The devil’s not the only thing in the details


So, are you up to participating in a couple of experiments?

I have my students at writing conferences do these to improve their memory and attention to detail, essential tools for writers. And even if you have no intention of taking a stab at writing, they might just improve yours, too.

Who couldn’t do with a better memory and seeing things more accurately?

The first one I call Focus on the Present.  And it involves plopping yourself down, with a notepad and a pencil, in a busy place that you don’t visit very often.  So where you work is off limits.  So is any room in your house.   And remember, I said it has to be busy.  Which means there has to be enough going on for you to have lots of details to harvest.  An airport waiting area is a good choice, or a bench in a crowded mall.

Then, here’s what you do.  Jot down as many sensory particulars as you can locate from your vantage point.  You’ll be amazed at the little things you’ll notice when you’re really paying attention.  And don’t just scribble down what you see. Most beginning writers load up all their description in only one of the five senses, and pass up hearing, smelling, tasting, and feeling.  When you get home, take out your notes and do your best to capture the place in a page or two of good description.

The second variation of this assignment – and most folks’ favorite – is called Focus on the Past.  This time, you don’t have to go anywhere; all you have to do is sit down, close your eyes, and remember a specific place.

There are two nonnegotiable rules for this one.  First, you have to select a place that you haven’t been to in at least ten years, minimum, but that you remember well enough to be able to recall the details.  Why not push the envelope here, and make it thirty or forty years?  Your grandmother’s kitchen might work fine.  Or maybe your childhood bedroom.  How about your fifth grade classroom?

Then, let your mind’s eye wander into every corner of that place. Don’t bypass a nook or a cranny, a picture on the wall, or a tree in the yard.  What did the place smell like (cedar-lined closets? Bread baking?) or feel like or sound like? Which brings us to the second rule: old photos are forbidden.  Make your memory do all the work.

One summer when I was teaching the memoir workshop at a writer’s conference one of the participants chose, for this activity, to recall the bridge of the battleship he served on in World War II.  The couple of pages of prose that he shared with the group took us all right there to the South Pacific over decades ago.  We smelled the oil that permeated the whole ship, felt the cold metal of the gauges and instruments, heard the sad lament of the fog horn bellowing off into the night, and tasted the strong coffee that the officers were served in thick ceramic mugs with no handles.

“I’d forgotten about those mugs not having handles,” he told us.

Which is the point of the exercise: to remember things that you’ve forgotten.

This little set of mental calisthenics might jump-start details that your brain has been hording.  Just like an old song sometimes does.  Or a smell.  For me, the aroma of butterbeans boiling puts me right back in my long-gone grandmother’s kitchen in Livingston, where I do believe she cooked butterbeans every day.

So consider taking a stroll down memory lane. It’ll be fun, and it might even prove to be profitable.

One time I had a student who chose to remember the guest room in her former mother-in-law’s house.  She’d been divorced for ages, and hadn’t actually been in that room for over twenty years, but, when remembering an ornate old dresser, she recalled putting an expensive ring in one of its tiny drawers for safekeeping during a trip. She hadn’t thought of that ring in ages, and had long since given it up for lost. Anyway, she called her former husband’s mother.  Who went upstairs, opened the hidey-hole and – sure enough – there was the ring.

I never found out if the old woman sent it back to her. Which is okay.

Because while precise description is useful to a writer, so is a little mystery.

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