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The Power of Description

Posted on Wednesday, November 28, 2012 at 8:57 PM

Two books that will strengthen your skills.

By Peter Jacobi

Bernadette Esposito, in an essay for The North American Review, describes a crisis in flight:

"As we ascended over the Mediterranean on a routine flight to Paris," she writes, "the engine over which I was seated exploded. It was a systematic and orderly blow. It did not build as in a Berlioz cantata or culminate from a collection of small, meaningless gestures -- a whistle, a hiss, a persistent rattle -- in a cacophony of tearing metal, snapping cables, and shattering glass. It was a noise so full and palpable, so concise and final, that whatever followed I hoped would follow swiftly."

Dan Strickland, in a story for Defenders, published by Defenders of Wildlife, describes a scene in Alaska's Bristol Bay:

"The sockeye salmon breaking the surface in flashes of silver look like giant popping kernels of corn," he writes. "It's July, and the fish are leaping upstream in the millions to spawn.... With the run at its peak, anyone wading in hip boots here can feel the fish hitting and careening off both legs."

Natalie Angier, in a feature for the New York Times, describes the pungency of an animal:

"What's black and white, with a skunkish look to its cover, and from bark wrests such bite it makes lions fall over?," she writes in imperfect rhyme and meter, then adding prose: "Meet the African crested rat, or Lophiomys imhausi, a creature so large, flamboyantly furred, and thickly helmeted it hardly seems a member of the international rat consortium. Yet it is indeed a rat, a deadly dirty rat, its super-specialized pelt permeated with potent toxins harvested from trees."

Peggy Noonan, in a profile for Newsweek, describes its subject, producer Harvey Weinstein:

"He's invariably described," she writes, "as coarse, threatening, given to outbursts, terrifying, and a thug. Boorish and angry are usually in there, too. At the recent Golden Globes, Madonna called him 'the Punisher' and Meryl Streep referred to him as 'God.' The French actors from his critically acclaimed and award-winning film The Artist called him 'Le Boss.' This makes him laugh."

Let's remind ourselves of the importance of description. The above samples are not really of a must-remember sort. They don't wow you. But they're effective. They don't suggest the too-too much or tried-too-hard. They get the job done, providing details designed to insinuate a given subject into the mind and/or heart of the reader, be that subject a wounded airplane, an awesome but potentially troubled vista, an animal to avoid, or a controversial figure in the world of entertainment.

Say What You See

Mark Doty, who divides his time between writing poetry and nonfiction, tells us in his recently published book, The Art of Description, World into Word (Graywolf Press): "It sounds like a simple thing, to say what you see. But try to find words for the shades of a mottled sassafras leaf, or the reflectivity of a bay on an August morning, or the very beginnings of desire stirring in the gaze of someone looking right into your eyes, and it immediately becomes clear that all we see is slippery, nuanced, elusive."

Descriptive writing is difficult. We need to accomplish it without sounding phony, without calling attention to ourselves, without getting in the way of the subject. Doty's compact book bulges with advice and supportive examples. He explains that good descriptions involve "the mind playing over the world of matter, finding there a glass various and lustrous enough to reflect back the complexities of the self that's doing the looking."

And along the way, he offers a warning, not new but important to remember: "Wanting to make the world on the page seem real to the reader, our first impulse is sometimes to reach for adjectives and adverbs, those QUALIFIERS intended to lend a host of sensory qualities to the sentence or the line. But be careful: it's often the case that writers turn to those additives -- like spices in the kitchen -- when the main ingredients themselves seem bland. If the nouns and verbs themselves aren't interesting enough, no amount of adjectival or adverbial flavoring is going to really do the trick."

Rewards of Description

Rebecca McClanahan, in her instructive book, Word Painting, A Guide to Writing More Descriptively (Writer's Digest Books), calls the descriptive process "an exercise in observation."

She pays attention to the rewards of description, what we gain by using it. Among a dozen rewards, she lists that it creates "the illusion of reality, inviting the reader to move in, unpack his bags, and settle in for a spell;" its "sensory detail penetrates layers of consciousness, engaging you reader emotionally as well as intellectually;" those details "can establish your characters and settings quickly and efficiently;" they "can act as gear shifts, changing the pace of your story -- speeding it up or slowing it down, thus increasing the story's tension;" they "can serve as a transitional device, a way of linking scenes or changing time and place;" and they "can provide the palette for gradations in mood and tone."

Be aware that Mark Doty gives great emphasis in his examples to poetry and Rebecca McClanahan in hers to fiction. But these two books offer multiple values, nevertheless. They'll remind you of description's power and assist you in bettering your descriptive skills.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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