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Saturday, February 26, 2011

Description

Rule #2 of my nine rules for writers is to appeal to at least three different senses on every page.  Obviously this is something that must be handled with nuance.
I once had my ninth graders write a descriptive essay about their neighborhoods, exhorting them to include the senses of taste, touch, smell, hearing, and sight.  One of my little cherubs turned in an essay that read thusly, "The houses look like they are made of wood.  They sound woody.  They smell like wood.  They taste like wood."  Somewhat better - but not much - was a very earnest writer I knew who had evidently been told her stories needed "more description."  Ever after that, she couldn't mention curtains in a story without telling you they were blue curtains.
The trick is not necessarily to specify each sense, but to suggest them.  In a letter by Chekhov to a fellow writer, he stresses the importance of the deft touch when it comes to description, “You understand what I mean when I say, ‘The man sat on the grass.’ You understand because the sentence is clear and there is nothing to distract your attention. Conversely, the brain has trouble understanding me if I say, ‘A tall, narrow-chested man of medium height with a red beard sat on green grass trampled by passers-by, sat mutely, looking about timidly and fearfully.’ This doesn’t get its meaning through to the brain immediately, which is what good writing must do, and fast.”
Chekhov's sentence, "The man sat on the grass," may seem naked of description, but it's got plenty.  To start with, grass is green.  Grass has a smell.  Grass feels a certain way under your butt and the heels of your hands.  All of this is implied in five words.
Chekhov does even more with a similar example he included in a letter to his brother:
"For example, you'll get a picture of a moonlit night if you write that on the dam of the mill a piece of broken bottle flashed like a bright star and the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled by like a ball, etc. ... "
Damn.
My favorite part is the "etc."  Anton, what were you going to write for that "etc?"  The dam gives us the sound of water, the temperature of water at night, and the shadow rolling by gives us movement plus the implied yip of the dog or wolf.  In my mind, the shadow is even fuzzy, since it belongs to a canine, and rolling - the perfect verb for the way a fast moving shadow appears.  If I had to fault the passage - here is an inferior workman criticizing a superior - I'd say there were too damn many similes.  (Rule number 8, find a metaphor and stick with it.)  First we have flashing like a star and then rolling like a ball.  Stars don't really flash, do they?  But maybe that's just a problem with the translation.  And if something's rolling, we already know it's moving like a ball, so we don't need to be told.  But this is just petty quibblng.  The great thing is, Chekhov gives us an entire scene in two bold strokes.
The other great thing description accomplishes, besides the indispensible knowledge that the curtains are blue, is it tells us what a character notices.  My ninth grader's description of his neighborhood, "the houses tasted like wood," might have been quite adequate if he'd been writing from the point of view of a termite.
Here's how Nabokov's Humbert Humbert describes his first meeting of Lolita's mother.  Notice how the selection and arrangement of details gives us not only sounds, textures, and colors - plus tastes and smells if we count the cigarette - but the motion of Hazel coming into view down a staircase and - most importantly of all - Humbert's repulsion toward her.
"...there came from the upper landing the contralto voice of Mrs. Haze, who leaning over the bannisters inquired melodiously, 'Is that Monsieur Humbert?'  A bit of cigarette ash dropped from there in addition.  Presently, the lady herself - sandals, maroon slacks, yellow silk blouse, squarish face, in that order - came down the steps, her index finger still tapping her cigarette.'"
We'll leave off here although there's a great deal more - perhaps an infinite deal more - to be said on the subject of description.  Perhaps the final thought is that the best descriptions are the parts evoked by the silences between the things that are said explicitly.  Not just the sound and sight, but the heft of the frog and coolness of water are given in Basho's haiku.
An old pond.
A frog jumps in.
The sound of water.

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