Saturday, June 26, 2010

Caress the Detail, the Divine Detail

Writers obsess about something we call our “voice.” On a simplistic level, the question can be phrased as “Does this writing sound like me?”, a question we usually ask ourselves when we know that it doesn’t. I write periodically for academic publications, and I always struggle not to fall into the conventions of that form, presenting the blood-drained corpses of ideas. I can usually tell (upon re-reading, anyway) that some alien scholarly being has entered my head and typed for a while, and mostly I can fix it.

But really, the fact that my writing has a “voice” is less egoistic than “sounds like me.” A writer’s voice is, I think, two things. The first is the sum of the choices we make about words and punctuation, and the second is what we choose to observe and report on. And my writing has unique characteristics in both of those realms. I LOVE punctuation that allows me to digress within the stretch of a single sentence — the em-dash, the semi-colon, the parenthesis, even the simple bracketing commas surrounding a non-restrictive clause. And, as you can see, I love the sound and rhythm of repeating words, all of those “the’s” in that last sentence chiming like a liturgy.

When I observe situations in the world, I’m attentive to the exact words people use, and to their postures and the ways they express emotions. But I’m also attentive to what I’m thinking about it while I’m watching it, so my writing tends to be like a narrated film on the Discovery Channel — you get to see the animals playing, but you also get to hear me commenting on it at the same time.

The title of this blog post comes from Vladimir Nabokov. I’d never heard it until I read an essay by Patricia Hampl called "The Dark Art of Description." It’s not a terrific essay (mainly because I don’t so much care for her voice), but the ideas are important. Here’s a couple of sentences:
Next to grand conceptions like plot, which is the legitimate government of most stories, or character, which is the crowned sovereign, the detail looks like the ragged peasant with a half-baked idea of revolution and a crazy, sure glint in its eye. But here, according to Nabokov, resides divinity.
So this is not my preferred voice — it’s a bit overblown, with the metaphor drawn out pretty thin. But what a perfect idea. We buy Robert Ludlum and John Grisham thrillers because the plots are fun, but the characters are little more than plot mannequins, and the details are careless and distracted. We may burn through them on the airplane, but nobody ever reads one again for the love of the language.

So now the context shift that brings us back to design. I think we can imagine that our focus on form and space is akin to a focus on plot — it grabs our attention on first read, but has little staying power. Perhaps character is something more akin to architectural material – cold or warm, generous or meager. But if we come back to good buildings, as we come back to good writing, it is because the details unfailingly please us. There are pieces of music I’ve heard a hundred times, and I get choked up at exactly the same place every time because that particular musician has made a particular choice about pacing or emphasis at a particular point in the score, and it’s just revelatory every time I hear it.

Architecture about form is the equivalent of books centered on plot — exciting once, but not savored. Architecture about “ideas” is the equivalent of the dessicated and emotionless academic paper — possibly interesting, but not what you want around you when you’re tired or lonely. It’s the details that reward repeated encounter, that show us something noble or joyous on each occasion.


Nora said...

I would agree in substance with much of what you write here. But there are times that the detail can overwhelm the story and drown it. I like Arundhati Roy's work for example, but sometimes I get impatient with the overloading of adjectives. And like much else in life, I am most impatient with those things that I see in myself.

Other writers are more judicious while being just as eloquent. Anne Michaels is my current favorite though Barry Lopez is an enduring hero to me. Language there is the means of seeing place in ways that go beyond their structure / form.

If that difference is “voice,” then I think some of us have more than one. And as I have said in the past, it can sometimes be hard to speak in one language and dream in another.

As academics we master the "scientific" voice used in journals in the same way we are asked to master a foreign language. There is a grammar that we are expected to use: The Abstract, The Lit Review, the Discussion. This grammar can facilitate the dialogue for those who don't have the "art" of language. And there is something to be said for the universality of that grammar... It makes it possible for us to communicate with others who have a different world view, different training, different ideas about what matters (or at least it would if more English speakers could read journals in French or German or Japanese or Swahili).

But the way we will make science/architecture relevant, extend its reach outside our own disciplines, is by the use of vocabulary and idiom, not the grammar of rules. Or we could say, by the use of DETAILS in the service of IDEAS about FORM. This is not always welcome in publishing / design, and it can veer way too far off into “magic incantations” when you read Lieberman or Eisenman.

mitc0304 said...

Just about any profession/trade/skill can be appreciated to a greater degree if we understand it enough to know when the creator has altered something in a thought-provoking and emotional manner. For example..musicians that perform a "cover" often alter the song in a way that is very thoughtful. I guess that this is part of finding your "voice" in your given skill. With architecture I think that at times this is where we start.

Each architectural project is a little different but it is fair to say that there is very similar attributes to each that will indeed be repeated. Just like Nora has said that writing a scientific journal has a specific structure so does architecture. I would ask are architects designing a novel, thriller, graphic novel, or scientific journal review? Or do we just WRITE about some "idea", "concept" etc.. and hope it all makes sense in the end?

Herb Childress said...

I LOVE cover songs, for exactly that reason. You take something that already existed, and was even beloved, and you make the small changes that make it your own.

And I think it's those details that make "interesting" forms work, or not. We feel the specific intentions at work.