The Magic of Details

If sorrow pushes you down, don't tell. Hide your face in front of people. Be happy when they walk by, and don't let them see your tears.

Having now written two complete novels (with many, many revisions) and half each of a third and fourth, it still thrills me to discover a seemingly perfect detail that complements a character or setting. It always feels like my endeavor is being validated and supported when such a gift arrives on the wings of my muse, or in one particular case, by the hands of a friend.

One of my novels-in-progress is set on a central Texas farm in the mid-60s, and is about the life and demise of a young woman of German descent after she is raped and impregnated by someone close to her. Lidia, whose mother died when she was thirteen and who has been the primary caregiver of her mentally challenged older brother, now must also bear the burden of secrecy as she struggles to hide the truth about her baby’s paternity from the town, her new in-laws, and her own family. When I think about her, I imagine her suffering to be both desperate and dignified, and I wonder whence she developed the kind of strength that would be required to carry forth under such extreme emotional distress.

Then one afternoon, the answer arrived in the form of a tapestry that my good friend had dug out of an estate sale trash pile. She discovered that this tapestry, which the family thought was too stained to salvage, had been embroidered by the grandmother not long after she was brought to Texas from her native Germany by her young war hero husband. It is absolutely beautiful to look at, and my friend thought that perhaps it was a form of therapy for the young war bride, who may not have been made to feel very welcome in the United States at the peak of anti-German sentiment. So she counseled herself with this idea, resolved in brown thread and surrounded by perfectly-formed flowers:

If sorrow pushes you down, don’t tell.  Hide your face in front of people.  Be happy when they walk by, and don’t let them see your tears.

None of her new American friends, if she had any, would know her sorrow, but instead, if they were to enter her home, they would see her flawless handiwork on this tablecloth, and might even feel more comfortable with her presence because of the hopeful flowers she’d sewn. Perhaps she served them coffee and cake, perhaps they returned for more visits. She wouldn’t let them see her tears, and perhaps she cried less often as time went by.

My friend soaked and washed the tapestry, restored it to a thing of beauty, and brought it to me. “You might find this useful to your story,” she told me. And I do. When I looked at it, it was as though I’d slipped through a zoetrope; I saw Lidia’s mother rocking in a chair, embroidering. I saw it on a table; I understood that it would have been a backdrop to Lidia’s life and way of living it.

If my friend hadn’t been junking that day, if she hadn’t caught a glimpse of something beautiful amid the trash, I’d have come up with some other explanation for Lidia’s stoic suffering. But the fact that she did makes me feel like I’ve been given a gentle push in the right direction, if there is such a thing, and reminds me that there can be magic in literary details—for many reasons.