|A field of daisies? No: a daisy and a daisy and a daisy . . . .|
An Old Man and A Boy are standing in a field of flowers. The Old Man points to the field and says to The Boy, "Tell me, what do you see?"
The Boy answers, "Master, I see a field of flowers."
"Ah," says The Old Man. "Now kneel and look again. What do you see?"
The Boy kneels and says, "Master, I see some daisies."
"Ah," says The Old Man. "Now lie on your stomach and look again. What do you see?"
The Boy lies on his stomach and says, "Master, I see two tall daisies."
"Ah," says The Old Man. "Look more closely. What do you see?"
The Boy says, "Master, I see a 12-inch-tall daisy with three flowers that have yellow centers, one flower with a bee on it, and another with a broken stem. The leaves are green."
"Yes," says The Old Man. "Now look beside it. What do you see?"
The Boy says, "Master, I see a 22-inch-tall daisy with four yellow-centered flowers, one with two ants on the petals. The petals are white, but the leaves are brown and--"
"Enough," says The Old Man. "Stand up."
The Boy stands up.
The Old Man points to the field. "Now what do you see?" he asks.
"Ah, master," says The Boy. "I see a daisy and a daisy and a daisy and--"
"Yes," says The Old Man.
"--and a daisy," says The Boy, as they walk away, "and a daisy . . ."
The preceding is an ancient parable that I recently made up. I invented it to illustrate an essential principle of good prose. For me that principle has recently gone beyond mere aesthetic suggestion and has entered the realm of Moral Imperative. The principle is this:
Be specific. Generalities lie. There is no such thing as a field of daisies. There is only a daisy and a daisy and a daisy. . . .
|Good writers see specific daisies.|
"Be specific" is one of the two principles by which every great writer, from Sophocles to Shakespeare to Salinger, has lived. (The other principle is "Be concrete," which deserves an essay of its own.)
What does "Be specific" mean? It means, don't say "stomach medicine" if you mean "Maalox"; don't say "employee" if you mean "pimply bank teller"; and don't say "bodily substance" if you mean "belly button lint" or "ear wax." It means recognizing that generalities are merely a convenient, mendacious shorthand designed to prepare the way for specific examples--specifically for at least three specific examples, because three is, for the human mind, a magic number. Here are three specific examples of what I'm talking about:
- Generality: "A sweet nothing works best when it combines understatement with a figure of speech." Specifics: "Your doe-brown eyes are neither unbeautiful nor unbewitching. Your skin is somewhat smooth and somewhat sweet--like a ripe nectarine. You are only slightly more lovely than a mountain sunrise."
- Generality: "Psychologists are neurotic." Specifics: "My last psychologist weighed 420 pounds and held her sessions in a kitchen. The one before that couldn't talk unless he was petting a cat. The one before that wore Groucho Marx glasses and called it 'role-playing.'"
- Generality: "People who receive radio stations through their teeth should feel blessed." Specifics: "To receive The Weekly Top 40 will make you young. To receive Beethoven will make you profound. To receive All Things Considered will make you wise beyond all other mortal men."
|"Pickle" is "food" with a face.|
Specifics, I tell my students, are more real, more vivid, more informative, more honest, and certainly more entertaining than generalities. "Pickle" is "food" with a face. "Sweatsock" is "footwear" with a smell. "Rolex" is "time-piece" with cachet. A good writer must thus develop an eye for specific detail. He must, for example, learn the names of plants and animals. Many a hiker has blistered because he didn't know witch hazel from wisteria, many a cobra has bit the dust because he didn't know a mouse from a mongoose--and many a novelist has blistered and bit the dust for the same reasons.
Generalities, however, are seductive. It is easier to hold one field of flowers in your head than a million individual daisies. Besides, specifics can be dangerous. In Jorge Luis Borges' marvelous short story "Funes, the Memorious," the title character is a young boy who, as the result of an accident, sees and remembers every single detail of his life, right down to "every leaf on every tree of every wood." In the end, Borges tells us, the boy dies--of congestion.
|Gods—and great writers—see, not flocks, but individuals.|
So perhaps you can't see everything in particular. Perhaps that is only for a god to do, if you believe in gods. In fact, it is perhaps what makes a god a god--that he can actually pay attention to each individual sparrow that falls, not to mention each individual human being who is throwing up or chewing his nails. A god doesn't think in terms of flocks or demographics--he thinks in terms of a red cardinal with a black brow and a broken wing under a tree in Central Park or a black child with a white smile and a runaway red wagon in Brooklyn Heights. Maybe that's how a god can manage to love everything, and why he doesn't send form letters in answer to prayers.
And that's where the Moral Imperative comes in. I think it is morally necessary that we resist the seduction of generalizations, not just as writers but as human beings. It is necessary if we are to, if not love, at least like each other. To embrace specifics, with all their warts and whiskers, is to see through prejudice with unclouded eyes and to engage the world with sympathy. In fact, in the face of specifics, isms--the Frankenstein creations of generality--wither and die. Sexism collapses before Jane Earthmother, who, widowed and plump, has raised nine laughing children all by herself on an Iowa farm. Racism vanishes before Ernest Workman, who, black and underpaid, labors at three jobs in Compton to pay for his wife's kidney dialysis and his little girl's braces. Ageism melts before your very own grandmother and grandfather.
Exceptions to the rule, you say? There are no rules. There are only exceptions.
|Ageism melts in the face of a specific old cat and a specific grandmother. |
(This is my late mother with her late cat Chow-Chow.)