Removing Abstracts: Learning from Poetics

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Last week, Anxiety Ink posted this article on our social media pages (Facebook and Twitter): “What Poets Know That Most Writers Don’t“. I have to say, this blog post struck a chord with me.

When I’m writing my first draft, I don’t worry about what my characters are feeling or sensing in a lot of detail –unless it’s a stand out point that strikes me vividly in the moment I’m trying to get the story out. Usually, I say the worst things a writer can say, for example: “she was angry about [insert too much telling],” or “he couldn’t stand the bad smell,” and “the sound was driving them crazy.” Don’t those sentences make you want to keep reading? Me neither -but they’re perfectly acceptable for a first draft.

Yet, even when I go back and do my first edit, unless details strike me, I find myself at a loss. I leave the pages riddled with ungrounded abstracts. I’ll do this through a number of edits. I rely heavily on words that mean nothing, like “anger,” “sadness,” “irritation,” etc.

Even while I’m editing I wonder, why is it so hard to let go of abstracts?

That’s where the blog linked above comes in -specifically, its first header: “It’s about capturing the essence.” ESSENCE. Conveying emotion and senses is about describing those entities using devices, like metaphors, that a reader can relate to on a visceral level rather than merely a cerebral level. If your reader understands the emotion or sense after reading the description you provide and they can feel that emotion along with your character, you’ve done your job. Throwing nouns out there and hoping your reader can comprehend why the character is “mad” about all the events that have transpired isn’t enough. Really, it’s downright lazy.

Telling doesn’t make your reader empathize. You have to do the work and show them.

But it’s hard to get to that level of writing. Seriously. Hard. It takes time, practice, and perseverance. I actually bought The Emotion Thesaurus to help me out (which I highly recommend).

The second part of the blog post is equally important as the first, “Moving beyond the five senses.” I’m much better at this than the first. I love playing with the tone of my stories and shifting reader perceptions using different literary devices. Loving to do this doesn’t mean I’m always successful, but I make the effort.

I am not a poet by any means. I’ve been writing poetry over half my life, that does not mean it’s ever going to see the light of day. Still, I have a high respect for poetry. It amazes me what poets can do with words I use every day merely by changing sentence rhythms, word positions, and every fancy thing I don’t know the name of. Most importantly, I think every writer –like the blog says– can learn from poetry. It’s all about elevating your writing from mundane ordinariness to something your reader doesn’t want to put down. Learning from poetics can help prose writers convey so much more and truly touch their readers.

Practice makes perfect and I know I desperately need practice! The exercise provided at the end of the linked blog sounds fantastic. In fact, check in next week to see how I did with the exercise. I got much more involved in the practice than I thought I would.

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