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Write on Wednesday about details

September 27, 2008

Another thoughtful prompt from Becca this week, on Write on Wednesday.  I am so pleased I decided to take the time today to think about it.

Are you detail oriented in your writing? What are some of the details you most notice in the world around you? What details do you focus on in your writing – place, character, emotional?

Photo by Jim Flynn

Photo by Jim Flynn

The public library is looking for me.  I checked out Bird by Bird, written by Anne Lamott, on August 3rd.  The library gives you the book for three weeks, at which time you can renew another three weeks.  That due date was September 14th, but I am not finished with the book yet.  I should just go out and buy it, but I haven’t gotten around to it, and I can’t give this one up until I have a replacement copy.

Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott

Anne gets me off to a good start every day.  In between the bliss of Egyptian cotton and wrapping my peanut butter sandwich in wax paper, I have Anne.  I read two or three pages at a time.  There are tiny post-it tags sticking out of three sides of the book; it looks like a porcupine.  I don’t really want to finish this book.  I will certainly read it again because it is teaching me a lot, but I am also planning to read it again because I am taken with the way she writes in such incredible detail.

Anne writes in detail about things, but she also writes in detail about… the details of writing.  She says,

I honestly think in order to be a writer, you have to learn to be reverent. If not, why are you writing? Why are you here?

Let’s think of reverence as awe, as presence in and openness to the world. The alternative is that we stultify, we shut down. Think of those times when you’ve read prose or poetry that is presented in such a way, that you have a fleeting sense of being startled by beauty or insight, by a glimpse into someone’s soul. All of a sudden everything seems to fit together or at least to have some meaning for a moment. This is our goal as writers, I think; to help others have this sense of – please forgive me – wonder, of seeing things anew, things that can catch us off guard, that break in on our small bordered worlds. When this happens, everything feels more spacious. Try walking around with a child who’s going, “Wow, wow! Look at that dirty dog! Look at that burned-down house! Look at that red sky!” And the child points and you look, and you see, and you start going, “Wow! Look at that huge crazy hedge! Look at that teeny little baby! Look at the scary dark cloud!” I think this is how we are supposed to be in the world – present and in awe. There is ecstasy in paying attention.

So the details may be describing a character’s feelings, or the details may be describing the side of a barn.  The writer may use just a few words, or the writer may take page after page to embroider, so you can see it – feel it – taste it.  Either way can work, if the writer gets it right.  Anne quotes Gary Snyder:

Ripples on the surface of the water-
Were silver salmon passing under – different
From the ripples caused by breezes.

You can see it, can’t you?  Do your eyes squint, because you know the light is glaring, sparkling, shimmering off the top of those ripples, even though he has not mentioned it?

While I savor the taste of a few pages, a few words of wisdom (I think she would laugh at this) from Anne, I start my day with a calm, grounded feeling.  When I step out the door with the dog, I am noticing the smaller parts of the whole with awe.  How thick the moisture in the fall air feels, in comparison to the dry, gold leaves that are starting to cover the ground.  The layer of fog that floats just above the ground in the park looks thick enough to stand on, but my legs cut right through it like my finger dipping into a bowl of fresh whipped cream.

I do try to use “details about place, character, emotion” in my own writing:

I walked to school. Up the steps, my backpack felt heavy with nothin in it. Pulled open the huge door. Window got safety glass, but it’s all cracked with a bullet hole in the middle.

Got in the line, twenty kids already there in front of me. They must be hungry. Took off my belt, and went through the metal detector, holdin my pants up while security run the wand. Walked down the hallway, not lookin at nobody. Brown walls. Janitor paints em, and five minutes later, someone comes along and writes ‘fuck you’ with a permanent marker they stole from a teacher desk. Decoration with a message.

The gray floor is scuffed up and dirty, probably started out a different color.  It’s darker in the auditorium, good thing.  We waited there every morning like a bunch of dogs in a pen.  Damn musty, but I couldn’t decide if it was better to breath through my mouth or my nose.  I looked at my new shoes so I wouldn’t have to think about nothin.

Are the details there? Can you see it? Feel it?

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21 Comments leave one →
  1. September 28, 2008 3:21 am

    I like the concept of reverence, of awe. I definitely think I have that most of the time and it is what I try to convey when I write about books or artists or films that inspire me. I think it is because I cultivate that sense of awe–of keeping my eyes open–that I often find things that I like about a wide variety of books, movies, music, etc. and why I could probably be accurately accused of ‘loving’ too many things. I cannot help it, I have been programmed, or have programmed myself, to at least try to glean something out of every experience. I don’t always succeed, especially in summer when I am least inclined to be out experiencing life, but I certainly try.

    I am thrilled by the relationship that your are having with this book. I’m not sure the author would laugh, unless it was to do so out of great joy. The way you are relating with her work is probably the reaction that she, and all authors, most long for when they publish. It is always a pleasure when I read how others have reading experiences like I do…builds a nice feeling of kinship.

    You definitely need to own this book. In fact I feel so strongly about it that I just ordered a “like new, gift quality’ copy from a seller on Amazon for you. Please email me your address (cvincent68 (at) comcast (dot) net), and forgive me if you already have in the past, my email account is such a mess, and I’ll ship it to you as soon as it arrives. You’ve made my day with this post and I want to return the favor. Have a great rest of the weekend!!!

  2. September 28, 2008 4:40 am

    Aw, Carl! You are so thoughtful, thank you. Being a gift from you will double the treasure quality of it. Thanks!

    I find Anne to be incredibly human, and very open about the fact of her lack of perfection. That is why I think she would laugh, although you are right, she would probably also be pleased. She has an incredibly quirky sense of humor – not the belly laugh kind – the kind that has a little edge to it because it is so full of reality. A review in the San Francisco Chronicle said, “Anne Lamott is walking proof that a person can be both reverent and irreverent in the same lifetime. Sometimes even in the same breath.”

    You, Carl, certainly do convey your sense of awe in your writing. The awe of a child that Lamott describes would fit you perfectly. Like natural, artistic freedom that is slowly stomped out of us as we grow up, you have retained that awe. It is refreshing, and I would never accuse you of “loving too many things.” I envy your openness.

    And I am enjoying my weekend immensely. I am almost done with THE BLEEDING DUSK – I am having so much fun with the series, I had to write Colleen Gleason a fan letter! I plan to finish the book tonight, accompanied by a pint of Cherry Garcia. Heaven. Tomorrow I can ride my bike in this glorious weather to the coffee shop, and continue on with the “lost manuscript”, an extra large, three shot, cappuccino at my side. I couldn’t ask for anything more (except for my very own copy of Bird by Bird).

  3. September 28, 2008 6:14 am

    I got the confirmation email from the store tonight and will email you as soon as I get it so that you know it is on the way.

    Cherry Garcia! Sounds yummy! I am a Chunky Monkey fan myself and I must admit that it has been waaaay too long since I’ve had either of those flavors, an error that I must soon correct!!!

    Colleen Gleason is an absolute dear, she will adore your fan letter and adore your enjoyment of her books even more.

    In two more days the weather here will be glorious, at least to my mind. It will finally get back out of the 80s and into the upper 60’s like it was at the beginning of September. I cannot wait. I hope my trust in the weather man isn’t misplaced.

  4. September 28, 2008 6:18 am

    Thanks so much for visiting my blog. I’m so glad you did so I could hop over and enjoy your post. Oh, you must own Bird By Bird! It is wonderful and always on my nightstand.

  5. September 28, 2008 6:38 am

    Hi Karen, and thank you for hopping over. Thanks to Carl, I shall soon own Bird by Bird, and it will live on my nightstand forever.

  6. September 28, 2008 6:50 pm

    I am in total agreement with you about Bird By Bird, and I’m so pleased you’re getting your own copy soon! Mine is riddled with post it’s, underlining, and dog-eared pages. The passage you quoted is one of my favorites.

    Not only does your writing convey a supremely evocative sense of detail, so do you photographs.

    Loved this post!

  7. September 28, 2008 7:12 pm

    Thanks, Becca! I came upon Bird by Bird late in life, but better than not at all. I do plan on reading her other work when I finish this one. Her sense of humor really tickles me, and she is so darn honest. It is really refreshing.

  8. September 28, 2008 7:49 pm

    Got it! Feeling it! Especially when I hit your line “We waited there every morning like a bunch of dogs in a pen.” And then he looks at his new shoes.
    And the newly painted brown walls. Brown!!!! excellent detail.

  9. September 28, 2008 8:58 pm

    Becca: It is funny that you mention about your copy being underlined and dogeared. When I was looking for used copies soooo many of them mentioned that they were heavily high-lighted, etc. Seems to be the kind of book that just begs to be marked up.

  10. September 28, 2008 9:00 pm

    It’s a great book, full of detail, I enjoyed your review of it.

  11. September 28, 2008 9:01 pm

    By the way, I put a copy of this on hold at my library so that I can see what all the fuss is about. 🙂 Seriously, I’m really looking forward to it.

  12. September 28, 2008 9:10 pm

    I think you will like it, Carl. You may need a copy of your own!
    I am looking forward to highlighting, too, since I can only use stickies with the library copy.

  13. September 28, 2008 11:23 pm

    Thanks, Crafty.

  14. September 29, 2008 4:47 am

    Well! Beautifully said — and I couldn’t agree more. Like you, I share a great respect for the work and insight of Anne Lamott — she makes me smile (sometimes laugh out loud!) and also makes me think. The passage you featured and the discussion of reverence is indeed spot-on. And I could certainly see your school, with its gray floor darker than the auditorium. (It sounds a bit like my high school.)

    And by the way, your photos (including your lovely garden in the post below) are simply beautiful.

  15. September 30, 2008 12:52 pm

    What a beautiful post, packed full of glorious detail. I have Operating Instructions on my shelves to read by Anne Lamott, and I’m looking forward to her as I’ve heard so much (so much of it good) about her work. I was very interested by the passage you wrote. I think you must be one of the few authors I’ve read lately who has created a voice totally different to their own. Congratulations! It’s no mean feat to do so and to make it so convincing.

  16. September 30, 2008 5:20 pm

    I think you are a wonderful writer. I could see, and even feel, the student going into school. It resonates inside me.

    I, too, adore Bird by Bird and Anne’s fresh perspective. (Plus, she’s also hilarious!) I’ve read Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, and practically the only thing I can remember from that book is her description of President Bush with his “Yertle the Turtle mouth.” Now, there’s a clear image, and I don’t even particularly dislike him.

    Bird by Bird, though, is my favorite. Like you, I mark several places. But, I have my own copy. I’m sure you will soon, too.

  17. October 1, 2008 3:30 am

    Hi Jeanie, Anne Lamott makes me laugh out loud, too. She is just so down to earth. I am glad you enjoyed the photos. I wanted to catch that rose when the bloom was full, but alas, I was too late with the camera and the petals are now on the ground. I did admire it (and it’s fragrance) every time I walked past it, however. That is it for roses this year!

    Operating Instructions will fit right in with your motherhood research, Litlove! I have not read it, but I plan too. I wish I had read it after my first born, when I was totally lost and very much alone.
    Thank you for stating I was able to speak in another voice – that is good to hear. Now I just need to convince an agent!

    Thanks for the visit and the positive words, Bellezza. What a nice treat to come home to! I am looking forward to reading other books by Lamott.

  18. October 1, 2008 5:56 am

    Oh,Anne Lamott is one of my heroes! Such amazing honesty. And quite wise,as well. I love her books and her articles on Salon.com. Lovely, lovely post!

  19. October 3, 2008 5:01 am

    Yes, Anne Lamott is a great hero! Funny, wise, honest – couldn’t ask for more. Thanks for visiting, Pamela. I haven’t read any articles on Salon. I will have to check it out.

  20. October 8, 2008 4:19 pm

    What a beautiful way to tie together Becca’s prompt and Anne Lamott. I love Lamott – really love her. She and Bono may be two of those people I would squeal at if I got to meet them. Thanks for this.

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