The Power of One Writer
Back Yards, Ethiopia and Children's Books

Good writing is in the details

Novelist John Gardner said a lot of interesting and important things about details including this:  “A novel is another world, one with so much detail we can imagine ourselves living in it.”  As many of my VCMFA students have discovered, it isn’t as easy as it sounds to find the exact and vivid details to build a world.

When I was invited to do some writing with kids at a Heritage and Culture camp near Washington DC, I tried to figure out what to do with a little smidge of time and decided to spend it focused right there…thinking and talking about sensory details and how to capture the fascinating world of Ethiopia.

So often, people choose words carelessly.  Toss them here and there. Repeat the same ones over and over, hammering the same board into place in the world without ever building something new.

Words give us the power, though.  If we honor them, we can use them to show the things we know about and care about.

We talked about some of the things I saw as a child growing up in Ethiopia–a dik dik–for instance, and how I described it in Trouble as a “shy and delicate animal.”  Using my words as a start, one group added their own details.

Shy and delicate

Like a baby dragon

Eyes as big as gumballs or giant jawbreakers

Dark as the inside of a microwave

Or burnt rose petals.


We talked about what we had done and seen so far at the Culture and Heritage camp and how to use words to capture sensory details and movements of…say…Ethiopian dancing, a spark of the three days that we all spent together.


Shoulders shaking like an earthquake

Heads bobbing like a Ringo bobblehead doll

Swaying like swings and rocking chairs

Feet flailing in a temper tantrum of emotion.

I never imagined when I was a child watching tall black warriors with their spears leaping straight into the air  in a somewhat scary dance that I’d one day watch kids–white kids, black kids, brown kids–trying on those moves in the middle of a camp in Virginia.

When I was a kid visiting the ancient city of Harar and watching the hyena man outside the city walls, I also never imagined I’d put the hyena’s eerie cries into my stories or gather words to try to capture the scene.

Hyena man

Bone in mouth

Hangs meat






Hyena snatches meat

Hands shaking


In one of the other sessions, most of the kids created a journal.  I hope they will use them to keep dreaming words and images and talking about their lives and what they think and know about the worlds they get to claim as theirs

I saw a hut with a top as golden and tan as hyena’s teeth.

I saw a snake as fat as a mouse.

I saw a giraffe as long as a snake.

My sister was born in Ethiopia.

I was born in Ethiopia

I saw a woman outside with an oven as tall as a giraffe’s back.

Curiosity.  Questions.  Answers.   Words dreamed and shared.

2 thoughts on “Good writing is in the details”

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.