The Art is in the Details

March 31, 2011, Santa Fe, New Mexico, where the low-slung adobes spread flat with the horizon. It’s early spring, but the colors are still winter’s chalky brown and muted pine splashed against a sailor blue sky. In my fireplace, I, like others, burn Pinion pine, and it makes this old-world town huddled at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains smell like a perfumed temple on holy days.

What makes you fall in love with writing? What makes you tumble into the story on the page the minute the words enter your body?

For me, it’s the details. I care about the music of the language and what the writing has to teach me about people and life; in the end, I want those bigger themes to change me. But as I read creative nonfiction, and the world of story rises before me, I want to see it, taste it, smell it, hear it, and feel it on my skin.

I used to open college writing classes by asking students: “What did you hear today? What did you smell?”

At first those young writers, who shuffled to class with eyes on their feet, sat mute.

“I smelled toast,” one said.

“I heard my alarm clock.”

Yes, well . . . .

Over time, they got excited and started to pay attention. They came to class eager, shooting hands into the air before I’d finished taking attendance.

“I heard a bird!”

“What kind?” another student countered.

“That one with the orange stomach.”

“You mean a robin.”

“Cool,” said the first student, grinning: “I heard a robin.”

Soon the reports grew richer and more original.

I believe we must become students of our senses, awestruck again like babes toddling through life, eyes wide at all that swirls around us.

What did you smell today?

The more we catalogue quietly in our minds the details of our days, the more those details work their way into our creative nonfiction and perpetuate the dream that is story.

“I was in a dream,” a reader reports after finishing a book. “I wish it had never ended.”

It is a different place, that world of imaginary pictures and feelings we create in our minds as words translate from ink on a page into the language of the dream space called story.

As writers we are responsible for creating that dream space. We are responsible for the ink on the page that enters the brain, that conjures the image, that provokes the feeling, that makes the story.

And we do that with details.

Taste.

Touch.

Smell.

Sound.

Sight.

These are your tools.

lisa dale nortonLisa Dale Norton is the author of Shimmering Images: A Handy Little Guide to Writing Memoir and Hawk Flies Above: Journey to the Heart of the Sandhills, both published by St. Martin’s Press. She works as an editor with writers finishing creative nonfiction manuscripts, teaches creative writing for the UCLA Writers’ Extension Program, and  offers memoir writing classes online at www.lisadalenorton.com.

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  • I know you’re right. Details make the story come alive. Today I will remind myself to use my senses.

  • Kim

    A wonderfully engaging story as an excellent teaching tool.

  • ValNeidig123

    Ms. Norton- Thank you for the insightful tip. I also like to experience a story through my senses. Our writing does stand out when we use our senses to describe things in which a reader can immerse him or herself. I think I have some revisions to do! 😀 Thanks again. -Val Marie

  • ValNeidig123

    P.S. I imagine your house to look beautiful and smell wonderful, as well as the wide open scene before you. Thanks for the imagery! 😀

  • Fran Young

    After reading your inspiring comments, I’m certain I need to find & purchase your book, Shimmering Images: A Handy Little Guide to Writing Memoir. You’ve reminded me of why I love the craft of writing.

    Thanks for contributing the first Craft article on Hippocampus, Lisa!