From <i><a href=“ http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/1582970254/qid=1080149318/sr=8-1/ref=pd_ka_1/102-4001947-2040144?v=glance&s=books&n=507846”>Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively</a></i> by Rebecca McClanahan, Pages 55-57
<lj-cut text="THE IMPORTANCE OF CONCRETE DETAIL">
“<b> THE IMPORTANCE OF CONCRETE DETAIL</b>
A friend who is fond of slogans, self-help tapes and refrigerator magnets once gave me a bumper sticker that reads, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” I thanked her politely, took the bumper sticker home, excised the “Don’t” with a felt-tipped marker, and placed the sticker over my writing desk. A writer’s job, after all, is to sweat the small stuff. Without the small stuff, no large stuff can follow. “No ideas but in things,” wrote William Carlos Williams, the father of imagist poets.
Ideas exist, of course, floating noiselessly above our heads, infused with ether. But how does one paint an idea? Or one’s idea of an idea? It <i>is</i> possible, however, to paint a cow’s skill or a white flower- that is, a representation of a cow’s skill or a white flower- and allow the idea to rise from the embodied object. When she was asked about how she came to paint the famous <i>Cow Skill: Red, White and Blue</i>, O’Keeffe responded that she painted “my cow’s head because I liked it.”
I love the way O’Keeffe called her painting “my cow’s head,” taking personal possession of the thing itself and revealing her attachment to it. Why is it that so often in our writing, we fail to describe the <i>things</i> of the story, the poem, the essay? Maybe we don’t believe anyone would be interested in the ordinary objects of our world. Or perhaps we feel the task is simply beneath us. After all, we’re trying to make Art, right? We’re trying to move our reader to a new place, reveal Truth with a capital “T”. Once, in a college writing class, I questioned a student about why he had typed his poem in all caps. I was stalling for time, trying to find something positive to say about the poem, which was filled with phrases like “the anxiety of my being” and “the chaos of undefined modernity.” He looked up, his mouth spreading into a smuch smile: “I didn’t want anyone to miss the obscurity.”
I swear, that’s what he said. And I had to hand it to him; he’d certainly accomplished his purpose. No reader could possibly miss the obscurity.
I nodded mutely and moved on to the next writer. Eight of the twelve lines of her poem were devoted to describing a button. It was a small black plastic button, smooth as a wet stone, slippery to the touch, nothing special, the kind of button you can buy in any fabric store (four buttons to a car, two dollars and forty-nine cents). Painstakingly, the writer had described its shine, its four tiny holds, the way the needled made a “scratching” sound as she tried to stitch the button onto a blue seersucker jacked. The man wearing the jacket was the narrator’s dead father, propped up in a casket a few hours before the viewing. The daughter, who had noticed that a button was missing, had hurried to the store for a replacement.
That’s all she wrote; those were the twelve lines. But beneath the workmanlike description of a button, the poem was living and breathing on its own. The button was a button, yes. But it was also the embodiment of a daughter’s grief, her attempt to fill the missing space. Sewing on the button was the last chore she would ever perform for her father.
I’ve mentioned that the poet had taken pains to describe the button. The work of an accurate description can be painstaking and difficult, and it often goes unpraised, like most menial labor. In some ways, a writer <i>is</i> a menial laborer, laying stone by stone what John Gardner called the “proofs” of the story, those closely observed details that convince the reader the events really happened or might have happened. Much of our writing energy is expended not in illuminating the deep mysteries of theme and symbol but in simply performing the physical tasks of the story, such as moving a character from the bed to the refrigerator. Or describing a small black button.
Why spend eight lines of a twelve-line poem to describe a button? After all, such description requires valuable time and energy, not only for the writer but for the reader as well. Why not just mention the button, then move on to a memory of the narrator and her father, or to a lyrical riff on the joys of the father-daughter bond? Why is it so important to sweat the small stuff?
Keeping alive the fictional dream is the most obvious reason to sweat the small stuff. But it is not the only one. Equally important is the power of concrete detail to engage not only the mind of a reader but his emotions as well. A poet can drone on and on about how her father’s death has affected her. She can use abstractions like <i>grief</i> and <i>pain</i> and <i>emptiness</i> until the proverbial cows come home, without moving the reader.
If it is difficult to write about grief or pain or emptiness without first embodying these concepts, it is equally difficult to write abstractly about a father’s death. The subject is too large; the writer cannot compete with it. But let that same poet thread a needle, take a small black button in her hand, stitch it to a dead man’s jacket, and the reader enters the poem with her. Word by carefully crafted word, the world of grief shrinks until it can fit through the eye of a needle. Finally, it is the small things that break our hearts.
The necessity of concrete imagery applies to prose as well as to poetry. “The fiction writer,” said Flannery O’Connor, “has to realize that he can’t create compassion with compassion, or emotion with emotion, or thought with thought. He has to provide all these things with a body; he has to create a world with weight and extension.” Before an idea, emotion or abstraction can take on imaginative weight and substance, it must be embodied in sensory, concrete detail.
PRACTICE WHAT WE’VE LEARNED:
Keeping today’s “lesson” in mind, try one (or all) of the following
PROMPT: Following Flannery O’Connor’s advice about writers providing a concrete body for emotions, scan a recent piece of your writing [NOTE: the prompt we did on grief is probably a great place to start, although I note that most of you seem to have already taken the advice in today’s section and made it a part of your writing. There were some really LOVELY images.] for an abstract term for an emotion (words like <i>love, grief, anxiety, </i> and <i>guilt</i>). Rewrite a section that contains an abstraction, substituting concrete images that suggest the feeling. If you find it hard to remove the abstraction completely, try anchoring it with a concrete detail. For instance, instead of writing, “I feel a heavy guilt every time I go home,” you could write, “Guilt comes in the door with me, dragging its heavy suitcase.””
PROMPT: Review the last entry’s prompts about “Regret”. Try to do one of the exercises WITHOUT using the word “Regret”.
PROMPT: Think of a major event in your life: marriage, death, graduation, birth of child, new house, first day away from school, etc. What is the smallest detail of that day that you remember? Think about <i>why</i> your mind filed that particular detail away. Write about the event, focusing on that detail.
PROMPT: Describe the nature and feeling of love to someone who has never had the experience.
PROMPT: Write a poem using a “concrete detail” (specific action, specific object, etc.) as a metaphor or to evoke an abstract feeling.
PROMPT: Write a scene in which a character receives very disappointing news. Rather than show the disappointment, she does something else, perhaps focuses on efinishing an old chair or a similar activity. Suggest her emotional state through her actions.
PROMPT: Write about an illuminating moment in your life, a time when you learned an important lesson or gained an important insight. Describe the scene exactly as it happened, but don’t mention the lesson or insight.
DUE DATE: Please turn in your assignment <b>AS A COMMENT TO THIS ENTRY </b>by 11:59 PM, EST on Sunday. I will post the new assignment Sunday afternoon.
KEEP IN MIND:
1 PLEASE make your assignment a comment. I’ve gotten several complaints about friends page spam. We don’t want to lose any lovely writers from our group!
2. Make it a practice to read what others have written. I’m REALLY impressed with what people are doing, and it gives me a lot of insight/perspective to see how other people approach the same topic. Comments are encouraged, but NOT required. If you do choose to comment, please make it your rule of thumb to say one encouraging thing before you set off on what needs improvement (and if you set off telling others what needs to be improved, keep the adage about “glass houses” firmly in mind). We are ALL on the same level here. That level is “Writers who are going to be better than we are now!”.
3. Please feel free to let other writers know about our group.