I was back with my friends at the retirement center this last weekend. What a gift, to sit at the table and listen to their stories. Some of these folks are new to writing, others more experienced. But, what I’ve learned is that no matter how much time we’ve spent working at the craft, we can all use practice filling in the details of a story.
“A lot of people [have had] an experience that other people might want to read about. But this is not the same as “being a writer.” Or, to put it in a more sinister way: everyone can dig a hole in a cemetery, but not everyone is a grave-digger.”
~Margaret Atwood, in Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing
Regardless of our differences in age or in life circumstances, there are certain experiences through which we all connect: falling in love, falling out of love; our first taste of independence; the death of a parent; the loss of a friendship; the day we noticed how grown up our children had become. And, while anyone can tell a story revolving around these connections, what we, as writers, most want is to tell the story well enough so that it lingers in the readers mind long after they’ve reached “The end.”
This is where details fit in. Lisa Cron, in Wired for Story, says, “A story takes a general situation, idea, or premise and personifies it via the very specific.” It’s in the specifics where the story comes alive with images and readers become emotionally connected. A great example is Carolyn Miller’s piece, “Afternoons”, found in the August 2012 issue of The Sun Magazine. Here’s a teaser:
The dinner (lunch) dishes had already been washed and put away, and the leftovers – fried chicken, mashed potatoes, milk gravy, peas or green beans or corn or tomatoes from my father’s garden – were in the refrigerator, protected by plastic covers held on with elastic, waiting to be eaten cold at supper. The rooms were filled with the smells of food. The only sounds were those of the house slowly settling around us….
Rich details. Details that were not tossed into the story without serious consideration. We experience the world in three dimensions, but we each tune in to the specifics of our day or of an event that have meaning for us as individuals. We see, hear, smell, feel, absorb details that help us define and interpret the world. Think about those kinds of details when you sit down to write this month.
- “Yesterday’s coffee.” (via The Writer Magazine)
- “It came in waves.” (via Patricia McNair’s Journal resolution ~ a daily prompt)
- “The lie.”
As you approach the prompt….
Keep in mind what specifics you, as a person (or your main character, if you are writing fiction) notice. Use one to three of the questions* below to guide your writing:
- About how old are you?
- What is to your left?
- What is to your right?
- Is anyone else in the image?
- Why are you there?
- Is there anyone who just left or who may be coming?
- What are some of the sounds in the image?
- What does the air smell like?
* these questions originate from a writing exercise given by Ariel Gore.
Just for today, don’t worry about writing well. Just write.
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