Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Fergetful Jones

NOTE: Something for my ENG 101 students.

Some of this is my fault.

I’ve been writing for so long sometimes I forget how much I’ve had to learn – and how much of the writing I do now is a natural reflex, rather than a concerted effort. I get reminded of that when I work on my novels. And, sometimes, when I’m in class. Here’s to hoping I can correct my error.
Details. A common thread I’m seeing in about half of the profile essays I’m reading is a lack of details. Details are different from facts. Facts, I’m getting. I get, for example, the basics: Who the person is you’re writing about, why you chose to write about them, and how their presence in your life affected you. But I’m not getting details. Details are the quotes, the stories, the philosophizing, that bring those mere facts to life.
Here’s a little of what I mean. I’m going to tell you a little about my Dad.
My Dad, Marinus Jacob Davidson, grew up in the little village of Santpoort, Holland. He and his older brother Sjaak were always up to mischevious little things that tested their mother’s patience, as any normal boys do. Their Dad Albertus worked at many jobs, delivering milk, and once as a merchant marine.
Here, I’ve given you the facts. Re-read that paragraph. There’s a lot there. But is there enough? You know a little about him, but, truthfully, not all that much. I’ve given you the facts, but not the details. I’ll try again.
“Oh, Frau Davidson, you must come with me!”
At the door, the postmistress, in distress. Frau Davidson followed. The postmistress talked loudly as she walked, Frau Davidson almost running to keep up. “They’ve locked themselves in the phone booth, and they won’t come out. I’m responsible to answer the phone if it rings. I can’t get in to the phone! You’ll have to get them out.”
Now Frau Davidson walked faster than the postmistress. She knew where her missing boys were.
She could hear them shouting.
“Pularubia! Pularubia!”
The name of their father’s boat. She’d called him from that phone booth this morning, catching him before he boarded the ship, where he worked as a merchant marine. The boys talked briefly to their father, amazed at the technology that let them talk to him in Amsterdam, miles and miles from home. She knew they hadn’t followed her home when the phone call was over, but she hadn’t worried too much. Having them out of the house for a while would be a good thing.
Or not.
“What will your father think?” she hissed at the boys. “And the Pularubia –“
“Pularubia! Pularubia!” the boys shouted.
“ – has left, and I can’t call him to deal with you. Come out. NOW!”
Frau Davidson was small. But Frau Davidson was not meek. The smiles faded from her boys’ faces. They pulled the door open and slunk outside, the postmistress brushing past them to put the receiver back on the hook.
Okay – are there still facts there? Check. But now there are details. There’s a story. There’s something more to read. Something, hopefully, to capture the reader’s eye and imagination. I don’t have to tell you they’re miscreants. I’ve shown that.
Effective writing does have facts. But even more effective writing has facts and details – especially when you’re trying to tell someone else’s story.
Here’s an exercise: Try to explain what color is to a blind man.
Or ponder what it’s like for a blind man to dream.
Bonus points for those who can create an awesome description to help a blind person understand what a color is.

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