Monday, February 06, 2006

Details, Details

I've been reading Where You Dream From, by Robert Olen Butler (edited by Janet Burroway). This is, in essence, a "how-to-write" book, but it's a cut above the ordinary. Among other things, Butler obsesses about the use of concrete detail, avoiding abstraction and summary. He stresses the need to write from a dream state, in which you see a story in detail and write what you see, not what you think. This is one of my favorite topics, and something in which I believe strongly: concrete, specific detail.

I ran across a great example of this today in a story by Ron Currie, Jr., who is on the verge of becoming a very well known short story writer. My prediction: he will be in The New Yorker within two years. The story I refer to is "Three Stories From My Father's Life Which Have Nothing To Do With Me", published in In Posse.

The fourth paragraph of the story (the second, not counting the frame) reads:
The sun rose, and soon my father began to sweat under the rough rumpled cotton of his fatigues. Sitting in the bow of the PBR, he scribbled a letter to his mother with a ballpoint pen and a spiral notebook, the pages of which were smeared and crinkled from getting wet and drying out and getting wet again and drying out again. The index finger on his right hand bore a deep gash where the blade of his pocketknife had closed on it the day before, and he winced from time to time as he wrote. He was thinking about the motorcycle he would buy when he got back to America. He was thinking about the Pacific Coast Highway, and Big Sur.
The description of the water-warped pages, the cut on his finger, his wince as he wrote in his notebook. Is any of that strictly necessary? No, but God, it's good. The narrator's seeing his father in that boat; more than that, he's in the boat with him, and so are we.

A less talented writer might have written "The pages in the notebook were wrinkled. He'd cut his finger, and it hurt when he wrote." It sounds concrete, but it isn't. A page can be wrinkled in many ways; but when paper gets wet and dries, it takes on a particular feel and shape that we all recognize. "Cut" is not the same as "the blade of his pocketknife had closed on [his index finger]." "Hurt" is an abstraction; instead, we see the man wince.
That's what it's all about.

Now here's the great difficulty. It's not enough to describe something in detail, even if you see it vividly in your mind. As Chekhov said, don't waste words describing the commonplace; spend your effort instead on details that create the particular, something that identifies the specific place, person or thing you are describing. Raise it from the generic.

Far easier said than done.