“Sometimes the details you want are right there in front of you, and you just need to trim the other stuff to give them room to breathe.”
“Luffing” was such a lovely piece to experience, and I’d like to learn, from one accomplished writer to an aspiring other.
Thank you so much for your kind words — I’m so glad that “Luffing” resonated with you. Writing about family can be so difficult, but I think it’s worth it when you know that the experience about which you’ve written really connects with someone else’s. Makes us all feel a little less alone in the world, you know?
To your questions (and please forgive the list format, but I want to make sure I’m doing my best to answer them):
– On details: I had a mentor in my MFA program who always said, “Specific writing is good writing” — meaning details are what make a story sing, especially if they are images or themes that can carry double meaning. I think everyone has their own way of finding details to include and highlight in their prose, whether it be from imagination or real life moments — but for me (because I’m a creative nonfiction writer), everything comes from observation and memory. So I journal a lot, make lists of things I notice or remember, and do free-writing exercises that excavate details from my memory. My advice? Get a lot of books with interesting writing prompts, journal a lot, and be mindful in your revision process. Sometimes the details you want are right there in front of you, and you just need to trim the other stuff to give them room to breathe. Also, read other writers who are really good at metaphoric details. I read a lot of Lia Purpura and Abigail Thomas. Poetry, too. I think that’s a really good way to develop an eye for distilled language.
– On starting: For me, inspiration starts with a daydream or an idea sparked by something I’ve seen or read. I find that I’m really sensitive to contrasting images, or things that are unexpected. That always seems to make me want to explore. My ideal writing environment? Well, it depends on where I am in the writing process. If I’m just beginning something new, then I must have a journal and I must be in a calm place — either alone on my back porch, or writing anonymously in the din of a crowded coffee shop. Once I have something good on paper, I’ll type it into my computer and just go from there. So I spend a lot of late hours in my home office, after the kids have gone to bed!
– On memory: I am always pulling pieces from my own memory to further explore the subject of my work, whether it be my own family relationships or big-picture things like connection to place or social justice issues. So again, I try to work with a lot of prompts that are specifically designed to open my mind and re-create my experiences so that I can get them down on paper. Some resources with good writing exercises (and these are mostly for creative nonfiction writing):Now Write! Nonfiction, edited by Sherry Ellis, Tell It Slant by Brenda Miller & Suzanne Paola, You Can’t Make This Stuff Up by Lee Gutkind, Writing the Memoir by Judith Barrington, and From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler.
I hope I’ve been able to answer some of your questions. Please feel free to follow-up if you have more. And thanks again for the note — you made my day!
Mary Heather Noble