I have no idea what to say to you today, so let me begin with a nut, not of the edible kind, but a nut meant to fit itself to a threaded bolt. A square nut, a hex nut, a wing nut, a lock nut. The list goes on. And what about the bolts? Flange bolts, eye bolts, U-bolts and J-bolts, shoulder bolts, sex bolts. And washers: flat, fender, lock, high collar lock, Ogee. The language of hardware. I start there because when I don’t know what to write, I rely on the physical world and the details that comprise it. In this case, I begin with the physical details of a hardware store because yesterday I happened to be remembering the two hardware stores in my small hometown in Illinois and the bins that held the nuts and bolts and the washers and the screws.
Now I edge closer to having something to say. I’m thinking about fastening and the mechanisms we use to hold things together. Think about that in connection to something you’re working on—a poem, a story, a novel, an essay—and see how the details start to attach themselves to certain characters, certain imagery, certain language. Detail and language and metaphor are usually inseparable. Follow the details until they become something more. Who knew, for instance, there was such a thing as a sex bolt and a mating screw? Sometimes the details and the names we give them get a little colorful, but the point is obvious. The names we give things matter. Specificity is, perhaps, the first obligation of the writer.
I could have begun with the words, “nuts,” “bolts,” “washers,” “screws,” and left it at that, but those general terms would have denied the details their rightful specificity. A flat washer is different from a locking washer; a U-bolt creates a very different image for you than a J-bolt does. Use those details in a piece of writing, and you create a certain atmosphere, a certain character, a certain image, a certain metaphor. Just think about the sounds of the words. “Flat washer”; “locking washer.” One functional, the other essential to the mechanism of locking something into place. The sounds of the words themselves evoke so much.
Writers cheat when they don’t take time to know the specifics, and the worlds they strive to create become vague and non-expressive. Also, on the sentence level, the language lacks bite. “Nut” is so much weaker than “sex nut.” “Bolt” is general while “flange bolt” is particular. What we come to the page to say resides in the particulars. We just have to become better at observing, recalling, researching. We have to know the specifics before we can know what we have to say.