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?
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 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?