Friday, February 3, 2017

Memorable Details

You have a significant enough list of favorite writers to the point where you do not have to reread a particular work out of the sinking desperation of not having anything to read. More often than not, when you reread a work from a favorite author, you do so not to engage the story but rather to see how she or he managed a particular detail that has remained in your mind.

In their way, these haunting details remind you of the elder Hamlet, who returns as a ghost to rouse his son to avenge his own murder. Except that the haunting details are not interested in that remarkable state of mind known as revenge. They are motivated by your curiosity to see how the effect was presented, then your curiosity moves you to wonder why those details should resonate for you.

Almost invariably, when you trace back the scene or passage or exchange of dialogue, a startling realization comes crashing through. The author, to achieve the memorable use, has done less than you'd expected. In fact, the author has been pretty direct and straightforward. But the author has done something you aspire to learn from; the author has presented the memorable material, but you've supplied the recognition and embellishment.

You were moved to do so by the writer's total presentation, but the chances are great that you were motivated from the time spent under the spell of the author's voice to become a proactive reader, a reader who wished to experience the story.

The novelist Richard Ford is far from your list of favorites. You are just short of damning him with faint praise when you discuss his work, and yet each time he publishes a new work, you're sure to read it. You were caught up immediately by the opening sentence of his most recent novel, Canada, to the point where you understood how you would read the entire novel.

There was a particular detail, a throw-away description of some chickens, pecking away at the dirt in a yard for insects that so impressed you with its vividness that you set the book down, then copied the description into a notebook.

This is not the first time you've noted details from other authors; the practice has become standard for you. There are times when you scan such notebooks, which have become quasi commonplace books in which you transcribe random details.

You now have the passage transcribed, to delight you whenever you thumb through the notebook. You also have Ford's chickens tucked away in your mind as a visual. You have lost immediate memory of the story arc in Canada, but you have the chickens. They do not help you recall the story, but they serve the vital function of causing you to believe the image of the pecking chickens is real and, thus, the novel has become alive for you.

However nice it is to think you'll go back to reread Canada, hopeful of gleaning more meaning and impression than throw-away chickens, pecking throw-away dirt, you'll likely do no such thing. But you will look more closely when such details emerge in early drafts of your own composition.

At the risk of mixing apples and oranges in what you're about to say next, you've for some time had the chore of a weekly book review. At least ninety percent of the books you review are fiction, so perhaps the metaphor is not a serious mismatch. Your strategy for composing the reviews is to rewrite or revise until some detail in your writing triggers in your awareness a response or image you'd not known before.

Now that you're about to embark on teaching a course in which the author is Charles Dickens and the novel at hand is Great Expectations, you have already understood that you will share with your students your belief that the most significant reason behind Dickens' popularity was his ability to use a memorable detail in a strategic place. The detail is memorable because of its anomalousness or its unexpected triggering of sensory delight.

True enough, you remember Dickens, not for his plots, but for his use of details. Although you consider his novel, Great Expectations, one of the better examples of first-person narrative, like Richard Ford, Dickens is not on your list of favorites. This has nothing to do with the time in which Dickens wrote because one of his contemporaries, Wilkie Collins, is, indeed, on your list of favorites.

You remember Collins's details and his plots.  There's the difference.

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