Earlier this week, I practiced the art of specificity and came up with some interesting pieces of description. Thanks to Julia Cameron, I was able to take everyday objects and meld them into something a little grander, a little more sublime.
By applying specificity to Gary Hoffman’s “railroad ramble,” I captured a snapshot of a typical day at work and transformed into a meditation on how the outside world – an ocean sea spray, a sunny morning, a glass bottle heavy with water – can shape and color the props and talismans that surround you. It was an ending that I never could have anticipated when I stared at my water bottle and thought, “what will I blog about today?”
Appropriately enough, this week’s chapter in Bird by Bird also focuses on snapshots, the photographs we take and the stories we picture and how we have to cultivate the patience and the faith to let themes, plots and descriptions develop. Lamott compares the evolution of a story to the gradual revelation of a Polaroid. Just like the figures in the photograph emerge step by step, so do words combine and expand…slowing revealing details as you go from blank page to fully “developed” characterization and plot.
“You can’t – and in fact, you’re not supposed to – know exactly what the picture is going to look like until it has finished developing,” writes Lamott. “First you just point at what has your attention and take the picture.”
In my writing exercise “railroad ramble” exercise, I began with an empty water bottle and a black and white photo of Pablo Picasso. What I ended up with was a complete portrait of what its like to sit at my desk at that witching hour after the morning coffee break and before lunchtime. I hadn’t even thought about how nature intrudes upon your indoor thoughts. Looking at the photo of my friend’s kids frolicking in boats and catching fish, I was suddenly out there with them, sea gulls crying in my ear and waves splashing up to meet my smile. And once I let nature in, all my senses were engaged. Suddenly the monotonous and anonymous drone of the cubicle-ward where I serve out my “billable hours” was awash with individual and interesting noises – a coworker’s cough, the tap of keyboards, the rumble from the IT office, the ding of a text message on my phone.
Now I was adding levels of detail. I’d suddenly arrived at the heart of specificity. I now had the tools write out a clear vision of the images and the atmosphere I wanted to craft for the reader.
“Finally, as the portrait come into focus,” predicts Lamott. “You begin to notice all the props surround these people, and you begin to understand how props define us and comfort us, and show us what we value, and what we need, and who we think we are.”
“You couldn’t have had any way of knowing what this piece of work would look like when you first started,” she continues. “You just knew that there was something about these people that compelled you, and you stayed with that something long enough for it to show you what it was about.”
At heart I’m a storyteller who revels in – and is often sidetracked by – the details. I’m one of those people who loves the slow burning plot of a show like Mad Men, who revels in the intricate and complex relationships of a tale like Game of Thrones. But because I’m also preoccupied with a fear of boring people to an early grave, I find that I often gloss over the details to get to the meaty plot I’m laying out for my listeners. What I discovered this week by working with Cameron, Hughes and Lamott was that it’s okay to let the details seep in, it’s okay for details to sometimes dominate. In the end, it’s the details that unite us and make each of our stories unique and worthwhile.
- “Pixels and Polaroids is a series of images I’ve created… (new-aesthetic.tumblr.com)
- Snap My Picture! (weddingbee.com)
- Exploring “Writeful” (thedailycreativewriter.wordpress.com)
- The Railroad Ramble Exercise (thedailycreativewriter.wordpress.com)
- a writer’s reading: “Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott (annaonthepage.wordpress.com)