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Making the Abstract Concrete

Most everyone who has been responding to my posts seems well beyond beginner status as writers, but I've found that going back to the basics has always been good for me.  For example, two of the best books I have on writing are ones that were written for rank beginners, but I keep going back to them.  Maybe it's because I'm slow and simple, or maybe because going back to the basics keeps me anchored.  I figure that at least if my basics are solid, my experimental flights of fancy may have a better chance of working.

Here are two great books that would be good for newbies that I still find helpful today:

What a Writer Needs, by Ralph Fletcher, which is this really, really down to earth discussion of teaching writing that only uses elementary school kids' writing for examples.

Poetry in the Making, by Ted Hughes, which is the book version of a series of lessons he gave for the BBC Schools Broadcasting Department for the program, "Listening and Writing." 

So, with the proviso that this is basic, here's a lesson that I get considerable mileage from.


One of the qualities we have identified that a good writer has is the ability to be specific.  That means that good writers will avoid the use of unsupported generalities or abstractions and try to make those generalities specific and the abstractions concrete.

For example, time is an abstraction.  You can’t see, hear, taste, touch or smell it.  It is an abstract idea.  The author Ray Bradbury recognized this problem in his short story, “Night Meeting,” which is about the nature of time, so he made the abstraction concrete for the reader with this description (I've taken his prose passage and recast it as a poem so you can see the parts better):

There was the smell of Time in the air tonight.
He smiled and turned the fancy in his mind. 
There was a thought.
What did Time smell like?
Like dust and clocks and people.
And if you wondered what Time sounded like
it sounded like water running in a dark cave
and voices crying
and dirt dripping down
upon hollow box lids, and rain.
And, going further, what did Time look like?
Time looked like snow dropping silently into a black room
or it looked like a silent film
in an ancient theater,
one hundred billion faces falling like those New Year balloons,
down and down into nothing.
That was how Time smell and looked and sounded.
And tonight--Tomas shoved a hand
into the wind outside the truck--
tonight you could almost touch Time.

To make the abstraction concrete, Bradbury made “appeals to the senses.”  He gave examples of what he meant when he talked about time.  He was specific.

Today’s Writing Prompt

 Using Bradbury as a model, take four of the following abstractions and make them concrete.  Do not use single word examples, like “Death is a grave.”  Expand your examples.



( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
May. 4th, 2007 12:13 pm (UTC)
Bradbury's beauty is inspiring. I first turned this passage into a poem when I was an undergraduate. We were supposed to bring in an example of "found poetry."

When people say that Bradbury writes "pure poetry," they aren't kidding.
May. 4th, 2007 12:19 pm (UTC)
I haven't done a writing exercise in years, so this was more difficult than it seemed. I just write. :)

I didn't label them and whether you wanted to see them or not, here's my examples.

Only a hollow space where a heart had been remained. An outwelling of tears once the floodgates opened. The memories rode the waves--the joys, the little things, the passions--the past, cascading until what was left became a vacuum.

The ticking of an empty clock in an otherwise silent room; the waiting. Outside, a stair creaked, the clock beat faster. A key turned...

Fingertips gripped the railing. Twenty stories below the afternoon traffic roared. No one would care if he just let og. All he'd be was a five minute item on the evening news. A shame, really, but there it was. He'd tried. He opened his fingers...

Her screams sang harsh discord to the laughter he tried to muffle from where he hid in the wardrobe. "Mummy, mummy, mummy!" in a rising crescendo of horror and outrage. That'll get her for telling on him. Decapitating all those dolls had been fun, but cutting all their hair off first had been the best bit.
May. 4th, 2007 05:08 pm (UTC)
Hi! It didn't occur to me that someone might post their efforts, but I'm glad you did. I really like the second one!
May. 4th, 2007 06:04 pm (UTC)
I wasn't going to, post that is, because it occurred to me you didn't expect that. :) But then, I thought, you do all these wonderful writing posts and I wanted to show that they do have some benefits. I was trying to get myself going this morning and that just sorta set me up.

Yesterday I was writing a post about narrative drive, trying to explain that to someone. I think I might have got it across, but do you have one tucked away in memories?
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )