On Original Details and the Truth of Experience

In a 2008 New York Times Measure by Measure column, Rosanne Cash writes about the power of original details in writing, and about writing as work and as discovery:

Facts are not necessarily the best indicators of the deepest human experience. The table where you found the suicide note, the cup of coffee that turned cold because you were distracted in a painful reverie staring out the old wavy–glass window at the rain dripping off the eaves, the seashell left in the coat pocket from the last time you were at that favorite spot at the ocean, when it all came clear that you were at the right place with the wrong man, the letters, the photos, the marbles and jewels—all these physical, material, real-world artifacts carry poetic weight and should be used liberally in songwriting. These are the facts that convey truth to me.

The exact words he said, who was right or wrong, whether he relapsed on the 7th or the 10th, why exactly she does what she does, the depth and weight and timbre of the feelings, whether Love Heals Everything — these aren’t facts, these are ever-changing blobs of emotional mercury…it can be much more powerful and resonant to write about the shards of the coffee cup than about the feeling that caused him to throw it across the room.

Cash says that as a writer, you must suspend your certainties to find out what’s really true. That takes work:

Real artistic accomplishment requires a suspension of certitude. E.L. Doctorow said that “writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go.” He may not have been referring specifically to songwriting, but it applies. Great songwriting is not a poor man’s poetry, or a distant cousin to “real” writing. It requires the same discipline and craft. Bright flashes of inspiration can initiate it, but it cannot be completed that way.

Original details are the “facts” in great writing that create meaning:

But in the space where truth and fact diverge, a larger question arises: if the facts don’t lead us to meaning, what does? Perhaps a willingness to live with questions, not answers, and the confidence to ascribe meaning where we find it, with our own instincts as guide.

One thought on “On Original Details and the Truth of Experience

  1. Pingback: Rosanne Cash on Work Ethic « Krista Stevens

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