Friday, March 9, 2018

DO Sweat the Small Stuff When You Write


by Marcia Moston @MarciaMoston

Even if you’re a southern woman who “glistens” instead of sweats, when it comes to conveying emotion-evoking images, do sweat the small stuff. Like seeds in a shell, it’s the little details and rituals and routines of life that pack the power.

Often when we struggle to describe a person, place or thing but can’t seem to pinpoint its essence, we launch into elaborate descriptions in hopes something among our many words will capture what escapes us. Or as someone told me, “we go around our elbow to get to our thumb.”

It might seem contradictory that the first example of succinct, vivid writing I recommend is a 270-word sentence, but journalist Ken Fuson’s, “What a Day!” is worth a look. When his editor asked him to write about the weather and how Iowans celebrated a spring day, Fuson took a potentially dull subject and spun gold. Using over thirty verbs and their accompanying concrete nouns, he captured a spring moment anyone born north of Mason-Dixon would raise their fist and shout yes! to.

Fuson starts:
Here’s how Iowa celebrates a 70-degree day in the middle of March: By washing the car and scooping the loop and taking a walk; by daydreaming in school and playing hooky at work and shutting off the furnace at home; by skate-boarding and flying kites and digging through closets for baseball gloves; . . .

The beauty of the piece is that it describes common activities but resonates on a universal level. Seeing the little details. Expressing them with strong nouns and verbs. Powerful.

In her essay, “Math Lesson,” Rebecca McClanahan writes about the losses both children and parents experience as age related dementia or Alzheimer’s subtracts memories. She describes walking into a room where her father has fallen asleep in his chair, the left side of his mouth “drooping from the last stroke or the one before that.”

Instead of saying he had three more strokes and describing with a multitude of adjectives the damage they’d done, she picks out three specific images that make us see the effects of his “subtractions.”

One took his gait, another his easy laugh, another his writing hand that once signed documents and checks, composed letters to grandchildren and great.

And some writers, like Bill Bryson, can even make owning a refrigerator a humorous experience. In The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, Bryson uses his family’s pride to reflect the post-war prosperity many Americans experienced by being able to own modern appliances.

When I was about four my parents bought an Amana Stor-Mor refrigerator and for at least six months it was like an honored guest in our kitchen. I’m sure they’d have drawn it up to the dinner table if it hadn’t been so heavy. When visitors dropped by unexpectedly, my father would say: “Oh, Mary, is there any iced tea in the Amana?” Then to the guests he’d add significantly: “There usually is. It’s a Stor-Mor.

 In The Story of Arthur Truluv Elizabeth Berg uses bold, but simple strokes to paint an image of the widower Arthur in our minds. Life after the loss of a loved one is something many, if not most, of us will experience. Portraying the rituals of daily life in minute details, Berg draws us into Arthur’s world. 

Arthur’s wife died six months earlier, but Arthur still visits her grave every day. Can you not see him settle himself graveside?
When he reaches Nola’s grave, Arthur opens up his fold-up chair and gingerly sits down. The legs of the chair sink a little way into the earth, and he steadies himself, making sure the thing won’t move any more before he spreads his lunch out onto his lap. An egg salad he has today, real eggs and real mayonnaise…and a sprinkling of salt.

Or in his daily rituals, now simplified since Nola’s death.
He finishes his coffee and rinses his cup, turns it upside down in the drainer. He uses the same tan-colored cup with the green stripe all the time: for coffee, for water, for the occasional dip of Jack Daniel’s, even for his Metamucil.


Although seemingly mundane, each of these actions involving the “tan-colored cup with the green stripe” makes up the moments common to the human experience. By tapping into them with strong verbs and vivid nouns a writer connects a small moment with a big life one.

TWEETABLES


Marcia Moston—author of the award-winning Call of a Coward-The God of Moses and the Middle-class Housewife—has written columns and features for several magazines and newspapers. She has served on the faculty of the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference and currently teaches her true love—memoir and creative nonfiction—at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute on the Furman campus in South Carolina.

15 comments:

  1. Our words can indeed paint pictures in the mind Ms. Marcia. Thanks for this wonderful lesson.

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    1. You're welcome, Jim. Thanks for stopping by.

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  2. Marcia - what an excellent post! Thanks so much.
    Jay Wright; Foothills Writers Guild; Anderson, SC

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    1. Thanks, Jay. It's such fun to find good examples.

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  3. Thanks, Marcia. Often just stopping and living in the moment of a scene can help us tap the mundane and make it shine. Appreciate the reminder.

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    1. Yes. And yet sometimes we look everywhere except in front of our nose!

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  4. As a writer who struggles with description, I find your post and the examples provided incredibly helpful.
    Thank you, Marcia!

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    1. Thanks, Ingmar. I love learning by example. Try taking one of these examples and rewording it with something of your own. "Steal like an artist!"

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  5. Thank you, Marcia. I've read your excerpts several times. It's more like watching than reading.

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    1. Burton, what a wonderful way to say that!--"more like watching than reading."

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  6. I love this! Laughed out loud at the refrigerator story. Thanks for the examples. Where will you be teaching next?

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    1. Hi Jennifer. Everything Bill Bryson writes is funny. This spring I'm teaching with the OLLI program at Furman but open for workshops etc.

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  7. LOVE the illustrations. Thank you.

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  8. Fabulous examples, Marcia. I love the images the words portray.

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  9. Fabulous examples and such rich images, Marcia. Thank you.

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