HOW TO CHOOSE THE RIGHT DETAILS when writing memoir is one of the more perplexing issues facing any of us, and we face it every single time we sit down to write. It’s a question I get in every memoir class I teach and, after corresponding with Artis Henderson, author of the marvelous book, Unremarried Widow, I started to believe that it is the wrong question, since long before you choose them, you must know how to access the details for writing memoir. Artis is a master of the right word, the correct detail. Read what she has to say about how to go in and get what you need to write.
How to Write Sensory Detail in Memoir
By Artis Henderson
As memoirists, our job is to capture memories and translate them into story. But we often forget to include the very elements that make a memory so powerful: sensory details, the sights, smells, tastes, sounds, and feels of a particular moment that create the backdrop for the story’s action. So, how do we mine our memories for this information? I like to work on three levels.
I begin with as wide a screen as I can. Often when I write, I launch into a scene with a global statement: It was _____. I almost always start with a detail about the weather. It was hot. It was sunny. It was breezy. I understand that from a style perspective this is all wrong. I can imagine my critique group members cringing. Passive voice, they’d say. Too general. I know, I know. But I like to take Anne Lamott’s advice and give myself permission to write crappy first drafts. We have to start somewhere. And when it comes to sensory details, we might as well start as generally as we can. Anyway, that first sentence—the embarrassing “It was hot”—will almost never make it into the final draft. It simply stands as a reminder that a scene calls not only for action and dialogue but also for vivid sensory set design. Once I have this most basic sensual detail on the page—It was hot—I keep writing. I move through the senses, describing everything I remember about the moment I am trying to capture. A horn honked. It smelled like rain. The good stuff—the best stuff—never comes in the first few sentences. But if I keep going, keep writing through the senses, eventually I hit on something.
From this outermost ring of sensation, I move a step closer to bring the focus of my writing to the immediate stage. I zoom in on the area where the action takes place—a room, a field, a car. I try to remember what was happening on a sensory level in that moment. Could I smell something cooking on the stove? Did I hear a dog barking outside? Maybe I felt a draft from the air conditioner? Discovering these details takes time and a willingness to be still and listen. If we sit with our memories, I think we are often surprised at what we uncover. The mind retains much more than we give it credit for. But this patience can be difficult. I know I’m guilty of rushing through scenes on the first draft where I’m so busy writing down action and dialogue that I leave out the sensual details that create intimacy for the reader. Thankfully, there are second drafts. (And third, and fourth . . .) On the next pass I have time to slow down and consider the moment I’m writing about. I pause to let the memory percolate and then I place myself in the scene. I ask, How did the fabric feel? How did the oven smell? How did the radio sound?
Finally, on the last and most intimate sensory level, I use my body as a reference point. I try to recreate what was happening inside my own frame during the moment I am describing. Were my shoulders tense? Did my fingertips smells like oranges? Was my breathing jagged? These personal sensory details are the key to delivering the most powerful, immediate experience to the reader—and isn’t that why we’re here?
Unremarried Widow, an excerpt
My husband Miles dreamed of his death in the fall of 2005, nine months before he deployed to Iraq. He was twenty-three years old.
He told me about the dream on a Saturday morning as he dressed for work at Fort Hood, and I listened from the bed while he pawed through the BDUs hanging in the closet.
“Our helicopter crashed,” he said.
He took a pair of camouflage pants off a metal hanger, shook them out by the waistband, and stepped in one leg at a time.
“John Priestner and me.”
Already the Texas day was warm and our air conditioner chugged an unconvincing stream of cool air. I squinted at Miles as he talked, trying to shake the sleep from my brain, while he disappeared back into the closet and returned with the jacket to his uniform.
“We floated above the helicopter,” he said, “while it burned to the ground.”
He pulled a pair of socks out of the dresser and sat on the edge of the bed. He turned to look at me and I rested my fingers against the side of his face. He covered my hand with his, and we sat for a time without speaking. Then he pulled on his socks, laced up his boots, and walked into the living room. I heard the metallic clink of his dog tags slipping around his neck and the front door opened and a shaft of sunlight spilled in. The door closed and I was alone.
The late-morning sun slanted through the windows when I awoke the second time that day. I pushed back the comforter and swung my feet to the ground, working out the stiffness in my back. In the bathroom, I brushed my teeth and leaned closer to the mirror to get a good look at the bottom row. How is it that despite a lifetime of good orthodontics my teeth could already be sliding together? I inspected where they jostled for space behind my lower lip, then shifted my eyes to the window over the shower where the light streaming in made me blink. I felt old for twenty-four.
The AC unit in the living room cranked and cranked but the sun radiated a heat that was palpable in the small space of the apartment. I felt it on the couch as I spooned cereal into my mouth, felt it in the kitchen as I rinsed my bowl, felt it is as I walked into the shadows of the bedroom to put on real clothes. When I had dressed, I turned on the television and opened the front door. A car cruised past playing Kanye West’s “Gold Digger.” On the TV a news report from New Orleans Gave an update on the wreckage from Hurricane Katrina. I changed the channel until I found Judge Judy lecturing a plaintiff about courtroom manners. The man gripped the edge of the podium and shook his head, and I lay on the couch and wondered what to do with the long hot hours of the day.
In the late afternoon, I stood in the kitchen with my hands on my hips, surveying. I owned four wooden spoons, a complete silicone bakeware set, and—somewhere packed away in the boxes from college—a laminated copy of NOW’s feminist manifesto. Because woman’s work is never done, it began. After a long minute, I pulled down a set of mixing bowls. I stirred together cornmeal and oil and eggs, filled two muffin tins I’d inherited from my grandmother, and slipped the trays in the oven. While I moved through the kitchen, looking for oven mitts, setting the hot pan on the stove, I sensed the air in the room change, a subtle shift I felt first with the fine hairs on my arms. I turned to the open doorway and there was Miles, his hair plastered to his forehead, his rucksack slung over one shoulder. He dropped the bag and stepped into the kitchen. He smiled and I smiled and then he had his arms around me. I breathed him in—the fabric of his Army fatigues, the mechanical grease on his hands, the soap smell still on his neck.
He stepped back. “Are those corn muffins?”
I smiled and my cheeks glowed.
He popped a muffin out of the tin with a knife and took a bite as he headed into the bedroom, shedding his uniform, last night’s dream already forgotten.
But I did not forget. I thought of the dream often as the unit counted down to the deployment. In the mornings the sound of artillery from the base rumbled long and low, and I imagined distant thunderheads as I lay beside Miles in the smoke-colored light of dawn. Sometimes I placed a hand on his back while he slept. I faced into his sleeping form and turned the dream over in my head. I took it as a warning, an admonition to care for Miles well. If I loved him enough, I reasoned, he would come home.
Artis Henderson is an award-winning journalist and essayist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Reader’s Digest, Florida Weekly, and the online literary journal Common Ties. She has an undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania and a graduate degree from Columbia University’s School of Journalism. Unremarried Widow is her first book.
AND THE WINNER IS…
I hope you enjoy Writing Lessons. Featuring well-published writers of our favorite genre, each installment of the series will take on one short topic that addresses how to write memoir, and will include a great big book giveaway.
It’s my way of saying thanks for coming by.
The contest for this book is now closed. Please see the next installment of Writing Lessons.
The winner of the book is Cheryl. Congratulations, Cheryl! I’ll be in touch to send your book.