Several times over the past couple of weeks, I’ve had people, in talking to me about my writing, compliment me on my eye for detail. I’m sincerely flattered, and am grateful that this aspect of my efforts has been rewarded with the notice of readers. Almost inevitably, though, I wish I could offer some context. A propensity for accumulating details is, in my case, less a matter of keenness of eye than it is an artifact of the writing process—but making this point never seems to fit into a casual conversation.
The interplay of attention and writing is a cultivated skill, a competency I’ve been consciously working on for a long time. The desire to write leads me to actively seek out things that I might write about. Dovetailing with this habit of noticing is that the stimuli of seeing, say, an animal’s track in fresh snow or hearing the cry of a bird on the wing, is followed by a conditioned response in which my brain tries to come up with a catchy way of describing the event. Details and writing run in a feedback loop. I mind the details because I write. I write because I wish to capture the details.
If you’ve ever spent any time around books that offer advice to aspiring writers, you’ll be familiar with the exercise in which the would-be author is coached to go out into the world and eavesdrop: to record the conversation at the neighboring table at the coffee house, to jot down the quirky exchange overheard in the line at the grocery store. Those conversational snippets are useful for fiction writers, yielding, for example, raw material for realistic dialogue. The apprentice writer practices paying attention and in the process adds to a store of fine details that can potentially used one day.
Because my preferred genre is natural history, I go outside to do my eavesdropping. I snoop under rocks and at the entries of animal burrows. I listen in on the ravens’ conversations. I am a shameless looky-loo ogling the fatigued, panting, and evidently uninterested doe as she weaves back and forth under the bottom strand of the fence, trying to gain a bigger lead on the pursuing buck, who must thread his antlers under the line each time he passes under.
The point of nonfiction is to portray reality. Providing details helps flesh out that portrayal.
But the accumulation of details creates a quirky distortion. What gets written down—and subsequently buffed and polished to what I hope will be a nice reader-friendly glow—is what’s noteworthy and relevant. Some material is edited out because it’s boring or redundant or distracting, no matter how “real” it might be. And there’s only so much room for background, for the particulars of related ideas, or for the complexities of an interesting but tangential nuance.
All this creates a tiny fiction beating at the heart of my nonfiction: proximity. The assembly of details and observations relevant to a given topic are all summoned to the space of a few pages, even though the accumulation of those fine points in thought and experience may have taken days or weeks or months—even years, sometimes.
In writing about the landscapes around me, I’m catching myself in the act of noticing. What doesn’t get written—thank the deity or force of good fortune of your choice—is all the drivel that goes on in the minutes and hours in between, when I’m occupied with other activities, when I’m too distracted to look around, when I see once again things I’ve seen—and made note of—before.