Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Art is in the details

What memory has in common with art is the knack for selection, the taste for detail. Complimentary though this observation may seem to art (that of prose in particular), to memory it should appear insulting. The insult, however, is well deserved. Memory contains precisely details, not the whole picture; highlights, if you will, not the entire show. The conviction that we are somehow remembering the whole thing in a blanket fashion, the very conviction that allows the species to go on with its life, is groundless. More than anything, memory resembles a library in alphabetical disorder, and with no collected works by anyone.
- Joseph Brodsky

I have a particular fondness for this quote, not just for how true it seems to be, but for the library imagery it ends with, as libraries are a personal fetish of mine. But it's the correlation between memory and art, between what a person will remember and what a person could create, that prompts me to blog today.

When I was working on my film studies in college, one of the things we were taught was to pick out what was important and throw away the rest. Because people fill in the blanks whether they think they do or not. They don't need to be told every little minutiae, not just because it's boring as hell but because they already know it. Our job as creators is to give them the details they don't already have.

What those details are...well, that's up to you and the story. Choose what's most important, what's most vivid, what's going to service the work as best as possible, and run with it. Sometimes, it's only a sentence or two, sprinkled amongst dialogue. (That's why dialogue tags are so often redundant. In a two-person scene, it's usually pretty easy to tell who's talking.) Others, it might be a couple paragraphs of setting description.

Either way, what you don't provide, the reader will create for himself. Because at the end of the story, he's probably not going to remember that the couch in the living room was purple. He'll remember the highlights, the emotional highs and lows, the specific scenes that rang truest for him, and the rest of it will be gone, either until he reads the story again (if you're so lucky) or until his memory replaces them with his own.