Itâ€™s Prose Week!Â Every other week, SunWinks! alternates between a discussion of prose style and a tutorial on poetic technique.Â Today, itâ€™s Part II of our series on description and imagery from the perspective of neuroscience. Last time ,we learned using concrete images isnâ€™t just a good idea, itâ€™s the (Natural) Law! We are hard-wired for imagery.
In a nutshell, when we read descriptions which appeal to the senses, the brain processes the information as though we were actually seeing or touching or smelling what we are reading about.Â And while abstract ideas are processed in the higher, cognitive portion of the brain, images and sensations are processed in a lower, more intuitive part of the brain, in much the same area of the brain where emotions are processed.
We all know this.Â This is why, if we want to prolong the ecstasy of lovemaking, we know the thing to do is think about baseball scores, whereas if weâ€™re having trouble performing, it helps if we visualize Anne Hathaway or Robert Pattinson taking their clothes off.Â Or taking each otherâ€™s clothes off.Â The trick is to bring this principle into our writing.Â Because, as all good writers know, thatâ€™s how you, ahem, grab your reader.
Moving on, it turns out we are not just hardwired for images.Â Human beings also tend to think in terms of archetypal symbols, and to organize information in the form of stories.Â And we are finding out both of these modes of thought have a deep neurological, and even an evolutionary, basis as well.
Returning to â€œThe Heart and the Eye: How Description Can Access Emotionâ€ by J. T. Bushnell [Poets & Writers Magazine, February 2013. Emphases mine.]:
Many people tend to think of symbolism as a kind of mental puzzle, something that requires the logical processing of the brainâ€™s upper region, when, in fact, symbolism is what allows a story to gather weight in the brainâ€™s lower region, orchestrating emotional detonations so complex and powerful that they leave us stunned.
â€¦You use your upper brain to think things over, but when you have a gut feeling, an intuition, a sense that you know something without knowing how you know it, thatâ€™s the lower region at work.Â Superstitions arise when the lower regionâ€™s associations outpace or outmuscle the higher regionâ€™s logic, a fairly common occurrence.Â If your favorite baseball team starts scoring runs when you go to the kitchen, for example, you may form an association between the scoring and the kitchen, one that can be so strong it might convince you to spend the rest of the game leaning on the fridgeâ€¦
The same associative processing is at work when we read descriptions. As our upper brains are busy converting language into meaning, our lower brains are forming quick and automatic associations between the thing being described and the nature of the description.Â To say that a manâ€™s hair is the color of fine cigars, or dungcolored, or grizzly-bear brown, for example, produces no real difference in hue, but it does produce a vast difference in the association it creates. Those associations can infuse objects and actions with deeper meaning, making them symbols.Â In fact they can load so much meaning onto a certain object that when something happens to the object, it sets off a choreography of associative reactions in the brainâ€™s lower region.
I found a beautiful example of this technique in Alice Munroâ€™s story â€œAdmundsenâ€ [The New Yorker, August 27, 2012]:
The doors banged together, and the train started back.
Then there was silence, the air like ice.Â Brittle-looking birch trees with black marks on their white bark, and some small, untidy evergreens, rolled up like sleepy bears.Â The frozen lake not level but mounded along the shore, as if the waves had turned to ice in the act of falling.Â And the building, with its deliberate rows of windows and its glassed-in porches at either end.Â Everything austere and northerly, black-and-white under the high dome of clouds.Â So still, so immense an enchantment.
But the birch bark not white after all, as you got closer.Â Grayish yellow, grayish blue, gray.
The air like iceâ€¦brittle-lookingâ€¦evergreens rolled up like sleepy bearsâ€¦austere and northerlyâ€¦ Munroâ€™s images arenâ€™t just visually cinematic, they symbolically, and thus viscerally, connect us with the idea that the scene just walked into is, in a word, arctic.
OK, thatâ€™s enough to chew on for now.Â Next time, weâ€™ll talk about what makes human beings storytelling animals.
TO BE CONTINUED
Write a passage of description or a poem.Â Make a deliberate choice to use at least one image which, in addition to the visual (or sensual) picture it evokes, carries a symbolic connotation which gives emotional weight to the core truth you are seeking to communicate in your piece.
- PutÂ SunWE in the title and tags.
- Share your post with Gather Writing Essential group.
- Indicate in some way which devices or techniques I should be paying attention to. Â (If responding to todayâ€™s, put Descrimbolism in the title field.)
- This prompt does not turn into a pumpkin a week (or even two) from today.Â If your piece isnâ€™t done in the next week or two, get it in when you can.Â This is supposed to be fun.
- I will comment on every submission and include a link to it in the next column.
- If you would like a little more academic critiqueâ€”but still very friendly and positiveâ€”include the word "rigorous" in your post (e.g. "rigorous critique wanted").
Responses to previous prompts below. Let me know if I missed yours.
by Con Chapman
by Granny Janny
byÂ Irina Dimitric
byÂ Veronica Hosking
byÂ karen vaughan
byÂ Pam Brittain
byÂ JOHN BECK
byÂ JOHN BECK
byÂ Barbary Chaapel
byÂ Priscilla P.
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Â© 2013 Douglas J. Westberg. All Rights Reserved. Â Please share this on Gather.com, and elsewhere on the web by means of a link back to this page, but please do not copy. Â Doug's latest book is The Depressed Guy's Book of Wisdom from Chipmunka Publishing.
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