Thinking Fast and Slow

Because of modern cognitive science and imaging technology,  we can now pinpoint some of the reasons that writing can fail even when it’s technically correct: It’s because the organism (the reader, the human), at its deepest level, is not responding. Only the linear intellect is engaged. For writing to be most effective, both the intellect and the emotions must be engaged. The writing must appeal to the whole brain and whole body. Because the emotions have to do with the body, they are engaged primarily through the senses.


Writing will seem bland when it tries doggedly to convey information. (And if the writing is technically incompetent, it will frustrate and confuse the reader as well.) Here is a statement from The National Drought Mitigation Center at the School of Natural Resources of the University of Nebraska.


In the 1930s, drought covered virtually the entire Plains for almost a decade (Warrick, 1980). The drought’s direct effect is most often remembered as agricultural. Many crops were damaged by deficient rainfall, high temperatures, and high winds, as well as insect infestations and dust storms that accompanied these conditions. The resulting agricultural depression contributed to the Great Depression’s bank closures, business losses, increased unemployment, and other physical and emotional hardships. Although records focus on other problems, the lack of precipitation would also have affected wildlife and plant life, and would have created water shortages for domestic needs.


That passage makes no claims on our emotions. It is possible, perhaps, to read that and ponder it and come up with a suitable emotion. But phrases such as “deficient rainfall,” “insect infestations,” and “increased unemployment,” just to mention three, work hard to keep emotion out of the picture. In fact, the writer created no picture, and if we’re to have any images at all, we’ll have to find them without the help of the writer. Compare that passage to this other description of the same events.


To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weak colonies and grass along the sides of the road so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover. In the last part of May the sky grew pale and the clouds that had hung in high puffs for so long in the spring were dissipated. The sun flared down on the growing corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet. The clouds appeared, and went away, and in a while they did not try any more. The weeds grew darker green to protect themselves, and they did not spread any more. The surface of the earth crusted, a thin hard crust, and as the sky became pale, so the earth became pale, pink in the red country and white in the gray country.


In this vein, John Steinbeck goes on for about 1500 words, and for the most part, he touches on exactly the same information that the Drought Mitigation Center did.


“Agricultural” – “…the leaves of the young corn became less stiff and erect; they bent in a curve at first, and then, as the central ribs of strength grew weak, each leaf tilted downward…”


“high winds” – “Now the wind grew strong and hard and it worked at the rain crust in the corn fields.”


“dust storms” – “Little by little the sky was darkened by the mixing dust, and the wind felt over the earth, loosened the dust, and carried it away… During a night the wind raced faster over the land, dug cunningly among the rootlets of the corn, and the corn fought the wind with its weakened leaves until the roots were freed by the prying wind and then each stalk settled wearily sideways toward the earth and pointed the direction of the wind.”


“physical and emotional hardships” – “The people came out of their houses and smelled the hot stinging air and covered their noses from it. And the children came out of the houses, but they did not run or shout as they would have done after a rain. Men stood by their fences and looked at the ruined corn, drying fast now, only a little green showing through the film of dust. The men were silent and they did not move often.”


The vivid detail of Steinbeck’s prose makes the senses come alive with images. Of course, the first piece of writing is a technical report, and the second is a novel, so it’s unfair to compare them. I do it to make a point more vividly. If the writer in the first case had turned in something like Steinbeck’s description, undoubtedly the boss would have tossed it back at him, saying, “What do you think you’re writing here, The Grapes of Wrath?”


But the two pieces illustrate the difference between engaging the intellect alone in an abstract fashion and engaging the emotions with physical details that appeal to the senses. In the first case, the words are lifeless symbols. In the second case, they create rhythm, texture, color, tactile sensations, and even sounds and smells. To use the old dichotomy, they engage the body as well as the mind. The Cartesian duality in which we have so long been confined is not a commodious thing. It makes us half human. A work of art strikes it down and makes us whole again.

“Enormity” Does Not Mean Big

To pick on Ann Patchett a bit more (see “Only the Lonely”) consider this sentence: “Marina hadn’t understood the enormity of the river until she was on it.” And somewhat later in the book: “The enormity of Marina’s happiness was caught in that light.” 


Garner’s Modern American Usage (Third Edition, Oxford 2009) says, “The historical differentiation between these words should not be muddled. Enormousness = hugeness, vastness. Enormity = outrageousness, ghastliness, hideousness…. The OED notes that ‘recent examples [of enormity for enormousness] might perh. be found, but the use is now regarded as incorrect.” 

Only the Lonely

Ann Patchett is a wonderful novelist. Don’t begin one of her books in the evening, because it will steal the night from you. One day at random I picked State of Wonder from a shelf in my house to look at it during breakfast. I didn’t put it down for three days. 


But like so many of us, Ann has trouble with the word “only.” In a book that made me stumble over her words almost never, she had this sentence: “She only comes to town once every few months.” Of course, she meant to write, “She comes to town only once every few months.” And since both “only” and “once” mean “one,” she really meant not to use the demon word at all. This would have been fine: “She comes to town once every few months.” 


Our editors are supposed to help save us from that sort of obvious blunder, but they’re not onto their jobs these days. 


State of Wonder, Harper 2011