Authority Through Realistic Details

Thinking back a few pages to Joan Didion's essay about the Santa Ana winds, recall how she brought the scene alive partly by including some specifics, some details about the phenomenon. When, for example, she wrote that the Santa Ana is "a hot wind from the northeast whining down through the Cajon Pass," we begin already to understand it. Just telling us that it's a northeast wind helps us imagine it. When it comes "whining down," we can hear it. When we learn then that it's whining through Cajon Pass, we're there in the pass—whether or not we have any knowledge of that pass. I imagine she could have chosen any number of passes or other ways to tell us where it comes whining down from, but she chose a specific pass— and by selecting Cajon Pass, she did one more bit of "involving" us in the situation. That Spanish-sounding word, Cajon, put me right there in southern California, or into southwest deserts, where I'm sure the winds are hot and whining. Being the excellent writer she is, she couldn't stop putting us even deeper into the picture. She has us experience the wind "blowing up sandstorms out along Route 66____"

From the beginnings of writing, authors have known the value of including details in stories and articles, but today's writers go far beyond what used to be done. Charles Dickens was particularly aware of the value of including concrete details about London's layers of social life, more, perhaps, than anyone before him. His realistic writing affected novelists for many years, but after a while they forgot the importance of realistic detail and turned to writing that was more intellectual, more abstract. With some exceptions, novelists for many years after Dickens wrote primarily from the imagination—almost neglecting the way life really was.

In a sometimes futile attempt to be objective, nonfiction writers and journalists of the past did not include much concrete detail. They most likely were aware that the mere listing of real-life details raised emotions in the reader, emotions they felt would keep the reader from reading objectively. Creative nonfiction writers also realize that the mere listing of concrete details, realistic details, and details of real life, will conjure emotions in the reader—and they include the details for that very reason. They feel that the whole truth has not been told unless the emotional context is there. Both traditional and creative nonfiction writers aim for the same thing—truth, or the accurate portrayal of life. They differ, however, on what truth means and what such accuracy involves: Is a camera lens a more accurate reporter of people, things, and events, or is the human eye, which sees in an emotional context, the best observer of the large and small truths of human existence?

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