Thursday, September 09, 2004

The battle against abstractions: Round 1

We were talking about images in my beginning creative writing class today. I started talking about abstract nouns like love, hate, justice, etc.. I compared these to nouns I like that are more concrete. Well, the students didn't like to hear what I had to say about abstract nouns. One particular student flat-out disagreed with me. *sigh* It's the same battle I have every year. What is it with abstract nouns, anyway? Why are they so appealing to the younger writer? Of course, I'm pretty sure that it's because folks are not quite equipped with the tools they need to go beyond their reliance on these abstractions and that it's a matter of time and exposure to work, but it's always a divisive point. It's the big speed bump that slows down the progress of a creative writing class as a collective.

More on this later.

6 comments:

Charles said...

I told my students the diff between abstract nouns and concrete nouns is this:

Concrete nouns are like saying, "I live at 166 Meadow Lane: the fourth driveway on the left after you pass the old maple tree with the hole in it."

Abstract nouns say, "I live ten minutes from where you are."

barbara jane said...

indeed, this is why i am enjoying our writings on the sins and the mercies. we have to give them substance, something tangible, visual. some*thing* for the reader to latch onto.

i smell a writing assignment here...

love, barb

Victoria Chang said...

Interesting--I had thought young folks like abstract nouns just based on their writing, but I didn't realize they would be so adamant of holding onto them as a tool, even once you explained their limitations. I find that fascinating. I used "greed," "joy," and "guilt" in some poems lately and it was painful painful painful. I think if they are used sparingly, they might be okay, but young poets seem to go overboard.

Oliver de la Paz said...

That's exactly the trouble. That they use the abstractions because they're not equipped to actually describe something. Instead, they use abstraction as shorthand. Another contention is that they seem to think the abstract word would make what they're trying to express MORE obvious.

Anonymous said...

What I've heard consistently from students is "if I use general abstract words, my reader can interpret it the way *they* want to... and isn't that the point of poetry? for it to mean what the reader wants it to mean?" Makes me want to walk into Target and tell the cashier I want to buy this bar stool for ten cents, so they should sell it to me for ten cents. O, I'm sympathetic... all you can do is fight the good fight and keep using good examples (I love the address example above). --Sue

ryan james wilson said...

I would tend to agree with Victoria. I think the abstract noun is occasionally appropriate. My point of view is that in attempting to describe things as they are, we at some point come to the fact that things, in themselves, are unknowable and that all we can know of them is a sort of personal myth. This seems to me fairly evident. So why then, when one acknowledges that myths fairly often deal with abstractions made concrete and vice versa, can poems not do the same? Of course, it is more effective to give the reader something concrete; however, I would like to think that most good poems are written at the point where the concrete becomes an abstract, at the point where new metaphors are made. I would give the example of a child's blanket. The blanket itself does not change, but in looking back years later, the child, now grown, will mythologize the blanket, will make the blanket a metaphor for whatever he/she associates with childhood. Through this concrete noun, blanket, one can enter the world of abstractions, and if a larger abstraction can then fit into the context unobtrusively, I say go for it.