Writing from the Deeper Self

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Writing from the Deeper Self

Intimate Details in Writing

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

By Naomi Rose | Updated November 15, 2018

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.

When you write about a concept, it's hard to give intimate details. Intimacy is an outgrowth of noticing with interest, with some aspect of love ~ generous, trusting love; fascinated love; even estranged, disappointed love can bring forth details that illuminate the beloved in some way. And by "the beloved" I don't necessarily mean romantically: it can be anything where one's heart inclines. Relationships within the family; a pet; a sunset; how a beautiful young gymnast moves ~ when the heart is open and interested, writing intimate details inclines one towards the beloved.

I once wrote a narrative nonfiction book ~ still waiting to be completed, I confess ~ in which, for one chapter's scene, I wanted to somehow communicate how impractical my family of artists was, and how this absence of practicality had been a difficult legacy for many years. There was much I could have said about it, conceptually: but instead, allowing myself to recall one small detail of an interaction with my father peeling an orange, the whole gist of it came into being in a more intimately detailed way. Here it is:

My Father, Peeling an Orange

Once, in my late teens, I caught my father sitting at the kitchen table, peeling an orange with a spoon. He looked so intent at his work, moving the convex side of the spoon up under the curve of the skin until rough patches of bright orange skin and white rind loosened off in the shapes of continents. I sat entranced as a child for that moment, unable to tell whether the magic was in the unorthodox method of peeling, or how the soft orange-meat was revealed, or the intensity of his concentration, or the sheer fact that what he was doing could be put to use. It wasn't just a matter of beauty and lofty heights, the orange could actually be eaten.

"Want some?" my father asked, turning to me.

I held out my hand. He put half the peeled orange inside it. It sat in the hollow of my palm, cool and made special by its carving and his gift. Whether the sun was actually shining through the windows or not, as he passed me the fruit of his labors, in my mind and from that time onward in my memory, it was: vast and rich and gold-orange, bathing us both ~ the hairs on our arms and the glint off the spoon and the tender huskless orange and the scallops of fallen peel and rind ~ in its light.

For there was something about his work being so physical, his mind so melded to the task of bringing forth something that could be touched and seen and tasted and shared, that took it out of the realm of private thought or public, dished-plunked-down-on-the-table drudgery. The spoon-peeled orange had a physical existence, and yet was plucked out of his secret, offbeat, father-god store. I could not have explained just why it was so touching, or why ~ in that grimed, sullen apartment ~ the scene, when replayed in memory, took place in so much light. But it stayed with me forever, filed off in a private pocket and brought out to the world in a protected, off-handed way, framed as a cross between a boast and a complaint: "The only practical thing my father ever taught me," I would say, "was to peel an orange with a spoon."

And this came to have the weight of an inheritance: unique and precious as something rare with my own name inscribed, yet in light of the forces required to push through the rough world, a token gesture only; of purely sentimental value.

—From The Blessings Ledger. © 2008 by Naomi Rose.

Even though it's been years since I wrote that, and much compassion has been gained, and infinitely more practicality as well, when I reread what I wrote, I am still moved by it. Something about those intimate details stays with me, takes me back into what it felt like not only to write that but to, in earlier years, live it. An atmosphere is evoked; something of depth and beauty awakens in me and from me, and remains in me over time. Writing has the ability to do this, to get inside an experience and linger there, so that reading it, people take it into themselves too; it becomes part of their impressionistic experience, part of the soul-food that makes up who they are.

It may take a bit of a shift to seek out the intimate details, when you are writing nonfiction. It's quicker and easier ~ in a certain way ~ to just list the ideas and enumerate the steps. But case histories of humans do not penetrate the membrane of shared, intimate experience. Writing intimate details gives you an opportunity to actually nourish yourself and your readers, as you write, with those detailed instances that mean something to you as you write them. Your own experience is the litmus test: if you find yourself touched by what you write, there's a good chance your readers will be, too.

If all you want is the A-B-C's of what to do and how to do it in your writing, then staying with conceptual ideas alone will do. But if you want to evoke a deeper experience in yourself and in your readers ~ and why not? It will last longer! ~ then relax your list-making mind, and see what intimate details call out to you. Follow them; see where they lead you, what about them moves your heart and soul. In the process, you will learn a great deal about your own inner makeup, and also develop your capacity for intimate writing, no matter what the genre you choose to write in.

©2011 Naomi Rose. All rights reserved.

Next: Deep is Fun: A Challenge to Write Long(er)