Writing Tip: Abstract concepts

It is hard to write juicy prose that makes your readers tingle with recognition or awareness, and it is especially hard when writing about big abstract concepts like justice or peace or love. Because to elicit tingles and not yawns, you must write in specific detail, while still communicating universal principles. It's hard because after all, language itself is an abstraction.  So do an exercise like this: write about the ultimate abstract concept — God — but write about her/him/it in only specific details or sensory terms. (It is not necessary to believe in God to do this exercise — if you don't, just pretend you do.)  Here's the stuff I wrote:

I sing to God, but she does not sing back. Instead she talks in a voice of cotton, normal and prosaic, just folks, and I hear her voice in my ears and it sounds like my voice. That's because she's a shape-shifter, as am I. I am God and she is me, so it makes sense that she would speak of homely matters like brushing one's teeth and raking the leaves and the problems with advising adult children without hopelessly antagonizing them. What does God smell like? I think God must smell like all strong things, and subtle things too — fish on the waterfront and first lilacs in spring, and yes mostly she smells like dirt, the smell rising from the damp earth of the garden when the worms have been especially active. And God feels like a scratchy broom that pricks your finger, and the soft buttery feel of suede and the icy numbing pain stinging your legs if you wade in a mountain river. Also the hot humid breath of vines in a tropical jungle, that's God too. And God tastes like chocolate of course,  but also macaroni and cheese and fried chicken. And so what does God look like? Well now, she looks like everything, doesn't she? The smiles of children and the fiery eyes of frightened warriors and the tears trickling down mothers' cheeks when the warriors are killed, and the first daffodils of spring and the big brown maple leaves crumbling on the lawn, and the intricate spider webs made in unlikely places, and the struggling flies dying in those webs. God is too big to write about even if you use detail, so I won't try any more. I'd rather write about the poem I wrote today and the sorrow in my friend's eyes when she told me about her divorce, and the sharp sweet taste of lemon-ginger tea and how it comforts me to drink it even though it reminds me of my own loneliness.

Compost: I am free

Seen from space, I am not even visible. I am microscopic dust, blowing away in the blink of an eye, and as much missed. We are, all of us, Halloween ghouls with clackety skeleton bones, dancing as all marionettes do, pulled by unseen strings tied to strings tied to strings tied and retied and retied. All is meaningless, and I am therefore free.

Sharing my Stories: Bob Dylan

I was 14, sheltered in middle-class suburbia, and innocent of what was really going on in the world. But I had a friend with an older brother who was into Bob Dylan, and when I was over at her house, he'd play his records for us and talk about war and racism and how god-awful the world really was. I loved to listen to him talk, and after a while I loved to listen to Bob Dylan too. When I first heard Dylan sing, I thought there must be something wrong with the record player. But then his voice, bad as it was, started to get to me. It was such a contrast to those mellow, smooth ballad singers my mother liked. Dylan's voice was raw and scratchy and just the right voice to sing about the truth — the real truth, not the prettified version served to children. And his scraggly, almost sleazy looks fit his voice perfectly. He looked like he slept in a bar after arguing politics all night and didn't bother to comb his hair because clean neat hair wasn't important. I knew instinctively my mother would not invite him to dinner. So obviously he must be a prophet.

Compost: My noisy cat

I don't know why my cat Mab makes so much noise. Surely by this time she knows I cannot understand her? Perhaps she just likes the sound she makes, halfway between a squeak and a scrowl. To me it's an annoying sound like fingernails down a blackboard or a baby crying in an airplane, from the seat directly behind you.

There she goes again, interrupting my writing; it's a squeal this time, reminding me of a teenager's whine, that meaningless voice of anger and disappointment with parents, wanting nothing so much as recognition of how pissed off they are.

Mab makes me scribble off-balance, but I'm going to try to write through it anyway, no matter how unbearably trivial it may seem.

Writing Tip: Go Crazy

A good way to break up your writing, and to see things in an original way, is to break up your mind. Pretend that you are crazy, and then write from that place. What form will your craziness take?  Are you catatonic, schizophrenic, obsessive compulsive?  When I do this exercise, I almost always imagine myself with multiple personality disorder. Here is a piece I wrote about my 4 other personalities — Ed, Irene, Whinnie and Kinko. (Do not call the men in white coats — I am only pretending!)

I live in the nuthouse, but I'm not alone. I'm not alone because Irene and Ed and Whinnie and Kinko live here with me. I'm in here because you're only supposed to have one person per body. How stingy normal people are! What boring lives they must lead! One personality is not enough, and even my five seems pretty chincy to me at times — I'd like to work up to 9 or 10 — then we could have a baseball team and call each other names like Champ and Bud and Dude.

I know more than any of the other 4, of course, but that's because I'm the bookkeeper and must keep track of everyone. Otherwise they may get lost somewhere out in the dangerous world of hard edges and sharp-toed boots. Ed is the treasurer and he saves the money and sometimes he presides over trials as a judge. No one likes him because he sniffs in a smarmy way. And Irene is fat and sloppy and drinks too much and carries old used Kleenex out to fancy restaurants and leaves them embedded in her mashed potatoes. And Whinnie wears a skimpy beige dress with rips in the hem that shows her skinned knock-knees, and she whines to go home but then when she is home she whines for her bed, and in bed she whines for someone to hold her hand. She is never safe anywhere, and she's right of course, none of us are. And Kinko stays in the shadows — he wears red bulky sweaters and a black slouch hat that shades his face. I don't know much about him except I've never seen his fingers because he keeps his hands balled into fists.

Here we all live in the nuthouse, but this is a good thing because if they let us leave it may be too hard to do my job and keep us all together.

Take a Quiz, Maybe Win a Book!

Are you a History Whiz?  Test your knowledge of history with this fun multiple-choice quiz. If your answers are correct, you will be entered in a drawing to win a free copy of Making History: how to remember, record, interpret and share the events of your life. Email your answers to kim@primary-sources.com before April 30th –the drawing will be held May 1st, 2008.  Here you go:

1.  LBJ's social/economic programs were called: A) The New Deal; B) America: Love It or Leave It; C) The Great Society; or D) Hey Hey LBJ

2. In the 1950s the Russians were the first into space with the launching of: A) Brodsnik; B) Nyetnik; C) Sputnik; or D) Plodnik

3. In 1978 a major nuclear accident happened in Pennsylvania, at a place called: A) Twleve String Peninsula; B) Ten Meter Dam; C) Ten Half Acres; or D) Three Mile Island.

4. Willie Sutton was a career criminal most famous for: A) robbing banks; B) murdering his wives; C) embezzling from the government; or D) a hitman for the Mafia

5. What was Muhammad Ali's name when he won gold at the 1960 Olympics? A) Joe Louis; B) Don King; C) Cassius Clay; or D) Bill Russell

6. In 1954, a group of people claiming to have been abducted by aliens gathered for a meeting in which state? A) Antares 7; B) New York; C) California; or D) Texas.

Of course, ALL of the answers to the above questions can be found in my book, Making History: how to remember, record, interpret and share the events of your life. Another quickie history quiz will be coming in about 6 weeks.