It’s probably not surprising that good writing avoids abstraction. But abstraction doesn’t only mean terms like justice or goodness. For example, take a relationship or a marriage. We talk about these things as if they are as actual and real as, say, a gala apple, but that isn’t quite true. When you see a relationship, you see two people. When the relationship seems to be going well, or when it’s headed south, that judgement is based on various cues that we pick up—and those cues often involve specific behaviors or conversations, not generalizations about the relationship as a whole. As a result, when writing about not-quite-tangible details like a marriage, it’s useful to replace something complex with something simple.
This is exactly what Michelle Serros did in her essay, “A Bedtime Story.” It was published in Huizache, where you can read it now.
How the Essay Works
The essay gets straight to the point, connecting the relationship to something specific:
A week into our marriage, I insisted to my new husband that we buy a new bed, immediately. Two older couples we both highly respected, Happily Married 20 Years and Happily Married 38 1/2 Years, advised us that there wasn’t just one secret in keeping a marriage happy, but rather two: a good refrigerator and a good bed.
This move immediately makes writing about this marriage much easier. For example, rather than Serros trying to describe the dynamics of her marriage, she can show us how she and her husband felt about this most-important part of their marriage. For example, details that might not mean much suddenly become potentially quite meaningful, like this:
As a newly married couple with individual credit card debt, there was no way my husband and I were going to shell out four digits for a so-called good mattress.
Also, rather than showing all the ways that the marriage begins to deteriorate (which might be many and too complex for an essay), Serros is able to use that single detail to convey the entirety of the marriage’s problems:
Six months later, during the summer solstice rotation, the arguing continued.
“Why do you always give me the heavier side?” I complained.
“The heavier side?” my husband smirked. “There isn’t no heavier side. It’s a mattress. It’s the same all around.”
“You’re not even holding up your end!” I accused him.
“I am totally carrying my side. You’re the one letting it drop. God, you’re so antagonistic!”
In case we’re beginning to grow suspicious of the neatness of the bed-as-metaphor, Serros gives us reason not to worry:
My husband and I slowly discovered that even between each solstice we had many non-mattress rotation issues to argue over.
Serros has managed to write about something as complex as a marriage using an image that anyone can easily see.
The Writing Exercise
Let’s replace an abstraction with a specific detail, using “A Bedtime Story” by Michelle Serros as a model:
- Identify the abstraction. While it might be something like peace or anger, it’s more likely to be a relationship. After all, it’s what most stories are about: relationships between couples, between parents and kids, between friends. Figure out which relationship is at the center of the story.
- Connect an object to that abstraction. It can be something that is generally associated with that type of relationship. Serros uses a bed to portray a marriage. But the object can be anything as long as it’s important to the characters. The most famous works of literature do this. What is at the heart of Bob Cratchit’s conflict with Ebenezer Scrooge? Low pay? Sure. Miserable working conditions? Long hours? Yes. But the object that we remember is the coal that heats the office and that Scrooge rations so heartlessly.
- Develop a conflict around the object. If characters disagree generally, how will they disagree over the object? As most of us know, when we’re feeling disagreeable, we don’t need a reason to argue, only an opportunity. The opposite is also true. If we’re in love or full of happiness, we find joy in everything. How the object you’ve chosen bring the characters together or drive them apart?
- Show the world around the object. One of the most important lines of Serros’ essay may be the one where she tells us that she and her husband “had many non-mattress rotation issues to argue over.” Let the reader know that you, the writer, are aware of your own trick and that the object you’ve chosen to focus on is, indeed, a good stand-in for the entire relationship.
The goal is to take the characters’ attitudes and personalities—the nature of their relationship—and make those things concrete with a detail or object. This object, then, can focus those characteristics and relationship in order to create conflict.