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It’s raining concrete: the #1 rule of writing, Part 1 of 2

I didn’t discover I was a writer until college when I fell in love with poetry. Fortunately for me, my first poetry professor was big on concrete. No, he didn’t have a weekend job laying sidewalks or foundations. But he did pound it into us that our effusive abstractions needed to be transformed into concrete images.

Some of my first poems were pure mush and raw emotion. When I blathered on about feeling lonely in a foreign country, he asked, “What color is lonely? What does lonely smell like? Was there a specific place or location or city where you felt the most lonely?” He explained that through the right details I could evoke those feelings in my reader.

I can still remember the rush of satisfaction when I finally captured the essence of that poem into specifics.

Twenty-five years later, the images of that poem can still unexpectedly catch me off guard: a hole-in-the-wall café in Mexico City, each table a different color: poppy orange, mustard yellow, sienna red; an old Spanish bulldog sitting on a chair across from me as I waited for handmade pulled-chicken tacos; the swarm of flies circling his head; the spit and hiss of the grill; the bulldog’s labored breathing as he stared at me with sagging, bloodshot eyes.

After that first poetry class, I continued to be blessed with mentors who emphasized the importance of concretizing abstractions. This “show, don’t tell” rule is considered by many to be the #1 rule of writing.  I agree.

Think about it. When someone tells you a story, what do you remember most? The details! Growing up in the soggy Northwest, one of my mother’s favorite says was, “Look Carol—it’s raining cats and dogs!” Though a cliché, you must agree it’s more evocative than if she’d said, “Look Carol—it’s really raining out.”

In The Art of Fiction, Ayn Rand stresses the importance of word choice. Too often, writers treat “words as approximations, even in their own minds.” In order to be completely free and to have words come to us without struggle she says we writers must learn the concretes under our abstractions. We can increase our skill by being constant observers of the world around us and by training our minds to concretize abstractions and vice versa.

I understand the importance of using concretes. But why would Rand want us to turn our beautiful, hard-earned concretes into abstractions? We’ll explore this idea in Part 2.

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