Writing and thinking: specific and general

Like thought, writing is often a process of moving back and forth between the the general principle and the specific detail. Bruce Ballenger calls it the “sea of experience and mountain of reflection,” but there are many other ways to think about this movement back and forth  It is the scientific method: forming a hypothesis (generality) based on observations (specifics), designing an experiment (generality) to collect data (specifics), forming a conclusion (generality) that the data support. In novels it is the connection between the specific descriptions of characters and setting, details of plot, pages of recorded dialogue and the general theme of the novel (what it reveals about he way the world works, the ways people interact, the forces that shape character). In interior decorating it is the connection between ambiance desired and the particular colors and textures, furniture and art work chosen to fill the space.

In her book The Situation and the Story, Vivian Gornick writes about how these two views work together:

“Every work of literature has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing that one has come to say. In An American Tragedy the situation is Dreiser’s America; the story is the pathological nature of hunger for the world. In Edmund Gosse’s memoir Father and Son the situation is fundamentalist England in the time of Darwin; the story is the betrayal of intimacy necessary to the act of becoming oneself. In a poem called “In the Waiting Room” Elizabeth Bishop describes herself at the age of seven, during the First World War, sitting in the dentist’s office, turning the page of National Geographic, listening to the muted cries of pain her timid aunt utters from within. That’s the situation. The story is a child’s first experience of isolation: her own, her aunt’s, and that of the world (13)”

One piece of advice often given by writing teachers that connects to this shift between specifics and generalities is “Show don’t tell.” Details show; general statements tell.  To think about what this means,  read these guidelines from writing teacher Dennis Jerz.

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