Life’s in the Details: On Writing

The thing that annoys me most about university is that you get the feeling all your reading is done smack in the middle of several warring camps, out for blood. Beating through the underbrush of gender studies, Marxism, and  postmodernism is not enough: you are also expected to have an opinion on all of them the moment you put your books down. Most days, all I want to do is slow down and take a book the way it comes.

reading-like-a-writer-a-guide-for-people-who-love-books-and-want-to-write-them-11382-pThe problem is that we’re not being taught to linger over books and arguments to actually digest what we read, but are rushed on too quickly to the next debate. Even if that’s not a problem for students, it definitely is for all of us who want to learn to write well. In this sense, Francine Prose’s book is one of my favourite books on writing because it doesn’t focus on theory or even the technical aspects of writing (or “how not to write”, as she puts it) but on the simple of art of reading well, which is to say slowly, and learning from the books we read-  and mostly, by appreciating “that language is the medium we use in much the same way a composer uses notes.”

You're here for a reason, Gregor- Hang in there.

You’re here for a reason, Gregor- Hang in there.

A lot of advice on writing (generally, but especially with regards to fiction) will warn you against using detail and description. Rather than slowing down writing, I think detail actually does a lot to bring it alive and make it believable  A good example from Francine Prose’s book is her marvellous analysis of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, which famously begins with Gregor Samsa, a travelling salesman, waking up in bed in the morning to find himself turned into a repugnant insect. With any other writer, this would be too incredible to be taken seriously- too much magical realism, anyone?  Kafka pulls it off by the entirely credible details in Gregor’s room, which give him personality: especially the saucy picture of a lady in furs on his wall is just the kind of mild sleaze a salesman would have, while still being family-friendly.

Details about people – how they dress, the gestures they use, what things they keep in their bedroom-  reveal their personalities. It’s saying something whether you’re reading Marcel Proust or the Sun on your morning commute, especially if the person in question is (un)aware of what image they’re trying to convey – if you’re in the habit of leaving a Russian copy of War and Peace on the coffee table for all your guests to flip through, you may just be a little pretentious.

I find it good practice to collect as many of these details as you can – if you keep a notebook, forget sitting around waiting for the next Big Idea, but take notes of the little things like school kids make doodles; constantly and with abandon, and preferably as bizarre as possible. Write down those brilliant or horrendously inane comments you overhear at drunken parties. Remember what your neighbour’s shirt looks like (green with mustard yellow stripes is not a good colour for anyone), the sight of a yellow turban cycling down a park road, the queasy smell of yesterday’s croissants, the way your friend pulls up his eyebrow comically to emphasize a point.

Contrary to the writing advice you’ll often hear – don’t bore us with detail or flowery adjectives – imagine what classic novels like Anna Karenina would be like  without sentences like this :

“The impenetrable eyes looked at him insolently and mockingly, as on that last evening of their talk. The sight of the black lace on her head, her black hair and the beautiful white hand with its fourth finger covered with rings, splendidly executed by the painter, impressed him as unbearably insolent and defiant.”  

Whatever your teachers say, it would not have told us anything about Anna Arkadyevna if Tolstoy had simply written that she was pale and defiant. Don’t settle, and never strip a story of the details that could’ve made us laugh or sigh with admiration.


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