May 13, 2021

Paperwork: The big picture is just a lot of little details

Writing is about life.

Life is about writing.

Whatever. Comes out the same. And you don’t really have to take the word “writing” literally.

We are all “writing” our life stories every day, minute by minute, day by day until you realize it’s year by year.

The choices we make each day turn into chapters. Once they are written, well ... they are written. Ahhh, but there’s still story to tell.

The plot line wraps around important characters — family and the people we choose to allow in our story.

So yeah ... writing is about life. And life is about writing.

So let’s talk about that. Let’s look a bit closer at the process.

The bulk of my life has been about writing — with pen and paper, typewriters and now the plastic keyboards.

Telling stories in one form or another turned into a career and I learned lots of lessons along the way.

Let me share one that can apply to the process, no matter how you define “writing.”

Don’t tell me. Show me. This is a lesson many writers have shared over time.

When I was teaching journalism students I liked to use the example of “a well-dressed gentleman.”

It’s an easy thing to say and just as easy for each of us to conjure up an image of “well-dressed” and “gentleman.”

The problem is that image will vary from person to person and likely not be totally accurate.

So don’t tell me he was well-dressed. Show me. Paint the picture with words.

Richard Price, an American novelist and screenwriter, explains it well with this:

“You don’t write about the horrors of war. No. You write about a kid’s burnt socks lying in the road.”

What’s that cliche ... The devil is in the details.

Details. Details. Details. And that means more than describing attire.

I’m not the guy to tell you how to write your life story. All those choices you have to make, all those plot twists that come along ... all are up to you.

But I would like to encourage you to pay attention to the details that make up each day’s chapter. It could impact your next chapter.

If you took the time each day ... end of day before you hit the pillows ... to reflect on the day, how would you do it?

The easy picks would be “events.” Recount the things that happened and mattered to you.

But let’s go deeper. Show me your day, don’t tell me. Details. Details.

As I write this I can glance left out my window. My red bud tree leans in close to the house. It’s in full bloom now, which means it’s a splash of bright color to passers-by. (I will call it a dark pink.)

The color fades quickly so it’s like a moment of sudden pleasure. The blossoms fade and leave an awkward blackened tree trunk and branches with splitting, peeling bark — a sculpture about time and weather.

What draws me in, though, is a new discovery. Turns out the black blotch on the thick branch facing my window is actually a small hole. I discover this when I see a flash of white and wings fly into the spot and disappear.

Suddenly there were two small birds in and out the hole. Taking turns. Clearly on a mission. They were fast and busy but silent. Until now ... my window is open ... I hear pecking inside the hole. My guess is proven right when a small head pokes beak out and drops the wooden debris.

I have been calling them sparrows but something’s off. They seem more black and white than brown. The head has a black stripe down the middle like a mohawk hairdo, surrounded on the sides by white. (I keep researching. I’m now leaning toward black-capped chickadees.)

The hole is less than two inches wide and about four inches long. (How did they find it?)

So ... there. I’ve tried to show you (not tell you) some detail in my day. It’s still lacking detail. But you get some of the picture. Yes?

These two birds have become a significant part of my day. A surprise twist in my story, which is important because days or chapters tend to run together into a tired plot line.

When my final story is told I doubt the birds outside my window will stand out because the joy will be lost in memory. (This is a good time for me to underscore why keeping a journal is valuable. Or writing a column.)

But that’s OK. Paying attention to details is about enjoying the moment before moving on to the next chapter. About appreciating what’s around us. About seeing the smaller, somewhat hidden items in the big picture. About leaning into surprises and interruptions.

And who knows. Maybe those small details add up to an important thread throughout our life stories.

Let me quote another American author, Colson Whitehead:

“I can’t blame modern technology for my predilection for distraction, not after all the hours I’ve spent watching lost balloons disappear into the clouds. I did it before the Internet, and I’ll do it after the apocalypse, assuming we still have helium and weak-gripped children.”

Yes. Pay attention to the distractions. Savor the details.

LONNY CAIN is the retired managing editor of The Times in Ottawa and was a reporter for The Herald-News in the 1970s. Email to or mail The Times, 110 W. Jefferson St., Ottawa, IL 61350.