#5: My Love Affair with Abstractions
-From Packet Letter One, Doug Glover to Rich Farrell, Feb. 7, 2010: “Over and over you deliver abstractions over concrete substantive details. Abstraction in the form of generic verbs and actions, in the form of vague figurative language, abstraction in the form of disembodied voices.”
Let me be perfectly clear about this: abstractions are fun. I’ve wallowed in them with a deranged delight. They’ve tempted me like the unencumbered enthusiasm of a nineteen year old girl lounging by a blue pool, drink in hand, asking me to rub suntan lotion on her lithe, brown shoulders. I know nothing about this girl, only the shimmering veneer of her youthful body: her curves, her flowing hair, brown shoulders, perfect skin, nary a tan line to be seen. She invites me closer. I smell coconut on her skin. She confuses me with her beauty, uncomplicated by reality. She confuses me with brown shoulders.
I convince myself that abstractions are not simple-minded fantasies. I tell myself that abstract writing is capable of rising to sublime heights, standing on the (untanned) shoulders of great writers, capable of lifting my stories to stratospheric altitudes on flights of faux literary fancy. Wasn’t Joyce abstract? Didn’t Virginia Woolf raise abstract imagery to an art form in some of her novels? I tell myself so. I tell myself that a lyrical voice hides in the mysterious tones of abstraction; by keeping the writing vague and out of focus, a poetic energy must murmur just beneath the muddled surface. It must. I tell myself that this nineteen year old girl by the pool might be a fucking genius; she might be Sylvia Plath in a string bikini.
We swim, Sylvia and I, joyously in the pool. My sentences, paragraphs, scenes, even whole stories, splash in abstract language: sloppy verbs, unspecific images, overused pronouns. Who cares! I never once consider the consequences of our hedonistic little existences. Goddamn it, abstractions are fun!
I love abstractions because of those glittering surfaces, because they sometimes sound so wonderful, so lyrical, so different than the tired prose of everyday, so different than the working-class language of my roots. Abstractions must evince a broad intelligence, sure signs of good writing, of potential, of an emerging poetic voice.
But of course, abstractions delivered on very few of their promises. In the end, my heart was broken. Sylvia turned out to have leprosy.
In my first packet letter from Doug, he used the word ‘abstraction’ (or abstract) eight times to describe my writing. Eight. He wrote it six more times on the hardcopy of my story. I challenge any of his new advisees to top my record. Fourteen ‘abstractions’ in one packet.
My knee-jerk reaction (like all good lovers) was to initially defend this style. I’d often been told that my stories were “over-written,” and I once took that to be a compliment. It was not.
Eventually, reluctantly, I yielded to reality. Doug beat me enough that I finally believed abstractions were mostly disembodied, confused, muddled, and potentially hazardous things. They softened, perhaps even crippled, the backbone of a story.
I abused abstractions. I know this now. They were easy, safe, and uncomplicated. They ginned up my limp stories. Abstractions allowed me to throw weak things onto a page, then fluff them up with vague, foggy language, albeit pretty at times, curved and free of tan lines. I labored over the sound, the cadence of a sentence for days, narcissistically, often arriving at a relatively a good sentence, but one that did nothing to help the story, which withered away in a death rattle of cliché, ineptitude, or worse, utter nonsense.
Good Abstractions vs. Bad Abstractions:
Good abstractions reach toward ineffable ideas. Toward things the writer/reader wants to grasp but can’t. Existential questions. Big questions, with a capital B. Why are we here? What is love? Etc. Bad abstractions are feeble, lazy, and attempt to short-circuit the thought process by appearing flashy on the page without any substantive depth: the 19-year-old in a bikini with a killer tan. Here is a good example of a bad abstraction, taken from one of my stories:
We don’t like the sun, his eyes say when they speak. They tell him they want darkness, rest, and a release from the prison of sight. It’s a tiresome, thankless job, they say, this constant work.
This was the opening paragraph. My intent was to create an eerie mood, to take the reader quickly inside the character’s head, and to disorient the characterization. My intent was to create a ‘good’ abstraction, but instead I have this. Notice how none of the pronouns have antecedents. The reader is immediately lost. Who’s talking? Who’s the ‘him’ in the story. There is nothing precise in this opening. It’s impossible to understand what the hell this even means. Instead of disorienting the characterization, I put the disorientation in front of character. All that’s left is a mess.
Of course, I understood what these things all meant, because I knew who was talking, what my own intentions were, and how they related to the rest of the story. But none of this is conveyed to the reader. Sadly, I repeated this pattern throughout.
In the Slovenia workshop, I submitted a story I drafted later in the semester. One of the most frequent criticisms was that I didn’t go deep enough into the characters’ heads. I’m pretty sure I began to excise my bad abstractions so much that I stopped looking towards the good ones, the ones readers and writers want to explore.
(Note: Thanks to Gary & Doug for helping me clarify this point.)
Bad abstractions let me hide, avoiding the tough, concrete writing a story demands. I leaned on abstractions because I didn’t know how the hell to write a story and I didn’t know how to grasp the ineffable. (I’m not saying I know how to now. Far from it. I just know that the answer doesn’t lie where I hoped it did.) Using abstractions allowed me to admire my own prose, to gaze upon my own sentences with a lustful delight, all the while avoiding the ugly, hollow truth beneath: I didn’t have a story. They distracted me, like Sylvia in a bikini. Once the swimsuit comes off a few times, they’re has to be something deeper to sustain the fantasy. (My apologies to the “minnow class” of Numero Cinq readers.)
Even exquisitely written prose can amount to nothing more than fluff, meringue on a bland cupcake, if there is no story underneath. My goal now is to find a balance between the cupcake and the frosting. (I’m mixing metaphors here…I should stick to bikinis.)
Good writers can use abstract language to achieve lyrical prose because they transcend story structure. They begin at the skeletal level and work outward. I tried to begin on the surface and work inward. I’m beginning to realize that things don’t work this way. It only took me forty-one years. What can I say? I’m a sucker for brown shoulders.
Up Next: #4, Advancing Plot.