In Ron Carlson Writes a Story, the novelist and short fiction writer talks about how he looks into his writing to be sure the images are doing the work and the writer is not overriding that work with summarizing phrases:
Outer story, the physical world, is also its own effect, its own reaction, its own comment. Outer story shows us things, and as the outer story grows and gathers, we can begin to see the constellations of our meanings. There is no need to comment on each facet of a scene. The sunset went from yellow to purple in a moment, and Jonathan took a step back, stunned. (Cut stunned.) The sunset went from yellow to purple in a moment, and I thought it was fabulous. (You know what to cut.) I’ve heard people talk about this by quoting Sergeant Friday: “Just the facts, ma’am.” This is apt, but there’s more for the writer: this frees us from having to interpret. Our mission is to write the physical scene as closely as we can, knowing that our intentions lie just beyond our knowing. Write, don’t think.
In writing memoir, letting images do the talking is just as important as in writing fiction. You must recreate how you experienced the places, people and situations of your life experiences through the senses. Where you were and what was happening to you originally came in through your ears, nose, tongue, skin, and eyes. That is what the reader needs, too, to experience your world and draw the conclusions you did.
An exercise I give myself is to look into my drafts for sentences where I’ve summarized. Then I write more to see what happens if I open the sentences up to the senses. Instead of saying, “I was always stiff at Grandmother Sarah’s house,” I would work to provide sense information from the outer world:
I always sat in the red overstuffed mohair sofa, my feet never reaching the floor, my attention on the white lace of my fancy Sunday anklets above the patent leather of my Mary Janes. The pudgy fingers of my left hand crumpled and uncrumpled the lace that covered the sofa arm I sat up against. I always noticed the dirt under my fingernails, black as my shoes, against the white of Grandmother’s lace.
As writers, we must learn to rely on the outer world for the images a situation provides, rather than relying on thoughts and summaries. Sure, those will come into our writing, at times, but using them sparingly, as Ron Carlson says, makes them all the more powerful. Remember a place where you were extremely uncomfortable. Take the time to write a paragraph naming what came in through your senses in that place. When you read what you wrote, you should feel that discomfort rising up from the specifics you’ve included. Then your reader will, too.
I worry sometimes I use too much description in my writing. I am learning to find the balance, bit by bit. Thank you for this Sheila!!
I think as a member you probably receive this, but just in case you haven’t yet, here is one entry from the blog. Sheila Bender is another teacher I have taken a class from, and I recommend her also.
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