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Naomi Rose : Intimate Details in Writing

Intimate Details in Writing

(Not about a confessional, but details that bring what you're writing about intimately close to the reader)

By Naomi Rose

Fiction writers know the importance, even essentiality, of details in writing, but nonfiction writers often don't. We've gotten too used to writing, and reading, nonfiction pieces top-heavy with concepts and ideas, and nothing in them close at hand to bring the experience of what they want to convey to us home.

If I were to end this feature right here, you can see that I would have done the very same thing. There's nothing in the preceding paragraph that opens you up to yourself through your senses, imagination, or metaphorical intelligence. There's nothing to see, to hear, to smell, to perceive with your own innate sensibility.

Why it is that there is such a tendency among nonfiction writers ~ including many of those who get published ~ to assume that lists, concepts, enumerating ideas, and the like are enough to be called "writing" probably has to do with what we were asked to do in school term papers. Putting forth a thesis or idea of some kind; building a case for why it had a right to be; giving minimal, often lifeless, illustrations; and drawing conclusions is certainly one way of writing, and it has its place, for sure. But when what you really want is to reach an audience of readers, this atmosphere-deficient architectural scaffold is not really likely to do it. And despite the encouragement these days to write, and write books, and sell books about anything, don't we want to have some kind of memorable, valuable experience in reading what gets written? Don't we want to be able to be nourished by it, somehow? To put ourselves into the picture?

Maybe not if the book's purpose is to teach you the ten steps of planting roses. But even there, there is room for some rhapsody regarding roses.

This need to offer intimate details in your writing ~ "intimate" not in the sense of confessing private things, but in the sense of bringing what you are writing about into the reader's close-up, opened-up experience ~ has struck me ever since I decided to go to graduate school in psychology in the early 1980s. I already had an M.A. in English literature ~ and in literature, you are exposed to the telling detail over and over again ~ when I realized that another way to get into the depth of the human being's inner world and possibilities was psychology. Eagerly, I bought all the text books assigned; but when I began to read them, one by one I was disheartened to read how they were written. Brilliant, empathetic ideas and understandings were put forth in the most clinical language possible. Human beings who had experienced deep and sometimes conflicting feelings were written off as "case histories," with no one able to tell whether Case A had blond, brown, or grey hair, or how when Case R smiled, his forehead crinkled. These composite descriptions of composite human beings lay on the page like ink flaking off. Nothing there brought them to life.

We have gotten too used to this kind of writing. We think it is expected of us. But there's no reason not to seek what's alive and telling, in whatever we write. Not only for the reader; for ourselves, so we enjoy what we are doing; so our quest has meaning, and life.

The Linear Brain and the Artistic Brain*

What is the difference between fiction and nonfiction? One is that, in fiction, real things can get told using imaginary characters, scenes, dialogue, and settings ~ whereas in nonfiction, real things are often written in such a way that they don't actually feel real. I attribute this to ~ in addition to what we have been handed down and gotten used to, regarding what is asked of us in nonfiction versus fiction ~ what I've been calling the "Linear Brain" and the "Artistic Brain." I prefer these terms to "Left" and "Right" brain, when it comes to writing, because we have both tendencies as part of our human makeup. We just tend to incline in one direction over another. And the conventions about nonfiction writing tend to incline us towards the Linear Brain.

The Linear Brain makes lists, likes numbers, sets up structures before there is anything to put in them. Schooling tended to favor the linear brain in composition writing: "Make an outline, fill it in." There's definitely a place for the Linear Brain. It organizes, sees step-wise sequences, gives a structure, measures things. Without it, we could not easily learn the "how-to's" of how-to books; come up with a budget; apply logic to otherwise chaotic ideas and situations.

But the Artistic Brain ~ also an integral part of our makeup ~ does it differently. It doesn't want to be bound, step by step, to rules and boring regulations. It wants to discover, to leap, to fly; to make connections between things that previously seemed to have none. It doesn't want to convince us of an idea's merit; it wants us to fall in love with how a leaf reflects the light of the sun shining through the tree.

This embrace of qualities, rather than quantities, allows us to move into territories previously hidden or unexplored, in our writing (or any other art). It lets us write without knowing ahead of time what we will say, lets us lean into the wind of what calls us. Even such metaphorical writing as the last part of the previous sentence is a fruit of the Artistic Brain. And even my calling it a "brain" is reductive; surely, it is an aspect of the soul.

When we make the effort to provide intimate, telling details in our writing, we engage the Artistic Brain ~ the soul ~ such that not only are we seeking to open up the territory for our readers, but also for ourselves, in the very act of writing. Such details do not come to conclusions before the fact: they present us with food for our perceptual sensibilities, so that we can see, hear, taste, smell, know, feel into for ourselves. Writing intimate details is more like being a painter of portraits: noticing the way the light brings out the sheen in the brow, the waves of the hair, the rosy complexion, how the eyes look straight ahead, thoughtfully; the tilt of the shoulders, the slight flare of the nostrils suggesting a passionate nature. Intimate details, because they bring the subject close.

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*The Linear and Artistic Brains are explored at greater length in my book, Starting Your Book: A Guide to Navigating the Blank Page by Attending to What's Inside You.