Evoke feelings and abstractions by writing with concrete details – The Merle Haggard way

by Debbie Hodge

Even when your scrapbook page subject is something as lofty as joy or disappointment or life passions, the best journaling will include an attention to specifics and detail rather than the use of words like “joy,” or “fulfillment,” or “malaise.” These are abstractions. Don’t tell me about them — make me feel –and believe! through details.


Concrete details are those of images that can be sensed (seen, heard, touched, smelled, even tasted). Including details gives your image specificity. “Creature” is a vague word. “Animal” is more specific but still leaves a lot to the imagination. “ But tell us about your “long-haired Persian cat with a wide face” and you’re getting specific.

Significant details are those that matter to the story–they should matter to the story and do more than fill space. A significant detail can suggest an abstraction or feeling like beauty or stress or joy without using that abstract word. When you write the detail rather than the abstraction you’ve got a more compelling piece.

I really love the songs of Merle Haggard, and here’s a good example of why. Check out these lyrics.

Down through the ages men have died for their women
And they’ve done so so many times
But each time I loved one I always lost one
And I guess the right one is so hard to find

So I’m shopping for dresses with no one to wear them
One in each color and one in each style
Maybe some day I’ll find me a lady to wear them
And all my shopping will be done for a while

I’ll bet somewhere a lady is shopping for britches
Comparing the value and appraising each pair
Maybe some day the good Lord will let us together
And we’ll both have a new wardrobe to wear

But I’m shopping for dresses…

Never does he write that he’s lonely or heartsick. He doesn’t use abstractions. He does use “love” but as a verb. The result is a song that conveys loneliness and a desire for love through concrete specifics, through a man shopping for dresses.

At the end, he says, “And we’ll both have a new wardrobe to wear.” He doesn’t say, “and then I’ll be a happy man.” — but you get it.

P.S. — if you do a search on lyrics for this song,  you’ll find that others have added stuff on — that just takes the song to a schmaltzy and cliched place it shouldn’t go.


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