During my years spent as a student of Creative Writing at the University of Arizona, it often seemed to me that there was a terrible rift between the students in its various disciplines. The fiction writers glanced askance at the poet’s upturned noses while the creative non-fiction folks made snarky remarks from a perch they viewed as certain, grounded in reality, and far more valuable to the literary world than anything anyone else had to offer.
As a self-proclaimed jack of all trades and master of none in the ways of writing, I found this to be a terrible disconnect among really smart people who had similar ideas and common goals. I had a modest background in journalism, having worked as an Editorial Editor for my high school newspaper, and then as the Managing Editor for the Pima College Aztec Press. I liked writing songs in my spare time. I’d written lots of poetry. I loved writing short stories, narrative non-fiction, and satire. I didn’t see why there had to be competition or any kind of silly rivalry between those whose ultimate shared experience was love of the written word and a commitment to its craft.
So I spent my time at the UA the way I wanted to, and made my way through beginning, intermediate, and advanced workshops in all three disciplines, and found my own version of self-important artistic ego in trying to be as good as I possibly could be at all of it. Maybe I would have better served my experience by picking more of a focus, but one of the most interesting things to come of this was that I was able to see some common threads that hold all the disciplines together. For me, this was being able to differentiate abstract language from the concrete specific, and use this knowledge as a tool to communicate artistic ideas, ideals, and aesthetics. I realized it was necessary for every successful communicative effort to be rooted in the specific and grounded by sensual experience.
This observation is certainly not unique, and a quote from William Strunk, Jr. gives it further authority: “If those who have studied the art of writing are in accord on any one point, it is on this: the surest way to arouse and hold the attention of the reader is by being specific, definite and concrete. The greatest writers … are effective largely because they deal in particulars and report the details that matter.”
Regardless of one’s chosen way of communicating—rigid form poetry, free verse, or prose writing—using nouns that are specific and vivid verbs can help to give shape to the most abstract idea. Indeed, the use of adjectives and adverbs as crutches can often be avoided by finding the right strong, vivid noun or verb. What this means for writers is that if they want to write the great American novel (or poem, song, or personal essay) about love, or jealousy, or hubris then these vague thematic elements must find shape in concrete, specific language. You can confirm this by taking any well-crafted piece of writing and keeping an inventory of the concrete nouns that are used to create it. If you do the same for the abstractions, and set the lists side by side, it is most likely that the concrete words will outnumber those that fall into the abstract category.
Let’s look at this idea on three different levels using examples from fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. An idea that might be said to be inspired by the example below from Sandra Cisneros “Linoleum Roses,” is perhaps imprisonment:
“She sits at home because she is afraid to go outside without his permission. She looks at all the things they own: the towels and the toaster, the alarm clock and the drapes. She likes looking at the walls, at how neatly their corners meet, the linoleum roses on the floor, the ceiling as smooth as wedding cake.”
These sentences, grounded in specificity, deftly convey a powerful abstraction by way of detail. This is because concrete nouns have the ability to create images in our heads. They can remind us of smells, colors, tactile feelings, sounds and flavors. And these things, our senses, are everything that defines and allows us to negotiate the physical world that surrounds us. Cisneros does this well, avoiding any tempting notion to simply tell her readers that her character feels trapped in favor of showing us a vivid picture that conjures the feeling and pulls the reader into the character’s world.
Here’s an offering from one of the pioneers of the “non-fiction novel,” an example from Michael Herr’s Dispatches:
“Going out at night the medics gave you pills, Dexedrine breath like dead snakes kept too long in a jar. I knew one 4th division Lurp who took his pills by the fistful, downs from the left pocket of his tiger suit and ups from the right, one to cut the trail for him and the other to send him down it. He told me that they cooled things out just right for him, that he could see that old jungle at night like he was looking at it through a starlight scope. ‘They sure give you the range,’ he said.”
Again, the details. A poetic phrase like, “Dexedrine breath like dead snakes kept too long in a jar,” is rooted in the specifics that work together to convey more abstract things like fear and danger. Then too, “pills by the fistful, downs from the left pocket and ups from the right” gives us a vivid picture of a soldier on edge, desperately attempting to cling to some bit of his humanity by way of pharmaceutical frenzy.
Turning to the world of the pensive poet, and perhaps to a bit of self-reflexive poetry about the creative process, let’s look at “A Sort of Song,” by William Carlos Williams:
Let the snake wait under
and the writing
be of words, slow and quick, sharp
to strike, quiet to wait,
—through metaphor to reconcile
the people and the stones.
Compose. (No ideas
but in things) Invent!
Saxifrage is my flower that splits
One question to all writers: which words of this poem “strike” like a snake in wait “under his weed?” Certainly it is the power of a specific flower—Saxifrage—that “splits the rocks.” Without a doubt we writers have devoted ourselves to a craft benefited by a colorful palette made of the world around us, and that world is made of persons, places and things that we can see, touch, taste, hear, and smell. Your writing is most effective when any and all ethereal thematic schema, or vague notions of emotion, are rooted in the tangible world of concrete nouns and vivid verbs.