I’m a spare writer. I tend to write in scenes, moving the character forward through the action. But that kind of writing can go flat pretty quickly because I move too quickly past the details. Recently, I’ve come to love and admire Steven Milhauser’s writing. He has a gift for detail. In his short story, “The Room in the Attic,” I felt awe with his ability to capture the big and small of the world around his characters. Here’s just a snippet of the narrator, a high school boy, arriving at a house of one of his new friends.
Around the bend, Wolf’s house appeared. Massive and shadowy, it seemed to stand too close to me as a I bent my neck back to look up at the row of second-floor windows with their black shutters. The house was so dark that I was surprised to notice it was painted white; the sun struck through the high trees onto the clapboards in small bright bursts of white and burned on the black roof shingles.
This is just a small section but what struck me was how richly he described the house. I love the way he moves between the words that convey darkness and light, repeating them for emphasis. For example shadowy, black, dark, and black again next to the words white, bright and white again. By doing this, he conveys an overall mood but also gets the reader to look closely at the shutters, the clapboards, the small bright bursts of white, the shingles. These sentences embody Millhauser’s mastery of detail and also language. Now, how do I do that?
There is no easy formula, to my dismay. But one thing I’ve been trying lately is to set a timer on my iPhone and “force” myself to write about one small moment for a certain length of time. Maybe it’s 20 minutes, maybe it’s an hour. (I write slowly!) A timer keeps me constrained so that I don’t wonder off to see what’s going on at the end of the scene. This may sounds like a crazy tactic and perhaps too rigid for many writers, but it’s the kind of thing I need to do sometimes to keep my mind from wandering, to prevent my writing from going nowhere fast.
As Millhauser himself said in his essay for the New Yorker, The Ambition of the Short Story:
“If you concentrate your attention on some apparently insignificant portion of the world, you will find, deep within it, nothing less than the world itself.”
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