My day job requires a great deal of attention to detail – I’m a medical technical writer, and I spend a lot of time studying medical records, organizing and documenting the results of all types of medical procedures. I’ve always been rather detail oriented, so my job fits my personality pretty well, and my penchant for describing minutiae stands me in good stead at my office.
However, I’d much rather spend my time observing the details of the world around me and writing about them. After all, to quote a favorite children’s poem by Robert Louis Stevenson, “the world is so full of a number of things, I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.” As the first days of autumn approach, my senses are piqued by the sweet aroma of grasses drying in the sun and ripening apples on the old trees in my orchard. I pull on a sweater when I get up in the morning, and smile at the way the dogs’ warm breath makes little clouds of fog in the chilly air when I open the back door. Sometimes I feel as if I could write entire stories about the way autumn makes me feel, or the sensation that rises from hearing a marvelous pianist play Chopin on stage in front of me.
I love novels that are rich in detail – that describe the character’s movements and outfits and the way they hold their fork or brush their teeth. And I love poetry that is grounded in the reality of everyday things, but which is able to elevate those things to a spiritual status, use them as doorways into our deeper feelings. (Mary Oliver does this so well, as does Jane Kenyon, Billy Collins, and Robert Frost.) In my own writing, I try to pay close attention to the telling details of conversation, of place, of activity, of emotion. These are the things that transport me into the story, bringing it alive for me as I write, and hopefully for the reader as well.
Because I’m an optimist, I like to dwell on positive details…but negative details can certainly be used to advantage in writing as well. The particular odor that assailed my nostrils each time I walked into the nursing home where my grandmother spent her last days conjures up all kinds of memories and emotions. As does the smell of iodine in the dark stairwell leading up to the second floor of an old office building where my childhood physician’s office was located. Or the sound of an ambulance siren, screaming down the street, recalls the panic I felt when I was being taken to the hospital after suffering a severe reaction to an insect bite. Entire stories can grow from those kinds of detailed memories and experiences.
It’s all in the details, says the old saying. While I spend my office hours knee deep in medical terminology and statistics, when I walk out the door I love to let my imagination roam free, my mind’s eye feasting on all the details of the world around me.
How about you? Are you detail oriented in your writing? What are some of the details you most notice in the world around you? What details do you focus on in your writing – place, character, emotional? What are the kinds of detailed descriptions you most like to read about?
Write On Wednesday Extra Credit: As you perform a household chore that you do on a regular basis – making coffee, washing the car, cutting the grass – notice every detail of the process. The smell of the coffee grounds as you spoon them into the filter, the hiss of the water as it splashes against the car, the rumbling of the lawnmower’s engine. Write about your experience in great detail.