By Vanessa Cavendish
“It takes 500 small details to add up to one favorable impression.” – Cary Grant
“I remember everything, even the dates. But I don`t want others to remember the details, just the image.” – Gloria Grahame
In her July 7 post, “Holistic Writing, Part 2,” Breanne posed a slew of questions to get us thinking about our own writing. I personally think each of those questions deserves a post unto itself. I’m working my way through them as best I can.
Question #4: Do you give lots of detail? Or do you leave it up to the reader?
All I do—and I mean, all I ever try to do when I write fiction, may God strike me dead—is to tell a story to the keyboard of my Dell Inspiron 1420 as near as I can to the way I’d tell it to you if you were riding shotgun with me in my beat-up, used-to-be-sky-blue 1949 GMC pickup truck with the ignition switch on the floorboard and no brakes to speak of, your fingers clawing for a non-existent seat belt as you try simultaneously to make sense of my eye-rolling, two-fisted, elbow-out-the-window way of talking a blue streak at you while I shift metaphors to point out whose curb that was we just rode up on. We got a concert to get to and we ain’t got time to smell the hibiscus. If the pedal don’t kiss the metal, we’re gonna be too late to tailgate!
What makes hard driving hard is what makes writing, writing.
I do wish you were here so I could see your face in my side view. Because if you yawn, if you scratch your nose or check your text messages, if you look bewildered by what I last said, or if the rumble strip gives you the jitters, I’m going to miss it.
I hate to break it to you, but writers are not rock stars. Guitar Hero doesn’t teach the chords you need to know. There’s no real-time feedback loop, no instant gratification when you nail it and none when your rhythm sucks ass. You (and if you have one, your crit group or your editor or your online beta-reader1) will have to anticipate from within your studio isolation booth whether the reader is more likely to get up and walk out versus get up and dance.
I used to dread it, in Mr. Faulkner’s2 class in tenth grade, when he pulled out his half dozen slide carousels to show us one or another of his family vacations—to Walla Walla, Washington (I shit you not), the Bavarian Alps, the Grand Canyon, the Alamo… The other kids encouraged him for no other reason than it wasn’t math. To me, you couldn’t get more irrational than the number of pictures that man took while he supposedly was having a good time.
Now, I dearly love the photographs in my own collection, but I do try to be selective about which ones I show you and which ones either didn’t develop or don’t relate or require too much in the way of an explanation. Because no, not every picture is worth a thousand words. Don’t keep showing me the same point-of-I-lost-interest from a different angle and, for godsakes, don’t get so fancy with your lenses and filters that you lose track of what’s important that for me to see and remember.
Here’s the kicker. If he had used just three of his seventeen views of the Matterhorn3 to illustrate a principle of geometry, as boring as that sounds, I might have paid attention. Done right, the visual might have made something abstract concrete. I might have learned something in spite of myself and not skipped his class so often to get high and to try to find a set of wheels to get to the city and rock out.
Let my truancy be a lesson to you. Your competition is so much more than other writers. Your competition is everything in the entire world that is not your novel.
If I don’t see a purpose unfolding in front of me—if I have to keep track, on my own, of my priorities, I’ll meet you in the parking lot with a full tank of gas. I’ll blow off the next chapter and the next and I will blame you for my lousy attitude.
Are we there yet?
As a passenger, I don’t think you want me under the hood in the middle of a major intersection, messing with your timing belt.
As an unlicensed driver under the influence of Melville and Hawthorne, with Gardner and King and Mary Shelley coursing through me, I’m one of those people, I think everybody else on this joyride needs an adrenaline drip just like me, and I mean to plump up that beautiful blue-green vein snaking up the inside of your elbow. Why else did you stick your thumb out when I rolled up on you with my door hanging open? Thing is, we’ll get there. But we’ll get there my way. Get in. I ain’t asking twice.
My way is the scenic route over rough terrain with a shaky camera. You can get out and walk if you want to, but don’t ask me to slow down.
1I’m mad about my own cohort. She rocks!
2Not his real name. What gave it away?
3I know, I know, the Matterhorn is between Switzerland and Italy, not in Bavaria. Work with me!