When I was in high school, I carried poetry notebooks that I made all of my friends read. When I read most of them now, I can tell how I felt in those poems, but I have no idea what I was talking about in some of them. I was very dramatic about everything. Actually, I still find myself being dramatic every now and then.
When I first read Marie Howe’s poem “What the Living Do” which I found in a literature textbook, I was moved to tears. I was experiencing grief from my parent’s separation. The poem spoke to me because Howe addresses the poem to her brother Johnny who is dead. She talks to him as if he can listen to her. She tells him how living means experiencing the unpleasant moments like spilling coffee on oneself, hurrying, and having a bag of groceries break. She ends the poem by telling him that she remembers him, and even though she doesn’t say she misses him, one can tell that she does.
In my intro to lit course, the professor assigned the class to write a creative writing piece, and I used Howe’s poem as inspiration and as a model to write a poem. I was inspired to write my poem based on hers because just like she remembered Johnny, I remembered my father.
As I wrote the poem, I didn’t know that I was learning how to improve my writing by balancing the abstract and the concrete. Throughout her poem, Howe explains what it means to live: “We want the spring to come and the winter to pass. / We want / whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss—we want more and / more and then more of it.” To explain what it means to live, she explains what it means to want an abundance of things only to keep wanting. She balances the abstract words “living” and “wanting” with the concrete examples “a letter,” “a kiss,” and, later in the poem, “[her] blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat.”
To explain what it means to live, she explains what it means to want.
In my journal writing, when I find myself overusing phrases like I’m tired, I challenge myself to explain why I feel tired and to describe what tired looks like. There are days when my feet hurt or my body aches because I was on my feet all day or because I started working out again. Or there are days when I’m mentally or emotionally drained, and I can’t focus on finishing university coursework or reading a novel in the evening.
Yesterday, I found another example of balancing the concrete and the abstract in Haruki Murakami’s “Kafka on Shore.” The main character describes a photo of his sister in which half of her face is covered in shadow. He compares this image to a Greek tragedy mask. Then Murakami writes: “Light and dark. Hope and despair. Laughter and sadness. Trust and loneliness.” Here, Murakami uses abstract words to describe an image.
Even though I learned to add concrete examples to my mostly abstract poems a while back, my new insight on writing is that I can also describe concrete words with abstract examples.
What’s a writing strategy that you have applied to your writing?
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