Tag Archives: Writing Down the Bones

What About the Little Things in Life? Part 2

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

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Memoir writing theory

Deviation and Beauty

The red maple up past the McKinley Elementary School playground on Emerson Street, in Kalamazoo, Michigan, is etched on the backdrop of my mind like a permanent screen saver.  A symmetrical outline, the tree turned crimson every October for exactly one month.

As a kindergartener looking up the street from my Grandma’s side yard, the tree represented perfection to me.  The first time I noticed it was probably when I was pushed in my stroller up the street and someone, my mother or grandmother, gave me a red leaf from the ground.

Later, Grandma ironed one under wax paper for me to keep.

When my mother worked at Checker Motors and I entered McKinley school in the morning kindergarten, I stayed with my grandparents during the days.  I used to gather leaves from under the tree by myself.  Each leaf, shaped like a small hand, matched my own as I picked it up and placed it in my palm.

When I looked up into the leaves, the light sparkled, dappling my view of the world around me.

Red trees stir me with their deviation from the norm, their place in the firmament of “all things counter, original, spare, strange” (Pied BeautyGerard Manley Hopkins)  Like the passion of tender new peony shoots against a backdrop of green bushes, the red tree blazes against greenery, blue sky, or dreary human-drawn landscape.

***

On a related note, I am wondering if I am obsessed with trees.  I’ve written about the palo verde, the elm, the plum, and more.  If I didn’t have this paper trail of evidence leading me to the source of my obsession, I couldn’t have told you that this is one of my writing topics.  I recognize my obsession with writing about family and my childhood, but I didn’t see the trees until I looked back.

In her seminal book Writing Down the BonesNatalie Goldberg suggests:

Writers end up writing about their obsessions.  Things that haunt them; things they can’t forget; stories they carry in their bodies waiting to be leased.

She insists that obsessions have power.  “Harness that power,” she urges.

What are your writing obsessions?  If you look back at what you have written, can you identify an obsession you didn’t realize you had?

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Memoir writing theory