“There must be a middle place between abstraction and childishness where one can talk seriously about serious things.” — from “Treatise on Theology” by Czeslaw Milosz
I feel like much of my writing life is spent exploring exactly what Milosz says here (and maybe much of my “living” life, too). How do I get the concrete on the page in such a way that speaks for more than it is? Do I have to explain it (expose it, as the literary critics would say), or is it enough to lay it out there on the page for the reader to understand for herself?
Perhaps my struggle with this common problem is exasperated by the two types of writing I teach – composition (or expository writing), which demands so much explanation, and creative writing, which demands so much less. Here spans the bridge of language, I suppose.
I wonder how much of this struggle is a matter of my trust in the reader. How much of this desire to explain is because I don’t believe that a reader can understand my experience, my idea, my feeling? How much of that lack of trust is created by the realities of life where people sometimes don’t understand, where I have to explain (or at least think I have to?)
Let me see if I can give an example in the midst of this abstract blog post I am writing here. In Lia Purpura’s lyric essay “The Pin,” she begins with the concrete and then drifts – slightly – into the abstract:
What the pin wants, sharp now and sprung, bright ache in the last green grass before winter, is its tension restore, hand in its pocket, head in its helmet again.
I’m leaving it there so I might come upon it, so what I call today might assemble – morning’s low slant around the pin’s open arc, late afternoon’s autumn light darkening as already I walk home.
The concrete pin here holds all of the abstractions and considerations about time together even as the essay spirals out into other memories and other times. It is the hook (if you will pardon the near pun) on which the essay hangs.
And yet, I know, okay I imagine (maybe just to make myself feel better) that Purpura had to manufacture that tool – an image from her walks here, an abstract consideration there – to make something. Maybe this is where I stick (again – pardon the pun) – that I wish writing was easy and languid, coming like a piece of curled and pocked driftwood on the tide – perfect and complete, washed clean of hidden corners and smooth as glass. I want my images to ride in with the ideas they speak of so that I do not have to create them. So that I do not have to figure out the meaning for myself.
Or so that I do not have to worry that the reader will not find any meaning in what I say. So that I do not end up with a piece of wood sitting inert on the shore, beauty and emotion still out at sea.
I think I have chosen the side of the concrete – spurred on by people like Annie Dillard, Lia Purpura, JoAnn Beard, who write so clearly of memories actions and objects without needing a lot of exposition. I think I have learned – at least sometimes – to trust the reader to find something greater in what I say. If she can’t, perhaps that is my failure as a writer, one which I own. But if she can’t, maybe it’s also that she doesn’t need to know what I have to share – and somehow, I will have to learn that such is okay, too.
– “Two Young Lads” by Heather Jansch