Friday, July 30, 2010

The detail versus the details

My friend Jeanne used to say she skipped over the description in novels because it was so boring. I skimmed it, being sure it contained some clues about the characters. As I write more and take writing classes, I've found a great focus on getting the details. Show, don't tell is a strategy everyone recommends today, and that leads to details, to descriptions of how John looked after Ellen told him she was pregnant, not "he was upset."

On the other hand, have you seen places where authors give you too many details? Color, shape, size, clothing, hair, shoes, nailpolish, makeup, etc etc. No one can really take in that many details at once when they look at a person casually. When you meet someone, you don't take inventory the way a policeman writing up a description might. You catch a few details. Which ones? Some people say you should include "significant details" in writing descriptions. To me, that means I should include what makes this person unique or memorable. If you see them crossing the street and the next day you try to name one thing you think you know for sure about how they looked, will it be the oversized cowlick in the back of the head or the izod sweater with a big black stain on one elbow or will it be blond and blue eyed, loafers, blue slacks, white teeth? I would guess you'd recall the first two items, things you don't see every day. That's a good way to pick out significant versus excess details.

I like Chekhov stories for many reasons, but one reason is that uncanny ability to choose the significant detail about a place, a table, a person. Once you know it's okay not to keep every possible detail, it's fun to choose the one or two that give the reader the best sense of that scene.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Body and Pen

One of my students, many years ago, told me he thought we should all decant our brains into servo machines and forget all this physical activity. At the time, I thought he was a bit cold and techno, but I didn’t think his idea was totally out of the range of possibilities. I didn’t much like sweaty exercise myself and thought doing without all that might really save a lot of trouble. Not long ago, I ran into his essay again right after I had reread Thoreau’s essay on Walking, where he said, “I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields absolutely free from all worldly engagements.” What is it that Thoreau was collecting or soaking in during these long walks that my student felt was expendable? I’d guess, connection to nature, a sense that I am part of something larger than myself. It would be hard to get to that feeling if I were a brain in a servo mechanism as Chris had envisioned.
One thing I’ve noticed in my reading is that I appreciate breaks that show me what a character is doing and feeling in the world. A glimpse out the window, a flash of yellow leaves blowing in the wind, the warm vapor of a cup of tea, swirling around the character’s face, the taste of a wild blueberry just picked on top of the mountain, the wind gusts that push hard against the body and then let go with no warning. These mini-descriptions that authors place in long sections of dialog or of interior monolog make me feel embedded in the character. Why? Because that’s how I experience the world. Read, read, read, then look up for a sensual input. The rhythm is familiar and takes me right into the story, has me looking out through the eyes of the character.
I’ve been trying to teach myself to be aware of my bodily sensations and use those in my writing. Gayle Brandeis’ Fruitflesh book, her earliest one, is great at increasing sensory awareness. I’ve heard that when she talked with California Writers Club, Inland Empire, about that book, she handed each person a strawberry to experience. Many people in the group had never encountered a strawberry with such intensity in their lives. Smelling, close examination by eye, feeling, tasting. I’m not sure about hearing. If you heard the berry, let me know.
Gayle, a dancer as well as an author, and many writers I’ve heard talking about their processes, say that a walk is one of the best ways to stoke up the brain. Walking with the sense on high amplification is a great experience, very relaxing and also, paradoxically, invigorating. So, nowadays I wish I could talk with my former student again and say, “No, don’t decant your brain. You would lose way too much.”