By Nan Lundeen
The power’s in the details whether you’re writing poetry or prose.
Carolyn Miller describes women who wore white wool sorority blazers and “white bucks with white crew socks rolled down once” in her essay, “Arts and Science,” published in The Missouri Review.
Miller gives us one enormously telling detail—that the sock was rolled down once. She manages to paint an entire milieu with that one detail. Woe to the sorority girl who rolled down her socks twice at the University of Missouri in 1959.
In her poem “Eggs,” Sharon Olds describes her daughter cracking shells, sliding three yolks into the bowl, “slit them with the whisk, beat them till they hissed.”
The power of Olds’s “Eggs” lies in the sound, hissed. The reader understands that those eggs were being thoroughly beaten!
Charles Dickens regales us with his usual brilliance as he describes a moment during Scrooge’s tour of London with the Ghost of Christmas Present. Here are food descriptions: “great, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts,” and “ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish onions.”
Reading Dickens is like smelling and tasting Victorian London.
Eudora Welty begins her memoir, One Writer’s Beginnings, with a memory of the house in Jackson, Mississippi, where she was born in 1909. “We grew up to the striking of clocks,” she wrote. She describes a “mission-style oak grandfather clock” that stood in the hall and “sent its gong-like strokes” throughout the house even to the sleeping porch where “midnight could wake us up.”
Welty’s striking clocks place you in her childhood home.
Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk juxtaposes details of the mundane with a dramatic moment in his novel, Snow. An exiled poet traveling as a journalist visits the town of Kars, Turkey. He is researching suicides of girls forbidden to wear head scarves and describes how a sixteen-year-old girl had eaten an evening meal with her family. She cleared the table with her sisters, “giggling and tussling,” and went to get dessert. She then went into her parent’s bedroom and “shot herself with a hunting rifle.”
Pamuk’s matter-of-fact details contrasting with the suicide not only places the reader in the scene, but feeds our curiosity just as it feeds the exiled poet’s. The scene is powerful.
Sandra Redding describes the death of a husband in her story, “Tin of Tube Rose.” A couple are sitting in their living room watching “Charlie’s Angels” when “an empty can of Budweiser came rolling right over to my foot.” When the narrator looks over at her husband Ed in his recliner, she sees him “slumped down just like all the air had been let out.”
I’m not sure what to make of Redding’s rolling beer can, perhaps like Pamuk’s writing, the juxtaposition of the mundane with the dramatic creates a memorable image. Her simile “like all the air gone out of it,” is so apt it hurts.
Have fun choosing potent details for your writing!
The author is grateful to the SCWW’s Quill for first publishing this column.