I often talk in class about using "telling detail": an overflowing sink, the sound of a highway or an unnoticed dribble of toothpaste on a shirt.
There's a miserable detail that comes to my mind from Angela's Ashes every Christmas and St. Patrick's Day. Angela went to the St. Vincent de Paul Society for help with Christmas dinner. Frank described how she came home with a piece of corned beef that was all fat with a tiny nipple of meat on one corner. Disappointment and want. You could feel the kids' stares.
I also talk about voice and McCourt describes how he found his on the playground. Sometimes, you have to let time take the sting out of life before you can write about it -- writerly distance. This about his path to memoir from the NY Times obit.
An early attempt, when he was studying at New York University, had fizzled out, but three decades later, he said, he had worked through his awkward, self-conscious James Joyce phase and had gotten beyond the crippling anger that darkened his memories.
“After 20 pages of standard omniscient author, I wrote something that I thought was just a note to myself, about sitting on a seesaw in a playground, and I found my voice, the voice of a child,” he told The Providence Journal in 1997. “That was it. It carried me through to the end of the book.”
RIP teacher man. Thanks for the stories.