The über-specific words

I once read some advice in one of those lists of rules that you can find to spark off or improve a piece of creative writing. It said that if you were writing a song lyric, to connect with and engage the audience you should shy away from abstraction and be really specific.

i.e. You wouldn’t write ‘I remembered his name’,  you would say ‘I wrote David quickly on some fatty butcher’s paper and hid it between the pages of last year’s phone book’.

The advice seemed to me counter-intuitive, but also demonstrably to be true. I mean, I know which one of those given examples I have in my head. I now have an image, a sensation, a false memory perhaps. To be honest, it annoys me when those trite lists turn out to be right or helpful – and I was trying hard there to make my fatty butcher’s paper over the top. Actually, in style, it’s not far off the doodling line, one of my favourites, which comes near the start of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Case of You’: ‘On the back of a cartoon coaster, in the blue of a tv screen light, I drew a map of Canada, with your face sketched on it twice.’

IT TOTALLY KILLS ME. Arrow-to-the-heart, though I’m not Canadian, or living in the 60’s with blue tv-screen light etc. Somehow it lets me perfectly recollect the feeling of nostalgia for something that you know is in the process of ending, even though you haven’t admitted it yet. And I totally do have that feeling. Or at least I feel like I do now….

Perhaps I’d have ventured the thought that writing in the most general terms would allow the broadest ‘experience fit’ with people across a cultural spectrum. But this seems to contradict that – certainly if we’re talking about providing a really strong and lasting connection. Think of The Pogue’s ‘Fairytale of New York’ which wipes the floor with many more even-toned Christmas songs, all sleighbells and glowing tots.

I wondered if maybe there’s a corresponding point here that actually you have to choose an audience, know your audience if you like, and write for them, but I don’t honestly think that stands up. People who have never been booze-soaked bickering Irish emigrés seem to love that Pogues song too.

If I were to tie this over to poetry, I’d say something like the same applies – it’s the specific word which makes a poem lock a reader in its targets. That Nicholson Baker book I blogged about ages ago (the one about a poet making an anthology) listed a few examples of this. The one that stuck in my head was from a poem I didn’t know by Sir Walter Raleigh starting ‘Give me my scallop-shell of quiet’ which proves a completely unforgettable measure of quietude!

If I may be permitted to go further and link in something I’ve written recently, here’s a poem below which is for artist friend Becky Campbell’s publication documenting her recent residency in Athens. I suppose I think of the word ‘slinking’ in this as being the ‘locking word’ –  perhaps it slightly even strikes an off note with me, but I think I like it for that.


Statement [Perfect rhyme]


Something is left hanging

not a question

up in the air past

[which is the near past]


The far past sum

is an undercrust

rather than abrased

[erased rather than razed]


The sayers’ fluency

is the ability of slinking

between the layers.

[The prayers and then their lairs.]