Riding the Skunk Train

If you find yourself with a son who loves trains, and if you find yourself in Mendocino County, California, you just might find yourself on the Skunk Train. It's 4 hours round trip, 20 miles up from Fort Bragg to Northspur and 20 miles back down again. As we wended our way through the redwood forest, a man named Malachi played his guitar and sang (what else?) train songs: Casey Jones, Wabash Cannonball, The Wreck of the Old 97, and my favorite for the day, City of New Orleans.

City of New Orleans

No point in trying to describe that song, City of New Orleans, so here is a video of the songwriter, Steve Goodman, performing it:

In case you don't have the time to listen, let's get right to it.

You: "Jon, why are you telling us about a railroad song from 1972?" Me: "Because this song shows you how to use details to make your point."

Thesis vs. Details

As you start to write, you'll notice a couple types of sentences:

"Thesis" sentences. These sentences explain why an experience matters to you. They respond to the "So what?" question. An example of a thesis sentence relating to City of New Orleans would be, "I love trains because they give me a feeling of camaraderie with other passengers."

"Details" sentences. These sentences explain what you saw, heard, tasted, smelled, and touched during an experience. They respond to the "What happened?" question. An example of a details sentence from City of New Orleans would be, "I was dealin' cards with the old men in the club car - and it's penny a point, there ain't nobody keepin' score."

Your Goal: Go from Thesis to Details

You probably have your thesis sentence in mind. Experience X mattered to me because Y. That's a great starting point. To transform that thesis into a story, however, you're going to have to work on the details. What moments do you remember from that experience? In those moments, what exactly did you see, hear, taste, touch, and smell? Don't be picky - write whatever you remember. After you have it all down, expand on those sensory details that support your thesis.

The framework of thesis-details should be fairly familiar. It's not unlike writing an analytical essay for English class. The two big differences to keep in mind are:

  1. The details you cite are from your own life: "I was dealin' cards with the old men in the club car..."
  2. The right details communicate your thesis in a unique way: "...penny a point, there ain't nobody keepin' score" stands out more than "Trains make me feel camaraderie with other passengers."

Good luck writing!


Jon Perkins holds a B.A. in English from Stanford University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He helps students with their college, law school, and medical school applications.