making order

IMG_1962In Mary Gaitskill‘s story collection, Don’t Cry, is a story entitled, “Mirror Ball.” It’s one of my four favorites in the collection and is described on the book jacket as an “urban fairy tale” in which “a young man steals a girl’s soul during a one-night stand.”

I don’t generally like stories that involve the surreal, but from the first page,  the language of this story is so alluring that I was able to keep an open mind.

“…the anonymous little haunts where songs were still alive and moving in the murky darkness,…”

The words just kept twirling me on down the river of the story…

“It was a cold fall night with a feeling of secret pockets and moving shadows.”

…until I was caught in the current.

“Music temporarily filled the empty space, soothing her and giving shape to the feelings she could not understand.”

My favorite passage of all is so full of concrete images that it almost seems to move this way and then that:

IMG_1964“In daily life, his emotions were chaos. He let himself become a vessel for them, letting feeling roar through him, pulling him around like a kite, boiling him like water in a kettle, dissolving him in a whirl of elements. Except that normally he could go into his studio and make order. He could make songs that were satisfying containers, for the kite, for the kettle, the whirl of elements–he could put each in its place. The things he was feeling now did not fit into the songs he was used to making.”

What a fantastic paragraph. It contains so many images and ideas. Every time I read it, I want to read it over again. Except that for all the rich images, the idea I keep coming bacIMG_2488k to is using containers to make order.

Growing up, when I would approach the front door with my arms full of eleven different things, my mother would always be right there with a tote bag. “Here,” she would say. “Put everything in here.”

Containers keep us from spilling out all over the place. They make order out of disorder. Here, the character poured his emotions into songs. Matisse used paintings. I empty myself into words on a page. I’m also reminded of this passage from Toni Morrison’s Beloved:

“She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind.”

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the music room

IMG_2413The Music Room by Dennis McFarland was published in 1990. I read it the first time in 1991, and then again at the beginning of August–eighteen years later. I enjoyed it just as much. Here, McFarland could be describing his own writing, instead of a feeling:

“I liked the simple clarity of the feeling. It had the appeal of a primary color; it promised a range of complementary hues to come.”

Over the years I have often remembered how much I enjoyed reading The Music Room. Then in March, at Sirenland, I was hiking up to eat lunch in this great little trattoria, when the person I was hiking with mentioned that her brother-in-law had published several books. Like what, I asked. Well, probably the most famous is The Music Room.

See how he takes these five concrete details and bundles them into a memory:

“The points on the star of this recollection were the red leather of the sofa, its bright gold buttons, the sound of my father’s shoes, his approach in uniform, and the brief, biting taste of suffocation.”

When I got back home, I moved The Music Room from my regular shelf to my little stack of books to reread. There it joined The Heart of the Matter, The Half-Life of Happiness, Beloved, The Rest of Life, and Remembering the Bone House.

Read how he pulls rage out of words:

“You want to know why he didn’t leave a note? Because even to say goodbye is to acknowledge a person.”

Before I could get to it, my friend who reads everything I read plus more asked if she could read it. Yes, she said, it’s still good. And she promptly ordered everything Dennis McFarland has written since then. They’re all great, she reported last week. More books for me to add to my growing list.

Here he turns plain words into poetry:

“In the john, I had a bad case of the shakes, but the roar and rumble of the jet engines saturated me, resonated with my poor jittery cells, which felt like a kind of sympathy.”

Yesterday, I happened upon this blog, which had reprinted this excellent article, “Some Thoughts on the Pleasures of Being a Re-Reader.” (Yes, I’m saying you should actually click away from here to read it. Really.)

IMG_2412“How odd that in this musical family one of my earliest longings is for deafness: the silencing not only of the nocturnal creakings of the Colonial mansion but of the regular jagged peal of breaking glass, of the grownups’ zingers and spiny laughter, and of Father’s terrible, smashed wrong notes.”

Dennis McFarland knows how to tell a story, slipping easily from the past of the central narrative into the present of memory, with all scenes past and present moving relentlessly forward.

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hot tub in a walk-in closet

IMG_2577Okay, here’s the thing. I got carried away in my post about the detail hunt. When I started writing it, I just wanted to write about how hard it was to catch details and maybe generate a discussion about where all the good ones were hiding and how other people came up with details.

I didn’t plan on writing about meaning, just about how to end up with a stack of index cards, each one bearing a detail, that I could thumb through when I started writing something new. So you see, I didn’t go into enough detail about the cards. In fact, I’m not even sure I mentioned them.

However, now I want to write about meaning.

The Oxford American Dictionary defines detail as:

1a: “a small or subordinate particular.”

1b: “such a particular, considered (ironically) to be unimportant.”

2a: “small items or particulars (esp. in an artistic work) regarded collectively.”


Details are like thermoses; they work both ways. As in,

That’s just a detail OR it’s all in the details.

So how does something that can be defined as unimportant acquire meaning?

Sue William Silverman wrote in Fearless Confessions:

“Maybe I’d find it easier to write if I were more aware of the meaning in my day-to-day life. But I’m not. Only when I write do I discover what my story means, what my metaphors are. In college, the maroon scarf was only a scarf!”

Janet Burroway in Writing Fiction:

“A detail is concrete if it appeals to one of the five senses; it is significant if it also conveys an idea or a judgment or both…The windowsill was shedding flakes of fungus-green paint is concrete and also conveys the idea that the paint is old and suggests the judgment that the color is ugly.” 

What we want is a detail that tells us something, either immediately or later. This is why it’s often referred to as “the telling detail.” A detail is not “just a detail” when it goes to work for you.

IMG_2502On Wednesday I received a critique of a story from one of the people in my writing group. She suggested I delete a line about a coat because “it didn’t add to the story.” I thought, good point. Then I thought, I wonder why I put it in there–twice. With Monday’s post in mind, I thought maybe the solution is not deleting it but making it work for me–making it produce the echo I was writing about when I had intended to write about a stack of index cards.

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a detail hunt

IMG_2523The more I think about Pam Houston’s writing advice (via Henry James), that a writer ought to strive to be “someone on whom nothing is lost,” the more I want to be aware of what is going on around me.

A couple of  weeks ago, in the interest of becoming more aware and of filling up the well, since I’m not writing anything new at the moment (I’m revising four different stories), I decided to go on a detail hunt. I wanted to catch a big one.

I drove out of the driveway, looking up and looking down. There were no details anywhere. This was harder than I thought it was going to be.

Finally, while I was filling my car with gas, I noticed a man–a thin man, in dark blue pants and a red shirt, standing outside the store, smoking. He wasn’t exactly standing, though, he was moving around–first toward the right, back into position, then toward the left.

Sue William Silverman, in her book Fearless Confessions, wrote:

“…let’s suppose we each happen to have a vase with a flower painted on it; the vases have hairline cracks from when they were accidentally dropped. In my memoir about loss, I will focus on the crack…You, on the other hand, writing about how life is joyful, won’t even notice the crack. Or, you’ll reflect upon how you’ve been able to face life’s misfortunes and repair the damage.”

IMG_2500Back to my thin man. He could have been out there just to smoke a cigarette, which could be considered wasting time or could be his reward for having worked all night. Or he could have been out there trying to make a decision, trying to figure out which way to go next. You could say he was stalled, unable to go in any direction. Or, you could say he was making his first tentative steps in each direction, testing the waters, seeing how it felt to move out of his comfort zone.

Flannery O’Connor, in Mystery and Manners, wrote that fiction operates in the concrete–in the details. The reader needs to have details in order to see the characters. How true is it that depending on which way I use the details, he becomes a different man. O’Connor also wrote, “Detail has to be controlled by some overall purpose, and every detail has to be put to work for you.” It’s not that we, as writers, have to spell out that his moving in this or that direction meant this or that. But there should be some echo felt as the rest of his day or his life unfolds that will make us, as readers, think back to that scene in front of the gas station.

Can you catch a detail today?

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the space for me

IMG_2568If your life includes reading, writing, and books, then it’s likely filled with piles of books and papers and other things you’ve cut out or printed for ideas and then there are all the little notes for inspiration and the notes of daily reminders and the cool rocks you picked up on the beach and…

Clutter can grow anywhere. It’s something you have to constantly work on, like the mail, because it keeps on coming.

That’s one of the reasons I love a hotel room. It’s usually devoid of clutter. I always take all the little tent notices about the cable channels and saving a change of linens and stick them in a drawer as soon as I arrive.

Speaking of little things I cut out, I have one that says, “Clutter is that stuff you don’t notice, use, or care about until it’s time to get rid of it…What if you need it someday? Why did you buy it?…Enough is enough. Clutter clouds your mind, trips you up, slows you down, and devours the stuff surrounding it.”

IMG_2564Would I rather be rid of all this stuff? Yes. Can I get rid of it? No. Now that it’s here, these things are important to me. I am buying less these days–not fewer books, well maybe even fewer books, but definitely fewer things.

I found a great post about clutter at Essential ProseUnclogging Your Creative Space. There’s an interview with a “professional simplifier” who suggests taking small steps to de-clutter, and that as we do, “We become more aware of how stuff comes into our lives, and how much time and energy it takes to manage it all.”

It’s not that I’m messy. I know where everything is, and everything has a place. But the space for me in my study is getting smaller and smaller.

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a kind of fugue

Polly Thayer's portrait of May Sarton owned by the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University

“There is nothing to be done but go ahead with life moment by moment and hour by hour–put out birdseed, tidy the rooms, try to create order and peace around me even if I cannot achieve it inside me.” May Sarton.

As the last days of summer float by, I’m thinking about reclaiming control of my days. I want to read more and write more, lose fewer hours to Twitter and Facebook, the internet in general.

Social networking does have a place. It helps me stay current with the latest articles on writing and books. It helps me feel connected to the writing community. And it’s a way to let others know what I’m doing. As Lori A. May pointed out in a recent post I discovered on Twitter, “For a writer, it’s not only about writing.”

“I am in a limbo that needs to be patterned from within….this problem of ordering a day that has no pattern imposed on it from without.” Again May Sarton.

Last week a friend and I were brainstorming about how to order our days. First we made a list of deadlines and everything we wanted and needed to do. Then we made daily, less-than-daily-and-more-than-weekly, and weekly lists. Finally we talked about what shape we wanted the mornings, afternoons, and evenings to take.

“That was what I was after–a daily rhythm, a kind of fugue of poetry, gardening, sleeping and waking in the house.” Yes, May Sarton.

Lori May eschews the word schedule as antithetical to writing. She refers, instead, to a plan of attack. I like that. I also like fugue for its sense of interweaving of parts, for its writerly rhythm. So yes, I am working on a plan of attack, in order to create my daily rhythm–a kind of fugue of reading, writing, blogging, connecting, and living.

Eleanor Marie Sarton was born in Belgium in 1912. All of her quotes in this post can be found in  Journal of a Solitude, published in 1973.

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