piling

I have a basket where I pile things that need to be done–bills, invitations, bank statements, receipts, hotel and airline confirmations, soccer schedules. Generally, the plan is that I go through it once a week. Well, there was Christmas, then Vermont, then a big writing project, then guests…. Yesterday I began to sort, and I’m still not to the bottom of the stack.

And this is just my non-writing pile.

But I have to say, I do love piling. Do you?

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.”

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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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