The Treehouse: Lesson Eight: Pay Attention to the Details

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You never know when the trivial will become the consequential.

“Plot is the armature, the support,” said my dad, looking at his notes, “and detail is what you load onto the armature. The eighth lesson is that in your life you must PAY ATTENTION TO THE DETAILS. God lives, they say, in the details.

“My students resist writing a sentence such as ‘He walked across the room.’ They don’t consider it lyric or literary enough. But I am asking students for the patience to write sentences such as the following: ‘He stood and stared toward the east wall, hoping that he would not trip on the shoelace that, he noticed, was untied, and remembering that his grandfather had always been a stickler for neatly tied shoelaces.’”

My father went on with the next item from his lesson plan: “I want them to describe a place where people are in motion- like Grand Central Station or a street corner. I take them somewhere busy to look. Why should we observe people in Grand Central? If they are going to spend the rest of their lives writing, they will need to decide if a given scene is one in which there is motion or no motion; they must decide if they will focus on the person dropping trash in a can, or the person racing to catch the train. They will have to see the overall picture, which arises from a thousand details about which they have made decisions. I direct them to Salinger’s novella, Franny and Zooey: Salinger has a nearly one-page description of the contents of a medicine chest..

“What is the point of that?” I asked.

“It tells you whose house it is.”

“Whose house is it?”

“Either Franny’s or Zooey’s? Honey, I read it nearly fifty years ago. I am not talking about detail for its own sake but significant detail. You have to become responsible for the way the world looks.”

“The fictional world?”

“No, the real world. And the way real people act. This means paying close attention. Always, always, everywhere. The development of peripheral vision is a critical skill that every writer needs. The imperative is to eavesdrop, to develop an acute attentiveness to spoke speech. Without the detail the work lacks texture and clarity. Aristotle said, “We are holding the mirror up to nature.”

“There was a very famous dialogue between the young Isaac Babel and Maxim Gorky.” He looked at my slightly out-of-focus expression and started to laugh. “Gorky is probably the most famous Russian novelist of the twentieth century. And the dialogue went like this:

“Gorky: ‘Ah? So you want to be a writer, eh?’

“Babel: ‘Oh yes! Yes! I want to express the relationship between man and the universe!’

“Gorky: ‘Uh… that flower over there. What’s its name?’

“Babel: ‘I don’t know. But I am trying to explain to you- it’s the relationship of man to the universe–”

“Gorky: ‘ And that other flower: what’s its name?’

“Babel: ‘How should I know? You’re not getting the point! It’s man’s–’

“Gorky: ‘And you say you want to be a writer?’

“Babel: ‘Yes, yes, a great writer!’

“Gorky: ‘Not until you know the names of the flowers.’

“You have to pay attention to the external flowers as well as the internal ones,” said Leonard.

“I send the students out again to look at a tree. This time I want to know about leaves, twigs, and branches and bark and roots. Do you know the term chosime? It means a focus on the thing itself.

“Things have their own selves. You have to notice. Look, noticing is a big part of staying in love with someone for forty years. I always bring home Chanel No. 5 from my travels for your mother. I did that when we have no money. Now, you could ask: Why spend money on fine perfume for your wife every single time you leave, after so many years? She is not going anywhere.

“But a gesturing detail is an important part of a relationship. Not noticing, not gesturing enough, to your husband or wife, is more natural, in our divorce culture, than is paying enough attention. But that does not mean it’s smart.

“There is a story about a monk who lived in China; he spent his lifetime carving a stone cicada. It was a beautiful cicada. The very last thing he did was to carve a perfect ruby tongue in its mouth. Of course, no one would ever see the ruby tongue.  But the monk would know it was there. As a monk who was praying with his work, and as an artist, he knew that only when that unseen detail was finished would the stone cicada be complete.”

On my father’s seventy-ninth birthday, he decided to issue an addition of all the poems he’d written in his lifetime. At his age, he wanted all his poems to be assembled for his grandchildren– and did not want to wait to find a publisher. He decided to publish the manuscript himself; his friend, Lauren Horwitz designed a lovely etching for the cover and carefully chose the typeface, paper quality and binding. He sold three copies on Amazon to strangers and gave most of the rest away to friends. Some boxes of books remain stacked in his crowded study.

Only a handful of people possess the volume or have ever heard of it, but it is a perfect book, complete in itself, and Leonard is pleased with every detail of its creation. The book is titled The Stone Cicada.

Wolf, Naomi. (2005). The treehouse: Eccentric wisdom from my father on how to live, love and see. Simon & Schuster, New York, pp. 204-207.

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