Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Cabbage and Iced Fish

You’ve probably heard it said that writers need to be “noticers”—that it’s those authentic details you notice and include that make your writing come alive. But it’s not the easiest thing in the world to do, to notice. We’re all wired uniquely, and I’m wired like a cat. I pick up on unusual sights and sounds—the thump on the roof or the dark shadow passing over—but when things are normal and usual, I’m on autopilot. 

Even when I tell myself to be all eyes and ears, when I vow to pay attention to the lisp of the sour-faced cashier or the way my hairstylist holds the scissors when she’s chatting and not snipping—I come home disappointed. I get caught up in the mundane. Unless I’m working on a specific character or assignment, I forget to notice.

Then there’s the opposite phenomenon. I have noticed this terrific bit of sensory data, but it doesn’t fit with any character or story I’m working on. That’s when it’s a good idea to keep an idea notebook. With just the right detail, however, I suspect you could construct a complete story around it. 

I’m thinking of one by Flannery O’Connor. In it a large woman holding a grocery bag has a scrap of cabbage stuck to her cheek. That scrap of cabbage—is that what sparked the story? I wonder. It’s as if the totality of the woman can be deduced from that one detail. 

Then there’s the metaphor in Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna: “her feet like iced fish in the bed.” A perfect detail, perfectly described. 

Noticing what other writers do will be the subject of a future post.

What have you noticed lately?


  1. Great thought! Thanks for sharing :)

  2. Muse, you have great titles for your blog posts--really visceral sometimes!