â€œNo ideas but in things.â€
William Carlos Williams
Itâ€™s Prose Week! Every other week, SunWinks! alternates between a discussion of prose style and a tutorial on poetic technique.Â Today, weâ€™re going to talk about description and imagery again, from the perspective of neuroscience.Â It turns out using concrete images isnâ€™t just a good idea, itâ€™s the (Natural) Law!
Itâ€™s less than 2 hours until midnight Eastern, and this is one of those columns that I should have started writing days ago.Â I was reading my February Poets & Writers Magazine on my phone and hit on a couple articles that gave me one â€œahaâ€ moment after another, in quicker and quicker succession, until they became one continuous â€œwowwwwwwwwâ€¦..â€Â They are about why description is so important, and why good description (like good poetry) consists of concrete, tactile, tangible, visceral images, and not of concepts and abstractions.Â And how weâ€™re finding out that the reasons for this are rooted in neuroscience.Â We are hard-wired for imagery.
(By the way, the Poets & Writers Kindle editionâ€”which can be read on any smartphone as well, albeit, because itâ€™s a magazine, not on your computerâ€”is available by subscription for only $1.25 an issue!)
The first article is â€œThe Heart and the Eye: How Description Can Access Emotionâ€ by J. T. Bushnell. Â This first excerpt is from the lead (remember that column?), which reels us in with a story of the author being moved to sobs by a public reading:
I broke the silence of the packed auditorium with a gasp, a sob.Â I clamped both hands over my mouth, but it was too late; heads were turning.Â One belonged to my new friend Ben Georgeâ€¦Even then he had an air of consequence and gravity about him.Â He was a couple of years older than I was, with thick, blackframed glasses and a bush of brown hair that stood straight up from his scalp.Â His demeanor was one of calm intelligence and discretion.Â And there I was beside him, lungs convulsing, cheeks hot and wet, nose making awful snuffling noises.
Clearly, Mr. Bushnell practices what he preaches. Â Yes, â€œconsequence,â€ â€œgravity,â€ â€œintelligence,â€ and â€œdiscretionâ€ are abstractions, but I think itâ€™s quite deliberate. It works because the passage is about the author losing his composure; the use of those behavioral abstractions to capture the gravitas of his composed, dignified friend draws a nice contrast with Bushnellâ€™s own meltdown.Â Now look at the last sentence.Â Isnâ€™t this so much more sensuous and immediate than just saying, â€œAnd there I was beside him, sobbingâ€?Â It makes all the difference between an observation that appeals forgettably to our higher cognition and a word picture that plunges us inside the authorâ€™s skin and lets us feel what heâ€™s feeling in our guts.
Now here's a little bit of that aforementioned preaching, along with some tour-de-force practicing:
By description I mean the concrete, the things we can observe with our five senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch.Â I do not mean simple adjectives.Â I do not mean descriptions such as â€œThe weather was glorious.â€Â Glory is an abstraction, a category of word that George Orwell calls meaninglessâ€¦It canâ€™t show a white-hot sun perched overhead, or a sky so hard and blue that a fly ball might shatter it.Â It canâ€™t show a pitcherâ€™s shadow puddle under his cleats, or heat rising from the ground in shimmering corrugation.Â It canâ€™t produce the smell of hot aluminum bleachers, or the lubricated slide of a sweaty armpit, or a sunburn tightening the skin on the back of your neck.Â It canâ€™t let you taste the sweat on your lip when you go too long between slugs of cold beerâ€¦
As novelist and story writer Richard Bausch advises:Â â€œMake your feeling in things, images.Â There is so much more in an image because that is how we experience the world, and a good story is about experience, not concepts, and certainly not abstractions.Â The abstractions are always finally empty and dull no matter how dear they may be to our hearts and no matter how profound we think they must beâ€¦ So, in revision, get rid of all those places where you are commenting on things, and let the things stand for themselves.Â Be clear about the details that can be felt on the skin and in the nerves.â€
[Bushnell, op. cit.]
It turns out there is a neurophysiological basis for the suspension of disbelief, the effect of being immersed in the story.Â Studies have found, for example, that when you smell something, the olfactory cortex in your brain exhibits activity.Â But theyâ€™ve also found that when you read about smells, the same thing happens.
[quoting The New York Times] â€œWords like â€˜lavender,â€™ â€˜cinnamon,â€™ and â€˜soap,â€™ for example, elicit a response not only from the language-processing areas of our brains, but also those devoted to dealing with smellsâ€¦Â When subjects looked atâ€¦â€™perfumeâ€™ and â€˜coffee,â€™ their primary olfactory cortex lit up; when they saw the words â€˜chairâ€™ and â€˜key,â€™ this region remained dark.â€â€¦
In other words, when we read about an odor (or image or sensation), it engages the exact same part of the brain as actually smelling it (or seeing it or touching it), and those parts of the brain reside in the lower region, alongside our emotional centers.Â Theyâ€™re so close, in fact, that thereâ€™s a high degree of interplay between the two areas, meaning activity in one area can stimulate activity in the other.Â When you write smells, or images, or sensations, youâ€™re actually gaining access to the emotional area of the brain, and this is why stories can take such precise aim at the heart.
[Bushnell, op. cit. Emphases mine.]
Before we leave off for today, I want to pass along a fabulous piece of description from a story by Ethan Coen (co-writer of Fargo, The Big Lebowski, etc.)
The first car to pull in was a late-model Cadillac Sedan De Ville.Â Its air conditioner, I deduced, was going full bore, for the woman who stepped out was wearing a knee-length fur.Â She was tallâ€”taller than Bennyâ€”and in her mid-forties, with dark glasses, rouged cheekbones, and a pruny mouth.Â She wore heels and tight pants that made her wriggle down the walkway like a small hoofed animal trying to shake a bur off its hindquarters.Â She held a key with a big plastic tag up by one ear and a purse in her other hand, and gave them both short, vicious wags for balance as she hastened toward a room, sneering at nothing in particular.Â She didnâ€™t look back at the Caddyâ€™s driver, who followed.
Lou Argo was fiftyish.Â Even from a distance I could tell that heâ€™d had virulent acne as an adolescent, or else smallpox, or came from a neighborhood where the toughs fought with knitting needlesâ€¦
[from â€œDestinyâ€, in Gates of Eden, Wm. Morrow & Co., 1998.]
TO BE CONTINUED
Find in your writing (or write) a passage of description or a poem. Now revise it, identifying every instance at which you make an abstract observation (â€œBilly was disappointedâ€) and replace it with one or more images, sensations, tangible details which convey that feeling or phenomenon to the reader on a visceral level (â€œBillyâ€™s eyes were starting to water as he slammed his racket onto the tennis court.â€)
- PutÂ SunWE in the title and tags.
- Share your post with Gather Writing Essential group.
- Indicate in some way which devices or techniques I should be paying attention to. Â (If responding to todayâ€™s, put Descrimmagery in the title field.)
- This prompt does not turn into a pumpkin a week (or even two) from today.Â If your piece isnâ€™t done in the next week or two, get it in when you can.Â This is supposed to be fun.
- I will comment on every submission and include a link to it in the next column.
- If you would like a little more academic critiqueâ€”but still very friendly and positiveâ€”include the word "rigorous" in your post (e.g. "rigorous critique wanted").
Responses to previous prompts below. Let me know if I missed yours.
Terms of Venery
byÂ Priya P.
byÂ Joann B.
by Granny Janny
and in the Comments...
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Â© 2013 Douglas J. Westberg. All Rights Reserved. Â Please share this on Gather.com, and elsewhere on the web by means of a link back to this page, but please do not copy. Â Doug's latest book is The Depressed Guy's Book of Wisdom from Chipmunka Publishing.
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