Tools of the Trade

On What Description is Not


John Laroche is a tall guy, skinny as a stick, pale-eyed, slouch-shouldered, and sharply handsome, in spite of the fact that he is missing all his front teeth.”- Susan Orlean, The Orchid Thief

The Santa Anas blew in hot from the desert, shriveling the last of the spring grass into whiskers of pale straw.  Only the oleanders thrived, their delicate poisonous blooms, their dagger green leaves.”- Janet Fitch, White Oleander  

“His room smelled of cooked grease, Lysol and age.”- Maya AngelouI Know Why the Caged Bird Sings  

What do these three sentences have in common?  I’d say it’s their power to evoke a world, to conjure a mental picture.  In The Orchid Thief, for example, Susan Orlean so precisely describes John Laroche, the eccentric orchid aficionado of the title, that we can visualize him down to the smallest details of his “pale eyes” to his “missing teeth.”

Janet Fitch writes with similar specificity.  In her spellbinding novel White Oleander, she enchants us from the very beginning: rather than just speak abstractly about the summer heat, she employs concrete nouns (“Santa Anas,” “desert,” “grass,” “whiskers,” “straw,” “oleanders,” “blooms,” “leaves”) to ground us in a sense of time and place.  Not only does she make the effort to name the people and places in her fictional world precisely, she energizes what could have been a dull description of setting with vigorous active verbs (“blew,” “shriveling”).  But what makes Fitch a true literary luminary is her ability to establish a mood of danger and foreboding.  Though we have yet to meet Ingrid Magnussen, the beautiful yet lethal poet who will poison her lover and incite the events of the story, the sinister portrayal of the flower with “poisonous blooms” and “dagger green leaves” foretells of tragedy: the season of wind and fire will end in blood.  

Maya Angelou’s description is equally evocative.  But unlike Orlean, who uses detail to sketch a portrait of a character, or Fitch, who implements specific nouns and forceful verbs to foreshadow, Angelou appeals to the sense of smell to recreate a lifelike fictional universe.  By calling to mind both the smells of the real and physical ( “Lysol,” “cooked grease”) and the more conceptual (“age”), she transports us to another world with the mere turn of a page.  

Each of these writers is a master of the fine art of word painting— or, as it’s more commonly known, description.  Description is a key element of every kind of writing, whether it be plays or poetry, fiction or non-fiction.  But what, exactly, does it mean to describe?  According to Rebecca McClanahan, author of Word Painting, the best way to understand what description is is to understand what it is not:

1. Description is not “all that flowery stuff”

After Strunk and White advocated the succinct style, we began to think short sentences were easier to understand than long ones.  Few words, more efficient than more.  Lengthy sentences, we were told, meander: better to be direct and just get to the point.  If a maze of words was too elaborate, our reader would surely take a wrong turn.  So we composed sentences as simple and straight as numbered New York City streets instead of risk getting lost down winding corridors.

I agree with many pillars of the Strunk and White philosophy: for example, the active voice is, most often, preferable to the passive and few words are usually more impactful than more.  However, in both writing and in life, there are exceptions to every rule.  It is not always true that the active voice is better than the passive: the passive indeed is more suitable when you want to emphasize the receiver rather than the doer of the action (After all, why would you force yourself to write “Researchers at the University of Toronto first discovered insulin in 1921” instead of “Insulin was first discovered in 1921 by researchers at the University of Toronto” if your essay was primarily concerned with insulin and not the researchers themselves?).

In much the same way, brevity is not always better than length.  Though we’ve been taught that much elaboration is superfluous, description isn’t embellishment— it’s an essential component of any written piece.  Description can provide necessary background, reveal character, drive plot, establish tone— not to mention simply make our writing more pleasurable to read.  Perhaps most importantly, description lends our work realism or, as John Gardner would say, equips us with the “proofs” necessary to sustain a believable fictional dream.  So while description can merely be ornament, when used wisely, it can contribute to the effectiveness of a piece.

2. Description doesn’t always mean detailing how something looks

“I can’t see your character clearly…can you describe him?” our English teachers scribbled in the margins of our notebooks.  When most of us hear the word “description,” we think of detailing something in terms of how it looks.  If we’re told to describe a scene at a restaurant, say, we might note the rich mahogany floors, the black leather booths, the chic white marble bar and vintage stools.  We might catalog the 1960s lamps and the quaint black-and-white checkered tile in the bathroom.  But such a depiction would only capture but a fraction of the scene.  Despite our own associations with the word, “description” entails far more than just the visual sense: an arresting description will engage all our sensory faculties, sound and smell, taste and touch.  As Nabokov said, a writer is an enchanter— a sorcerer who conjures a whole other universe through the magic of his detail.  But how are we supposed to summon a realistic representation of the world if we neglect four-fifths of what it means to be alive?   Ignoring the other senses, McClanahan argues, is “like sitting in a gourmet restaurant wearing ear plugs, work gloves, and a surgical mask over your nose and mouth”— in other words, only experiencing a scene with the limited perception of our eyes.  Such writing can never transport us to the grimy LA streets of 1940s noir or the magical halls of Hogwarts.

But imagine if we recreated the earlier scene with all the senses.  We might recount the clink of wine glasses, the hush of confidences shared, the murmur of conversations.  We might relate the celebratory pop of champagne and the sounds of jazz carousing across the street.  Or record the the frigid bite of the winter wind blowing through the door or the plush, luxurious texture of the leather seats.  And what about the other senses?  We might chronicle the warm and welcoming smell of freshly baked bread.  Or the delightful fluffiness of the butter— and the indescribable satisfaction of taking our knife and spreading it across our roll as we waited for dinner.  To be effective, description must not only paint a picture— it must conduct an orchestra, emanate like a sweet perfume, and host a feast.

3. Description doesn’t begin on the page

Susan Sontag once said “a writer is a professional observer.”  Rebecca McClanahan professes a similar belief.  To write good description, she suggests, “we must look long, hard and honestly at our world.  Careful and imaginative observation may well be the most essential task of any writer.”  If writing well requires, as Aristotle maintained, that we locate the “special and proper name for things,” it’s only logical that the first step of writing is observation; after all, how can we name something accurately if we haven’t taken the time to closely scrutinize it?  Say, for example, we wanted to describe the sky.  Before we wrote a single word, we’d simply observe: is it a mysterious shade of sapphire or a winsome hue of robin’s egg blue?  Is it a melancholy charcoal grey or an ominous stormy slate?  Are there clouds?  Are they feathery streamers that swirl across the placid sky like cotton candy?  Or are they majestic cumulus clouds, much like the ones you’d imagine surround Mt. Olympus in Greek mythology?  Just as an artist must attentively study every aspect of his subject— the shape and color of his eyes, the size of his ears, the width of his nose— a writer must rigorously examine a scene before he can render it meaningfully in words.

4. Description doesn’t always require a bigger vocabulary

In an effort to sound more sophisticated, how many of us have reached for a fancier, more obscure word?  Rather than say “said”— the number one offender on our English teacher’s “banned words list”— we opted for a more expressive term.  So we “shouted” and “shirked,” “whined” and “whispered.”  Or instead of simply say our character lived in a “house,” we insist he resides in a “dwelling” or a “domicile.”  

It is a common misconception that descriptive writing requires a more cultivated lexicon of words.  Though choosing a more colorful word can enliven our writing, calling a “house” a “domicile” or a “car” an “automobile” is just plain overblown.  The hallmark of good writing is not elegance or ostentation but truth: if a “house” is a “house,” name it as such.  Calling things by their proper names will not only keep you from sounding like a pretentious twat, it will make your writing more understandable- not to mention easier to visualize.  Think about it: can you really see a “dwelling” or “domicile”?  “House” may be a simpler word, but it’s more concrete and, therefore, easier to conjure.  Description begins with the real and tangible.  So if you want to evoke a mental picture for your reader, dress your language in plain clothes and ditch the extravagant evening attire.

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