On Monday I wrote about an essay in Telling True Stories by Walt Harrington called “Details Matter.” It reminded me how important are the small things in life. But, as Harrington shows, it’s our interpretations of them (in our writing) which are even more important.
Most writers realize that details are important. In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg writes, “This is what it is to be a writer: to be the carrier of details that make up history.” Writers obsessively scribble notes to themselves about the shade of a flower petal, the height of a tree, and the sound of a motor. I know I do this. I want to remember it all. It becomes part of my history.
But it’s not enough that we add these details to our books. It’s not enough to give our characters little details which differentiate them. We need to know the emotional story of their belongings, their accoutrements, their props.
My friend Wilma, aka Jeannieunbottled, asked how we give the emotional story to these objects. This is what I wrote to her:
I think it’s the context in which you present the details that show emotional meaning. If a man carries a bouquet of flowers next to him on the car seat, we don’t know anything until we know what he does with them or how he relates to them. He might be giving them to someone or he might be dumping them in the dumpster behind the restaurant.
Did I really just do the tacky thing of quoting myself? Hah. Well, it’s because I’m too lazy to re-write the thought.
I kind of like thinking of it in a magnified way to see it more clearly. For the following photo, if I describe the luminosity of the white pearls and how they are speckled by light and shadow, but forget to mention where the pearls are hanging, you might automatically think of an entirely different emotional context.
Art by Janet Orr