When I was young, I’d take a small white ceramic bowl from the cupboard, intended for our pet rats, and start pulling out what ingredients from the fridge I craved: half a banana, a scoop of peanut butter (crunchy of course), some chocolate sauce, a sprinkling of granola perhaps. Whatever felt right at the moment, I’d mush it all together in the bowl, a heterogenous dish of texture and flavor. Then I’d sit down, peacefully, and eat it with a spoon, unaware of the critics that had been surveying my experiment from afar. My mom, always supportive of my creative endeavors, would eventually look over with the expression on her face: what is that?
Today, I write the way I ate then. When I sit down to begin a piece, I grab from the pantry of my imagination and memory whatever feels right in the moment, trusting that these ingredients have come together for a reason. Like the rodent chef in Ratatouille who closes his eyes to a cinematic firework show of flavors in his mind, I then run the tongue of my mind over the textures of words (crunchy or smooth?), smelling the sweet or savory connotations of imagery, getting a feel for the snappiness or softness of sentences. I listen to the sound meaning makes as it bends and breaks by the knife of grammar, and close my eyes to appreciate the aroma that lingers between poetry stanzas on the table cloth of blank space.
I’m an intuitive combiner, an artist directed by an innate, imaginative taste for unsuspected connections.
Today, I am still learning to honor my inclinations. Even if the contents of an essay seem off topic, outlandish, or too discombobulated, I trust that if I love what I make, a few of you might too. The rest can stick to their PB & J’s.
The creative essay below is, I hope, a quiet but encouraging example of how the unsuspecting flavors in your fridge can be contained in words to feed your soul. Grab your ceramic bowl and enjoy.
It’s Father’s Day, a fact I’ve gently remembered and forgotten since morning. My Father lives about a twenty minute drive from me. But our proximity has been drained of significance. I’ve seen him thrice in my twenty six years of existence, and not once has he initiated a reunion.
Instead of wallowing, I’ve decided to support my friend, Melanie, by attending her end-of-the-school-year violin concert in the stuffy living room of her instructor’s home in Santa Venetia.
Yet, my attendance is questionable. Every few minutes I catch it — or rather, watch it, complacent — drift to the kitchen, where post concert snacks wait for an applause. A plate of butter crackers lies fanned out with sweating slices of cheddar, mummified by Saran wrap. French baguettes lay piled like logs on the counter, a serrated knife poised atop them, ready to butcher the bread into beds for mozzarella slices and thin blankets of basil. Exhausted Safeway bags sag, open-mouthed, on the linoleum floor.
Most interestingly, two jars of peanut butter huddle by the pantry. Their labels are turned away, what feels like an intentional denial of sideline entertainment as the concert slides into its second hour. My half-asked questions encroach on the philosophical: Is peanut butter a condiment or main ingredient? A detail or a topic? What constitutes a main topic anyway? I think about this as if, when the concert concludes, my hypotheses will be tested with trays of bite-sized PB&J’s and a Q & A.
I straighten my spine into what I feel must be the posture of attentiveness. I cross one leg over the other, searching for lumbar relief.
Then the contrasting chords of the violin trio merge into a synchronic snore. It’s as if a room of many-directional conversations have organized explicitly to interrupt my mental chatter. An intervention by Beethoven.
The pursed mouths of the younger performers now soften into a smile of relief. The friend who I’d come to watch, ten years older than her peers, gracefully lowers her instrument and bows, a burst of applause washing over her black lace dress. She looks beautiful. The quiet hiccup of her shoulders and the broad yawn of her hips echo, perfectly, the hourglass figure of her violin.
We migrate to the kitchen where a hum of interfamilial introductions and verbal applause has already begun to settle. “Great job, Mel.” I give her a knowing hug.
When she turns to her uncle to thank him for coming all this way, I slink to the sink for a glass of water. The enigma of the jars returns. I look their way to judge if, from this angle, there are more clues. But I’m interrupted by the trivial concern: Is tap okay to drink in Santa Venetia? I stand there, thirsty for answers to half-asked questions. A stream of water runs beside the empty cup, two totally unrelated events.
We’ve all been warned, at some point or another against the tangent. By the tangent, we usually mean, unnecessary or excessive details that don’t relate to a central subject: “Don’t get lost in the details!” your professor exclaims in her red-inked comments to your first draft of a paper. “Eyes on the goal!” a life coach screams across the field of your existence. There are, we’ve been told, things that are logical, connected, relevant, and those that are, alternatively, peripheral, superfluous, things that lead us astray.
As writers, we slash through details with red pens. We cut whole paragraphs where they’ve congregated in mass, obstructing the reader’s view of some presidential subject.
Or should I say, most writers. Over the course of my writing career, I’ve personally lost myself and many audiences with excessive tangents and details. My sentences sometimes stretch across many lines, the tension between sense and nonsense attenuated by prepositional phrases that color but fail to clarify the subject. For better or for worse, I love looking closely at things, and am endlessly interested in the stuff most people aren’t paying attention to.
So, when I scrolled upon an interview with author, satirist, actor, and radio host, Sarah Vowell about the controversial art of the tangent, I was hooked. The host is Alan Alda, and the podcast is “Clear and Vivid,” a program loosely dedicated to the theme of communication: how it’s done by famous writers, and how we can do it best.
Vowell and Alda’s conversation helped me see the tangent, and my love for details in a new light. For starters, I was in company. Early in the interview Vowell admits to her “irresistible attraction to verbal shenanigans . . . just some weird, cool thing I wanted in the story that didn’t help move the story forward. It was just something I wanted to say.” Vowell is guided in her writing by a strong fascination with the stories and questions that don’t move along plot; the topics untethered to topic sentences. She goes where her curiosity takes her, trusting when her intuition tells her to explore beyond the beaten path of plot. She’s my kind of author.
On the one hand, detail is a way to make our writing vivid. Being specific and descriptive is like increasing the sharpness in a photograph. “ . . . there’s nothing like detail to put you in the place” Alda reflects.
Vowell echoes Alda, vouching for the immense importance of the seemingly small: “Detail is definitely my bread and butter.”
Humoring the pre-paleo-trend implications of Vowell’s metaphor, details are not just the condiments spread or sprinkled superfluously on the main dish. Neither are they a rare indulgence the poet allows herself when bigger ideas aren’t watching. For Vowell, details are the substance; the starch and fat that leave us filled (and fulfilled) when reading a chapter in a novel; the juicy flesh gripping to the bones of plot, giving us something to hold onto as we travel deeper into a story.
Vowell is a history enthusiast. And as a former high school history teacher myself, I know that the key to discussing history in front of a room of teenagers is not getting lost in the details. As tempting as it might be, when you rattle off the names of the poets Abraham Lincoln enjoyed reading as a child (Byron & Shakespeare if you're curious), eyes begin to glaze over.
Paradoxically, the detail is also what can rescue a lecture, as well as any piece of informative writing. How? The detail shrinks large scale, inconceivable events to a size which people can conceptualize, empathize with, and thus connect to.
American writer Jacqueline Woodson agrees, "The more specific we are, the more universal something can become. Life is in the details. If you generalize, it doesn't resonate. The specificity of it is what resonates."
Like a small rock giving texture to the face of a hill, details can be the tread that keeps us connected. But, if joined by too many pebbles like it, it can become a slippery slope where ideas and their audiences lose their footing.
In the writing of her book Lafayette and the Somewhat United States, Vowell chooses her details and “shenanigans” wisely. She doesn’t engage in a tedious staring contest with causes of conflict, battles, and historical outcomes. Neither does she muffle main voices for peripheral chatter. Instead, she reveals the importance within the peripheral. She restores centrality to what has been marginalized. An instance of this can be appreciated when she pauses the recounting of a battle to sympathize with a group of Quakers. They’ve gathered round the reenactment of a significant battle to criticize history buffs for their crude representations of our country through the lens of war and bloodshed. To those who think it a waste of space or irrelevant Vowell says, “part of what I write about isn’t just history, but how history is remembered.”
History is quite literally a story we tell. Vowell’s Quaker “tangent” is a reminder that the stories or modes of remembering that we are familiar with are ones that have been fashioned by a select few. When we let the “Quakers” speak up in our writing, we might be surprised to find that what we thought was an unnecessary detail educates us with a whole new perspective. And even if we don't . . . Even if the details alone are trivial, giving attention to them can shed light on the endlessly fascinating issue of how events are remembered.
In the opening passage of this essay, I didn’t need to follow my attention into the kitchen of a concert house, bouncing like a fly from one peripheral food item to the next. I could have let my friend’s body be a body, without finding in it the silhouette of her violin. Yet, these fragmented, creative flashes of my mind on the world of detail around me are what turn my peripheral position as voiceless audience member into a position of creativity, playfulness, individuality. It is what makes me a writer.
Vowell may be a history enthusiast, and I a teacher. But her and passion and mine both lie in the subject that encompasses so many others: the art of remembrance and representation. In this art, it is the detail teaching us that neither a nation's history nor any of ourstories are static, nor better left in silence. Whether you are making history or sitting on the sidelines, there is a cornucopia of vivid detail surrounding you at all times. It is our job as writers to pay attention; to see what's there and mix the contents of those lives into combinations that surprise and shake our readers into a new state of awake-ness.
Last week I read the fiction piece featured in the New Yorker by Mary Grimm titled “Back Then.” On each page I expected some unknown but inevitable figure to jump out from behind the commonplace. I thought “NOW!” — The stakes will be raised, a question will place the female protagonist, who had thus far been nostalgically thinking back on her childhood summers spent at a Rocky Beach cottage, to drop her red striped towels and soft serve swirl and run for her life. But nothing “happened.” Each passage was a detailed surveying of landscapes, a precise reiteration of summertime routines. In a post-modern authorial stroke of irony, in her last line Grimm voices both the reader’s and protagonist’s desire for plot: “Something was going to happen. I was almost sure of it.”
Grimm’s story is about nostalgia, what we remember of our past and how. But it is also, and most interestingly to me, a covert critique on the desire for action; a meta reflection on the plot we seek in our own lives, and the poetry we can find in the places we think to be stricken by poverty of plot. If only we appreciate the detail.
Sometimes life is novel. We are flung into action off-guard, and must morph into the heroic protagonists of our own drama, puppeted by some mysterious author in the sky. It’s only natural that we want to see these stories reflected in the literature we read. But, Grimm helped remind me that life is also — and more often — a series of poems and prosaic still-lifes in which not much "happens" (as far as happenings are defined in fiction) but for whose truth, precision, and simple beauties we trust all the more, and return to, again and again.
Life is made of details. Shouldn't writing be too?
In fact, it is when fiction writers use their creative powers to deliver life as it is, in detail, rather than life how we fantasize it, in broad strokes, that the real catharsis of reading happens. The tender imitation of an adolescent's idol summers is not passive. It is an active unveiling that helps us see the art in our everyday, an ode to the significance in the seemingly small.
I was taught to think of the detail as a servant to action; the frill that I should add only after I've patched together the larger fabrics of who's, what's, hows and whens. Yet, In Grimm's story, and in the writing I love best, the detail is not secondary. It is not a wreath hung on the door into another world. It is the point of entry, the door. Further, it is the vehicle that travels me deeper into a story, and it is also where I end up.
So what? So, don't underestimate the amalgam of details that make up your life. This is the material that will make its way into your best writing. Call forth your life's riches, even if it consists of a pile of pennies. If not from me, take it from Rainer Maria Rilke.
". . . for the creator there is no poverty and no poor, indifferent place. And even if you found yourself in some prison, whose walls let in none of the world's sound - wouldn't you still have your childhood, that jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories? Turn your attention to it . . . "
Good writing is good attention. This is what I tell my students, what I repeat to myself when I think I am lost for a topic; a mantra of sorts. See the green leaves outside your window, slick in the sun as if glazed with olive oil. Hear the hum of the fridge in your right ear, adding an ironic tone of industriousness to the silence of inactivity. If nothing else, pay attention to your need to pay attention--turn your gaze on the hunger for action we've all undoubtedly internalized. Even this should be written about, in detail. How does it feel not to know? Not to see (yet) how the sensations of your living will tell a story? Satiation is immediate when you make space for attention. Making space for that is making space for you.
Even if we are practiced at casting a wide net of attention, we may not feel confident, or be able to make sense of, what we empty onto the dock. Multicolored creatures from multi levels of our consciousness wriggle in the blinding light of a white page, hooked by only a question mark. Which ones do we release? Keep? Can they be schooled into neat sentences and cohesive paragraphs?
Roger Keys partially answers this question. His poem "Hokusai Says" sends an important message to those of us who doubt whether we’ve put our attention — writerly or otherwise — in the right place:
. . . it doesn’t matter if you draw,
or write books. It doesn’t matter
if you saw wood, or catch fish.
It doesn’t matter if you sit at home
and stare at the ants on your veranda
or the shadows of the trees
and grasses in your garden.
It matters that you care.
It matters that you feel.
It matters that you notice.
It matters that life lives through you.
Even if you think you’ve sat down to pay close attention to a recital, you may find that a concert of insignificant details swoops in and seizes your mind. In its place is a childlike curiosity wondering at the ants who’ve made a geometric highway out of the gray caulk between the tiles. Your eyes land on something neither here nor there, in the periphery but still visible, something between solid and liquid — something like peanut butter.
Don’t worry about what form your inspiration takes, into what it breaths, no matter how tangential or trivial it seems. What matters is that your writing is energized by authentic attention. Whatever it is that is breathed by this attention, Beethoven can't compete with that, if it’s what’s real. Inhale. Pick up your instrument. Exhale. Say what's there to say.
Of course, there are good reasons our teachers, coaches and inner critics warn us against the detail. “Sometimes too much detail too soon is the opposition to clarity” notes Alda later in the interview with Vowell. We’ve all experienced it: novels that linger in descriptive pauses too long instead of leveraging characters into their journey; essays that, instead of carrying to the conclusion, sink us in a sea of minutiae.
In life, too, detail can be the death of us. Instead of taking the leap into a new chapter of our career, we worry about what shoes we’re wearing or whether we've packed the right snacks for the flight. We sharpen our pencil obsessively instead of sitting down to write that novel.
That is, too much attention to details can prevent life from living through us, rather than delivering it, just as it can prevent our message from being expressed gracefully on paper.
For the last six months, one of my close friends has been working night shifts at a small bakery in New York. Last year she dropped her job to backpack around Europe and, no baking experience behind her, returned home to spend her waking hours watching yeast rise instead of the sun — “Some days I get home at 9.am and drink a beer.” It’s been an intense, nocturnal existence.
And whenever the plot of her life story becomes too predictable, she is out the door, unpacked for a new adventure. “If I’m going to yoga, have a steady job, am eating well . . . I get freaked out,” she confessed once.
Chelsea chases ideas that call her attention, even if they appear tangents to outsiders. At the same time, she doesn’t get too attached to the small things, and this frees her up to pursue the big. She writes the plot she wants. Chelsea lets life live through her.
Suspecting this baking thing would, in time, become another routine she’d need to unfasten with a new tangent, I asked Chelsea over the phone, “Do you ever get sick of it?”
As if to add literalness to what I might have mistaken as a metaphor, she declared, “I thought I would. But … sourdough is alive.”
Little did she know, it was a metaphor. And just the one I needed to bring the tangential ingredients of this essay into the leavened, consumable whole I envisioned at the start. On the Modernist Cuisine website a blogger writes on the science behind sourdough; all you don’t see before its raw ingredients transform into your perfect sandwich:
“By themselves, the raw ingredients that go into a sourdough are essentially flavorless. The sweet-and-sour flavors we love in these breads are by-products of the microbes’ mutually beneficial fight to survive and grow in a complex microscopic ecosystem.”
Just like the microbes fighting for survival in a sourdough starter, the details that make up the raw dough of our lives, the ones that make their way into a draft uninvited can, with time, surprise us with their will to live. Alchemized by the creative rhythm of action and idleness, effort and retreat, the raw and flavorless can transform into the bread and butter of our best stories.
But this transformation of the tangential into the central can’t be forced. If details are to survive the streamlining pressures of plot, and reveal to us their larger connectedness to the whole, their potential to rise above and satiate the reader, we need to step away from the cutting block. Sometimes the raw stuff of our first drafts takes more than days, weeks to ferment into the alive, moving thing of a final product. Feed this creature daily with the flour of reflection, liquidate it with stream-of-consciousness free-writing, massage it with long ambling walks. Nourish the process, not just the product.
Then one morning, what at first appeared separate or tangential, might connect in mysterious and unexpected ways. For example, it wasn’t until days of writing and rewriting, wandering and wondering, that the scientific saga of sourdough revealed itself as an allegory for details' mysterious rising, undetectable to the eye, yet undeniable when let to ferment in the dark of the writer’s unconscious.
How are childhood mixtures, Sarah Vowell, and sourdough related, you ask? At first, I hadn’t a clue. And still, it’s questionable. Yet, the better question, I think, would be: where is this questioning coming from? Is it a part of me I should trust? Are there other ways of knowing and sensing my way through life that the filing librarian inside me shouldn't shush?
In life, there are too many things that should belong together but don’t: fathers and daughters, running water and empty cups. And so many more things that shouldn’t, but do. Quiet the critical voice inside, and open your intuition up to the latter.
I’ll end with a few words from a man who wrote a whole book dedicated to helping us free ourselves from the tangent police and license the wandering mind. In Writing Open the Mind: Tapping the Subconscious to Free the Writing and the Writer, Andy Couturier talks about the magic that can happen when we invite discordance and un-reasoned diversity into our writing. “ . . . because you invite radical disjuncture — or anything — to come up, something surprising might . . . the mind recognizes this way of moving and finds it pleasurable. It relaxes and expands.”
Tangents, rather than veering us farther from the truth, scoot us closer to it. Pushing things up next to each other that are usually kept apart by the strong arm of our intellect recreates on the page the randomness, juxtaposition and multiplicity that our real lives are saturated with. If writing life is what we’re after, bringing this simultaneity and contrast into our work should be mandatory. It guides our pens to a “realer” recording of the many-faced sensations, perceptions, and memories that fill every moment.
Also! Practicing the art of discordant details opens up the office of the unknown, where, I think, our creative genius does most of its work. Couturier explains: “Fragments and glimpses create spaces between things that are usually tightly caulked. In the spaces, the possible connections are implicit, or unknown.”
It’s in the gray area of implication, the place between knowing and not knowing how or whether things connect, where the real magic happens. It’s where the tiny, insignificant microbes that made their way into the raw material of our lives, bond, build, and come alive. It's where the dough we denied rises into the bread that will sustain our readers to our final lines.