Sometimes I come across a passage of writing that stops time. It’s a magical moment where the writing creates a strange paradox: the words go on but time itself stops long enough for me to observe this expanded, intense and magnified moment. It feels as if I am looking into the space between seconds.
This happened to me when I read the following passage in Janette Turner Hospital’s The Claimant. It shows a simple action where Cap’s father is candling an egg. The experience had for me the vivid clarity and intensity of a mindfulness meditation.
“Cap buries her face in the pillow. She sees the gently way her father lifts eggs from warm straw, she sees his thick gnarled fingers, the delicate way he holds each egg above the candle flame, the way he studies the dark fertile spots, the way he slides the fragile sheath of unborn chick back under the hot cushion of mother hen.” (p168)
Time stopped while I watched the sharply defined details of the scene. I was there, seeing the father’s rough hands gently handling new life, and observing how he did it with such careful cherishing. What was significant about these details was that this was the way he took baby Cap from the basket when the priest delivered her to him. A lifetime was encased in this moment when one man performed one action.
I had this experience again recently when I read the long-listed Mann Booker novel, All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld.
“The house was still. Dog stood by the closed door, looking at the space underneath, his hackles up and his legs straight and stiff, his tail rigid, pointing down. And then one creak, on the ceiling, like someone walked there. I held my breath and listened past the blood thumping in my ears. It was quiet and I pulled the covers up under my chin. The sheets chafed loudly against themselves. Dog stayed fixed on the door. A small growl escaped him.” (p21)
In Wyld’s passage time paused while I held my breath. I concentrated intently on the dog’s reaction to the strange sound. The fear I felt came from my experience of ‘seeing’ these carefully chosen details, but also my interpretation of their significance, what it meant that the dog was behaving in this way. It was only a moment, but it felt endless.
Both these authors held back time to show me something crucial to the story. They were saying, Hey, look at this important thing! See what this character is doing, and how he is doing it, and what it means that he is doing it like this.
They’ve painted an intense intricate and vivid world of significant detail to tag the scene’s importance. They held the moment still so I could completely absorb myself in it.
Think about doing the same next time you write an intense crucial scene.
The reason Evie Wyld or Janette Turner Hospital can show the world in such fine detail is because they consciously observe the small details.
Susan Sontag said, “A writer, I think, is someone who pays attention to the world.”
I believe that teaching ourselves to observe is one of the greatest skills we can develop as writers.
Next week I’m going to explore how we can train our observation skills. Come over and visit!