As interplay between the general and the specific

On a walk around my block, I took this picture:


It’s a field of yellow flowers = general statement.

yellow4As I walked further, I started paying attention to the yellow flowers on the roadside and found these three: cinquefoil, yellow hawkweed, and celandine (if I’m reading my field guide correctly). To understand, identify, and describe these flowers, I needed to look at each one as an individual = specific detail.

yellow3yellow2When I only see the field of flowers, I don’t appreciate how different yellow flowers can be and I can’t see their beauty. It’s the writer’s job to first find and see the yellow flowers and then to deliver them clearly to the reader. The Big Picture (yellow field) is important too (to give the context, surroundings, importance of the flowers), but as a writer I’m going to spend most of my time on the structure, color, smell of the individual flowers.

But maybe that’s a simplification? Try this. Like thought, writing is 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 ambience 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 RoomElizabeth 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, first read these guidelines from writing teacher Dennis Jerz.

(NOTE: The following exercise is not assigned, for summer 2018 online class, though online students may do as extra credit.)

Writing Exercise 1: four sentences and a scene. First, in a short blog post revise these sentences, trying to show the reader through sensory detail rather than telling the reader what to think or feel (or what you think or feel about something)–just one sentence for each sentence given here:

  • My hometown was a wonderful (or choose your own adjective) place to grow up.
  • Laci had a rather eccentric style.
  • Mr. Brown is the worst teacher I’ve ever had.
  • The room seemed very institutional (or choose your own adjective).

Next, try something a little longer. A common type of writing called narrative, in which events are ordered chronologically as in a short story, is composed of summary and scene. The summary parts are general statements that give background information, while the scenes depict events like a movie that’s unfolding in front of the reader’s eyes. The scenes of a narrative, then, are composed of specific details of people doing and saying specific things in a particular setting at a particular time. For the second part of this exercise, I’d like you to write a short scene, something that takes no more than about a minute and that you can capture in a paragraph or so.This scene may be real or imagined. Try to capture what you observed (or imagined) in words, using the fiction writer’s tools of setting, character, dialogue, action. You don’t need to give a head-to-toe description of a person, but choose a physical detail or two that seem to capture the “essence” of the person. Your attitude towards the person/people and the situation may be clear from the way you write about it, but focus on objective reporting rather than your interpretation.

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