Writing the Details of the Universe

Whatever your reason for keeping a journal&#151to capture the texture of your day-to-day life, to record the thrill of an adventure, to help you think clearly during a time of crisis&#151you enjoy a certain freedom. You are free to choose any topic, to decide for yourself what to include and what to omit, and to write in any style, with or without paying attention to the rules of grammar or the conventions of language.

The good news is the more you write, the better you get. Over time, simply producing text will make you more fluent, varied and nuanced in your expression. To some degree, quantity will lead to quality.

Having recognized the values of freedom and spontaneity, however, I want to put in a good word for discipline, technique and consciously crafted style. At the risk of sounding like a fussy old chaperone telling the kids at a party to behave, I want to argue that intentional effect has a place in journaling.

I’m not suggesting that you think of your journal as a place where you do nothing but hard work, or that you write so self-consciously that you lose spontaneity. But I recommend that, at least from time to time, you use your journal as an opportunity to practice certain principles of good writing, to play around with various stylistic effects, to try out certain techniques relating to word choice and sentence structure and to experiment with modes of writing that take you beyond your usual ways of thinking and working with words. All of this will help you develop and refine your own unique voice.

Observe the Moment
Let’s say, just for the sake of discussion, that you’re sitting on a fallen tree in the woods with your journal in hand. You begin your entry and follow your usual practice. You look around, take a few moments to settle in to your thoughts and begin by describing your surroundings, knowing that the present moment&#151the mood of the day, the smell of the breeze, the way the sunlight filters through the newly leafed trees&#151can take you anywhere.

Transcendentalist poet Walt Whitman knew that within the confines of a simple blade of grass one might discover a universe of experience. “I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journeywork of the stars,” he wrote. Later in the poem: “There is no object so soft but it makes a hub for the wheeled universe.” And in the last part: “I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, / If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles.”

This place, this spot in the woods, is where you come when you want to be alone with your thoughts. You may think: Today there’s something about the sunlight and the trees that captures my mood; winter is over, at last; the morning air is cool, damp; a warm breeze is stirring; my mother keeps wondering if I’m ever going to get married, but I’m not sure I’m ready; I have a chance for a new job in a new city, but the job I have now isn’t so bad; I wouldn’t mind living somewhere else, but I’m afraid I’d miss my old friends.

So here you are, feeling … what? Restless? Satisfied? Confused?

Get Specific
To go deeper, consider the details of your surroundings. What are the particulars of your present situation? What are the facts of your story? Here you are, like Walt Whitman, rooted in a particular place at a particular time&#151though bound by neither&#151and your primary tools of transportation are the same as they are for all writers: verbs, nouns and modifiers.

Same old, same old. But today is different. Today your verbs will be more than everyday verbs. Your nouns will be more than everyday nouns. And your modifiers will be more than everyday modifiers.

Today you’re going to try something new.

Zoom In
Read a sentence you’ve just written, like “A gentle breeze caresses my cheeks.” Note the modifier “gentle” and the verb “caresses.” How do they distinguish your present experience from countless others? Offer something more specific, something less commonplace: “A warm breeze stirs, a promise that winter is over, at last, and a new season has arrived.”

Your next sentence reads, “Some girls who are out for a run go by.” Would that sentence have meaning for you if you read it a year from now? Start with the verbs “are” and “go.” Both are weak and general. If you replace them with strong verbs linked to details, you will write more vividly and memorably. Rather than “Some girls who are out for a run go by,” write “Three girls running abreast jog by.” Now add some detail: “Their long brown ponytails bounce in rhythm as though dancing to the same beat.”

Check your verbs. Rather than “are” and “go,” you now have “jog,” “bounce” and “dancing.” Whether or not your revised version is great writing, it captures something specific about the day, and it certainly is more memorable than the original.

Zoom Out
There’s a second advantage to rendering a scene with detail. Not only does it produce a more vivid impression, but it also allows you to generalize. In other words, specificity creates a context that adds meaning to more general statements. (“There is no object so soft but it makes a hub for the wheeled universe.”) Compare, for example, “Some girls who are out for a run go by. I wonder where they’re going. I wonder where they’ve been” with “Three girls running abreast jog by. Their long brown ponytails bounce in rhythm as though dancing to the same beat. I wonder where they’re going. I wonder where they’ve been.”

And where are you going? Where do these sentences take you?

On your way home you notice other missed opportunities for detail. Two enormous cottonwood trees stand side by side, not 6 feet from one another, their massive dark trunks furrowed with age. How many times have you walked this way and never noticed these friendly giants? You look again. You are not walking in a woods of undefined trees. You are passing by twin cottonwoods that have stood together, joined in magnificent symmetry for more years than you have been alive, and that will probably continue standing together, through good times and bad, for many years after you are gone.

As you come to a bridge that arches across a creek, you look up and notice for the first time that there are really two bridges&#151one made of stone, the other a concrete apron jutting out nearly 10 feet on either side from the original. What was life like in the time of the first structure, when stone was more than a decorative element in architecture? Were people asking the same questions about their lives then, that you are asking today?

Close observation and detail. The unexpected adjective. The vivid verb. The specific noun. Going beyond the commonplace and the general. Finding truth in the particular. There’s a whole world above you, around you and beneath your feet.

This article appeared in the April 2001 issue of Personal Journaling.

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