“We are important and our lives are important, magnificent really, and their details are worthy to be recorded. This is how writers must think, this is how we must sit down with pen in hand. We were here; we are human beings; this is how we lived. Let it be known, the earth passed before us. Our details are important. Otherwise, if they are not, we can drop a bomb and it doesn’t matter.” – Natalie Goldberg
I recently started writing a piece to submit to someone else’s blog – a “Dear Dancer” letter directed at young ballerinas.
I sauntered jazzily down grey dance floors & performed onstage as a dancer for 13 years, and I learned some things along the way. This letter was not going to be about how to point your toes or tantrum your way into a starring role – it would be brimming with guidance, directed at the messily insecure adolescent dancers of today. I wanted my writing to celebrate dance while acknowledging the difficulties of watching your passion morph into something more competitive and body-image focused than you ever wanted.
I wrote long arcing sentences about how intimately dancers cradle our insecurities, how exposed we are when we’re surrounded by mirrors, how flubbery we feel on the days our bodies don’t want to play along. I wrote about the day I became an assistant dance teacher and the deep joy I felt in teaching self-expression to my students. I wrote about how I could teach dance forever, but my love of dancing itself slowly faded away.
But these big sweeping items don’t hook anybody’s attention – they’re just biography, broad statements that we might find in a third grade essay about what we did over the summer. I danced. It got ugly. I quit dancing. I taught dancing. I moved on. The End.
Glassy non-specific summaries are for cubicles and Christmas parties. To tell a good story, one that rocks our readers and does justice to our exuberantly complicated life experience, we need to dive straight into the heart of the messy details.
Don’t write about what happened. We don’t want to hear about your childhood of growing up in a fundamentalist family, like we were talking about the weather or the latest war our country has gotten embroiled in. We want to see you at age 9, 11, 17, looking up at the glint of the moon and beginning to doubt whether anyone was out there listening to you, hiding your copy of the Tao Te Ching in the sleeve of your pillowcase, playing your fingers across the snag in the seat of your blue chair in the sanctuary for the last time.
We tend to gloss over these details in daily conversation, but writing is our chance to go back and zoom in deeper, change the angle, come to new understandings and capture moments as they were. These details fade away if we don’t get them down, and we are left with brushstrokes of fuzzy memories that lose their fierceness and bite over the years.
When we settle into these details, we momentarily let go of our mind in all of its expectations and regrets and fears of the future. We tell stories that grip people. We remember the truth of our lives, and we set the world on fire.
Sometimes the larger arc of our life is overwhelming. Sometimes we grapple with why everything unfolds the way it does. Sometimes Life or shock or depression slam against us, and in those moments it can be enough to be present to our blue-cased pen that writes in black ink, the table in front of us whose greyish-maroon paint swirls remind us of the bathroom our mother painted, the sequined purse we bought eight weeks ago in New Mexico that’s already falling apart, the white peach tea that the barista initially forgot to make. We center into the present moment, that elusive sacred space that is, frustratingly enough, the only moment we can control.
We will squint our eyes towards the horizon, shake off the fuzziness beneath our forehead, and find ourselves lost in memories of squeaky pale ballet shoes, a teacher’s fingers prodding at our stomach flesh at age 12 and telling us to do more crunches, paper mache mouse-shaped headpieces that covered our faces and kept our hot breath fogged against our skin in The Nutcracker.
And we will tell about it.
Peace and Acceptance,
Tell me about the details of a moment in your life. Stretch yourself and see how closely you can zoom in – what truth do you find there?
If you’re inspired to add more details to your writing, check out my book Robot Coconut Trees: Break Through Writer’s Block, Unleash Your Creative Voice, and Become the Writer You Already Are