On Writing: Among the mysteries of writing is moving from abstract to concrete


We live among mysteries. One is the mystery of change. The other is the mystery of identity. Both are realities, but inseparable realities. Rivers constantly change and are never quite the same. The water in them is ever flowing and changing. The river banks and their courses are constantly shifting under the impact of floods and droughts. These are observable and undeniable facts. But in another sense — despite these changes — rivers have an enduring and unmistakable identity. The Amazon, the Mississippi, the Danube, and the Ganges have existed for millennia, in much the same course and place, distinctly recognizable despite constant changes.

“What a marvelous piece of writing,” I wrote in my journal back in April when I first read this passage in I.F. Stone’s The Trial of Socrates. It’s the kind of writing that needs to be copied word for word in a journal. So I did. It’s a passage worth reading aloud to catch its rhythms and absorb its richness. So I did.

For those of you who have read this book, you know Stone is reflecting on Heraclitus’ observation that you never step into the same river twice. “Change, perpetual and inescapable, was his central theme,” Stone writes of the pre-Socratic philosopher.  (If you haven’t read the book, I recommend it; go buy it at a used bookstore, check it out from a library or order it from Amazon, and read it. You’ll be glad you did.) In this passage, Stone is in the process of critiquing Socrates’ insistence on needing to get to an absolute and unchangeable definition of a subject, a quest that borders on the impossible.

I want to note just a few things that make this passage stand out as a piece of writing worth studying. Stone sets a great pace with sentence variation.  He punches us in the beginning with some quick, short jabs to get us into the paragraph. Then his sentences lengthen, interestingly, as he mentions not life’s mysteries, but rivers. And like rivers, the sentences flow, they get broken up — in this case with a parenthetical statement surrounded by em-dashes — then flow together to mark the paradox of rivers, changeable unchangeableness. A mystery, like a river itself.

Moreover, and this is what stood out to me on the first reading, Stone takes a philosophical observation and examines its complexities, not using dry abstract academic jargon, but through an extended metaphor in plain, concrete language.

Stone, as Roy Peter Clark might put it, climbs up and down the ladder of abstraction. In this case, he flows from the mystery of change to rivers to the Amazon, the Mississippi, and the Ganges, all to show that change is constant, yet some things like identity, the “thisness” of a thing can at the same time, endure.

The abstractions, as Clark notes in his Writing Tools, can provoke thinking. The concrete, however, gives us the evidence for the ideas the abstractions provoked. It can work the other way as well, the images can lead us to the idea.

However you work it, this movement, this flow is a great tool for you as a writer. It’s worth trying, if only to lead yourself deeper into the mysteries of life to get a grasp of them before they wash down stream, forever lost.

—Todd

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