It’s interesting, as I sit here and think about my writing history, to realize how big a role that writing (and reading, for the two are interconnected) has played in my life. There are times, especially now, that I wish I had been more cognizant of this as I planned my life. Then again, I might be a different person living a different life, and I would never wish for that.
Several months ago, I read Stephen King’s book On Writing. It was a life-changing experience. Though I would never compare my writing abilities to his, I do think that our approach to writing is very similar. As I read his words and his description of The Process, I found myself tearing up. That probably sounds terribly odd and silly, but it was just such a relief to know that what I do, how I write, is similar to someone who is a master storyteller. It gave me hope that I can be a writer, even if only to get the stories out of my head.
In his book, King talks about the tools that a writer needs, and I have taken that section to heart. I even teach elements from it to students in my creative writing class. And as I think about those tools, I think about a writing assignment from third grade that demonstrates King’s discussion of those tools.
Details. Details are an important element to writing, and there is a fine line between too few and too many. I think I learned that lesson in third grade. One of the teachers kept a little box of index cards. Each card detailed a writing prompt, an idea for a story. Once in a while, we would get to pull one of those cards and write a story on it. I remember being anxious and a little annoyed at this exercise. Not because I didn’t like to write stories but because we didn’t get to read through the cards before picking one; our stories’ fates were based on pure chance. We pulled a card at random and that’s the story we had to write. It was agonizing!
I remember one particular day. We had completed this exercise, and we were gathered along the windows, sitting on the floor and getting nervous about reading our stories to our fellow classmates. I was excited to read mine, but if you were to ask me now, I couldn’t tell you what I had written about.
I sat there, reading over my words, probably feeling the way that Ralphie did in A Christmas Story when he had to write his theme for English class (“Wow! That’s great!”). I’ll admit it; I was a little egotistical when it came to my writing skills. Anyway, it was hard for me to focus on my classmates’ stories because I just wanted to get up there and read my own.
I don’t remember reading mine. I’m sure I did; we all had to read. I don’t remember if anyone listened. I don’t remember if anyone thought it was any good. I guess that wasn’t the lesson I needed to learn from that day.
What I do remember, however, is the story a classmate read. It wasn’t a story. It was a list. A very long and tedious list of different colored objects that the main character saw while taking a walk. The list went on and on. “I saw a blue this and a red that and then a green that…” It was torture. The teacher must have felt it, too. When my classmate was done, she scolded him. I don’t remember her exact words, of course. But I do remember her scolding him for not telling a story.
A story is based on the details that a writer shares. These details tell the reader everything that she needs to know about the characters, the setting, and the movement of the plot. Too few details leave the reader feeling a certain disconnect, a lack of caring about where the story goes. Too few details leads to a book being set aside after a chapter or two, never to be picked up again.
Too many details can be just as detrimental. They bore the reader, leave her wishing the author would just get on with the story already! Too many details can be the death of a story.
It’s such a fine line. And really, one really can’t expect a third-grader to recognize that line.
Still. I recognized it. And I wonder, if I’d had the adult lucidity to recognize that moment for what it was, how my writing life would have been different and if it would have started sooner…