While I’m teaching at Converse College in SC, I’m re-running some of my favorite posts about writing:
Posted on July 12, 2007
Work in Progress: Details Matter
I’m teaching a fiction workshop this summer at Johns Hopkins, and we’ve been talking a lot about how every single detail matters—especially in a short story. That details shouldn’t be chosen randomly—or if chosen randomly, then used purposely during the revision process. (For example, when writing my novel Pears on a Willow Tree, early on I had one of my characters teaching English in Thailand simply because that’s where my sister happened to be at the time. As I got deeper into the book, first I cursed myself for picking a location I had never been to—and then I congratulated myself on the good fortune to have randomly sent my character to a place that fit precisely with the themes and storyline about immigration and leaving home, as various characters in the book move from Poland to Detroit to Arizona to Thailand.)
So, every detail matters. Why does someone have blonde hair instead of brown? What does the fact that she grew up with blonde hair (instead of brown) mean to her as a character? Why does my character Robert in my novel-in-progress Prodigal Daughters have a dog? First, the book is set in Old Town Alexandria, and everyone there (except me) has a dog, so it’s a natural detail to include. But once there’s a dog in the story, what else can the dog do? And why a mastiff and not a poodle or a basset hound? People who don’t write are always amazed at how much time writers spend thinking about these tiny details that may seem irrelevant to a reader. (Or, if not irrelevant, then seamlessly included so as not to draw attention to themselves to the reader: nothing like a drop of blood appearing on a white dress to announce itself as a big, flashy, IMPORTANT SYMBOL.)
The concept sounds so simple and essential to any art form (I don’t imagine Vermeer was simply slapping down the paint), and yet it’s complicated and hard to grasp. Yes, EVERY detail; yes, every one; YES, even that one.
So I was pleased when one of my Hopkins students sent me this email: “My dark secret is that I was addicted to the The XFiles. It's re-running on the Scifi channel now and after not watching it for several years, I am rediscovering the joy of how complete a universe it was. Wacky but still very character-focused. I was reminded of your ‘everything must serve a point’ this week with one particular episode that did just that. Even from the very first scene, a magazine one character is looking at means everything to that character, and matters a few scenes later. It was so pleasing to have that detail matter. Seems so obvious why it is and why we shouldn't just add ‘flavor’ willy-nilly.”
(And I will never be one to get high and mighty about TV shows as examples of good writing. Read this post for my passionate defense of the near-perfection of the final Sopranos episode, and just wait until The Wire starts up again this fall. Dare I say it? I’d rather watch top-level TV than almost any contemporary movie.)
Anyway…that email reminded me of my own humbling “ah-ha” experience back in the day. I was at the Sewanee Writers Conference and was delighted to be in Tim O'Brien’s workshop. Only…he was making us work! We were having lectures about writing instead of talking about our own manuscripts and how brilliant we were. We had exercises to do outside of our class, and we had to read assignments at night…which, frankly, interfered with the gossipy cocktail parties that were going on. Jeez Louise. All my friends were off having fun, and there I was, copying by hand the first pages of Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, supposedly to learn what genius looks like on paper or something.
Tim O’Brien (and the workshop’s wonderful co-teacher, Amy Hempel) were focusing on the idea that every detail matters, that everything in the story must be purposeful. It sounded good in theory, but I was totally disgruntled and couldn’t believe that anyone would worry about every last word in the obsessive way that they seemed to.
We were assigned to read “The Country Husband,” by John Cheever, a classic, beautiful, longish short story (here's a detailed summary). “Go to the party without me,” I martyrishly told my friends, “I have work to do.” So I tucked in and started to read. The story opens with a suburban man riding in a plane that nearly crashes. As he returns home, no one in his family is interested in hearing about his brush with death, and then there’s a lot of description about where the family lives, including a whole paragraph about the neighbor’s dog, Jupiter. I crabbily thought, “Oh, like this dog matters to the story.”*
The dog was not mentioned again for page after page after page.
I read on as the sounds of the cocktail party on the lawn wafted through my window, envisioning all the fun everyone else was having, all the literary gossip I was missing, the agent who was probably visiting that night, eager to read my work.
And then I came to the very end of the story, where, indeed the dog shows up again: perfectly, beautifully, importantly. Two sentences—but sentences that are essential to the story.
I immediately became a believer: in these teachers, in art, in John Cheever, in making every detail matter. YES, every detail…even the dog.
*NOTE: Now that I glance at the story again, I see that the dog is given a whole paragraph. Though the story is long, I’m embarrassed that I was so arrogant or stupid as to think that a writer of Cheever’s caliber would waste a paragraph on irrelevant detail. I guess we have a pretty clear picture of my work from that time, eh?