August 8, 2010

POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAY: Living and Maple Syrup Is In the Details

“The Christian life is not a constant high. I have my moments of deep discouragement. I have to go to God in prayer with tears in my eyes, and say, 'O God, forgive me,' or 'Help me.'

Billy Graham

“After a while I started to think of that as an image of something that went a lot deeper than the dead dog, which is you can't bring back anything to life.

Alan Alda

“I am careful not to confuse excellence with perfection. Excellence, I can reach for; perfection is God's business.

Michael J. Fox

Have you ever listened to or read an autobiography?

Do you know how hard it is to make maple syrup? (

I’ve read the autobiographies of Billy Graham, Michael J. Fox, and Alan Alda just to name a few. It always seems to me that wisdom drips off the pages. I marvel at how this event or that person or the other thing had a powerful impact on who they became by the end of the book.

I scribble down profound quotes, finish the book, then put it down with a sigh and wish I could have one of those events.


I’ve been teaching summer writing classes to third through eleventh graders for thirteen years. After introducing them to a type of writing like poetry, journalism, or the personal essay, I have them write in that type. Then I read and comment.

They are often meticulous, careful and wonderful writers. But once we get to “fiction”, which everyone assumes they are great at, that care evaporates and I read stories that leap from “I got up in the morning,” and reach “And the alien sorcerer curled under the feet of the purple pony. Victory at last,” in ten paragraphs.

The skill they used in writing journalistic details or descriptive poetry is thrown out the window and I am left with a skeleton of a story.

When I hand it back to them, they ask, “What’s wrong?”

I tap the page on the word I’ve written there: “DETAILS!”

When they come back with those details dutifully written out, I then wade through pages and pages of walking, eating, looking, seeing and “real dialogue” with “um”, “er”, and “Well” completely intact. Then I have to write, “Trim it down some!”


Robert A Heinlein’s almost-autobiography, GRUMBLES FROM THE GRAVE, “consists of excerpts of correspondence from the period from 1939 to 1970”. Those pages cover 31 years of his life.

Let me do some math here: 31 years x 365 days = 11,315 days.

It took me seven days to read it: 11,315/7 = 1616 days/ 365 days a year = 4.4 years of his life per day of my reading.

The realization that hit me recently, was that when I am reading an autobiography, I am emphatically NOT reading the details of someone’s life. I am reading SOME of the details of their life. In fact, I’m reading very select details of their lives; details that propel their story forward and make me want to read more. Like maple syrup, the autobiography is a distillation of that person’s life.

That realization was important for me to see. My life isn’t over yet and I often wonder where the profundity is. What mark have I left on the world? Will anyone want to read my autobiography (in paper or on Nook™)?

I don’t know for sure, but when I reach the point that I want to begin to distill my life down, I’m confident I’ll find those quotes that define me. I just have to boil away all the mundane details and there, when all is said and done, will be the maple syrup of my life.

How about you?



The Coffeehouse Storeroom said...

I know exactly what you mean with the writing! People in the class kept asking me how many words are in a chapter. I told them there's no restricted amount, mine have anywhere from 4000-5000, rarely more, but they would have 152 word chapters detailing a week of traveling to an evil alien sorcerer's citadel. But I think everyone goes through that phase. I found a few ancient documents on my computer, my first writings.
One was a page and a half of a story about a king who collected cobras, and then got a winged cobra form a mysterious golden egg before constructing a red hot air balloon and flying off to have more adventures.

The other was a shameless sequel to Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. There was Chapter One:

I was walking down the street when I saw a bar. I thought I saw someone. It was Black Dog. He ran away. I was surprised. Black Dog had returned.

Chapter Two:

I was surprised at Black Dog, and then someone came running down the street and gave me a piece of paper. It was the black spot.

You do need details, though even the word details is an understatement. Details brings to mind adding in a few sentences like, the sky was bright blue. I prefer, rewrite this, only make the epic battle between hero and alien space sorcerer a story and not a list of movements and descriptions such as:

I got up, I saw that my window was broken. Aliens had broken into my room. I wanted to cry. I was going to have to battle the Alien Sorcerer if I wanted my parents' souls back, because, by the way, the aliens kidnapped them.


The Coffeehouse Storeroom said...

More on the real point of the article, I think if everyone boiled down their life like maple syrup they would have something to forward.

But I spent almost a month of eighth grade English reading autobiographical short stories. When I had to write my own I found adding extra sugar to the syrup. In fact, we were supposed to fictionalize our memoirs to make them more interesting.

People shouldn't be afraid, and many people do add sugar to their syrup. It's difficult to decide whether this is moral or slightly immoral in the art of writing.