Emotions inform our understanding all the time. So, to tell the whole truth about most situations that involve people (and most situations do), in the words of Tom Wolfe, we need to "excite the reader both intellectually and emotionally."
The best nonfiction writers do not tell us how we should think about something, how we should feel about it, nor what emotions should be aroused. They simply present the concrete details. The reader's brain, to the extent it has experienced or known something about an exact or similar situation, will be "excited" and the old emotion reexperienced. This squares with what cognitive scientists believe happens in the brain when an experience is about to be stored in the memory. Apparently, various details about the experience are stored along with details of similar, associated, past experiences. When any detail is experienced in the future, the potential for the entire past experience (or experiences) to be recalled is there, including the emotions surrounding the earlier experience. Even the most conscientious and intelligent reader may soon forget the factual content of a piece if the material entered the brain with little emotion wrapped around it. Cognitive research indicates that humans remember best what enters the brain in an envelope of "emotion." If it is true that facts and details are stored along with attendant emotions in a system of cross-files throughout the brain, we writers must recognize it and use it to our advantage.
By "emotion," cognitive scientists mean those feelings we might normally think of as emotions, but they also mean expressions that imply emotion—expressions like "terrifyingly hot," rather than "200 degrees Celsius." Unless the precise figure of 200 degrees Celsius (as distinct from 199 degrees Celsius) is significant for the intended reader, "terrifyingly hot" will have more emotional meaning and thus remain longer in the mind.
Too much academic writing ignores this fact, the fact that we humans have not evolved very far from our lower animal predecessors, and thus learn (remember) best any emotion-laden images. In their attempts at objectivity and precision, some of these nonfiction writers think they must avoid interpretive words like "terrifyingly." After all, they reason, to whom is it terrifyingly hot? Not to the scientist, certainly. He or she doesn't think of being terrified by the heat of the autoclave or the molten metal, but is concerned only with recording precisely the temperature observed. If the scientist then writes an article for people unfamiliar with the heat of molten metals, or a nonscientific audience, "terrifyingly hot" will make the point more quickly and even more memorably—the twin goals of such nonfiction writing.
Conversation also provides emotion (in the sense I'm using it here) for an article, making the content more human, more understandable, more memorable. George Will, the Pulitzer Prize— winning columnist, knows how to use conversation to put us right into a situation, conversation that pulls us into "On Her Own in the
City," a Washington Post column written in the 1980s about some of the problems growing out of our then present welfare system.
When police, responding to her call, arrived at her East Harlem tenement, she was hysterical: "The dog ate my baby." The baby girl had been four days old, twelve hours "home" from the hospital. Home was two rooms and a kitchen on the sixth floor, furnished with a rug, a folding chair, and nothing else, no bed, no crib.
"Is the baby dead?" asked an officer. "Yes," the mother said, "I saw the baby's insides." Her dog, a German Shepherd, had not been fed for five days. She explained: "I left the baby on the floor with the dog to protect it." She had bought the dog in July for protection from human menaces.
The writer grabs our attention immediately with the woman's hysterical, barely articulate words: "The dog ate my baby." And later, "I saw the baby's insides." It would require an almost inhuman reader not to read on, even though it's obviously a grisly story unfolding. Will hopes that by repeating her actual words for us, he'll make us remember this article for some time to come—perhaps long enough to do something about the problems of poverty.
To help a reader fully understand an experience we're writing about, it's necessary to stimulate as many associated memories as possible. Details not only conjure up old memories, they enable us to understand the new idea. We've all experienced the difficulty of communicating a new idea to someone of limited experience. By contrast, it's easy to talk with someone with related past experiences, regardless of their possibly indirect relevance to the one now under discussion. Such a person can take a little something from each of a number of experiences and make them relevant to the present one. This also explains the strength of the metaphor. Of a metaphor, the reader says, in effect, "Oh, I understand.. .this is the same thing I saw (heard/felt/smelled/experienced) back then. It's not exactly the same, but I can understand better now that I've been reminded of what this is like."
As with so much in writing, caution and good sense are called for. In an attempt to provide an article with realism, a writer may load it up with so much detail that the reader is weighed down under the pressure of so many images. The secret is to use just enough detail to do the trick. But how do you know when enough's enough?
Since no rules exist, you can best get a feel for how much detail is enough by reading the authors quoted in these chapters. The main task is to be selective. Select from all of the details you may have collected, in your mind or in a field notebook, those that either singly or in their cumulative strength present what you consider the essence of the place, person, or whatever you're trying to capture. Sometimes a litany of details will be effective in their cumulative power; sometimes a single detail will suffice; other times, the best method is to weave the details into the description or the narratives as they come up, logically.
Another point to consider in the use of concrete details is in choosing time-sensitive references. In your attempt to make your subject come alive for readers, you might be tempted to use ephemeral details that will have gone out of favor in a few years (or even months) from now, and future readers won't get the point. For example, a certain TV actor and his foibles may be widely known today, but people in the future may not be familiar with the actor. The main piece of advice is to keep your wits about you as you select the details you'll use. If some seem so ephemeral that few people may know about them a year from now, look for other details that seem more long-lasting in their relevance. Even if your reader misses the significance of one or two details, he or she will have enough to work with to figure out your meaning.
Readers of all types and levels seem to need and appreciate concrete details. One difficult problem for nonfiction writers is that of writing for ill-informed readers. All I can say is that if they're poorly informed people, they're going to miss much of what you write anyway, so which concrete details you select seems unimportant. Of course, it is possible that an ill-informed, marginally literate person would be assisted in his or her understanding by the very concreteness of the details we're discussing here.
That last point raises a question difficult to answer: Who will read the creative nonfiction you'll write? The American Society of Journalists and Authors conducted some demographic studies to get a handle on just who were their readers, especially their magazine readers. The study reported that the typical reader of nonfiction magazines, among other characteristics, is about thirty years old; has about a high school education; is probably middle class and holding a blue- or a white-collar job; is most likely married; and has at least one child.
General readers, like those described by the study, are interested in many subjects if they are clearly and vividly expressed, but they're very quick to stop reading an article or ignore writing that doesn't relate directly to their personal concerns or past experiences. If the writing is on a hot topic or is so lively and well written that it captures their attention, general readers will follow even complex topics outside their usual range of interests.
Most journalists would not include the types of details this young reporter did when he wrote this account of an interview he and a female reporter conducted soon after a young Japanese woman and her mother survived an earthquake. Ernest Hemingway was in his early twenties when he wrote this very modern-sounding nonfiction piece for the Toronto Daily Star in 1923 (collected in By-Line: Ernest Hemingway).
The door opened one narrow crack. The crack ran from the top of the door to the bottom, and about halfway up it was a very dark, very beautiful face, the hair soft and parted in the middle.
"She is beautiful, after all," thought the reporter. He had been sent on so many assignments in which beautiful girls figured, and so few of the girls had ever turned out to be beautiful.
"Who do you want?" said the girl at the door.
"We're from The Star," the reporter said. "This is Miss So and So."
"We don't want to have anything to do with you. You can't come in," the girl said.
"But—" said the reporter and commenced to talk. He had a very strong feeling that if he stopped talking at any time, the door would slam. So he kept on talking. Finally the girl opened the door.
"Well, I'll let you in," she said. "I'll go upstairs and ask my mother."
By putting us right up close to that crack in the door, Hemingway has involved us. We are no longer newspaper readers, we're on-the-spot observers, even participants, at the interview. He lures us deeper into the story by giving us a tantalizing glimpse of the girl we expect soon to interview. Not only does he break all journalism rules when he tells us what he thought, he tells us a bit, a small bit to be sure, but a bit about his life as a reporter going on other assignments that had promised beautiful girls. Journalists do not usually talk about their lives (particularly not back in 1923). Creative nonfiction writers may, because there are no rules about what the writer may write. Hemingway even quoted himself being interrupted by himself: "But—." This is a very small detail, but we see in it that's just the way life is. We start out with some sentence, and then shift into something different. In other words, by accurately reporting what happened instead of following some journalistic rule, the writer has involved our brains in the scene there on the doorstep. It sounds real.
Here is Hemingway again, this time giving us concrete, realistic details of life in wartime Italy. Nowhere does he tell us what to feel about all this business. He simply lays out all these details—he shows us.
Sometimes in the dark we heard the troops marching under the windows and guns going past pulled by motor tractors. There was much traffic at night and many mules on the roads with boxes of ammunition on each side of their pack-saddles, and gray motor trucks that carried men, and other trucks with loads covered with canvas that moved slower in the traffic. There were big guns too that passed in the day drawn by tractors, the long barrels of the guns covered with green branches and green leafy branches and vines laid over the tractors. To the north we could look across the valley and see a forest of chestnut trees and behind it another mountain on this side of the river.
Although it sounds like nonfiction, this quote is from Hemingway's novel A Farewell to Arms. Most of this passage's strength comes from the simple listing of details. Some other writer might not have specified, for example, that the forest across the valley was of chestnut trees, but Hemingway knew the value of the realistic detail. Even though we might not know a chestnut tree forest when we look at one from across a valley, we feel confident that the author knows, and we feel that we're in good hands. That's it. The passage sounds authoritative.
The nonfiction writer also wants to sound authoritative. A sense of authority about a piece gives it credence. (Interesting, isn't it, that the word "author" is embedded in that word "authority.") Anyone with authority has the power to persuade. One way to convey the sense of authority is to use words that not only are accurate and real, but that sound accurate and real. Given enough of them, we believe the message within. Because realism has an inherent air of authority, writers would be wise to include realistic details, as Hemingway did in the fiction excerpt and in the nonfiction piece about the interview. I enjoy the irony that Hemingway took this technique of realism from his nonfiction writing and used it when he moved into fiction—and here we are now taking this technique from fiction and applying it to nonfiction to gain realism when writing about the real.
We can take a leaf, too, from author Budd Schulberg, as he writes about the famous Stillman's Gym in New York City.
Americans are still an independent and rebellious people—at least in their reactions to signs. Stillman's Gym, up the street from the Garden, offers no exception to our national habit of shrugging off prohibitions. Hung prominently on the gray, nondescript walls facing the two training rings, a poster reads: "No rubbish or spitting on the floor under penalty of the law." If you want to see how the boys handle this one, stick around until everybody has left the joint and see what's left for the janitor to do. The floor is strewn with cigarettes smoked down to their stained ends, cigar butts chewed to soggy pulp, dried spittle, empty match cases, thumbed and trampled copies of the News,
Mirror, and Journal, open to the latest crime of passion or the race results, wadded gum, stubs of last night's fight at St. Nick's (manager's comps), a torn-off cover of an Eighth Avenue restaurant menu with the name of a new matchmaker in Cleveland scrawled next to a girl's phone number. Here on the dirty floor of Stillman's is the telltale debris of a world as sufficient unto itself as a walled city of the Middle Ages.
That is Budd Schulberg at work writing not nonfiction, but his novel The Harder They Fall. Creative nonfiction writers use this novelistic technique of including realistic, pertinent details all the time. It is a technique that enlivens nonfiction literature. Even though I've never been in such a professional gym, I know from the details Schulberg used just what it must be like. My brain informs my emotional reaction by adding to his details bits of my experience in high school gyms and U.S. Navy locker rooms aboard crowded ships. All of those details piled on details add an air of authority, but none so directly as one detail in particular—"manager's comps." That has to be truth. Every reader will find one or more details in there that would persuade him or her that this passage has authority. For me, my belief in that one phrase lent authority to all the other details—I know I'm inside Stillman's Gym— I'm right there and involved in the activities. I'm not looking through the window at the scene inside; I'm at ringside, hearing the leathery thuds and smelling the smells. "Manager's comps" did it for me; "cigar butts chewed to soggy pulp" may do it for someone else.
That business of manager's comps raises some interesting thoughts about the entire matter of details, authority, and realism. Should Budd Schulberg have interrupted his flow by explaining that these are manager's complimentary tickets? How much explanation about jargon or other specialized language is a writer obliged to provide? I admit that I didn't know what manager's comps are, yet here I am claiming that the phrase "did it" for me. How can that be? A writer should give enough details of various kinds that most readers will pick up on one or more, and live with the fact that no matter how much he or she explains, someone out there is not going to understand one point or another.
It comes down to intent. What is the writer's intention? If it's an educational book or article, he or she must be reasonably certain that nothing important or significant goes unexplained. If the purpose is to both inform and entertain, as is most often the case with creative nonfiction, the writer should presume a certain amount of intelligence and experience on the reader's part. The writer wants to make points clearly, yet to make them with flair, and doesn't want to be forever explaining.
All I've said about how I was persuaded by manager's comps, even though I didn't understand what they are, should not be interpreted to mean that it doesn't matter whether the writer's words are accurate, provided that the words "sound" real. Don't invent terms to "sound" authoritative. Use specialists' jargon to lend authority, but don't feel obliged to explain it. When you're uncertain about whether to explain, ask yourself this key question: Does the reader really need to know this to understand my piece? If not, consider keeping the jargon or special language (for example, the occasional foreign phrase). After all, your purpose may be to develop mood or to give the essence of a place or a person, and explanation could detract or reduce impact.
Before moving on to examples of how nonfiction writers use concrete details to lend authority to their articles and books, I want to point out an interesting parallelism that went on within the writing world. Many short story writers, like Raymond Carver, were producing what they call "realistic" writing. Their method is to write in a minimal way, largely providing the facts of a situation and accurate reporting on what people do. What it all means is left up to the reader to figure out. The writer does not tell us the meaning, nor what emotions to feel, nor what emotions the characters are feeling. All of this is left to the reader's brain, to add its details from personal experience to what's happening in the story, thereby bringing to the story the emotions the reader felt in the original experience. Like a haiku, this kind of writing requires an intelligent, experienced reader for it to achieve in the reader's brain an emotion as close as possible to what the writer experienced originally.
Carver wrote with great attention to realistic details, down to a person's smallest moves. I've included this short discussion of Raymond Carver's fiction writing because his use of so many realistic details is similar to creative nonfiction writing. Carver took realistic details to the ultimate level, one that nonfiction writers should probably not emulate. But creative nonfiction writers could study Carver's use of details to create a feeling of being there. The following section is from "Furious Seasons," a short story from the collection by the same name.
He fumbled in the closet for his insulated boots, his hands tracing the sleeves of each coat until he found the rubber slick waterproof. He went to the drawer for socks and long underwear, then picked up his shirt and pants and carried the armload through the hallway into the kitchen before turning on the light. He dressed and pulled on his boots before starting the coffee. He would have liked to turn on the porch light for Frank but somehow it didn't seem good with Iris out there in bed. While the coffee perked he made sandwiches and when it had finished he filled a thermos, took a cup down from the cupboard, filled it, and sat down near a window where he could watch the street. He smoked and drank the coffee and listened to the clock on the stove, squeaking. The coffee slopped over the cup and the brown drops ran slowly down the side onto the table. He rubbed his fingers through the wet circle across the rough table top.
Hunter S. Thompson is another master of the telling detail. In his book Hell's Angels he recalls this scene about when the gang he's riding with (for his research work) was confronted by a man working for the local sheriff:
Luckily, my garb was too bastard for definition. I was wearing Levi's, Wellington boots from L.L. Bean in Maine, and a Montana sheepherder's jacket over a white tennis shirt. The burr-haired honcho asked me who I was. I gave him my card and asked why he had that big pistol on his belt. "You know why," he said. "The first one of these sonsabitches that gives me any lip I'm gonna shoot right in the belly. That's the only language they understand." He nodded toward Mohr in the phone booth, and there was nothing in his tone to make me think I was exempted. I could see that his pistol was a short-barreled Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum—powerful enough to blow holes in Mohr's BSA cylinder head, if necessary—but at arm's length it hardly mattered.
Details like Levi's and Wellingtons from L.L. Bean help lend authority to the scene, but I could have invented those even though I have no knowledge whatsoever about motorcycle gangs. When the hon-cho spoke, I didn't just hear him, I saw him. Those were the words I'd expect him to say, but I might have invented those words, too. When Thompson mentioned the .357 Magnum (which I might have come up with, too) he went on to describe it as short barreled and furthermore that it was made by Smith & Wesson. That did it. I was in his power. Now, I'm just reasoning ex post facto about what my unconscious was doing, but I know I ended up seeing that scene, hearing that burr-haired lummox, and seeing the hugeness of the opening in the barrel of that Smith & Wesson. I note, too, that he's absolutely correct—Smith & Wesson does have an ampersand in it. It's not Smith "and" Wesson. Had the author not done his research (in this case, field research), he would not have had that little ampersand in there, and that would have lessened his credibility in the mind of anyone knowledgeable about pistols. (Someone out there always knows more than the writer about something.) As if he didn't already have me, Thompson threw in that business about a cylinder head—a BSA cylinder head yet. That's writing.
Richard Rhodes, author of Looking for America and Ultimate Powers, wrote the following in his first book, The Inland Ground. In the midst of a section entitled "Death All Day," he wrote this description of one of the men going with him on a hunt for coyotes with his other friend's dogs.
The other third of our party is Ron Nolan, an Ohio boy who overcame New York a few years back to homestead a two-room cabin in the woods outside Kansas City. His cabin contains an Italian racing motorcycle, a KLH-20, plus Stereo, a wall of books, tennis rackets, board games, a hookah, rifles, pistols, a Beretta Golden Snipe .12-gauge over-and-under shotgun, a Pacific shotshell reloader, and outside a golden sand Jaguar XKE convertible and for short hauls an aging Morris Oxford station wagon, likely the only one in the Midwest. Ron is a bachelor.
The quality of these objects that fill Ron's cabin certainly paints a picture for me of a probably young man with more money that anybody needs—and I'd rather learn it this way than have the author tell me this was Ron's economic condition. All of the details did their job, but I was pulled in solidly by that hookah, a Pacific shotshell reloader, and by his specifying that the Jaguar was a golden sand color—especially after hearing earlier about a Golden Snipe. I don't know that the author intended to have these golden references add to the generally affluent scene. (I am sure, however, the advertising executives knew of it when they named the Jaguar and the Beretta.) Over- and undertones of gold never hurt a shotgun sale. As a married man with no hope of a golden sand Jag, I appreciated particularly that short, emphatic sentence—"Ron is a bachelor."
John McPhee wrote in the November 26, 1985 issue of the New Yorker about the workaday world of a Maine warden-pilot with the unlikely name of John McPhee. As one of the acknowledged masters of the telling detail, the writer McPhee described a flying trip he took with the warden McPhee to check on men ice fishing within the warden's jurisdiction.
Brown's Point is actually the delta of a small stream that enters the lake beside the hangar and spews nutrients to crowds of waiting fish. Boats collect in the summer; and as soon as the lake is hard, fishing shacks arrive and remain through the winter. Fishing shacks tend to be heated, furnished, closer to civilization, close to paved and numbered roads—shantytowns platted on ice, and clustered where fish are likely to be. In architectural style, at Brown's Point, they range from late-middle Outhaus to the Taj Pelletier, a ten-piece portable cabin with nearly a hundred square feet of floor space, red-curtained windows, cushioned benches, a Coleman stove, a card table, a hi-fi spilling country music, and hinged floorboards that swing upward to reveal eight perfect circles in the ice through which lines can be dangled from cup hooks in the ceiling. If the air outside is twenty below zero, the air inside will be a hundred degrees warmer, while the men in shirtsleeves interrupt their cribbage to lift into the room a wriggling salmon.
McPhee, the author, had me in his thrall, as usual, after only a few sentences, largely by his creative use of telling details. As I looked back at my experience of reading this paragraph, I found that the details were orchestrated to involve me more and more as I went. I may have been slightly involved when I read that the shack came in ten pieces and that it was nearly a hundred square feet, but when I got to the red curtains, I was suddenly there. When I read about those curtains, I had the feeling of seeing the lamp come on in the shack and some rose-colored light coming through those curtains. The cushioned benches (not chairs) made sense to me and added to the realism of my vicarious experience, but when those hinged floorboards swung up, making me step to one side, I was right there in that strange environment. I was truly hooked, though, by those cup hooks. Cup hooks. Never in a million years would I have been able to invent that detail. This had the ring of truth—no, this was truth. This was real(ism).
Similarly, Thomas H. Rawles in his Small Places: In Search of a Vanishing America included many concrete details, such as names of equipment, to lend authority to his writing and to provide an upclose look at his subject's life.
Parker pulls the Power Wagon in next to the barn and parks beside the new logging winch that he will be using in future timber harvests. He will hook it up to a recently acquired 57-horsepower, four-wheel-drive Belarus tractor. New, the Soviet workhorse cost him less than $7,000, probably a third of what it would have cost him to buy green or blue or red—John Deere,
Ford, Case/International. Parker admits to having a conservative nature; he dislikes debt. His wife says, "I'm frequently the risk taker. He is so practical, so down to earth. I jostle his steadiness." She urged him to get the tractor.
Greta Tilley demonstrates further the versatility of using concrete details as technique in her February 7, 1982 piece, "A Suicide at Age 16." A feature writer for the Greensboro News and Record, she took on what has to be one of the most challenging subjects to write about— teenage suicide. With such an emotion-laden subject, the writer does not want to make an obvious attempt to evoke the reader's emotions, or it becomes a sob story.
Seven weeks have passed, yet the dim lavender room with the striped window curtains has been kept as Tonja kept it. Haphazardly positioned on top of the white French Provincial-style dresser are staples of teen-age life: Sure deodorant, Enjoli cologne, an electric curling wand.
A white jewelry box opens to a ballerina dancing before a mirror. Inside, among watches and bracelets, is a gold Dudley High School ring with a softball player etched into one side and a Panther on the other. Also inside was a mimeographed reminder that a $9 balance must be paid in Mrs. Johnson's room for the 1982 yearbook. The deadline was Jan. 15.
There's no need to analyze this, item by pathetic item. It's enough to say that we would all recognize from the listing a teenage girl's dresser, and more important, the interests, the excitements, the life of a teenage person. Even if a reader's experience has been only with a teenage boy's dresser top, there's enough carryover to evoke appropriate emotion.
Leaving this sad story, let's leap across the world to mainland China to note how Annie Dillard, in Encounters with Chinese Writers, uses concrete details to put us right beside her on the outskirts of a city. She had made the point earlier on the page that China must depend for most of its food on millions of square miles of terrible soil, soil so dense with clay that China's labor-intensive agricultural system is reflected by actual fingerprints in the soil.
Driving to this meeting we saw fields on the outskirts of the city, and patches of agriculture. There was a field of eggplant. Separating the rows of eggplants were long stripes of dried mud, five inches high, like thick planks set on edge. These low walls shield shoots and stems from drying winds. We stopped to look. The walls were patted mud; there were fingerprints. There were fingerprints dried into the loess wall around every building in the western city of Xian. There were fingerprints in the cones of drying mud around every tree's roots in large afforestation plots near Hangzhou, and along the Yangtze River. There is good soil in China, too, on which peasants raise three and even four crops a year, and there are 2,000-acre fields, and John Deere tractors—but there is not enough.
In addition to many examples of good writing here, like the alliteration of "walls shield shoots and stems" and the strikingly accurate simile of thick planks set on edge, we find author Dillard pulling down close to the good earth for some close-up views of five-inch-high walls—all in preparation for us to see those peasant fingerprints. I could see a master writer at work when she deliberately chose the verb "patted" to prepare our minds to readily accept the image of fingerprints. I find, too, within that accurate verb, the immediate understanding that this is indeed labor-intensive agriculture, and that the peasant may pat this mud with some care—though perhaps I'm too romantic. In any event, the verb "pat" did what its author probably intended: It prepared the way for the fingerprints.
The cones of mud around every tree's roots gave some authority to this paragraph, because that's not agriculture the way we experience it here, but what clinched it for me was the surprising arrival on the scene of that symbol of American agribusiness, the John Deere tractor. Now I knew I was in the hands of not only a capable writer but one with the authority that comes with knowledge, knowledge of the details. John Deere, indeed—wow.
To wrap up for the moment this discussion of realism (although the entire book could be said to deal with it), let's hear a description of the Great Depression written by the man who helped bring this economic phenomenon to the nation's conscience with his novel The Grapes of Wrath. Nothing could have been more real for the people who experienced it, but for those who came later, its description needs words that recapture that reality. John Steinbeck did a great service in that regard with his various fictional writings of that era, but what follows comes from a nonfiction article he wrote in the October 1973 Esquire entitled, "A Primer on the Thirties."
The Depression was no financial shock for me. I didn't have any money to lose, but in common with millions I did dislike hunger and cold. I had two assets. My father owned a tiny three-room cottage in Pacific Grove in California, and he let me live in it without rent. That was the first safety. Pacific Grove is on the sea. That was the second. People in inland cities in the closed and shuttered industrial cemeteries had greater problems than I. Given the sea a man must be very stupid to starve. That great reservoir of food is always available. I took a large part of my protein food from the ocean. Firewood to keep warm floated on the beach daily, needing only handsaw and ax. A small garden of black soil came with the cottage. In northern California you can raise vegetables of some kind all year long. I never peeled a potato without planting the skins. Kale, lettuce, chard, turnips, carrots and onions rotated in the little garden. In the tide pools of the bay mussels were available and crabs and abalones and that shiny kelp called sea lettuce. With a line and pole, blue cod, rock cod, perch, sea trout, sculpin could be caught.
I've read other articles about life in the Depression that purported to tell what it was like, but they would typically say something like "People lived wherever they could find a roof; they'd grow some food if they could; and those near the sea would fish." Somehow, Steinbeck knew it was not enough to say simply that they would burn driftwood to keep warm. He added that all you needed was a handsaw and ax. These two simple, homely words added reality for me. I could see Steinbeck wandering the beach near Pacific Grove, saw in hand, ax on shoulder. I liked, too, the specificity of the black soil. It sounded like rich soil that could grow all those vegetables, with several crops a year. I was very young during the Depression, but I do remember chard—and I seem to recall that only near-starvation would make me turn to chard. It was the mention of chard here, however, that lent authority to everything else. As a man from Milton, Massachusetts, my brain couldn't make direct contact with those abalones, but it knew chard—oh, it knew chard.
Some creative nonfiction writers bend over backward not to tell readers what meaning they should take from their words, but they do it anyway through the realistic details they select to tell the story. All writing involves selection, as everything can't be said. Whether the writing is an essay, an article, or a book, some things rather than others are singled out for mention. That which is singled out is considered more important to the author than what was left out. The overall impression created by this selection constitutes the writer's style, meaning, or individual truth.
As a writer, you cannot avoid giving yourself away in this fashion, and you shouldn't try. Rather, you should try to reveal only true things which you feel are important, and to arrange them in relationships that reflect what you believe to be the meaning, the truth, of whatever subject you're considering. A laundry list of landmarks and dates is no less a true picture of New York than a representative slice-of-life description of what one might see at Broadway and 42nd between 1:00 and 6:00 in the morning. But they're not the same truth, the same vision. The key word here is "representative."
What is representative is what the author presents as representative. The writer's reliability rests in how able he or she is to persuade us that the representation is fair—that it is accurate and illuminating to the whole, not distorted or fabricated, but honest in the impression it creates.
If the selection of event and detail is good, it won't need much commentary from the author to show what it means. The process of selection and arrangement should do that. Excessive commentary is intrusive overkill. It's like a comic telling the audience how funny a joke is going to be. You don't want to be told—if it's funny, you'll laugh. If it's not, being told how funny the comic thought it would be isn't any help at all. The writer should show, rather than tell, as much as he or she can, and let the selection and combination of details speak for themselves as much as possible. Describing his final preparations to rediscover America by hiking along the Appalachian Trail, Bill Bryson wrote in A Walk in the Woods:
I ended up with enough equipment to bring full employment to a vale of sherpas—a three-season tent, self-inflating sleeping pad, nested pots and pans, collapsible eating utensils, plastic dish and cup, complicated pump-action water purifier, stuff sacks in a rainbow of colors, seam sealer, patching kit, sleeping bag, bungee cords, water bottles, waterproof poncho, waterproof matches, pack cover, a rather nifty compass/thermometer keyring, a little collapsible stove that looked frankly like trouble, gas bottle and spare gas bottles, a hands-free flashlight that you wore on your head like a miner's lamp (this I liked very much), a big knife for killing bears and hillbillies, insulated long johns and undershirts, four bandannas, and lots of other stuff, for some of which I had to go back again and ask what it was for exactly. I drew the line at buying a designer groundcloth at $59.95, knowing I could acquire a lawn tarp at Kmart for $5. I also said no to a first-aid kit, sewing kit, anti-snake-bite kit, $12 emergency whistle, and small orange plastic shovel for burying one's poop, on the grounds that these were unnecessary, too expensive or invited ridicule. The orange spade in particular seemed to shout, "Greenhorn! Sissy! Make way for Mr. Buttercup!"
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