MONTPELIER, VERMONT: “My observation is that among students of writing, the inclusion of details is very out of fashion,” said novelist, memoirist and biographer Larry Sutin at a lecture here at my MFA residency with the Vermont College of Fine Arts. He finds this most upsetting, and I did as well, once he said during Q&A that the trend most certainly is not reflected in what is being published.
We think of prose as more sparse now. We think of our 21st Century readers as embodying impatience, capable as they are at any moment of whipping out a smartphone and pulling up a video of a cat simultaneously burping and farting. We can’t load them down with physical details of people and places, or emotional details of pain or joy.
Having listened to Larry’s masterful lecture–among great lecturers here at VCFA, he is one of the best, the overpacked room (don’t tell the local fire marshal) a testament to that fact–what he believes is that modern readers resist writers who include detail and emotion poorly. They have not a fear of detail or emotion but a fear of tedium.
“Any writing done badly will be bad writing,” he said. I think that’s the quote, anyway, I was laughing too hard to write it down.
I’m getting a bit punchy here at the end of the residency, so let me simplify things for myself by providing a list of more nuggets from Larry’s lecture:
- Choose your details wisely. Those objects you highlight, facial features you note, emotional moments you elaborate should tell a larger story. Leave out the rest.
- Be unorthodox in your choices. Larry frequently cited letters Chekhov wrote to aspiring writers; according to Larry, Chekhov was a “one-man 19th Century MFA.” In one letter, he advises describing a moonlit night not by noting details of the moon, but instead the glint of light off of a building’s glass. We tune out the familiar but seize on the unusual but accessible.
- Animate the inanimate: Again from Chekhov, when you apply action verbs to objects they become more interesting to readers.
- The distinction between “interior” and “exterior” isn’t real. Everything the author includes in a book drives the narrative. Don’t be afraid to have your character reflect and react internally; they complement external cues.
- Understand the role of understatement. Larry acknowledged much of modern fiction has moments of understatement, but he said careful examination of such prose will reveal that the reader has been queued previously. “Understatement works when we have other details” beforehand, he said.
Here at residency everyone carries a 13-page schedule printed on garish pink paper. It is our crutch. None of us know what day it is, either day of the week or day of the residency. We just look at what’s next and go to it. Thirteen pages sounds like a lot, but in fact it is a model of brevity when you consider how many activities are occurring here. So it’s not surprising they limit the length of the lecture titles in the schedule.
Larry’s lecture was listed on the schedule as “In Defense of Excessive Detail.” This apparently caused Larry some offense. He said the entire lecture title was “In Defense of Excessive Detail and Sentimental Disclosures,” and in fact that was the title in the materials sent to us prior to residency. Larry’s sense of humor can be subtle, so he may have been having fun with the notion that even his own college is cutting details he’s choosing to include in his writing. But the full title is a better descriptor of the lecture.
Perhaps I’m trying to make sure I take the lesson of including excessive detail to heart. Or perhaps I’m feeling sentimental here at the end of the residency. But I’ve decided to break my own internal rule on blog-title length and let Larry’s full title shine above.
What is your take on the use of details and emotional disclosure in writing today? How do you approach details in your own writing?
ABOUT THIS SERIES: As promised, I am posting occasional “nuggets” of wisdom I am acquiring here at my second residency in the MFA for Writing program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Previous posts include “Illuminating Your Story,” “A Window on Your Narrator,” “Creativity and Wasting Time,” “New Year’s Tradition,” “Storytelling vs. Fragmentation,” “Reading Your Work Aloud,” “Revision vs. Re-Vision,” “Dialogue as Action,” and “Pacing Yourself.”