The Arnoldite Boltoneers looked a little skeptical when I pulled out blank sheets of paper. Their eyebrows raised high enough to hold up the sky. Usually we write on gray lined paper ripped from a legal pad. These young writers are smart. Within seconds they were on to me. As one readied his pen, he asked, “Are we drawing today?” I nodded my head. Groans erupted from the swear-by-stick-figure people and silent smiles spread across the faces of the others. I promised them a pay-off, right before I asked them to draw an owl. Pencils hesitated, paused in the air. Laughs tittered. Someone said, “I just realized I have no idea what an owl looks like.” More laughter. When they were done, they held up their works of art. There was one stick owl, and most of the other owls looked like bats.
For the next step of the activity, I pulled a lifelike ceramic owl I scored from an estate sale out of my bag. An A-ha and some Oh’s filled the room. “Now, draw the owl,” I said. Pens moved furiously. Even the swear-by-stick-figure folks looked a little more confident. When they were done, they held up their before drawings and their after drawings. Can you guess which ones were better? (These after owls were owls down to the feathers.)
I bet you know the lesson, right? Draw from life, and your drawing will be more realistic. But this lesson crosses fields, too. Write from life, and your writing will be more realistic. When I was eight, my first novel was set in California, a state I had never been to. Now, ninety-nine percent of my writing takes place in Maui, my hometown. Can you guess which fiction is better? (Maybe time deserves a little bit of credit, too.) Our drawing activity and the “Write what you know” speech led to a discussion about details: the “not-so-good” details, cliches and rocky descriptions; the “useful” details, the must-know things that are simple but may be viewed as lackluster by some; and the “golden” details, the details that brand brains and stick with the audience long after they’re done reading.
To finish the night, at the top of the gray lined papers we are accustomed to, each of us wrote something that could be described: a trip to the emergency room, a gun after a day on the range, a blind dog, my car, and holding a grandson. I set a timer for two minutes, and we passed our papers to the right. Then, each of us had two minutes to describe what was at the top of our paper with the intention of writing a “golden” detail. When the timer beeped, we passed our papers to the right again and continued. We did this until we finally described our own thing-that-could-be-described. Of course with the timer running, there was a lot of pressure involved. I assured everyone, if they shot for “golden,” worse thing that could happen is that they would land among the stars or among “useful” details or, sometimes, among “not-so-good” details, but something is better than nothing, right? We were writing!
*This activity is based on an activity by Dave Eggers titled “Details (Golden), Character (Immortal) & Setting (Rural India).”