Give It Form

A little writing lesson today from Emily Dickinson and the instructors at Kaplan’s SAT Prep. My oldest son is taking the Kaplan class and was told that the reason he received a low mark on his first essay was that he did not give enough concrete examples.

Dickinson would have agreed. Take poem #258. It begins with her saying, basically, “Sometimes you’re just depressed for no good reason—you know?” We do know, probably, but merely saying so does not allow us to see this formless despair nor feel it. So she offers, with all her odd punctuation:

There’s a certain Slant of light
Winter Afternoons—
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes

Dickinson takes the abstract idea, and shows it to us by contrasting something so mundane as a slant of slight with the grandiosity of a cathedral tune. She assumes we’ve seen slants of light and heard cathedral tunes and lets us fill in the rest. She concludes the poem by saying of despair:

When it comes, the Landscape listens—
Shadows—hold their breath—
When it goes, ‘tis like the Distance
On the look of Death—

Here she presents what is entirely her opinion as an observed action. She anthropomorphizes the landscape and shadows, making them actors in her play, and then—her flick of genius—the word “distance.” In choosing that word she makes the abstract idea of a death stare measurable, but in one word, and does it surprisingly so we can see it anew. But again, she is relating this as if she is merely observing a scene, when in fact there is nothing to observe at all but a feeling.

This to me is what the craft of writing is all about. I don’t care what you write, whether it’s poetry or courtroom dramas or SAT essays, you’re doing the same thing—you’re seeking the measureable within the unmeasured. Remember, life itself is an idea made real—every action, ever word, every building, story, or child begins first as an idea that is eventually given form. So too is it with your writing. Give it a form. As I told my son after he got his disappointing first grade: every shapeless idea has its physical brother—go find it.

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