Try finding the Resonant Detail in your descriptions by using evocative sense memories.

Try finding the Resonant Detail in your descriptions by using evocative sense memories.

Wow! The beat goes on! Molten meltdown of mental memes send me searching shelves for slender volumes.

I’ve tried reading On the Road by Jack Kerouac three times in my life. I forced myself to finish it last time. But apparently I was reading the wrong Kerouac or the wrong format.

My 1st choice for second period of the Richard Hugo House Write-O-Rama was overflowing. So continuing the medieval mind theme for the day (still taking things a signs and portents), I’m at the Jack Kerouac class — Memory Babe with Deborah Woodard as our instructor.

The first thing was listing the senses:

  • sight
  • sound
  • touch
  • taste
  • smell

Then Deborah Woodard asked for other senses. Students came up with “thought” and “intuition.” Woodard asked how we came up with thought and a student said ideas were popping out of her brain all the time. Even when meditating. Another student suggested his dreams were merely nighttime thoughts. (Which made me wonderful if my nighttime thoughts would be different without a cat sleeping on my head.)

Woodard then suggested we should practice notation — Notation is a way to quickly capture ideas and memories — and record them in journals. It seems Kerouac kept these kinds of journals which he used when working on his writing. (It seems his works were not the stream-of-consciousness impulses I’d been led to believe in school.) Woodard read us an excerpt for Kerouac’s Dr. Sax describing an urban neighborhood in summer. It contained lots of evocative details. Woodard pointed out that all of these details lead to the Resonant Detail (and yes, you could hear the capital letters in her voice). She asked what people remembered that made them feel the heat of summer in the city and several people mentioned the reference to the wrinkling tar of the sidewalk. Woodard goes on to discuss Proust and his use of details and the Resonant Detail of the limeflower tea (Swann’s Way) in another excerpt. She states that if you sit down and write 30 details, one may be the resonant detail you are looking for.

Resonant Detail Exercise Part 1:

Think back to your home town. (Put yourself in a specific location if you have several “home towns.”) From that vantage point, you’re going to note all the senses and write down details of each. Just do sight, then just do touch, etc. The first part is just to generate lists of the 6 senses, each sense held in isolation and details you remember for that sense.

Here’s my list:

Sight: bright light of sunshine making the sky seem impossible blue; white Conch houses behind white fences; the kapoc tree at the courthouse with it’s rough, knobby bark and short, faded leaves; kids on bikes; the Iguana Man on his old Schwin covered in iguanas, the chihuahua shaking in the basket on the front; magenta splashes of bougainvillea bursting over and through fences contrasting with the violent, shocking purples, reds, oranges of hibiscus; the slatted shadows from palm fronds against the white; pelicans spreading wings to dry

Sound: A masculine voice distinctly enunciating “Here is the kapok tree. The bark of this tree was used to make life preservers during WWII…” rising and fading as the Conch train rolls past; barking dogs in backyards; kids shouting and shrieking on the next block; gulls calling; the infectious rhythms of the steel drum band; the click of the tourist cameras; the lapping of the waves 24 hours a day as constant background to my life

Touch: the heat of the sidewalk, of cars, of steering wheels, of buildings, always warm; the hard, sharp, smooth fronds of the palms; the sharp thorns of the bougainvillea biting me when I wasn’t paying attention; the hard, cutting bumps of coral rock chewing my feet on the beach as I minced my way to the cool water

Taste: the oily, spicy taste of the bollos; the sweetness of fried plantain

Smell: the salty, manky ocean scent; intense sweetness of gardenias, roses, camellias catching you by surprise; the smell of aging wood an undertone to it all

Resonant Detail Exercise Part 2:

Now we each chose a card containing a line from Kerouac and using that line to start, we were to write a short piece using what were resonant details from our own lists.

The line I had was “Dirty snow piled in the gutters.” Here’s what I came up with:

Dirty snow piled in the gutters
Makes me long for Key West.
Fried, sweet plantains,
black beans,
yellow rice,
spicy bollos from brown paper sacks fresh, dripping from the oil
All salty from the taste of the air.
Warm air, heated air
Iguana Man rides past on his old rusty Schwin.
His iguanas basking in the heat, stretched out still, unblinking along shoulders, back, handles as his chihuahua in ratty basket trembles.

Most of the class are poets, but there are some folks who work primarily with prose. There are some excellent snippets, but one especially stood out. The young woman had asked before we started writing what to do if you had no home town. It seems her childhood was spent traveling around the country. Woodard suggested she choose whatever memory came to mind, a moment in those travels that stood out. She chose spending holidays at a Waffle House. In a few short lines she evoked the basket of assorted hot, sticky syrups and the potential delights it offered and then turned it into a symbol of resentment and longing for a home and community.

I’ll never be able to look at a Waffle House the same way again. Now that’s writing well!

I’m falling behind on getting my posts about Write-O-Rama. Life — and other people — keep having other ideas of what I should be doing. Isn’t that always the case? I’ve got 5 more workshops (and the exercises from them) to write up plus lunch and the post Write-O-Rama dinner party (yep, they gave us breakfast, lunch AND dinner).

See you in Ordinary People.

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