I’m a bit persnickety about details as a result of a poetry workshop I offer as a Road Scholar with Alabama Humanities Foundation. Based on Nabokov’s idea of caressing "the divine detail,” this workshop underscores how paralyzing with power the simple detail can be.
A few weeks ago, I sent the link to an essay I’d written about Kathryn Tucker Windham to lots of friends. One friend immediately wrote back. Now living in Slapout, she had lived in Prattville when we lived there during the 80s.
“Oh, I didn’t know you’d ever lived in Selma, Kathleen, or did I read that wrong?” How tactful. Of course, I had never lived in Selma!
I stormed back with all the defensiveness of most writers, “What I said was, ‘…just down the road from us in Selma lived a storyteller…’”
And then I immediately clicked on the link to check my own memory. “#$%^&*(),” I shrieked. Helen Norris Bell had been right, I thought, in her complaint about newspaper reporters: “They never get it right.”
Then I ran to my submitted copy of the essay to see if I, O Wise One Of Red Pen, so conscious of every detail, had made such a blunder. And, of course, I hadn’t. OR at least at first blush it didn’t appear to be my error. Sentence A below was what I’d submitted. Sentence B is what my friend had read.
A. I remember when we moved back home in the early 80s to learn that just down the road from us in Selma lived a storyteller who had a ghost named Jeffrey.
B. I remember now, moving back home to Selma in the early 1980s to learn that just down the road from us lived a storyteller who had a ghost named Jeffrey.
Note the details of the sentence. See how quickly my cursory look and my self-centered eyes recognized only the problem with the move of my prepositional phrase, to Selma, to the wrong place in the sentence. I failed to notice the rest of my bungled sentence! The poor editor was simply trying to figure out what I meant. My hateful infinitive to learn had persisted long after I had re-written that sentence (and should have made it a gerund) on about one thousand drafts (had to get every detail right) during which I had eliminated details that would have made everything shimmer with clarity: I had actually lived in Prattville, Alabama, and taught at Autauga Academy. For the original draft, I had even looked up the precise number of the county road (86) that took me to the school daily and ran past Mr. Rice’s “cross garden.” Divine or not, those details were extraneous in the end, I thought, particularly in that I had an 800-1000 word limit.
Less than a week before this incident on another blog, I had wallowed in the merits of setting up parameters before we write poetry in order to improve the poem by making it more concise and getting out the flab. (“I have no patience for flabby writing,” I had written to my Slapout friend that very morning, ever so judgmental, BEFORE I looked back at my submission.) In that blog I cited Andrew Hudgins who once suggested, when I asked him how to make my free verse less prosy, that I should try setting the poem to traditional meter. I also mentioned a lecture by Molly Peacock in which she had begun by asking the question which in paraphrase was, “Why is it that a visual artist always chooses a specific size canvas before he paints, and the musician always determines ahead whether he will write an aria or an opera, but as poets we often sit down to write a poem with no idea of its length or form?”
So, what deductions for my own writing can I make here in this early morning roiling over details and parameters?
a. I’m human; therefore, I make mistakes. Get over it.
b. Editors are human; therefore, they make mistakes. Get way over it.
c. Parameters of time and form can serve to hone one’s writing skills. Try it.
d. Speed has been overly exalted by e-mail and blogs. Slow down.
I have a knife and fork beside my generous plate, along with a dinner-sized napkin. Pass the salt and pepper, please. Crow, anyone?
Kathleen Thompson is the author of The Nights, The Days and The Shortest Distance.