Monday, May 6, 2013

Get Physical

Heard a summary of some recent neuroscience that confirms something all good writers know instinctively: graphic language resonates more effectively in a reader’s brain. Apparently, our brains really do experience the concept of “a rotten idea” more fully than the less concrete “a bad idea.”  This is because metaphors that are visceral resonate in multiple parts of the brain—parts that handle abstract reasoning as well as our more primitive, reptilian parts. Language is replete with physical metaphors because our brains have long used our pre-linguistic understanding of physical experiences to help us describe more abstract notions (to wit: “falling in love”). Language that builds a bridge from idea back to a physical experience uses the brain in a more holistic, distributive way.

It follows from this that anyone who works with words for a living should constantly strive to set the senses aquiver.

One could say that working obsessively to bridge the gulf between abstraction and concrete experience is precisely what poets do.

“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,/ That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,/ And then is heard no more” (Macbeth, V.5) is so much more powerful than “Life is a futile, brief enterprise.” And “dreams … are the children of an idle brain,/ Begot of nothing but vain fantasy, Which is as thin of substance as the air,/ And more inconstant than the wind” (R&J, I.4) is a bit more captivating than “Dreams are weird.” Why? In part because Shakespeare’s versions transform a philosophical observation into vivid, concrete terms that make the entire brain buzz.

Too often, unthinking writers (which, alas, includes an awful lot of legal writers) settle for vague, conclusory assertions:

·       “The court’s analysis was unsound.”
·       “Defendant’s proposed reading of the rule is unsupported by the text.”
·       “Individual liability should not be allowed because it promotes bad public policy.”
·       “Plaintiffs overstate the value of their case.”

Then again, lawyers are not free in every instance to unleash the full force of their poetic sensibilities. Channeling Shakespeare as follows might be a bit problematic in a formal brief:

·       “The court’s analysis was ‘as two grains of wheat hid in two bushels of chaff: you shall seek all day ere you find them, and when you have them, they are not worth the search.’” (Merchant of Venice, I.1)
·       “Defendant’s proposed reading of the rule is ‘a very fantastical banquet, just so many strange dishes.’” (Much Ado, II.3)
·       “Individual liability should not be allowed because it would be as ‘noisome weeds which without profit suck/ the soil’s fertility from wholesome flowers.’” (Richard II, III.4)
·       “Plaintiffs speak of their case with ‘a large mouth indeed,/ That spits forth death and mountains, rocks and seas,/ Talks as familiarly of roaring lions/ As maids of thirteen do of puppy-dogs!’” (King John, II.1)

Lawyers are not poets, alas. But we are professional writers. Certainly, the verbiage we produce could always afford to be more physical.

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