In her liberating, life-changing Writing Down the Bones, Zen Buddhist and writing teacher
Natalie Goldberg argues specificity is the cornerstone of great writing. In the modern age where most of us are transfixed by the hypnotic blue light of our phones, we float around like disembodied ghosts. We have lost the sights and sounds, the tastes and textures of the physical realm. The writer’s job is to restore to the reader some part of his sensual world.
Writing, especially fiction, is meant to transport us somewhere else: a lost submarine in the deep ocean, an imperial English ship searching for treasure along the South American coast. As writers, we cast a spell, lulling our readers into a trance where they momentarily suspend their disbelief and imagine they’re occupying an alternate world. The only way to do this is through concrete detail. We must avoid the vague, the abstract, the general. When we write with specificity, we cut through confusion and create clarity. Specificity— to paraphrase one of my writing teachers— takes you from a roughly rendered sketch to a nicely detailed painting.
Take this example:
The woman walked.
3 words. A simple noun. A simple verb. Though it contains the basic structural units of a sentence, it fails to paint an evocative picture. Let’s try adding some detail.
The daisy-crowned woman strolled through the meadow.
The fur-donned woman charged along Park Avenue.
The frazzled woman, her dress covered in day-old baby food, struggled to push her two toddlers.
Specificity allows us to see more clearly. In the first example, words like “woman” and “walked” are too generic to conjure images in a reader’s mind. They create a bare-bones outline: there’s no color, no dimension, no shadow. The woman is a mobster’s wife or a traveling circus clown for all we know.
But the latter examples bring to mind a specific character: a romantic woman meandering through the English countryside, a hurried New Yorker who wears Manolo Blahnik’s and shops at Bergdorf’s, an exhausted mother. Specificity is like a pair of glasses: it brings the fuzziness of the world into sharper focus.
Much like poet of politics Rebecca Solnit, who urged us to call things by their true names, Goldberg suggests we dedicate the time to finding the exact words for things:
“Be specific. Don’t say ‘fruit. Tell what kind of fruit— ‘It is pomegranate.’ Give things the dignity of their names. Just as with human beings, it is rude to say, ‘Hey, girl, get in line.’ That girl has a name. (As a matter of fact, if she’s at least twenty years old, she’s a woman, not a ‘girl’ at all.) Things, too, have names. It is much better to sat ‘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 that flower. It immediately gives us the scene by the window— red petals, green circular leaves, all straining toward sunlight.”’
Rather than get lost in the airy world of abstractions, writers should focus on what’s directly in front of them. If you’re writing a poem about love, you wouldn’t fill your verse with intangible concepts like “passion” and “infatuation” and “lust”— you’d want to replace rough approximations with exact images: amorous glances, frenzied cherry-coated kisses, the lingering smell of musk. Similarly, if want to capture the essence of an August day, avoid indefinite ideas and instead focus on what can be apprehended with your senses: the sultry summer heat, the cloudless sky, the smell of sun tan cream.
So before you write, ask yourself: what can you see with your eyes? taste on your tongue? touch with your toes? William Carlos Williams put it simply, “Write what’s in front of your nose.” For Goldberg, a devout practitioner of Zen Buddhism, writing requires we fully immerse ourselves in what’s here and now:
“Study what is ‘in front of your nose.’ By saying ‘geranium’ instead of ‘flower,’ you are penetrating more deeply into the present and being there. The closer we can get to what’s in front of our nose, the more it can teach us everything.”
In many ways, modern life is antithetical to art. Much of our day is a whirlwind of speed and distraction, high-speed internet and 30 second TikToks. We’re almost never completely present. We hurtle from home to work to school, between the infinite tabs on our laptops and the inescapable ding! ding! ding! of text messages.
But art demands we examine something with our full attention; it requires we look at one thing longer than we ever have before (As Georgia O’ Keefe once said, “Nobody sees a flower really; it is so small. We have’t time and to see takes time— like to have a friend takes time.”) The artist is a monk in a monastery: completely absorbed. When we create with complete concentration, we enter a blissful state where we both lose ourselves and find ourselves, what taoists called “wu wei” and what positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi termed “flow“:
“You must become one with the details in love or hate; they become one extension of your body. Nabokov says, ‘Caress the divine details.’ He doesn’t say, ‘Jostle them in place or bang them around.’ Caress them, touch them tenderly. Care about what is around you. Let your whole body touch the river you are writing about, so if you call it yellow or stupid or slow, all of you is feeling it. There should be no separate you when you are deeply engaged. Katagiri Roshi said: ‘When you do zazen [sitting meditation], you should be gone. So zazen does zazen.’ This is also how you should be when you write: writing does writing. You disappear: you are simply recording the thoughts that are streaming through you.”
“When people talk listen completely. Don’t be thinking what you’re going to say…You should be able to go into a room and when you come out know everything that you saw there and not only that. If that room gave you any feeling you should know exactly what it was that gave you that feeling…and always think of other people,” advised Ernest Hemingway. With similar simplicity, Goldberg recommends would-be writers:
“Learn the names of everything: birds, cheese, tractors, cars, buildings.”
But why bother committing our commonplace experience to paper? For Goldberg, writing is a revolutionary act of love, a means of planting a flag into the ground and declaring “this matters/I matter/we matter”:
“Our lives are at once ordinary and mythical. We live and die, age beautifully or full of wrinkles. We wake in the morning, buy yellow cheese, and hope we have enough money to pay for it. At the same instant we have these magnificent hearts that pump through all sorrow and all winters we are alive on the earth. We are important and our lives are important, magnificent really, and their details are worthy to be recorded. This is how writers must think, this is how we must sit down with pen in hand. We were here; we are human beings; this is how we lived. Let it be known, the earth passed before us. Our details are important. Otherwise, if they are not, we can drop a bomb and it doesn’t matter.”
Ultimately, writing is a way of shouting an affirmative “yes” to life. Much like a Buddhist monk, the writer’s task is simply to observe the truth of the moment without judgement. As Goldberg writes,
“Recording the details of our lives is a stance against bombs with their mass ability to kill, against too much speed and efficiency. A writer must say yes to life, to all of life: the water glasses, the Kemp’s half-and-half, the ketchup on the counter. It is not a writer’s task to say, ‘It is dumb to live in a small town or to eat in a cafe when you can eat macrobiotic at home.’ Our task is to say a holy yes to the real things of our life as they exist— the real truth of who we are: several pounds overweight, the gray, cold street outside, the Christmas tinsel in the showcase, the Jewish writer in the orange booth across from her blond friend who has black children. We must become writers who accept things as they are, come to love the details, and step forward with a yes on our lips so there can be no more noes in the world, noes that invalidate life and stop these details from continuing.”
What is a writer? Susan Sontag defined a writer as “someone who pays attention to the world— a writer is a professional observer.” Goldberg would add that writers are chroniclers of our collective history and stewards of all of life’s lovely little details:
“This is what it is to be a writer: to be the carrier of details that make up history, to care about orange booths in the coffee shop in Ottawa.”
“On paper our greatest challenges become A Real Thing, in a world in which so much seems ephemeral and transitory,” Anna Quindlen observes in Write for Your Life, her passionate plea for ordinary people to start writing. Naming things— the smell of garlic and oregano in our favorite Italian restaurant, the black-and-white checkered floor of our first apartment building— grounds us in the present; it brings a sense of solidness to the ever-shifting fluidity of our experience. Life rushes like a river. Ultimately, putting our experiences into words keeps us from getting swept under:
“When we know the name of something, it brings us closer to the ground. It takes the blur out of the mind; it connects us to the earth.”