For years I have been a writer, an editor and a teacher of creative writing. Now I want to share some of what I have learned along the way. Write On The Fringes is a blog about the dangers, the disappointments and the rewards of writing. It's a record of the writing of a novel, from the tantalising first inklings of an idea, through to the final draft. But above all it's an exploration of the art and the craft of writing and the nature of story, as well as a search for the essence of creativity and the complex nature of truth.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Describing Place and Self

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.’
Anton Chekhov

Despite the fact that I had always carried the knowledge within me that I would one day become a writer, for many years I also believed that I couldn’t write, or at least that I was incapable of producing any writing of value. Not surprisingly, this caused a deep conflict within me and some confusion. Looking for the reasons behind this fundamental lack of faith in my own ability, I could cite low self-confidence or even low self-worth, and to a certain extent this was true. However, the real reason can be found in the word ‘value’. I believed that I could not produce anything of ‘value’ because I was quick to measure my abilities against those authors I read and often loved in high school. My schooling had given me a clear sense of what was valuable and what wasn’t. Maths and Science were valuable, while Art and English were not. And in English, the subject I was most drawn to, some authors were valuable while others were not. At the time I didn’t question these hierarchical constructions. I reveled in the glorious language of the authors I was studying, and in the process became deeply engaged in exploring the underlying meanings of texts and excited by their philosophical and spiritual explorations. Yet, while enjoying these texts I also came to believe that I was not a good writer because I couldn’t match D H Lawrence’s vocabulary, the intensity of his passion or the richness of his descriptions; Shakespeare’s depth of understanding was beyond me, and while the philosophy of Euripides was tantalisingly wise, I was too young to embrace it.

I was only able to liberate myself from this belief when I began to understand that the depth of meaning I was seeking was not found in language itself but in the spells we cast with words, spells which create stories that reflect our experience and in the process enable us to access a deeper knowledge. During the long process of letting go of my expectations, I discovered that sometimes the simplest writing speaks the most profoundly and that crafting a story is as valuable as writing vivid descriptions. As Robert McKee wrote, in Story, ‘you may have the insight of a Buddha, but if you cannot tell a story, your ideas turn dry as chalk’. Over time I found my own voice as a writer and with that, my own place in the spectrum of storysmith versus wordsmith. Right in the middle. This has proved to be both a blessing and a curse, as my writing bridges commercial and literary genres, leaving publishers at a loss when deciding their marketing approach. Yet despite having liberated myself from the misguided belief that for novel writers, description is more important than story, and despite having my novels published, I am still astounded when reviewers and readers comment (as they sometimes do) on the powerful evocation of landscape in my novels or the vivid depictions of characters.

Description is one of the fundamental elements in storytelling. It is a tool or a technique and over time I have learned how to use it. As with any technique of writing, description is both a craft which can be learned and an art which can only be discovered. Description has a function or a number of functions and should be used purposefully.  It grounds and sets the story in place and time, builds character, mood, tension and suspense, shifts pace, adds plausibility, provides metaphors and deepens thematic exploration. In any story there is also a balance that should be sought, between action, reflection and description. Too little description and the story remains floating, ungrounded. Too much description and the story threads become lost. As Stephen King wrote in, On Writing, ‘description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.’ When and how to use description, and how much to use, is something we can only learn through trial and error.

It is not always possible or even desirable to separate the art and the craft of description, as the art is fed by an understanding of the craft. We can only access the art of description by inhabiting the scene we are writing, by living, breathing and tasting it, and by grasping its subtleties. What more is this scene trying to tell us? How might it act as metaphor, as an expression of a universal truth, a human emotion, a philosophical idea? The art of description lies in what we make of a scene rather than what we observe. Powerful description suggests so much more than the words themselves. Powerful description layers and deepens our stories and their themes.

V. S Naipul once wrote, ‘Land is not land alone, something that simply is itself. Land partakes of what we breathe into it, is touched by our moods and memories.’ A reminder perhaps, that it is not possible to be objective in our descriptions when even the decision to include or exclude information is a subjective one. What we see inevitably changes according to our mood and our memory. We see what we feel and we interpret what we see through our emotions, our memory and the ideology which frames us and forms us. The way we describe the world is a political act, always subjective yet more often than not, heralding itself as objective. Yet most of the time it is unconscious. Most of us can only see the world in the way we expect to see it, limited and framed by our ideology, by our personal and cultural history, by our understandings. Perhaps it is enough to be aware of the restrictions within which we interpret and describe the world, in order to begin breaking free of these restrictions. In any case, it is certainly useful to be aware of these restrictions in order to make use of them when we describe the world through the eyes of our character/s.

If we describe how ugly someone is but neglect to notice the beauty of their expression, then we have missed an opportunity to deepen a character and extend our understanding further.  If we describe walking into a beautiful landscape that is filled with the stench of death or sewerage, we would most certainly need to call on our other senses in order to explore the contradictions and build tension into our story.  We see, feel, touch, taste, smell and intuit the world around us (see Writing Between Worlds – Describing the Indescribable), and recording these sensations helps us to bring our stories to life on the page. We also react to our environment, and those reactions are personal as well as cultural. Stepping out into the cold may be exhilarating for one person and terrifying for another, particularly if that person carries a traumatic memory that relates to the cold, or is being exiled from home, or simply, doesn’t have warm clothes. Returning to a childhood home or an old school will arouse different emotions in us, according to the memories we carry from our earlier time in these places. One person sitting on an outcrop of rocks, high up on a hill, might experience a peaceful summer’s day, the warm air sitting calmly in the valleys below, friendly voices calling out to each other, the smell of cut hay, sheep dung. . . yet another person sitting on that same rocky outcrop, might experience a day full of sinister overtones, the shadows in the valley too dark, the voices of others harsh and unfriendly, the sun burning. . . Through considering emotion, reaction and memory as well as the physical characteristics of a place, we can begin to build the tensions, the conflicts and the contradictions that will feed out story and make our characters plausible.  

In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott wrote that ‘metaphors are a great language tool, because they explain the unknown in terms of the known.’  With metaphor we find ways of stepping beyond the limitations of language, of expressing meaning without reverting to cliché or telling the reader what really needs to be shown. If we describe a tiny plant struggling to grow through a crack in a concrete pavement in a busy city street, it tells us something about the power of nature over what is man-made. It also tells us about persistence and reminds us that strength doesn’t always lie in might. Perhaps too, it might tell us about a child growing up in a loveless family.

Nature acts as a powerful metaphor in storytelling. As Jung wrote in The Integration of the Personality, ‘all the mythological occurrences of nature, such as summer and winter, the phases of the moon, the rainy seasons. . . are symbolic expressions for the inner and unconscious psychic drama that becomes accessible to human consciousness by way of projection – that is, mirrored in the events of nature.’ In my novel, Flight, a journey into the wilderness in Tasmania is a metaphor for a journey inwards into the labyrinthine depths of the unconscious. Describing natures seasons in our stories also provides a deeper layer of meaning that links the cycles of nature to human experience, a link that reminds us of our connection to all life, and allows us to access and express universal truths.

We use description to provide information, to slow the pace, to build tensions, to provide texture, to break up monotony, to establish mood, ambiance and theme. But most importantly, description is a powerful tool that when used well, enhances and deepens our writing, helping us to create a convincing setting that transports the reader into the world of the story, enabling them to suspend disbelief until the end. Description isn’t easy but mastering it is worthwhile and rewarding. And the key to that mastery is in capturing detail, seeking simile or metaphor and avoiding self-indulgence. 

Copyright (c) 2013 by Rosie Dub. All rights reserved. You may translate, link to or quote this article, in its entirety, as long as you include the author name and a working link back to this website: