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Decisive Details:

on communicating what matters

Photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson once wrote:

“What the eye does is to find and focus on the particular subject within the mass of reality; what the camera does is simply to register upon film the decision made by the eye.”

This thing he speaks of is often called “the decisive moment.” It’s the snapshot of the particular which reflects the energy of the larger whole.

There’s a corollary in writing that author Kristine Kathryn Rusch calls the “telling detail.” The telling detail is one, small, thing sticks in a person’s mind, and brings a scene to life. One example she gives is a metal ashtray mounted to a wall between two hospital elevators. Imagining that ashtray, we immediately know so much about that world and slice of time. We understand some small thing about the people living there.

And so, the story comes to life.

These moments and details are used by effective artists all the time. Organizers, parents, teachers, and many others of us use just these sorts of details to connect someone who doesn’t know—or doesn’t have the same relationship—with the things we are connected to.

So, how do we communicate about the cause that is important to us? The relationship things that matter? Our hopes, our fears, our dreams?

We communicate the telling detail or decisive moment that unlocks our experience and passion.

It’s a taste. A feel. A sound. A color. A scent on the wind.

It’s the crisp, papery sound of dried leaves crunching beneath sturdy boots.

It’s the feel of ocean wind on the skin, and the hint of salt on lips.

It’s the shine in a proud parent’s eyes.

It’s the sneaker-tearing tumble of rubble from a destroyed building.

It’s acrid smoke, invading lungs, and darkening the sun to a bloody orb, hanging in brown sky.


What are you passionate about? What is the telling detail that will help connect others to your passion?

What is the decisive moment? How do we communicate what is important? How do we convey the kernel of truth embedded in all experience?

How do we share our lives and reach beyond ourselves?

We do so by capturing a thread of imagination, tugging on it, and weaving it into the tapestry we know so well, bringing other people along: into texture, into emotion, into a sense of place and time.

We evoke emotion by saying: “This is what is important to me, and here is why.”

It’s the scent of fried potatoes in winter.

It’s the sound of iron slamming against iron, and the sense of space closing in.

It’s the burning ache in lower back and thighs, married with the sweet smell of strawberries.

It’s the slump of exhaustion.

It’s the blue and white lights, flashing through the choking fog of chemical gas.

It’s the crinkle of paper as the gift slowly reveals itself.

It’s a squeal of joy.

It’s a puppy’s kiss.

It’s the warm, savory taste of lentil soup made by a friend.


Passion: a strong feeling or emotion. As much as humans connect through thought, we connect more deeply through shared experience. Why? Shared experience means shared emotion. Even if you and I have different responses to an event, whatever emotions are evoked change our relationship to each other.

Sometimes the difference in emotional response drives a wedge between us. Other times, it creates a deeper bond.

So what happens when we can’t directly share an experience? We tell stories. We make music. We paint a picture. We take a photograph. We find a way to convey what is important to us about the moment, about the idea, about how we feel.

We do our best to find a way to share our passion. And we sow the seeds of empathy.

It’s the anguished cry of a parent who has lost a child.

It’s the sound and scent and taste when we bite into the first apple of autumn.

It’s the feeling of soft fur beneath our fingertips.

It’s the sweat running down our backs on a hot summer’s day.

It’s the echo of a trumpet, ringing against glass shop windows at night.

It’s the warmth of hot chocolate, or freshly made tortillas, or a soft blanket wrapped around our shoulders.

It’s all of our hopes, our fears, our grief, our love, our joy, and our rage.

When we share our passions, the world becomes richer. A greater variety of stories are told, and experiences are shared.

When we find the telling detail, or share a decisive moment, we unlock the things that connect us.

We find ways to share something deeper. Something that feels more true.

Our senses are opened.

And so are our hearts and minds.

This is reader-funded writing. I give thanks to my Patreon supporters that make these essays, poems, meditations, and short stories possible. They are all people like you.

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