Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Power of Detail

Hello! Sorry I didn't post yesterday, I had thought I said “the weekend."

Writing down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg is a book that has been with me a long time. It was around when I first started writing, which must be five or six years now, and it's stuck with me. Recently I opened it again, and re-discovered some great ideas.

Two chapters of the book that go hand in hand are “Man eats Car” and “The Power of Detail.” The first is about embracing life as a writer. Not glamorous life, necessarily, but the ordinary, the everyday.

“In a sense, this is how we should write. Not asking 'Why?,' not delicately picking among candies (or spark plugs), but voraciously, letting our minds eat up everything and spewing it out on paper with great energy.”

By doing this, the writer can become free of needing to be “literary,” of “forcing” metaphor. Instead of trying to break the world to the writer's will, there is a harmony between subject and result. An oak tree is an oak tree, not a glorious vision of life, stretching up towards the sky... (etc). In a way, the idea is that everything is equal. Birds, toasters, skyscrapers, and people. “Poetic” writing really is a great inequality. In the past, the idea has consumed me to the point where I didn't want to write if it wasn't “good.” (Clearly, I mean, bad writing must be avoided, but all you need is the cliché copy of The Elements of Style by Strunk and White for that).

From “The Power of Detail:”

“A writer must say yes to life, to all of life: the water glasses, the Kemp's half-and-half, the ketchup on the counter. It is not a writer's task to say, 'It is dumb to live in a small town or to eat in a cafe when you can eat macrobiotic at home.' Our task is to say a holy yes to the real things of our life as they exist—the real truth of who we are: several pounds overweight, the gray, cold street outside, the Christmas tinsel in the showcase, the Jewish writer in the orange booth across from her blonde friend who has black children. We must become writers who accept things as they are, come to love the details, and step forward with a yes on our lips so there can be no more noes in the world, noes that invalidate life and stop these details from continuing.”

She said it! This idea of details in writing has really transformed my creative process. I've realized that writing is not like the photography that seeks the perfect backdrop or the perfect subject; it would have to be more like street photography, embracing all of the details. The principals involved in framing and focusing are fine, just as long as the photographer (or rather, writer) doesn't seek to perfect what already exists.

I'm not arguing for no metaphors—actually, far from that. I am arguing that all writing can be beautiful, that you don't have stumble into a literary section in order to fill your work with the detail that already exists all around us. Just looking at a potholder, I can appreciate the texture and the pattern and the stitching—and then I can remember times I've held that potholder, meals I've shared with friends and family, etc. Details beget associations, and writing is the best art form for those kind of connections.

Finally, a quote from Jack Kerouac.

“Be submissive to everything. Open. Listening. No time for poetry, but exactly what is.”

See you on Wednesday.


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