Studying Details

When you read a well-written novel, you frequently encounter descriptions that arrest your attention by their penetration. The word picture makes you “see” the object so clearly. You wonder how they do that. When you look at your own writing, you find a belabored description you have written and sigh. It takes so long to get through all the words you have larded on that the picture feels turgid rather than vivid.

You may not be observing enough. Let’s consider where you are when you feel the need to describe something. You’re sitting at your desk, most likely. Can you observe the item in question from your desk? You struggle for long minutes, even an entire writing session, searching for what feels just beyond your mental grasp.

Those writers you admire are more focused on observing than you are. Writing for them is all-consuming: everything they experience could fit in their book. Sure, they’re brilliant. But they are also observing all the time. Whereas you—you’re missing the description of the sunlight because you’re complaining it’s too bright. You’re doing what people do: experience their lives interactively. But writers are weird. They’re the guys staring at you from a cubicle in the library.

I’m not advocating that you cultivate your weirdness. Yet you can be on the lookout. Let’s take the kitchen as one locale that every reader will recognize. A kitchen isn’t a place for writing. It’s for cooking or eating or gassing about the day you just had. But what if you took the time to look at common items more closely? Instead of nearly breaking your wrist to open that tomato jar so you can dump it in the sauce pan to get dinner done, just hold the jar in your hand first. Is it heavy? Have you ever considered that tomato sauce jars are heavy? As opposed to what other items you cook with?

The first thoughts you have will not be profound. You see “Ragu” on the label, and you know that’s too banal to fit your book. Stop focusing so hard. Stop trying to wrest meaning from the thing. Just hold it, let your mind drift, the same way you do when you’re at your desk writing. What associations do you have with tomato sauce? Did your mother cook spaghetti, and what are your stray memories of what she said while cooking? Or your kids, sitting at the kitchen table, irritable because they’re hungry? The more you dwell in your thoughts, the more your subconscious is bent from its habitual frenzy to revolve, in loops, around those associations. Now you can write something down.

Exercise: This post has been in large part an exercise, so I’ll add one more thought. You can be a little weird too. You can ask your spouse to watch the pot while you write down what you’re thinking. Do it right on the spot. Be an observer and then race to put it on the page.

“Nothing has such power to broaden the mind as the ability to investigate systematically and truly all that comes under thy observation in life.” —Marcus Aurelius

Copyright @ 2024 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.