A vivid passage from Michelle Obama's memoir, "Becoming," refreshed my appreciation for the intense power of concrete details in writing. It describes Obama's girlhood experience as she rode the bus each morning through downtown Chicago en route from her South Side neighborhood to an elite magnet school:
"Through the window, I watched men and women in smart outfits — in suits and skirts and clicking heels — carrying their coffee to work with a bustle of self-importance. I didn't yet know that people like that were called professionals. I hadn't yet tracked the degrees they must have earned to gain access to the tall corporate castles lining Van Buren. But I did like how determined they looked."
Obama could have written, "I glimpsed a bustling scene of success and wealth." But those suits, skirts, clicking heels, coffee cups and corporate castles convey — more than any abstractions could — the whirling, striving energy of the realm to which she aspired.
When we're writing, it's important to remember that lofty ideas become more compelling when you express them through tangible particulars that you can see, touch, taste, smell and hear. Physical objects — tables, chairs, couches — become the furniture of meaning.
If you were describing a corporate downsizing, for instance, you might be tempted to write, "Executives plan to reduce the workforce." But how much more compelling this event becomes if you add, "Hundreds of veteran employees will be cleaning out their desks and packing up their family photos."
William Shakespeare knew this. When Hamlet feels the cold cut of his mother's remarriage just weeks after his father has died, he speaks of cold cuts: "The funeral-baked meats did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables." Brrrrr.
Similarly, writer Chris Solomon used a vision of a nighttime beach to encapsulate the dark underworld of a seaside resort: "The bathing beauties have been replaced by scuttling crabs."
When Richard Norton Smith wanted to capture the savvy versatility of Eunice Hunton Carter, a New York City prosecutor during the 1930s, he cited "her command of Harlem pool halls as well as Albany committee rooms."
Dava Sobel's splendid book "Longitude," which tells the story of the 18th-century Englishman who invented a timepiece accurate enough to determine longitude at sea, concludes with a commonplace object: "He wrested the world's whereabouts from the stars, and locked the secret in a pocket watch."
Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to [email protected] or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.