detail in writing

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Both God & the Devil Are in the Details

kooser book

Years ago, when I decided to dip a toe in the poetry waters, I purchased a book that has since become a favorite due to its practicality: Ted Kooser’s The Poetry Home Repair Manual. I occasionally go back and flip through it anew, amazed how the old appears new again and the read appears unread again thanks to time. That’s part of the book’s practicality, I think, and why it has a picture of well-used tools in a toolbox on its cover.

One of my favorite chapters is #9: “Working with Detail.” It may come ninth in the book, but its message is central not only to poets but to writers in general: Be specific. Kooser doesn’t leave it at that, however. Being specific alone isn’t good enough.

Instead of discussing the value of detail alone, Kooser promotes the unexpected detail. After excerpting Thea S. Kuticka’s poem, “Newcastle Bar & Grill,” as an exemplar, Kooser goes into teacher mode:

“Notice the value of unexpected, unpredictable detail, how it lends authenticity to the poem.

“If I were to ask each of you in turn to provide, from your imaginations, one or two details from a scene like this one, I’d expect you to come up with the obvious ones: cigarette butts in the ashtrays, a clock over the counter, the smell of grease, the clink of dishes, and so on, and soon, as we added detail upon detail, we would have assembled a kind of Norman Rockwell bar and grill. But it wouldn’t feel quite real because we would have built it from the predictable details, from our imaginations. There would be little about our imaginary scene to convince the viewer that any of us had ever been in this specific bar and grill. But if one of us dropped in just one unpredictable detail, say a cardboard box covered with Christmas paper, sitting on the end of the counter and filled with carburetor parts, the whole scene would gain in authenticity because somebody viewing our assembled scene would think, ‘Well, those poets must have been there, all right, to have seen that box on the counter.'”

Kooser goes on to share an anecdote about feedback he once received on an early poem. It came from the poet Robert Bly (note to self: How do these beginners get such established poets to read, much less critique, their drafts? Must find out!). Bly responded to Kooser’s poem by writing, quite bluntly, “You’re just making this up.”

Kooser elaborates: “He meant that I’d created the scene and experience from my imagination, sitting in my comfortable chair under my floor lamp. What I’d put there were the predictable things, the kinds of details the imagination finds easily. The imagination makes a lousy realist; it places in its scenes only those things that it prefers to see there. Bly was encouraging me to write from life, to go out and actually experience something and then write about that while its particular and unique detail was fresh in the mind.”

From here, Kooser goes on to the importance of naming things by their actual names (think of architecture around you, for instance, and how the carpenter who builds houses can name each one while we, as poets, can probably name only a fifth of them), and this is good advice.

Still, I like the unpredictable detail advice best. Why? Because it’s a good reminder about a bad habit. Because my imagination often tries to hijack my poems, written from a chair under a light as well, and just paint the canvas in hues of “expected” and “predictable,” too. It’s easier, after all, and the first draft of least resistance.

The moral of a story? Sometimes your imagination, usually considered the hero in writing lore, can work against you. Consider it guilty until proven innocent, then. And keep your eye peeled for details that set scenes and people apart from their counterparts.