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?

Bookmark and Share

19 thoughts on “a detail hunt

  1. Lovely, Cynthia. I’ll be starting on the final edit of my novel next week and I will keep your post in mind, watching for details to take my writing to the next level. Thanks for this post.


  2. your advice is so important. One of the ways I like to journal is to at the end of the day write a quick list of 10 details that stick out from my day. The practice helps me be more aware of details over time, and also not always be scribbling things on napkins! These days I’ve gotten kinda lazy about it – thanks for the reminder 🙂


  3. Wonderful post about being more aware. This is something we all sort of know, but actually observing like this is something else. I loved following along with you as you made yourself do it.


  4. Margo, What a great idea–making a quick list of 10 details at the end of the day. I tried this last night, and making the list after a period of time has elapsed changes the perspective a little. Instead of what’s important at the moment, the question becomes what was important enough to stick. Both interesting approaches to take to details. Thanks for adding to the conversation!


  5. I enjoyed this post, especially your cracked vase example. I usually have a notebook on me to jot down things when I’m out and about. In revision I often add and subtract detail – TMI can be an opposite problem. Too much descriptive prose slows the pace. Good luck with your revisions!

    I also read your post on clutter and am now motivated to attack my desk – my piles are almost nose high. When I get caught up in my writing, I neglect everything else.


  6. This is such a good post, Cynthia. It made me smile because in my household I’m notoriously absent-minded – when I take the dog for a walk, for example, I’m often working out design problems in my head or analyzing a book I’m reading, rather than noticing what’s around me. My partner, on the other hand, is hyper-observant; he was raised by research scientists and has SUCH an eye for details of the world around him. It happens very often that we’ll be out on a walk together and he’ll say something like “Wow, did you see pattern on the shorts that bicyclist was wearing?” And I’ll come out of my reverie to respond “What bicyclist?” We have this exchange so often that it’s become a running joke. 🙂 I have mixed feelings about being the unobservant party…I think it’s because my brain is very tenacious, and never wants to let go of whatever project it’s working on at the moment. I think my reveries certainly have their own set of benefits, but I’ve been thinking of trying to establish an “observant mode” as well. Anyway, thanks for the thought-provoking entry.


  7. Yes. You are so right. Life is in the details. The best stories are those that allow us to slip inside them, into their cracks. I can’t tolerate those stories, or movies, that hit you over the head with what they are so desperate to tell you.
    PS The “echo”, yes, perfect word


  8. Sarah, Sue William Silverman’s cracked vase example was helpful to me as well, and I agree, it’s usually when I’m revising that I can see where there’s too much or too little detail. I try not to think about it too much when I’m writing. And when I’m writing, I have this amazing ability not to see anything that needs doing. But when I open my eyes, ugh, everywhere I look, a pile to attack. Thanks for your comment.


  9. Emily, I love the “what bicyclist?” Your story reminds me of Marilynne Robinson telling us that she reads while she walks the dog! Thanks for your wonderful comment.


  10. Judith, I love what you wrote in your comment, that the best stories allow us to slip inside the details. Thanks for adding to the conversation. I hope you’ll be back.


  11. Most nights, at bedtime, I ask my kids to say at least one thing from the day that stuck with them. One detail. My husband will walk into a room and notice if a book is moved. It will take me weeks to realize it is missing, but I will notice a smell, or a change in light bulb. It is like you say, all about perception.


  12. Jennifer, I love that you ask your kids one thing that stuck with them from the day. That’s a great way to help them learn to be aware and reflective.

    It is interesting, isn’t it, comparing what we notice and what that says about us.


  13. Pingback: the next writer in the series: may 1, 2014 | catching days

Comments are closed.