The 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.
“…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.”
Back 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?