The Revel is in the Details

Write a descriptive essay about the place you do your school work, I would tell my students. They would sigh, and they would labor, and they would hand in papers.

Jared’s essay might look like this:

My desk is four feet long and two feet wide. It is made of wood with metal legs. On top of it is my laptop, and a cup full of pens and pencils. I have a chair that is padded and has wheels.

A vague and sterile picture forms in my mind. So I go back to the writer.

Where is your working space, I ask him. Is it in your room?

No! Jared says, shocked–as if I should know exactly where he works. It’s in a corner of the family room.

Wow, I say. That’s open. Is it noisy?

Oh YEAH, he says. My sister always has the TV on, and she’s talking on the phone at the same time. And my mother comes through and yells at her every fifteen minutes because she hasn’t done her homework.

Now I’m starting to see the edges of this space more clearly. Does it have a window? I ask.

NO, he says; it’s in a corner with no windows, and it’s dark. I only have one of those cheap little lamps from Dollar General, the short kind that shines on your hands and only takes a 40 watt bulb. I have to slide my books under there to read them.

Is it cramped? I ask, the picture getting more and more clear.

Oh my gosh, says Jared. I have to climb over my dad’s lounge chair, practically, to get into my chair. Which is on wheels, but it doesn’t matter, because once I’m in the chair I can’t really move. So usually, what I do is, I wait until everyone goes to bed, and that’s when I do my best work. At midnight, when my sister shuts up, finally, and the house is quiet.

NOW I get it; there’s a clear picture of Jared’s working space. (Poor Jared! I think.)

Write down, I tell him, those things you just told me about the corner and the noise and the cramped space and the light.

He shrugs, like I’m a little but wacky, but he does it. And he writes a clear, rich description. We ditch the details about the size and components of the desk, and what is left creates a vivid picture of a very particular space.


It’s not the number of details; it is the importance of them that we have to consider.


If I’m writing about what the kitchen’s like when I’m baking for Thanksgiving, I want to give an impression of the holiday bustle and feeling. I might talk about the flour drifting off the counter, the marble rolling pin (it was my mama’s) lolling next to the ceramic pie pan, which is waiting for the bottom shell to be rolled out and crimped. I’ll talk about smells–the cinnamon, the nutmeg, the rich roasting smell of pumpkin pie filling. The turkey’s thawing in my big roaster, and the Ohio State game is blaring from the family room. My husband slips in every twenty minutes or so–he is notorious for (yuck!) eating raw pie crust. The holiday baking kitchen is cluttered and warm and fragrant. I don’t have to mention the brand of my oven or the materials my counter-tops are made of to create that feeling in my reader’s mind.

If I’m writing to impress though–well, to start, I’d be writing about someone else’s kitchen. If I wanted to show a kitchen that was high end, I’d talk about marble counter-tops and stainless appliances and travertine tile. I’d mention that the stove-top had eight burners, that the wall-mounted ovens were double, that one could fit eight diners around the marble-topped island. I’d be creating a picture of an entirely different kitchen (and trust me, that IS entirely different from mine). And I’d be writing it with a completely different purpose in mind.

Writing descriptively means picking just the right details. It means closing our eyes and saying, When I think of graduation day, what do I hear? The roar of a crowd, the murmur of a mother, the pounding beat of “Pomp and Circumstance”? Whose face do I see? What do I feel–the scratch of the polyester, the heat of the sun baking the back of my neck?

Often just an image or a scent or a mention of the kind of framed art that hangs on the wall can evoke the picture we want to create. ‘Black leather swivel chair’ suggests one kind of office. ‘Cheap fake panelling’ gives us another office setting entirely.

We should revel in the details, but we don’t have to use too many. We just have to–and sometimes this is the hard part–use the ones that count.

Happy blogging, my friends!

#monthly
#creative writing