Sometimes when I walk in the forest, I keep my eyes on the trail ahead, the climb up the steep hill, the splendid view when I get to the top. But the other day I decided not to focus on the goal or the panorama that awaited me, and to stop and focus on details. I noticed the drops of water on the bramble, the gleam on the blackberry, the colours of mushrooms. Suddenly the world was filled with small miracles.
After my walk I was reading Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, marveling at the way I could be transported into the bizarre underworld, feel the character’s pain. Neil Gaiman’s focus on carefully selected details was what created that sensation for me. He didn’t include every detail – that would be a tedious reading experience – but he focused our attention on details that brought the world alive.
When I was younger, I loved writing descriptive paragraphs, amazed at my own ability to notice little things and put them into strange and (to me) wonderful contexts and metaphors and similes that no one else might have thought about. I filled my paragraphs with everything, and if I thought of something new, I would rewrite to pack it in.
Soon, though, I noticed the story began to bog down. When I described every detail in a setting or a character’s clothing or physical sensations, I lost momentum, and couldn’t keep the narrative going. That’s when I discovered the importance of selection. Every detail had to contribute to the overall effect I wanted to create. Would I describe eyebrows or nose? Would I focus on the painting on the wall or the crack in the leg of the coffee table? Which one would push my story forward? Now the challenge is not so much the noticing of details – after all, that’s the thing that nourishes the sense of miracles, the seed that bursts into bloom when I fit them in where they belong – but the selection of which details are the best of the best.
Reading theory suggests that the act of reading is a series of intuitive leaps. I like to think it is also a series of sensory leaps, from one image to the next, a sensual feast of mushrooms and blackberries and water droplets.