In his book on photography, Camera Lucida, the French writer Roland Barthes invented a term which I believe applies equally well to the writing of fiction.

First he says that a photograph may have a quality he calls the studium, which means that the viewer feels a sympathetic but rather general interest in what the picture shows, has a taste for that kind of image, is a member of a culture that’s interested in the subject of the photo. The viewer willingly enters into the scene shown in the photograph. This is a good thing, certainly, but it’s not everything. There can be something much more intense about the aesthetic experience, which he defines as follows:


The second element will break (or punctuate) the studium. It is this element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me. A Latin word exists to designate this wound, this prick, this mark made by a pointed instrument: the word suits me all the better in that it also refers to the notion of punctuation, and because the photographs I am speaking of are in effect punctuated, sometimes even speckled with these sensitive points; precisely, these marks, these wounds are so many points. This second element which will disrupt the studium I shall therefore call punctum; for punctum is also: sting, speck, cut, little hole – and also a cast of the dice. A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).

(pp. 26-27)


I think the punctum occurs in fiction as well, or in any kind of narrative writing, in the form of the detail that shoots out of the scene like an arrow and pierces the reader. I have a strong feeling that the punctum tells you something about human memory: that the emotional charge of a memory often attaches to something tiny, something that may seem almost random, something that is not at the center of attention but off to the side. This detail – and what I’m talking about always is small enough to be called a detail – somehow stabs the one who remembers with feeling. It pierces your defenses. Here’s an example from the work of one of my students:


We had our last fight in front of the sink, the one that I had needed to snake not six months before because Lilly and our children, Hannah and Andrew, had been making play-doh and Andrew threw some of his down the drain. The sink was black, like the counters, but there are still little bits of fuchsia play-doh stuck to the deep sides, like tiny barnacles attached to a ship. I stared at those play-doh barnacles as Lilly told me she wanted a divorce, as she told me that she had been having an affair, as she informed me she was moving out. (Kalie Wilkerson)


The punctum here, for me, is those little barnacles of fuchsia play-doh. They are tiny arbitrary specks that just happen, by chance, to be there, but when the critical moment comes that’s what the narrator is staring at, and when he remembers that moment (as he’s narrating), the pain of it is anchored to those same bits of fuchsia play-doh.

This works for me as a reader. It makes me feel the narrator as a person and go past the words into his experience. I’m convinced that it works in part because it is very specific; those bits have a precisely named color (fuchsia) and they are made of a substance (play-doh) which has a very particular sensory quality that I know well. Play-doh is not exactly like any other substance; it’s unique. That level of specificity matters.

If I think about this in terms of technique that I might try to apply while writing, it comes out something like this: remember that something seemingly insignificant might be the most potent vehicle for powerful feeling. That the seemingly arbitrary detail or minor action might be the thing that sticks in the mind and makes the larger whole seem real. So when something terribly important is happening, don’t forget about the unimportant that is happening at that moment too. It may be the key that unlocks the feeling in the scene.


[The photograph at the top of this post was taken at a homeless encampment in the Alewife Reservation, Cambridge, Mass.]