“What’s wrong with a drawer full of jar lids?” I asked Roz Chast during the Q & A following her recent author talk before a capacity crowd.
I’d hesitated to ask the question because it was so unlike the questions about process and inspiration readers usually ask authors. But I’d loved her graphic memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? – except for the one frame about the jar lids, which bothered me both personally and professionally.
You can read my personal reasons at Living In Place; the professional reason are about craft, and are what this post is about.
Chast’s frame about the drawer full of jar lids struck me as off, not just because I have a drawer full of jar lids, but because Chast didn’t give me enough information about what made this bizarre.
All the other frames in the section – photographs rather than drawings – of the “stuff” she was left to clean out of the apartment in which her parents had lived for forty-eight years made sense: the photos show piles of magazines and papers, dozens of handbags and several defunct electric razors. It’s clear that the things we save – sometimes deliberately for reasons of potential usefulness or sentiment and sometimes from sheer neglect – take on a meaning of their own to she who has to sift through it. I know; I’ve just emptied my dad’s desk of pens that had run out of ink.
As a reader, I simply wanted more information about why Chast chose this particular detail, because it wasn’t clear to me the way it was clear why she chose to photograph her mother’s two-dozen nearly indistinguishable old handbags and electric razors that clearly no longer worked. So I asked.
“Rusty jar tops?” she said, her voice rising as she wrinkled her nose in disgust.
I got it.
And I got more.
Chast went on to tell a story about a man who’d saved the screw tops of toothpaste tubes. He’d always planned to use them as lampshades for his granddaughter’s dollhouse.
This is a detail I’ll never forget because Chast did more than simply answer my question: she told me another story. In the process, she illustrated the kind of details that help a reader get what the writer is trying to convey. She amplified the characterization of the narrator of her memoir’s persona with her intonation and nose wrinkle, “They’re rusty!” And she created an idiosyncratic grandfather who saw the potential for miniature lampshades in every toothpaste tube cap.
THE TAKE AWAY
A single vivid detail can make the difference between the mundane and the memorable. If you make your details accurate and vivid, you will help your reader will see objects and attitudes the way you want them to. That’s authority.