Chapter One – Image Detail – Practice
This writing practice is a suggestion for developing your familiarity with image detail. Read the entire section before you start writing, just as you did with the exercise section. The practice isn’t designed, anyway, to be done on the spot. You might want to spend an hour or two doing the practice or several hours over several days.
As practice, write a second interview, and this time select someone with an interesting hobby or job. Spend more time with your interviewee, look closely at the hobby or job, and write five pages or so — you can write more, of course.
The type of person you choose to interview is important. It could be the person from your exercise, especially if that person’s hobby or job deals with physical objects. The more tactile elements your senses have to feed on, the more material you will have for making vivid details. A weaver, a microbiologist or a car mechanic are all good subjects. So are a dancer or a farmer or a stamp collector. There are millions of good subjects.
Take the reader on the same journey you take for the interview. Give the reader a picture of the front door, the person, the workbench, the sounds, the smells — anything that strikes your senses. Proceed through the interview showing details in the same order that you notice them, or in the same order that they happen. Include what the person says in greeting — and include any odd things the person says.
When you write those odd details, you give the reader the feel of the person, the place, and the work — even the joy or the adventure or the agony of it all. This is “new journalism,” also known as “literary journalism.”
Technically, new journalism is journalism that uses story techniques. Old-style journalism simply lists the information. For purposes of Let the Crazy Child Write! new journalism takes the reader on the same journey the writer makes to find the information.
Take the reader on the same journey you make to find the information.
Barry Newman does just that in his article “Fisherman.” We see the farm, its surroundings, and the man coming out to greet us, just as he does:
Leigh, England — Kevin Ashurst’s maggot farm — a cinder block shed attached to an air scrubber — is a mile outside this old mill town, in a field of pink wildflowers.
” Looking for work?” a tattooed man calls when a visitor drives up on a hot morning. In the yard, some dead sheep nourish a new generation of bluebottle flies. Two workers, bent over the carcasses, scoop the maggots into plastic tubs. The smell is about as bad as a smell can get.
Ashurst, a meaty man of 43, wipes his hand on his dungarees to clean off the offal, and extends the same hand in greeting. Then he reaches into a tub and brings up a sample of his finest produce — most, white and writhing.
” See, that’s the size of ‘em, like,” he says. “Them’s good maggots, quality maggots. They’ll keep like this for a week in the ‘fridge.”
Who keeps maggots in the ‘fridge? Coarse fishermen do. Kevin Ashurst sells maggots to coarse fishermen. He’s a coarse fisherman himself, and a good one. Coarse fishermen bait their hooks with maggots to catch coarse fish — like barble, dace, bleak and roach. Coarse fish live in murky waters, are mostly tiny and make awful eating. Game fishermen, who catch salmon and trout, think of them as vermin. Some think the same of coarse fishermen.
Until about ten years ago, British upper-class fishermen succeeded in keeping the upper-class fish to themselves. The working class had to fish in abandoned gravel pits and industrial canals. The sport wasn’t refined, but it was diverting enough, once money got involved.
The author puts the reader in his shoes as he learns about coarse fishing. Quoting the owner gives the reader a sense of who he is, and the smell brings us right into the scene. When you do your interview, however, you may choose something that smells good.
New journalism is what Newman employs in the first four paragraphs. By paragraph five, he slips into old-style journalism and simply lists information. He shows us that the line between the two genres is not rigid.
There’s no reason to limit your interview to a person: this practice also works when you interview a place. One writer chose to spend a night in a hospital, as part of her job, and reported what the experience was like. You could interview a restaurant, a golf course, a nightclub — you name it.
You can also pretend you are a stranger interviewing yourself. This is a challenge because you will need to see yourself through a stranger’s eyes. What would someone see when meeting you for the first time? For the same reason, interviewing a friend is complicated. You may know your friend too well, and you’ll need to concentrate on imagining you are seeing your friend for the first time.
Show, don’t tell.
Remember to show us the details, don’t simply tell us about them. This directive is universal among writers. If an author writes that someone has a handsome face, I know the face is not ugly. Since there are six billion people on the planet, the writer has described some three billion of them. That’s too many! I see only a handsome blank or something the writer did not have in mind.
But if the writer shows me a detail, I can see the face. Remember the pearly scar on the lover’s neck, or the shell-like crack in the blue plate, or the gum in the boss’s ashtray? Go for the small, the odd, and the dissonant. If you do use a general adjective, like “handsome,” be sure to back it up with image detail.
As you work, follow the trail of details. Be exact, and do not worry about the effect. The more odd or dissonant or flamboyant your details are, the more freely your Crazy Child is writing. The wilder you write, the more you stand to learn about your own creative unconscious — and the more likely your writing will be truly vivid.