What's the value of taking a closer look?

By Carol / February 17, 2015 /

“You have got to be kidding,” I whispered when I drove past the Cadillac Ranch west of Amarillo, Texas. The famous line of ten Cadillacs planted front bumpers in the ground and rear bumpers in the air was barely visible in the distance.

A tribute to America's love of driving?

A tribute to America’s love of driving?

I shook my head, unable to believe I’d driven 75 miles out of my way to see this landmark. Another sucker, I thought as I made a U turn at the next I-40 exit, back tracked on the frontage road, left my car on a cold, grey day, and trekked a quarter mile across a barren field to look more closely.

The nearer I came, the more intrigued I grew. The cars began to pop with color and texture, with messages left by previous pilgrims to this shrine. The rusted out cars were so covered with spray paint the surfaces bubbled like lava. It was not unrealistic to question whether the cars could have remained upright sans paint. Graffiti memorialized Mom, love, and messages of dubious intent.

Cadillacs as sculptures.

Cadillacs as sculpture and writing lesson.

From a distance the Cadillac Ranch was a big nothing. Close up, it was a fascinating essay in excess, in silliness, in commentary on America.

As I walked around each car, marveling at what these monoliths say about all of us who came there, I realized Cadillac Ranch stands as a tribute to one of my first writing instructors, Mary Kay Shanley. Mary Kay always exhorted us to take a smaller picture, to take a closer look. She gave huge assignments, all to be completed in no more than 250 words.  

Mary Kay would have us write about the Cadillac Ranch, but tell an entire story by focusing on one car. One axle. One wheel. In 250 words.

From a distance, Cadillac Ranch underwhelms.

Cadillac Ranch from a distance

Her assignments were not exercises in the impossible, though sometimes they felt like that. Her point was that if you focused small, zeroing in on the core points that really mattered, choosing each word with care, you could convey more meaning with greater effect in 250 words than if you used three times as many words without care.

With the right 250 words, you’d feel as though you knew the Cadillac Ranch even if you’d never been there. That lesson is one I’ve always remembered. Thanks to Mary Kay for drumming that concept into my head. Thanks to the Cadillac Ranch for a timely reminder.

If you visit:

If you happen to pass through Amarillo, take a half hour and stop at Cadillac Ranch. It’s better up close – just like good writing. And take a can of spray paint. It’s encouraged.

For a even more pleasure:

Sign up for Mary Kay Shanley’s newsletter, Words & Other Worthy Endeavors. Whether you write or not, you’ll enjoy spending time with Mary Kay. Her website is under construction at the moment, but you can reach her through LinkedIn.

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  1. Elfrieda Schroeder on February 18, 2015 at 12:32 pm

    For my MA thesis years ago, I did a comparative study of two poets, the English poet Alfred Lord Tennyson and the German poet Annette von Droste-Huelshoff. One of my comparisons emphasized how both of them focused in on something small and seemingly insignificant (they were actually doing so out of habit because both had vision problems) and wrote magnificent poetry as a result.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on February 18, 2015 at 10:26 pm

      Poets are experts at taking a smaller picture. Knowing that these two did this as a result of vision challenges is thought provoking. Thanks for sharing your thesis observation, Elfrieda.

  2. Sharon Lippincott on February 18, 2015 at 12:50 pm

    Inspiring post, as usual Carol. After we move to Austin, I’ll plan a pilgrimage up that way. We’ve been along that road many times en route to New Mexico and points west. We usually blow across the Texas Panhandle as fast we legally can!

    • Carol Bodensteiner on February 18, 2015 at 10:31 pm

      Blowing through the Texas panhandle happens even when you don’t have a lead foot with all that wind. Cadillac Ranch is a reason to stretch your legs for a few minutes.

  3. Susan G. Weidener on February 18, 2015 at 1:18 pm

    Nice post, Carol. I’ve always been a believer in the “economy of words” drilled into me for years as a journalist . . . and the length of my memoirs – at about 175 pages each – is testament to that. My upcoming novel will be 215 pages. Nothing worse than reading something that drags on and on . . . or when it could have written in many, many fewer words.

    It sounds like you have really enjoyed your trip out West. I enjoyed meeting you in Tucson, as well as seeing all your photographs.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on February 18, 2015 at 10:34 pm

      Your journalism experience serves you well, Susan. I enjoyed both the stories and the writing in both your memoirs.

      My trip west was great fun. Meeting you was a special treat. I look forward to hosting you here as you launch your novel.

  4. Chuck Robertson on February 22, 2015 at 1:57 pm

    Great insight. I think a lot of us authors get so involved in the overall plot we forget to look at the characters themselves.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on February 22, 2015 at 2:51 pm

      I am working through a copyedit now and most of the comments encourage more of the little details. It’s a lesson I need to keep learning.

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