I’ve been reading Pam Houston’s Contents May Have Shifted, and the more I read, the more I am in awe of this book. Houston is master story teller and though the book is told in vignettes that read like prose poems, it reads like a classic narrative. I can’t put the thing down, and when I do, I can’t stop thinking about it. In the first fifteen pages alone, I laughed out loud and then cried. How the hell did she do that? Like I said. I’m in awe.
Today, Houston has me thinking about specificity. Here’s a sample passage from the book. Notice the specificity of her details.
The aspens near the pass are holding their breath this week, hints of yellow and crimson, the meadow grasses high after August’s monsoon. We talk about Myanmar, Cuba, New Orleans. We talk about stepchildren, wild pants, Italian food, sex. We snack on the season’s first clementines and raspberry Fig Newmans. To the west of the mesa the 14ers lay themselves before us, a multicolored kingdom of stone: Handies Peak, Sunshine Peak, Redstone Peak, the Wetterhorn, and Uncompaghre.
Often I think I am too quick to use the general in place of the specific. I say, “she looked out the windows at the glittering mountains.” Houston says “the 14ers lay themselves before us…. Handies Peak, Sunshine Peak, Redstone Peak, etc…” I say, “The wind rustled through the trees.” Houston says “The aspens near the pass are holding their breath.” Like I said: I am in awe. I read this passage and thought, “How did she do that?” And then, “Why the hell aren’t I doing the same?”
Natalie Goldberg, most famous for her book on writing Writing Down the Bones, advocates the importance of naming in a chapter fittingly titled “Be Specific.” Goldberg writes:
Be specific. Don’t say fruit. Tell what kind of fruit–“It is a pomegranate.” Give things the dignity of their names. . . . It is much better to say “the geranium in the window” than “the flower in the window.” “Geranium”–that one word gives us a much more specific picture. It penetrates more deeply into the beingness of the flower. It immediately gives us the scene by the window–red petals, green circular leaves, all straining towards sunlight.
Goldberg goes on to discuss the way, compelled to know the names of everything, she bought a book on plants and proceeded to walk the streets of Boulder, examining “leaf, bark, and seed trying to match them up with their descriptions and names in the book.”
Today, as you write and/or revise, think about the names of things. Maybe it means buying a book and going for a walk. Maybe it means learning the history of a specific place in time. Maybe it means pulling out those family photos and making sure you know who is who. Whatever it entails, think about narrowing your writing focus by broadening your view of the world around you. As Goldberg concludes,
Learn the names of everything: birds, cheese, tractors, cars, buildings. A writer is all at once everything–an architect, French cook, farmer–and at the same time, a writer is none of these things.
A more specific exercise
Take a passage of your work (a page of prose or a single poem). Look at places where your writing skirts around the naming. Underline words that are nameless (flowers, trees, mountains, drinks). Then make a list of 5 possible names for those things (A drink perhaps becomes this list: a dirty martini, aloe vera juice, Kool Aid, Almond Milk, Blue Bottle Coffee). Investigate the thing (how does it look? How does it tastes? Where does it come from? What does it mean to you? To others?) Then, go back and work the specificity into your prose.