I implore the power of detail in my memoir writing. However, writing the details can be a distraction and a digression from the purpose of my words. Natalie Goldberg’s, Writing Down the Bones says, “We must become writers who accept things as they are, come to love the details, and step forward with a yes on our lips . . . details are then free to continue.” I continue with my detail journey, observing that which I ordinarily would disregard – my summer geraniums bursting in red knobs, the glowing lavender waving in a soft breeze scraping the landscape in purple highlights. A summer palate calms me and makes me happy. I can get drawn into the absence of color on a bleak winter day where gray overcast skies blanket the dirtied snow with ashen tree limbs and frosted charcoal tree trunks protruding from the ground. I feel alone and anxious reflected from the emptiness. Narrating details into my story isn’t my sole purpose.
I began a writing exercise for seniors to guide them through their memoir writing. I asked them to describe details as they sat in their lined up chairs looking out the window. One senior said she saw skinny trees and a few melted snow piles. Another saw a mailman’s truck. The room remained silent when I asked for more details. I asked what they heard, and if they smelled anything and how they felt. I told them it’s not only about their outside view but also what was inside. “I hear the heating unit humming above our heads and a gush of hot air when the heat kicks on,” one senior said. “I hear chatter and laughter behind us in the hall.” Looks of clarity popped on their faces. Did they smell anything? I smelled something sweet and grape. A senior was chewing a purple Jelly Belly. When we let go of focused vision, we learn more about ourselves and we engage in the world. We may learn that we don’t like the smell of grape-flavored sweets, or hearing the smacking noise of candy chewing. We may also learn the view of a winter’s day outside our window can make us cold and anxious even though we are inside in a heated, comfortable room. Our feelings and emotions are revealed.
I explained a writer’s vision must not be limited to tunnel vision – straight ahead – but also the words must have purpose. William Zinsser wrote in his book, On Writing Well, how memoir is a window into life. Opening yourself up as a writer to every detail using your senses, emotions and feelings helps your reader to see into your story through your window. I don’t stop with this idea.
Falling victim to the details can override my paragraph’s focus of revealing my reflections or introducing action to move my story. In this paragraph from my memoir, I can include sensory details and show feelings and emotions while maintaining a purpose and place for it in my story.
One heated summer morning, humidity obscured the rising sun as I stood at the top of the driveway. Lending its shade, my tree caught my attention as if to warn me. I inched closer to my tree. With bent knees and my rear end sticking out, I squatted lower to get a better look at the curb encircling its trunk. My line of vision was difficult so I stepped to the curb into the dim spot knowing if I could get closer to the ground, I could focus better. My once warm body cooled and goose bumps crept up my arms. I’m not sure if my reaction was due to my cooling in the shade or the ignition of adrenaline anticipating what was to come.
Through the details of my paragraph, I can also show its purpose. I was a curious child where an encircling curb surrounding my tree called for my attention. The anticipation of what was to follow from sinking deeper into my squat triggered a physical and emotional reaction. I needed to write an action paragraph and to use details to drawn the reader into the scene.
Evoking the power of sensual, emotional and feeling details carries a one-two punch, drawing the reader in, discovering more of yourself and a purpose to your story.