The Zen of Details
At the moment, I am fascinated by ‘telling details’.
At our writers’ group last week, my friend read out the first pages of her novel, a description of a little girl watching her mother as she used a sewing machine to make a new dress for her little girl. It took me right back to my childhood, watching my own mother labour over the sewing machine.
It was the little details that transported me. The jar of spare buttons which the little girl was allowed to play with. The thunk of the presser foot being let down onto the fabric. The smell of sewing machine oil and new cloth, unwashed, still fusty from the haberdashery.
I have re-ignited my enthusiasm for my writer’s notebook with these details. Using the little components of life. Scribbling them down when I notice them.
The way the local cockerel sounds like he has a sore throat when he crows.
My husband saying ‘Marriage is about sharing’ when he farts.
The dust that builds up in the corners of the treads on the stairs, and how gritty it is.
Puffs of pollen falling off the sunflowers I have rescued from the storm-lashed garden, falling like yellow flour on the tabletop under the vase, powdering a biro that had been abandoned there.
These are the little glimpses of our everyday life that we mostly ignore, but when someone draws our attention to them in prose or art, they enrich our perception, throng our minds with memories, ground us in the present in a way nothing else can.
At the moment I am working on a series of short fanfics that are grounded in these details. I am trying to use a single detail to spark each story. Each story then contributes to a wider portrait of a relationship. This means collecting details. So here I am with my notebook, going back to the very beginning of my writing career, ‘back to basics’ if you like, collecting scraps for here and there and jotting them down. I feel like a mosaicist building up a mural made of broken pots.
And it is delicious.
Creative Exercise: Lists
Unearth your notebook, if you haven’t been using it much recently. If you are an artist, grab your sketchbook. Now open your mind. Start noticing things. It takes practise to be sufficiently present in life to recognise the tiny details that contribute to the big picture of shared experience, but once you start, you will find them coming thick and fast.
- Walk around the house and look at the piles of stuff that have built up. Write down where they are. Make a list of what is in them.
- When you visit the bathroom at a friend’s house, look at their lotions and potions. Make a list to jot down later. What do the bottles and jars tell you about their life and health? If you draw, make a sketch of them, or if it’s easier, draw the contents of your own medicine cabinet.
- Standing in the queue for the checkout, look in other people’s baskets. What are they buying? Another list. What does this say about them? Can you make a still life that communicates what they are eating, who they are eating it with, and why?
Open your eyes wide. Your mind is constantly sifting sensory input, picking out things that may or may not be important. Usually, you toss most of your perceptions aside. Instead, write down as many as you can. Use them later in your work.