When you find yourself writing about intellectualized concepts rather than concrete details that can be felt in the human body, you’re moving into abstraction.
This can be seductive for smart writers, because using your intellect and language this way feels clever, and it can be fun to write. It’s also a way for a writer to feel in control (especially in scenes that require more vulnerability).
It’s like putting on armour before going into a scene.
An abstraction names a concept, like: “fear,” “anger,” “depressed,” or “frustration.” You want to use abstraction sparingly in your creative writing. It brings the story into the realm of the mind, and outside of our felt experience.
Look for places where you are abstracting in your writing, and see if you can go back and rewrite them with less control. Let yourself go on the page. Invite honesty, surrender, and vulnerability. Be curious in these places — close your eyes, put yourself in the scene, feel the emotion you’re feeling, and then look around for clues in the details.
Summary + abstraction = distance. Concrete, sensory details = presence.
When they see each other, they feel the strength of their love. Their kiss is full of passion.
I understand what’s happening conceptually, but I don’t get to feel the passion, because the summary and the naming (“love” and “passion”) takes the intimate experience away from me, and replaces it with words.
Feeling is transmitted in our writing through words, but it’s not the words that hold the feeling.
It’s the writer who feels the feeling — when you hold a feeling in your body as you write, you then imbue the details with that feeling.
Here’s an exercise.
Write two short scenes that describe someone who is grocery shopping.
Write the first scene from the point of view of someone who has just fallen in love.
Write the second scene from the point of view of someone who has just lost a job.
In both instances, do not say anything about the emotional state of the shopper. Just write the details from each person’s point of view.
What do you notice?
The scene is the same: a grocery store. But when the person in love shops, she sees things differently, feels things differently.
In the first scene, a description of ripe red fruit might show the feeling. In the second scene, a description of plastic-wrapped chicken could show the feeling.
As a creative writer, you create feeling-experiences in your stories when you show details and write them so they feel true.
You make them true by infusing them with feelings you do not name in words.
In this way, you give people access to their own emotions as they read.
With love and courage,
Photo credit (top): Becca Tapert on Unsplash
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