Concrete Details

J.T. Bushnell wrote, “I once burst into tears during a Tobias Wolff reading . . . as Wolff intoned the final passages from ‘Bullet in the Brain,’ I broke the silence of the packed auditorium with a gasp, a sob.”

Bushnell goes on to explain his strong emotional reaction.

“It was the final scene that set me off.”

This is what he remembered. Heat. A baseball field. Yellow grass, the whirr of insects, himself leaning against a tree as the boys of the neighborhood gather for a pickup game.

“Half a page later, the story ends with the passage that brought me to a fever pitch.”

For now Anders can still make time. Time for the shadows to lengthen on the field, time for the tethered dog to bark at the flying ball, time for the boy in right field to smack his sweat-blackened mitt.

“These passages by themselves seem innocuous enough. Each offers a series of descriptions, nothing more. But the conclusion I’ve come to over the years is that the description is exactly what produced my reaction.

By description I mean the concrete, the things we can observe with our five senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. I do not mean simple adjectives. I do not mean descriptions such as ‘The weather was glorious.’ Glory is an abstraction. The glorious is useless because it can’t show us anything concrete.

It can’t show a white-hot sun perched overhead, or a sky so hard and blue that a fly ball might shatter it. It can’t show a pitcher’s shadow puddled under his cleats, or heat rising from the ground in shimmering corrugation. It can’t produce the smell of hot aluminum bleachers. It can’t let you taste the sweat on your lip when you go too long between slugs of cold beer. Only concrete description can do that.

As novelist Richard Bausch advises,  . . .  a good story is about experience, not concepts and certainly not abstractions. . . . get rid of all those places where you are commenting on things, and let the things stand for themselves. Be clear about the details that can be felt on the skin and in the nerves.”

Excerpted from “The Heart and the Eye, How Description Can Access Emotion” by J.T. Bushnell, Jan/Feb 2013 Poets & Writers

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