Since I was asked to write a guest blog post for Clarion, I’ve been going back and forth regarding what topic to blog about. Should I write some useful technical advice for the storyteller, or something a little more philosophical? I don’t think I’ve been this paralyzed since I was looking for topics for college admission essays. Too many options! Too much potential.
Until it occurred to me that I could do two for the price of one. Which is to say, I could talk about maintaining the physical plant, and the importance of telling detail all at once.
See, as writers, we have a tendency to live all up in our heads. And that–frankly–isn’t good for our narratives or our bodies. Human beings are animals–a particular and unique sort of animal, it’s true, that builds space ships and writes novels, but animals nonetheless. And animals are designed to move, to explore, to exist in an enriched environment. It is bad for us, in other words, to sit in a chair all day and type. We become depressed. We become unhealthy. We suffer from vitamin D deficiencies and flabby muscles that cannot adequately support our spines and repetitive motion trauma and deep vein thrombosis.
And our stories suffer too. Because one of the most critical skills of the fiction writer is the ability to observe, and to transfer those observations with detail and specificity to the page. Not a chair, not the chair, but this chair, right here. This mended, oaken chair. This square, puppy-chewed leather chair. This whitewashed ladderback with the wobbly leg fixed with a screw. Your grandfather’s recliner with the coffee stain and the faint aroma of hair pomade. Your Uncle Elton’s fragile Queen Anne. A bentwood rocker with a frayed cane seat.
This chair. Right here. This chair that could never be mistaken for any other.
And this, this need for specificity, this drive towards what John Gardner called ‘the telling detail,’ is critical. Objects in reality are not fungible. We are aware of their presence on significant, semiconscious level–and when you can make the reader similarly aware of the uniqueness of objects–and characters, and people–in your world, you will go a long way towards immersing them into a fictional dream–to borrow Gardner’s terminology again–that is vivid, continuous, and real.
And the only way to do that is to imagine that world concretely. Imagine it with all your senses: there are more than five (or six for that matter). Imagine it with your sense of balance. Feel the rock turn under your heroine’s feet. Feel the grass clutch at your hero’s toes.
It’s easier to do this, of course, if you have a rich internal library of sensation–of chairs, as it were, or people, or grassy meadows–from which to draw. And it’s easiest to do that if you get out in the world and experience it.
I’m not suggesting that every writer needs to take up jogging, or three-day-eventing, or triathalons, or open-sea kayaking. But it doesn’t hurt to get out and go for a walk, if you are physically capable. It’s good thinking time, for one thing, and it also helps the animal of your body stay useful and strong, so it does not distract you with crippled wrists and a collapsed spine. While you’re out there, notice things. Look at people. Notice how the woman across from you holds her cell phone with two fingers until she gets irritated, when she wraps her whole hand around it. Notice the guy on the bus wearing sandals in January. In Minneapolis.
If you can’t go for that walk, do what you can. Every bit helps–and the more knowledge and experience–first-person experience–you can bring to what you write, the easier it will be to evoke that fictional dream.
That’s one of the real secrets of the old chestnut about “write what you know.” It doesn’t mean that you should limit yourself to autobiography; it means that the broader your experiences, the broader your command of telling detail. And that is what gets the reader sucked in to the story like nothing else.