Good Fences: A Lesson in Writing Concrete Images

This evening, my husband is walking the perimeter of our rental property and installing chicken wire over the gaps in our failing white picket fence. He has chosen the best time of day for this labor. Sun glazes the delicate new maple leaves and the unmowed grass and the marbled hastas planted along the line. In the yard, our dog romps back and forth, his tongue lagging from heat. He jumps up on sections of rotting fence, sending them slinging.

From where he is bent walling in the irises, my husband removes an ear bud and smiles at me and our two-month old, who I hold across my chest.

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“Good fences make good neighbors,” he says.

I glance from him to the green stakes and thin wire he is assembling and say nothing. Presently, the allusion prompts a trip in the house to collect my anthology of Robert Frost. It’s been awhile since I’ve read “Mending Wall.”

Frost writes,

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.

Recently, our landlord has offered to take down the posts in the yard since they no longer do the work of a fence. Each winter, some of the pickets fall down and each spring our landlord nails them up again. This winter has been especially hard. The latch to the front gate went missing in the snow, leaving the gap where our dog waits, observing squirrels. Everywhere, broken sections of fence are latched together with white cord. I silently respond to Frost’s inquiry.

I’d like to know what I am walling in—the dog—and what I am walling out—the apartment complex next door, the gravel alleyway, other people’s dogs and children.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, That wants it down—snow, ice, rain, time, wood mites, neglect. I read my husband the poem while he works.

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I have blogged before about how poetry can teach and inspire prose writing, and so in my next few posts, I will share a few poems that I have recently found instructive. A commonality among these poems is their focus on image and concrete detail.

The first poem, “Mending Wall,” essentially asks why people create unnecessary boundaries and why customs which we don’t fully understand dictate our behaviors. Frost uses the image of a wall between two properties and the two neighbors in the act of repairing the wall to investigate these questions. Though he asks some questions overtly, they are paired with resonant images that reinforce the questions. Here, the fence mending is not merely an illustration but the central narrative in the poem.

Sometimes writers are tempted to tell readers too much about their characters’ emotions rather than using sensory detail to introduce the reader to the conflict and themes through well crafted scenes with strong sensory details and powerful images. As a reader myself, I find of one of the chief pleasures to be experiencing the writer’s message by entering a scene and interpreting it using the author’s cues (sensory details, character perceptions, etc). I appreciate that Frost offers me this opportunity.

Exercise: Poems often capture and extend out a brief moment, allowing the reader to linger in it. For the prose writer, scene can create a similar affect. Begin your writing today by choosing a moment in which to linger. Identify a central image in the moment and describe it. Focus on concrete details and sensory language. Consider what the image can be used to communicate to your reader or what value it may have to a character in your story. Your image may come from a memory, something you encounter in the house, or even a magazine.

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