The Creative Spark! – Musical Essays

Do you ever go trance-like while studying?

Such crazy states are called flow. And I want you to feel flow?with music with no sound: musical essays. To make a musical essay, mix together metaphors, rhythm, and meter.

But first, listen for the symphony in Brian Greene’s Elegant Universe?hear where “microscopic particles engag[e] in a pointless dance fully choreographed by the laws of physics” (Greene, p. 16). Ah, a concert for the eyes.

You, too, can make dull chemistry?or blah physics?a harp you pluck. If Greene can make particles dance, what music can you write?

Helen Sword in her book Stylish Academic Writing says to make the abstract concrete. Not concrete as in cement, but sensory concrete—shaped through metaphors, similes, or delicious description.

Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux in the book The Poet’s Companion: A guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry spill over with poetic tips that I aim to poke into your essays:

Use literal and figurative images.
Shoot action into your essays with literal or figurative images.

Literal imagery includes description?but make sure it advances your thesis or arguments.

Figurative imagery includes comparisons done through metaphors, similes, and analogies. These figurative images take abstract words and plant them in things you can touch, hear, taste, smell, or see.

But make sure the imagery ties into your thesis statement.

Here’s a metaphor for a paper on Peter the Great’s love of the arts: “the doomed drumming of Peter the Great, his machine-gun fingertips signaling war ? .” We all know fingertips aren’t machine-guns and drums aren’t doomed. But tension sparks when comparing unlike things. And the “doomed drumming” could foreshadow a loss for both Peter the Great and the arts. So, sprinkle in metaphors that nicely tie into your thesis.

Make an extended metaphor.
Whew?now to explain extended metaphors.

When introducing key themes in your thesis, why not begin each theme with an extended metaphor?

If your thesis argues Plato favored the ineffable of truth, beauty, and wisdom over everyday realities, then, first, combine all those ideas into a main, general metaphor. Why not make this main metaphor about a funeral? Yes, a funeral. A funeral symbolizes a transition from everyday realities to the ineffable, doesn’t it?

Then brainstorm a list of ideas related to funerals, a sub-list related to truth, a sub-list related to beauty, a sub-list related to wisdom. Combine words in each of the lists. What pops out?

Well, flowers?a symbol of beauty?can be associated with both funerals and an afterlife, can’t they?

For instance, you could start your discussion on beauty by saying “In Plato’s world, the everyday beauty of roses on a tomb pale to the eternal gardens of higher realms.”

And, don’t outright mention the word “funeral.” In an extended metaphor, you create mystique by not mentioning the main metaphor?in this case, don’t outright mention the word “funerals.”

Focus on images that excite you.
What images keep you awake at night? Outside of Pamela Anderson, boys. Weave them into your topic if they fit. If writing about Kennedy’s assassination, find an image from your darkest nightmare. If writing about disabled athletes, dig up an ongoing dream you had of flying. Draft a list of words related to your chosen image. Sprinkle them in your essay.

But use sparingly. A subtle hint of brown-sugar makes for gourmet soup.

Rhythm reinforces your theme.
Rhythm in your essay can also highlight your thesis. Use the silences in punctuation like you would use silence in music. A shorter breath happens at a comma; a longer one at a period. Put your punchiest word at the sentence end.

Love the sound of writing.
Use a touch of meter. But again, make it subtle. A foot, which is the basic unit of meter, can be the form of an iamb (an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one: “escape”), a trochee (a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one: “urgent”), or other basic combinations of stressed and unstressed syllables, usually grouped in two or three syllables.

You can have two or more feet in a line: a meter.

When would you use meter? Maybe you’ve just concluded one of your essay’s themes, and you want a single-line paragraph punch at the end. Why not give it meter? And, for the sake of beauty, why not repeat a one-line meter at the end of each theme?

Or maybe you want to add rhythm to a key argument. Make it musically explode.

But even poets don’t like obvious meter. Break the rules; get away with extra syllables. After all, strict meter sounds like nursery rhymes, say Addonizio and Laux.

Practice with the best. For practice, take Brian Greene’s book and substitute your own words into his, while mimicking his imagery and keeping his rhythm.

Brian Greene sidesteps iambic pentameter, but spills-over with meter and metaphors. Musical words come in many shapes.

So next time you write, give your inner-Beethoven a Pulitzer pat. Make the written word the sound of music. A paradox? I call it a creative spark!

ReferencesGreene, Brian., The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory., W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2003

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