Details Make the World Real

“I bought my first collection from that little bookstore, on their recommendation, and fell in love with the writer M.F.K. Fisher, whose works on gastronomy couldn't have been more foreign to me, growing up, as I did, in a big family, where we boiled everything in vats, drank powdered milk, and my father, fielding a complaint about food, would clench the fist of his free hand and stab his fork at the offending item on his plate and say, 'Eat it. Your stomach doesn't care.”

Charles D'Ambrosio

Loitering, New & Collected Essays

There are many things to admire in D'Ambrosio's sentence, from his control over its length to his well-placed commas, which guide you through the wealth of ideas and images. What I admire most is the details that put this family, this father, on the page.

At The Pinewood Table, where I work with other writers, we use the words received text to refer to descriptions or images that are unoriginal, close to cliché. Words received from others, too familiar to evoke a unique image for the reader. Write twenty descriptions of your character's hands. Maybe you'll write something original the twentieth time.

I'll give D'Ambrosio his father's clenched fist, a bit of of received text, because it's his father's “free hand” and he's already given me “boiled everything in vats.” I can see them bubbling away on the stove filled with the indeterminate everythings that will feed the brood. Of course the milk is powdered.

When D'Ambrosio quotes his father, he hooks me for the rest of the essay because those words, along with the stabbing fork, put the father—his hunger, frustration and weariness—on the page. Maybe D'Ambrosio didn't have to write twenty descriptions because his father gave him those words. Writers are camp robbers. It's a hard job, this getting the words right. We grab what we can.

When I was working on my memoir, I took a scene to the table of my mother and me having breakfast. An ordinary morning. She has her usual bowl of corn flakes. She pours coffee from her cup over the cereal. My parakeet, Jackie, is flying around the kitchen. He lands on the edge of my mother's bowl, dips his green head, and takes a flake. She goes on eating.

During critique, I'm told, “That's it. That's unique to your mother.” My fastidious mother, obsessed with order and cleanliness, lets the bird she dislikes for making a mess on her carpet eat from her bowl. There she is in all her contradictory humanity, alive for a moment on the page. I grabbed what I could.

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