The Art of the Telling Detail (as told in gelli prints)

gray leaf on black background Photo by Alan Cabello on

I steal the ginkgo leaf from a stranger’s yard. Nobody sees me. It is delicate as a butterfly wing, anecdotally symbolic. A mark of longevity. Hope.

Now in my own house, behind a closed door (should I lock it?), I brayer color onto a gelli plate—Indian Yellow, Naples Yellow, Phthalo Green. Some of the color blends, making new color. Some of it rides right up to the edge of an analogous hue as if to tease the ghost of Mark Rothko. Some of it maintains the ridge lines of the brayer. Into this color field I press the stolen leaf. Against the color and the leaf, I press a page of quality paper. I rub with my fist. I peel the page away.


I remove the leaf, I press the paper down again. I peel.


More color, more fist, more peel, and the gingko leaf recedes. It is, however, always there. A telling detail. Hope as something worth stealing.

When I make gelli plate art with seedy pennisetum—press the grass heads down, encourage the scattering of the seeds—I am approximating breeze and blur; I am suggesting the inconstancy of nature.

When I cut a six-inch tip from the toxic Nandina bush outside my window and carry that inside (my door is open) and press it into the bed of paint I’ve made, I am repeating an old story, laying it down with a detail: beauty is mendacious.

A telling detail signifies and suggests. It speaks both of itself and for something more. It may adapt and evolve or it might scamper like a motif. It offers clues to its own mystery.

In gelli prints the ghosted seeds and stems reveal something of themselves and something of the artist—they are both what they are and what the artist chose to make of them. In essays and memoirs, telling details likewise hint and haunt; they are stepping stones toward meaning. Maybe the telling detail is the open window in the room where the child is dreaming. Maybe the telling detail is the frayed hem in the sophisticate’s dress. Maybe, as in Nina Riggs’ The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying, the telling detail involves the colors of the sky that unfold before two who don’t know yet that cancer is invading. In this Riggs passage, the telling detail is the dark that is coming—but for who, and when?

Several weeks before the call, a warm night: John and I sit on the front porch with glasses of whiskey and let the sun set in our eyes—bathing us and the whole world in orange as it sinks below the neighbor’s roofline across the street where he’s out on his swing—the retired professor who can no longer remember his dog’s name. His wife flickers at the kitchen window, and he nods toward us. The only sky he sees is the dark that’s coming.

Writing of the woman he loves and the landscape to which he takes her, Philip Connors, in A Song for the River, offers a telling detail with a single word, “silly.” Silly signifies that the author, following many seasons of gray, is again capable of joy, even exultation. Silly is light; it is love: “Monica wished to know the rhythms of the place for herself, to sit at night by an outdoor fire under a sky silly with stars and feel the magisterial hush of dwelling amid the fog in the rainy season.”

A telling detail is not just any detail; indeed, unreliable details posing as telling details do far more harm than good. When, for example, memoirists stuff endless particulars into overly extended scenes concerning events that happened decades ago, prudent readers will be left wondering (sometimes out loud) just how much the memoirist chose to make up. Those “telling” details can’t all be true. Those “telling” details lie. Those “telling” details make a mockery of the memoir form.

Similarly, when a memoirist goes to great length in her author’s note to announce all the ways she has disguised the real people in her true story so that they won’t be recognizable even to themselves, what is the point of any “telling” detail after that. What is a reader to do with the writer’s fanciful decorations—the made-up people in their made-up clothing saying made-up things? Where is the tell? What is the point?

Some memoirists have a tendency to pack their lines and scenes with so many attributes, adjectives, and adverbs that the details do not tell, they shout. They obfuscate, interfere, and strut, cancelling each other out. That is what happens in this passage from a memoir published a few years ago. Asked to imagine colors, flowers, bagel shop smells, chandeliers, and blue neon all at almost once, the reader is left more dazed than informed, uncertain about the hierarchy of meaning. To what, the reader wonders, is one to pay closest attention? What detail strewn within this smorgasbord means more than the list to which it was assigned?

The New York sidewalk led us along a little corner park rimmed with yellow-orange and violet pansies that seemed to be smiling, their faces upturned, and past a bagel shop that smelled of sesame and salt, delicious warm air. We passed an empty wine bar with a pink chandelier, whimsical and dim inside, and a neighborhood diner with its blue neon sign huge and lit up, little white line-cook hats—the city seemed in my vision like a multifaceted gem, spectacular.

Artful moments are not built of word lists. A succession of nouns or adjectives is neither scene nor story. Unless the details speak of something greater than themselves—capture a yearning, convey an exchange, delineate or dispel a mystery, provoke or try to answer a question—they will only accumulate; they will not tell. They will be like those so many failed gelli prints of mine, when I pushed the color a layer too far and lost the power of the inciting detail and stole the damned thing to begin with.

When that happens, I clean my gelli plate and find new seeds, and stems, and leaves. I start all over again with a virgin page.

Beth Kephart is the award-winning author of nearly three-dozen books in multiple genres, an award-winning teacher of creative nonfiction at the University of Pennsylvania, co-founder of Juncture Workshops, and a widely published essayist. Her memoir in essays, Wife | Daughter | Self, is due out from Forest Avenue Press in March 2021. More at

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