I haven’t had a lot of time to write recently because of family commitments. However, I have snatched moments to think. I’m lucky to live in two different countries throughout the year and I’m in Italy at present for my six-month spell. That seems an apt noun, because Italy brims with enchantment for me. One of my favourite types of outing here is to explore new places. I don’t have to pay to go into a museum or religiously follow a guide book to show me round. It’s the details that appeal: a fountain in a tiny piazza, geraniums cascading from old terracotta pots, an original display in a shop window, the stitching on a costume in a small-town palio, an archway with inscriptions in mediaeval Italian, faded frescoes in the cathedral cloister, piles of aubergines on a market stall…I could go on and on. I’m not a good photographer by any means but I’ve realised that (apart from snaps of family), my albums are full of details. Let’s face it, Italians are strong on this:
“To create something exceptional, your mind-set must be relentlessly focused on the smallest detail.” (Giorgio Armani).
I like detail but viewed from interesting angles. My favourite books reflect this. I have a famous quote by Anton Chekhov pinned on my notice-board near my desk: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass.” As writers, we are told to be careful not to tell our readers our story, but to show them. We should aim to suggest rather than to tell in full. In this way the reader’s imagination finds its own wings.
To date, “All The Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr is my favourite read of all. I know this is a book I’ll jealously keep on my bookshelf forever and read again and again. It’s a very moving novel that tells the stories of a young, blind French girl, Marie-Laure LeBlanc, and Werner, a German orphan who is drawn into the Hitler Youth. The reader experiences the Second World War through these two youngsters via stunning, beautiful imagery. Simple details say a lot.
“Doerr sees the world as a scientist, but feels it as a poet. He knows about everything – radios, diamonds, molluscs, birds, flowers, locks, guns – but he also writes a line so beautiful, creates an image or scene so haunting, it makes you think forever differently about the big things – love, fear, cruelty, kindness, the countless facts of the human heart…” (J. R. Moehringer).
I am not surprised that the book took Doerr ten years to write. You must read it yourselves to savour his talent. It’s too hard to pick out a single quote – each page is a treasure trove – so I opened the book at random and here is one example:
Page 26 from Zollverein:
“Werner and Jutta sift through glistening piles of black dust; they clamber up mountains of rusting machines. They tear berries out of brambles and dandelions out of fields.”
From those two lines I’ve deduced that the two boys need the piles of old machinery. This haul is like treasure to them. They’re agile and probably young, because they clamber. They’re desperately hungry – they can’t get enough of the berries and even weeds are needed to fill their empty bellies. But Doerr hasn’t bluntly told me those things. He’s shown me through detail – with just the right measure.
“Our life is frittered away by detail…simplify, simplify.” (Henry David Thoreau).
One of my much thumbed text books is “The Creative Writing Coursebook” from the University of East Anglia.
In Chapter 2, Julia Bell writes about developing a “sharp eye for details” in the world around us, so that the writer can construct “vivid, believable narrative”. She continues:
“But we have to unpeel our eyes, re-sensitize ourselves to our environment …focusing too much on irrelevancies will throw the reader off the scent…In many ways it is what you filter out that focuses the reader’s eye on the important details…break up your gaze into jigsaw bits, then fit it back together on the page.”
My final thought for the day (well, it is Sunday), may be considered airy-fairy but I feel that through writing and the capturing of detail on the page, we can help ourselves connect with the world in which we live.