As I write this, a cool breeze from the fan overhead gently lifts my hair, the soft whirring of its blades a counterpoint to the clicking computer keyboard. One dog (Molly) lies stretched full length in the doorway, sleeping soundly, while the other (Magic) is perched on the bed gazing attentively out the window, awake and on the lookout for a squirrel, or his favorite neighbor from across the street. Dusk is falling, earlier now that summer is on the wane, and soon I’ll need to switch on the desk lamp, but not yet…I can still just barely see the keyboard in the hazy blue glow from the monitor. A glass of white wine rests on a slate coaster beside me, beads of sweat forming around it as the chill liquid inside meets the warm air of the room.
“Writing is about learning to pay attention and communicate what is going on,” writes Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird. “In order to be a writer…you have to learn to be reverent.”
Life is in the details, someone once said, and for the writer, learning to observe everyday details and make them important for the reader is vital to creating character, setting, and moving plot along. In my first paragraph, I was trying to give you a word picture of where I was (a bedroom/writing room), the weather (hot, as evidenced by the ceiling fan and the sweaty glass), the type of person I am (someone who writes, drinks wine, and loves dogs, because they lie on my bed!) But I was also trying to convey a sense of reverence for these homely details about my life and this room where I come to write.
“We are important and our lives are important, magnificent really, and their details are worthy to be recorded,” says Natalie Goldberg, in Writing Down the Bones. “This is how writers must think, how we must sit down with pen in hand. We were here; we are human beings; this is how we lived.”
The writing I love to read is full of details – about people and places, some might call it minutiae, but for me the details are what make the story and the era come alive. I love to know what people were having for tea in Jane Austen’s drawing room, how they dressed for the party in Scarlett O’Hara’s American South, and in more contemporary work, the cars they were driving, the TV shows they were watching, all those kinds of everyday details that help me identify time, place, and character. And often I am surprised by the beauty evident in those seemingly ordinary moments.
“This is our goal as writers,” Lamott continues, “to help others have this sense of wonder, of seeing things anew, things that can catch us off guard, that break into our small, bordered worlds. There is ecstasy in paying attention.”
Since I’ve been writing, I have found myself more open to observing details in the world around me, everything from the new ochre colored paint on the walls in my favorite coffee shop to the glorious rosy sky in the morning sunrise. I’m find myself thinking about the people I encounter – the young man I see walking the street morning and evening, winter and summer, wondering about the restless energy that is so apparent in his nervous stride. What is his story?
“To be engrossed in something outside ourselves is a powerful antidote for the rational mind,” Lamott concludes. Finding a sense of wonder in the details of the world around us, in the people before us, all the little things that make us who and what we are.
“This is what it is to be a writer,” Goldberg tells us. “To be the carrier of details that make up history.”