In Telling True Stories, I read a short piece by Walt Harrington called “Details Matter.” While it’s geared toward journalists, it spoke to me as a creative nonfiction writer.
To research a story, he visited a home, which he described as “full of tacky teddy bears and knickknacks.” His first assumption was that they represented bad taste; I felt he was implying a moral deficiency in that judgment. What he discovered was that those offensive items were all gifts from people the family had helped.
Knowing that they had been of service to so many people completely revised his opinion of the family.
He said that details are important, but the information behind the stories is most important. Without that, they are just objects.
What I got out of his essay is that in memoir the details are important, but it’s important to show what those details mean to the narrator and to the characters. Each object must carry an emotional meaning. It’s not enough to merely describe.
Now that’s a powerful reminder about the small things in life.