Thursday, November 1, 2007

When to Choose the Tangible Over the Abstract

I was reading a newsletter from the Glimmer Train literary quarterly today, and found this quote from author Melanie Thon:
The Kingdom is here, on Earth, waiting for us to step into it. Ansel Adams says: I believe in beauty—I believe in stones and water and air and soil—people and their future and their fate. If we believe in these things, then the love and patience required to evoke them for our readers becomes sacred. Art is an Affirmation of Life—not only our separate lives, but our lives within the endless body of all living things, our lives as they are connected to stones and clouds and wolves and spiders.
I love this, and here's why: Sometimes, reflection is too much. Sometimes, getting lost in thinking and ideas is unhealthy. Sometimes, you have to remember the physical world, the one you experience through your body, your senses.

After all, no matter how complex your thought processes, the experience you have of the world is mediated through the physical self.

Often beginning writers will make the mistake of writing a character who does pretty much nothing but think. This has been called the "mind on a page" problem. There's no there there, there's nothing for us to see or taste or smell or touch. And so we lose interest, and often no matter how hard we try, we lose track and grow confused about what's happening. One of the best pieces of advice I've gotten from my favorite writing teachers is to ground the action in the physical world, in tangible detail. Don't tell us that our hero is nervous, show us the nickel in his hand that he's obsessively turning over.

When you're feeling overwhelmed with mental activity, when you can't make sense of the tangled thoughts in your head, seek out the details. Focus on that. Stroke the velvety ears of your dog. Look closely at the wood grain of your dining table. Smell the aroma of a just opened jar of peanut butter. Remind yourself that this is the world, this is life. When you can identify yourself as a physical entity in the same way as a package of pasta and the wasps nesting under the eaves of your house, you slow down and take note of things in a way that is often lost.

Connect to the stones and the clouds and the wolves and the spiders, and you will connect with the self that is here on earth, now, already in the Kingdom.

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