Monday, July 03, 2006

against abstractions

Writing tip: beware of words that seem to be concrete but are, in fact, abstract. Examples: yellow and bird. There really isn't such a thing as a bird in the real world. "Bird" is a platonic category -- an abstraction. In the real world, there are hawks and sparrows and canaries. Even these are abstractions in a way, but they get closer to something we can actually see, smell and touch than "bird."

A confused writer might think he's being specific by referring to a "yellow bird," but yellow is another abstraction. You can see yellow, true, but what exactly IS it? What is a color? Can you grasp one

"Red car" doesn't tell me much -- it doesn't engage my senses. Same with sweet drink (though sweet is somewhat less abstract), loud noise, smooth table and a stinky smell. Those "mirror neurons" don't fire when I read "stinky smell." I get the idea, but nothing happens in my nose. "a gross-tasting sausage" doesn't disgust anyone, but how would you like some of George Orwell's sausages? The taste like "bombs of filth bursting inside your mouth."

You can get away with abstract modifiers when they're used in surprising ways, such as with a blue apple. I am forced to play an interesting mental game with my concept of apple when I read that. I actually have to paint it blue in my mind. As Robert Wilson says, "A Baroque candelabra on a piano is one thing; a Baroque candelabra on a rock is something else!"

Teachers tell beginning writers to avoid adjectives, not because they are intrinsically bad. It's just that there are so many weak and vague ones. But there are great ones, too: Think about greasy hair, dung-tinted walls and rasping voices. Notice in these instances, the modifiers are tied to specific sense-words or real-world objects and the words they are modifying are more generic. If the subject itself is specific, e.g. saxophone, it probably doesn't need a modifier.


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your blog, disagree with a few points of view but it made me smile, thank you.

I just so happend to stumble upon it when googling for a Shakespear acting company who performs very brief pieces of his plays in totally rearranged ways of saying/speaking/gesturing the dialogue so that the orginal meaning is totally gone and a new humorus form has taken its place.

I share a few things in common with you, I am an agnostic introverted ex-programmer currently sysadmin who is horrible at spelling and interested in all kinds of things.

I took a test at at currently and my Jung/Meyers Type is an I(NS)TP, that site then forwarded me onto a place that I've been hanging around lately called I thought it may be of interest to you as I'm guessing you are INTj.

Well, off to my search for that acting company.

Angela Ferreira said...

Hello there!
I just read you writing blog and I like it too, very philosophical...