Mindfulness is a big buzz word these days. Used to be called awareness. No matter what you call it, both or either come in handy for writers. We need to pay close attention to detail. That means walking around in our lives with eyes and ears open, noses and taste buds alive. In a writing class, someone read a description of an explosion. The teacher asked, “Did it really boom? If it was in a ditch as you described, would it sound muffled?” That kind of explicit detail brings writing alive. I offer you examples I’m fond of in “the power’s in the details.” Please register on our site if you haven’t already and share details that have come to your attention lately.
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.
Hey! Grab me by the throat and throw me down. Is that an irresistible first line? Again and again we have read writing advice that the first line must grab the reader. But how? Click “what makes a grabby first line?” to gather a few tips. You make us happy when you register and comment on our site because we’re all about building a creative community. Please join us. Welcome!
We bring to you today poems by JD, a retired Montessori teacher, a great-grandmother, and an elder whose wisdom I respect. This is the first time JD has shared her poems with the public. She writes of making words and of making bread and of God roaring in the morning, Ever a strong woman, JD writes of Lilith. In one Biblical account of creation, God creates men and women at the same time. Jewish legend names her Lilith who demanded equality with Adam. For those interested in Lilith, I recommend The Lilith Question. JD tells me she would love to see your comments on her work, so please register with our site if you haven’t yet, and comment. Here are links to her poems: november 26, 2012, july, after reading annie dillard, lilith.
Who would not stay
When once or maybe twice
She wished to mount and
Ride on top
Wild and free
But was denied
Put no claim on the holy,
For we are as vulnerable as the field mice
Playing among the tall grasses
Hiding beneath the strawberry vines
For God roars in with the morning,
Spilling the new day’s pain over his shoulder
And all we can do
Is all we have ever done.
Open ourselves to the light
When it comes;
Let light enter us
Until we become the Flame
the Burning Bush
I blog and write columns about writing and facilitate writing workshops. I’ve been polishing my handbook, Moo of Writing: How to Milk Your Potential, for months. The whole schmear sort of takes on a life of its own. It’s as if advice about the craft becomes what I do rather than actually writing. I’m in two critique groups, but they’ve already critiqued my handbook chapter by chapter; I haven’t brought them anything new. An agent query letter and a book proposal squirm around in my brain trying to materialize, irritating me.
So, it is with delight when I rediscover that Moo of Writing actually works.
The back of my mind carries a goal to write more poems for a collection, “Black Dirt Days,” about life on an Iowa farm where I grew up. But I was just moodling on a warm, sunny morning this week, when I hit the track for my walk. A man on a big riding mower was cutting the old football field in the center. First, I noticed the roar of the machine. It reminded me of noisy machines on the farm. Almost simultaneously, the smell of grass tickled my nose. It’s quite similar to the smell of alfalfa, which carried me on its wings straight back to hay-making time when I was a kid. As I walked, I heard a new poem in my head, line by line. I kept walking, and when I was finished, drove home, not listening to the radio, not listening to a phone message, not pouring cereal into a bowl. Instead, heading for my laptop and getting it down.
Wow! Moo of Writing really works, I thought.
Important to moodle, to get some fresh air and exercise, to let the mind lie fallow and not “try” to write. The words are there. They will come.
Have you moodled creatively? Would you like to? Please register on our site and comment. We’d love to hear from you, and we promise not to share your email address.
Silly title of this entry aside, I want to blog today about writing when you feel blue, when you’re down. It’s “when I’m weary of considerations;” it’s when “one eye is weeping/From a twig’s having lashed across it open,” as Robert Frost so brilliantly writes in his poem, “Birches.”
Last week, I wrote that when you free your creative process you will delight in the debut of stories you’ll find hidden inside.
Your stories will delight, but they may not all be happy. At times, pain or grief will surface. When that happens, should you cast those stories out because they risk bringing somebody down with you? I think not. I can’t tell you how many times Frost’s poem has brought me comfort. Frost balances the poem with the fun and risk of swinging on birches and with his choice to live. But it’s his five lines expressing the down-and-out feelings we’ve all had that I remember the best.
Consider the tenderness in Theodore Roethke’s “Elegy for Jane,” a student of his who was killed by a fall from her horse. He speaks of her: “the neckcurls, limp and damp as tendrils;/ and her quick look, the sidelong pickerel smile.”
Contemporary poet J. Stephen Rhodes shares inspired work in his book of poems, The Time I Didn’t Know What To Do Next. Some of his poems address his daughter’s suicide. I was honored to share a podium with him at a reading in Greenville, South Carolina. His work expressed the hard edge of grief tempered by grace.
I grappled for words when we laid to rest a grandbaby who never had a chance at life. It was a bitter winter’s day, and our hearts felt as cold as the sleet stinging the open grave. Some time later words came to me in the form of a poem I wrote, “Digging for Mercy,” published by The Petigru Review. I share the last stanza of that poem with you here:
Grace, grant us wisdom
to wrench open our hearts
lest mercy meet a closed door.
Brenda Ueland, a 20th-century writing guru, said, “Writing is not a performance but a generosity.”
I agree. When you include grief or pain in what you share with others, you may be giving expression to something that another person cannot. You may be giving voice to pain. And that can be healing.
What are your thoughts? We welcome your comments. Please register and share your ideas. We promise we won’t share your email address.
The creative process has long bragged of a tint of magic, and indeed, it sometimes does feel that way. A eureka sentence or two appears on the page or a new character shimmies into your writing space and voila! Magic, right?
Maybe, sort of. And if you want to believe that, go for it! But although wise folk have suspected as much for a long time, neuroscientists are reaffirming one of the paths to creativity—relaxation. When brain waves slow to an alpha state as opposed to a busy, busy, busy, firing-away beta state, wonderful associations emerge from our subconscious.
Like the cow, the writer ruminates. The writer takes in the fodder of life and digests it in the subconscious. There it lies waiting for release. When the writer relaxes, words flow.
Here’s something I was delighted to discover: Cows are Zen masters. They’ve been known to utter the sound that is spelled mu rather than moo.
Mu is a Zen koan. A koan is a paradox that Buddhist monks meditate on. They hope the process will lead to intuitive enlightenment. When writing, you can choose to relax and produce. Mu (or Moo) is about stepping aside so that your creative spark has a free connection to the page. It’s about staying out of your way and finding your way. Free your creativity, and you will delight in the debut of stories you’ll discover hidden inside.
from a column first published at femalefirst.co.uk.
My writing friends and I marvel at pasture-fed dairy cows because they relax, chew their cud, and produce as many as five gallons of milk every day. Do you feel as if you have to be uptight all the time to be productive? Gradually, I’ve learned that when I relax, creativity flows. I love the concept so much, I want to share it. I facilitate Moo of Writing workshops and wrote a handbook, which is only a cow’s eyelash away from completion, called Moo of Writing: How to Milk Your Potential. When we emulate our friends, the ruminants, creativity flows. Artwork ©Cynthia Morgan.