Attention to Details

 

Attention to detail

Attention to detail matters.

“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.

DETAILS

Attention to Detail

Chast’s graphic memoir about caring for her elderly parents.

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.

www.deborahleeluskin.com

Deborah Lee Luskin

Deborah Lee Luskin blogs weekly at Living in Place.

 

 

The Forest for the Trees

fall-trees-skyWith New England’s hills ablaze in their autumn foliage, it’s impossible not to see the forest for the trees. But the forest is made up of individual trees, each of which turns a characteristic color this time of year.

Generally, it’s the maples that turn scarlet and the poplars and birch that go yellow and gold. Sumac turns purple, and hobblebush burgundy. For the most part, oak stay green before rusting to brown, and they hang on to the branches long after the leaves of other trees fall.

I’ve always loved the autumnal forest, but lately, I’ve become interested in individual trees. I’m learning how to read the New England landscape in order to know it better, and to be able to hunt the white tailed deer. This weekend, I finally learned how to differentiate four types of maples by examining their leaves.

sugar-maple

sugar maple

The sugar maple has smooth-edges between its five points, which looks to me like an open palm, like a sign of peace.

 

 

 

red maple

red maple

The red maple has saw-toothed edges on three major points, like a fleur-de-lys.

 

 

silver maple

silver maple

The silver maple leaves are long, narrow and jagged, like a skeletal hand.

 

 

 

striped maple

striped maple

And the leaf of the striped maple reminds me of a medieval shield, bold and protective. It on this tree that white tailed buck rub with their antlers to mark territory and to let the does know they’re around and interested.

 

 

I once had a professor who said, “Truth lies in minute particulars.” Learning to differentiate leaves requires observing the minute particulars. It’s in the details that we see difference, in details that a story becomes vivid.

Without details, we might only see the forest, and not the trees.

Over the chin of Mount Mansfield - Vermont's highest peak

Over the chin of Mount Mansfield – Vermont’s highest peak

Deborah Lee Luskin divides her time between her desk, the outdoors, and http://www.deborahleeluskin.com