A Detail and All It Can Do
I think often about the objects people handle and how they can pay off for us when we craft narratives. Today, I’m thinking about a story by David Leavitt, “Gravity,” the story of a young man, Theo, who has AIDS. He’s opted for a sight-saving drug over the medications that will prolong his life. He’s come home to live with his mother, and on the day of the story they’ve gone shopping for a wedding gift for Theo’s cousin, Howie. Theo’s mother, Sylvia, insists on buying a $425 crystal bowl as a way of calling attention to the cheap pen and pencil set that Howie’s mother gave Theo for his graduation. The extravagant bowl will serve as a reminder to Howie’s mother that Sylvia hasn’t forgotten the slight.
In the gift shop, Sylvia picks up the bowl. “You have to feel it,” she says to Theo. Then she tosses it to him, throws it “like a football.” The store clerks hold their breath and look on in horror. Theo catches the bowl, letting his cane rattle to the floor; his arms sink with the weight of the crystal. Sylvia takes the bowl from him and carries it to the counter. She pays for it with “a look of relish” on her face. This section of the story ends with this line: “It seemed Sylvia had been looking a long time for something like this, something heavy enough to leave an impression, yet so fragile it could make you sorry.” Exactly. The bowl, a literal detail in the story, now shimmers with everything that’s at stake. In narratives, we can use a detail in a surprising way that allows it to hold the emotional or psychological interiors of the characters.
An expensive bowl in a story. What to do with it (for we must put our details to work)? Leavitt wisely chooses to have a character do the thing least expected—to throw that bowl to her feeble, dying son. I’m not sure we expect him to catch it, but he does. Leavitt himself holds onto that bowl through the closing part of the narrative. Sometimes we let go too soon of a detail we’ve put to use. We seduce ourselves into thinking that the strange thing is enough, that the memorable comes from the oddity. As Leavitt shows us in the end of “Gravity,” our details can take us to resonant places inside our characters if we’re willing to stay with them.
Back in the car, the fraught nature of what might have happened when Sylvia tossed that bowl lingers. The incident in the store never leaves us, nor does it leave Theo and Sylvia. She asks him where else they might go. She insists there must be somewhere else. He reminds her it’s almost time for his medicine and they should go home. This is the moment when her facade cracks. The thrill of the danger avoided in the tossing of the bowl can no longer hold:
For just moment, but perceptibly, her face broke. She squeezed her eyes shut so tight the blue eye shadow on her lids cracked.
Almost as quickly she was back to normal again, and they were driving. “It’s getting hotter,” Sylvia said. “Shall I put on the air?”
We must have genuine emotion in our narratives but never sentimentality. A reader should never feel that he or she is being forced to feel something. It all has to rise organically from the story itself. Taking our cue from Leavitt, we can let dialogue, action, and details bring the emotion to the surface. Then we can cover it over by allowing our characters to reconstruct the masks that they wear. Sylvia is close to sobbing at the thought of all that’s ahead, but she squeezes her eyes shut and gets back to normal. The sadness is now felt more deeply by the readers because we know it’s there, silent, beneath the facade.
Leavitt also knows how to let the detail open up the interiority of his main character, Theo. In the last move of the story, he’s thinking about that bowl and all it represents:
There are certain things you’ve already done before you even think how to do them—a child pulled from in front of a car, for instance, or the bowl, which Theo was holding before he could even begin to calculate its brief trajectory. It had pulled his arms down, and from that apish posture he’d looked at his mother, who smiled broadly, as if, in the war between heaviness and shattering, he’d just helped her win some small but sustaining victory.
When there are complicated emotions at work in our narratives, sometimes the best way to express them is to let our characters put a detail to work. A mother throws an expensive crystal bowl to her dying son; the sadness, the fierceness, is suddenly everywhere without the need of direct statement.
This is such an insightful and “spot-on” piece Lee. I’m re-watching The West Wing for the third time, and just yesterday, I was taken by a detail that really made me appreciate the writing and character development. As he’s walking with his “people” to give his third State of the Union, and just as Toby Ziegler extends and portfolio that holds the final, hard copy of the speech, Jed Bartlet stops and ties his shoe, making Toby — and everyone — wait. A moment later, he takes the speech and moves on. A detail, but really a cool moment that helps paint a more vivid picture. Thanks Lee.
Great example from “The West Wing,” David. I remember that moment. It’s a very human moment in the midst of high tension. Thanks for the reminder.
Thanks for your interesting and useful advice. And what a shocking, brilliant image Leavitt used of the crystal bowl. I teach creative non-fiction, and your advice re hanging the story on a physical object works very well here too. It can be very useful in terms of anchoring the story, especially for beginners who often feel they don’t know where to start. Sometimes it takes some digging/thinking/writing to find the right physical detail, but we usually know when we happen upon the right one.
Hi, Mary. Thanks very much for your comments on the way details can be used in nonfiction. I quite agree that starting with a detail can be very freeing. I once had a student who couldn’t face the “bigness” of her material, so I asked her to tell me something about her native land. She talked about mango trees. “Write about the mango trees,” I said, and the next time I saw her she had a beautiful essay about the troubles in her family. Looking indirectly is often very beneficial. Thanks so much for reading my blog and for taking the time to leave a comment. Keep doing the good work!