writer to challenge unexamined assumptions from time to time. It allows the writer to question values and challenge readers to think about society from varying vantage points.

So whether you're talking about teenage pregnancy, the reform of social welfare, AIDS, gay marriage, immigration, or a multitude of other social issues, you cannot forget about the setting and context. How you address an issue varies according to the context and setting it is in. A friend who writes about teenage pregnancy amidst the privileged in Manhattan in contemporary times certainly faces a different set of circumstances than a friend who writes about a trio of troubled teens in a large city in the late 1800s along the eastern coast of the United States of America.

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