Every afternoon, I take my dog for a walk in our neighborhood. We do a quick 30-minute loop, and it’s usually the first time during the day that I lift my head from my computer screen and look around. What a relief! Sunlight. Birds! Persimmons, just starting to blush. As we turn toward home, I search my neighbor’s lawn for the family of small brown rabbits that hang out there at dusk, nibbling.
By the end of the walk I feel calmer, more grounded, and yes… happier.
This action, simply paying attention (some call it mindfulness,) can not only make us feel better, but can powerfully impact our writing.
This week I wanted to share with you three short novel passages that are observant and beautifully descriptive.
From Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner…
“Snow blew down the Royal Gorge in a horizontal blur. With Ollie’s sleeping head in her lap and a down comforter around them both, she tried now and then to get a look at that celebrated scenic wonder, but the gorge was only snow-streaked rock indistinguishable from any other rock, all its height and grandeur and pictorial organization obliterated in the storm. The dark, foaming, ice-shored river was so unlike the infant Arkansas that she used to ford on her horse that she didn’t believe in it. The circles that she blew and rubbed on the window healed over in secret ferns of frost.”
Can’t you just see the “snow streaked rock,” the “dark, foaming ice-shored river,” the “secret ferns of frost?”
From The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath…
“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”
Notice how she takes this simple object, a fig tree with all its fruit, and uses it to reveal her character’s aching, overwhelming, and despairing quest for identity?
From Room, by Emma Donoghue…
“I don’t tell Ma about Spider. She brushes webs away, she says they’re dirty but they look like extra-thin silver to me. Ma likes the animals that run around eating each other on the wildlife planet, but not real ones. When I was four I was watching ants walking up Stove and she ran and splatted them all so they wouldn’t eat our food. One minute they were alive and the next minute they were dirt. I cried so my eyes nearly melted off. Also another time there was a thing in the night nnnnng nnnnng nnnnng biting me and Ma banged him against Door Wall below Shelf, he was a mosquito. The mark is still there on the cork even though she scrubbed, it was my blood the mosquito was stealing, like a teeny vampire. That’s the only time my blood ever came out of me.”
Donoghue, through the eyes of a little boy, finds extra thin silver spiderwebs a thing of beauty, and imagines tiny mosquitoes, like vampires, stealing blood and leaving permanent smears on cork. One minute the ants are alive, “the next minute they were dirt.”
Each of these three passages is keenly observed. In order to write like this, you have to be in the habit of really LOOKING and seeing things. And in translating these descriptions to the page, making them specific and visible and magical somehow, revealing the deepest parts of your character.
Take Action! If you’re writing fiction or a memoir, are you being observant? Are you describing things uniquely enough, through the specific lens of your character? Are you writing about “fogging the window,” or are you taking it to the next level with “creating secret ferns of frost?” Are you revealing your character “wondering what she should be in life,” or do you put her in the crotch of a fig tree, seeing each piece of fruit as a possibility, and then watching them wrinkle, grow black, and drop at her feet? Does your little boy “get a mosquito bite,” or does something “nnnnng nnnnng nnnnng bite him?”
Look around, practice describing what you see in your mind. Be specific on the page, filter these descriptions through the eyes of your characters.
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