This One Trick is at the Heart of Writing

In her book, Imaginative Writing, Janet Burroway states, “There is a simple trick at the heart of imaginative writing.”

Read the following statement, she asks us: “Not everything that appears to be valuable is actually valuable.” We generally understand it. But if the sentence were to be rewritten as “All that glistens is not gold,” then, she writes, “You literally ‘see’ what I ‘mean.'”

If we use words that evoke our senses – things that can be seen, heard, touched, smelled and tasted – then we can create a world our reader can enter. Consider this passage from A Movable Feast by Ernest Hemingway:

“They say the seeds of what we will do are in all of us, but it always seemed to me that those who make jokes in life the seeds are covered with better soil and with a higher grade of manure.”

Would we find an affinity with Hemingway’s statement if it were written in more abstract language? “Within each of lies dormant our future selves, a self that will do better in life if one adopts a healthy sense of humor.” Probably not.

Artists other than writers know they create in the realm of the senses. Musicians create in and with sound, the dancer in movement, the painter in light and color, the sculptor in tactile materials. Writers create with words, which in and of themselves are abstractions.

We must endeavor to remove abstract language from our prose, whether it is fiction or nonfiction (but especially if it is nonfiction). Abstract language works well in legal briefs and business proceedings but not novels or short stories.

For those of us driven to write fiction, we want to thrust out into the world the stories that obsess us, in part because I think we are driven to observe and explain human natures. We best do this through using images. Nonfiction will also become more memorable and appealing through the skillful use of images.

Images are a series of words (or a word) that evokes in us two ore more senses. Again Burroway, “An image appeals to the senses. This is the foundation of all imaginative writing.”

To write images successfully we must use our senses and our mind. We must know when our language becomes bogged down in abstractions. Burroway offers more than several examples.

A thought without an image:

It is best to consider consequences before proceeding.

An image that describes the same thought:

Look before you leap.

A thought without an image:

The situation is being manipulated by peripheral interests.

An image that describes the same thought:

Wag the dog.

This may all seem overly simple. I know, however, I must remain vigilant to creeping abstractions in my writing. And I know even with twenty years and thousands of words written in my past, I never tire of being reminded of the keystone importance of images in writing.

I’ll close with a Toni Morrison quote from her Nobel Prize speech:

“For our sake and yours forget your name in the street; tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light. Don’t tell us what to believe, what to fear. Show us belief’s wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear’s caul.”

My essay collection, Moxie, Vol. 1, will be released later this year.

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