Monthly Archives: April 2021

Writing Vivid Descriptions

Good writers should have an “eye” and an excellent memory of people, places, and events that they have experienced in their lives themselves or have heard or read about and can clearly envision as they compose. They should be able to create vivid descriptions full of images–word pictures–that enliven the text and appeal to the reader’s senses, particularly the sense of sight, but the other senses as well. Descriptions are not window dressing or “filler” that a writer need pay little attention to, but a feature of writing fiction, nonfiction, and drama that is indispensable. Poorly written descriptions detract from the quality of the written piece. On the other hand, exceptional descriptions can compensate for weaknesses in other areas. If there is one quality descriptions should possess it is vividness. Vividness gives writing impact and is memorable.

Woman thinking in sunsetWriting vivid descriptions is a skill writers should strive to refine. Yet it is a weakness of many writers. If your ability to write effective descriptions is lacking it should be worked on vigorously and made a strength. Like painters, writers benefit from maintaining some form of “sketch books,” notebooks to which the writer adds descriptions that could be incorporated into a final text later. Anton Chekhov, master of masters of the short story, referred to “images and scenes which are precious to me and which for some reason I carefully saved and put aside.” Whenever a particularly potent and useful description comes to mind, don’t waste it. Write it down in the notebook before you forget it.

Descriptions are an integral part of the written piece, serving a major role of evoking an atmosphere, a mood, a spirit of a person or places, and establishing a tone and a setting. American writer Stephen Crane was influenced by French Impressionism painting and made it a point to include colors in his descriptions whereas Ernest Hemingway often mentioned the weather in his. Chekhov wrote 588 pieces. He was all business when he wrote them, wasting no words. He did not consider descriptions less important than plots, and his descriptions stand out.

Good writers with a talent for language often find pleasure in writing effective descriptions in an appealing style that readers sometimes find the feature of the piece they remember most. Anyone seriously interested in literary description will probably find their way to the writings of Joseph Conrad and be spellbound.

The following are examples of vivid descriptions from my own writing:

 

Sudden Storm

It was summer, and in summer the lake, so much a part of our childhood, was always inviting. That day the two of us –my sister Sharon, eight, and I, ten– inhabited our bodies with inexpressible joy. She was on the shore holding my hand. I was standing in the water. Suddenly a wind Big wavepicked up. Into the air fluttered two hundred gulls with noisy wings. Above us clouds raced each other headlong across the coal black sky. Onto the shore crashed a procession of liquid walls–white-crested, angled slightly off to the south where blocks of limestone twenty feet high lay as if dropped from the heavens by gods. The magnificent waves rose–hills of water that seemed to pause, suspended for a moment at their peak as though they could rise no higher, and then crumbled and broke on the shore like a multitude of shattered stars. The spume spread and undertows slid back like shears below the breakers. Wave upon wave upon wave upon wave rose, lunged, and plunged like a field of gray-green wheat bowing under the wind. Just a moment before there had been not a breeze, not a breath of wind. But now all the wind in the world seemed to be concentrated on that strip of earth. It was a lion of a wind unleashed, untamed, cool, cold, with a sparkle, bite, and sting–many winds in fact, one gust coming, ending, another coming, another waiting–bringing pouring in to us the odors of water, of fish, and of the wind itself. The hoarse roar of the foaming waves filled all the air with the sounds of artillery.  Trees on the shore bent as though made of rubber and our drenched bodies glistened.

Everything in our field of vision was in motion–beach umbrellas pulled out of the sand and hurled west, end over end into the high grass where frightened field mice must have cowered in terror. Unattended blankets were lifted up like magic carpets and whipped skyward. Trees shook. Grass was flattened as though pressed by an iron. The canopies of the concession stands snapped. Bathers to our left and right and further up the beach gathered their blankets and loose clothes, and children sprinted with their parents for the shelter of the beach house. Sharon and I lay flat on the ground clutching the earth with our hands and raised our heads and watched men dragging row boats higher up onto the beach away from the waves, leaving behind ruts in the sand: such things making this one day permanent in our minds. Thirty years later when Sharon was dying, that was the childhood day she remembered best.

 

Where I Live

It is a very nice little Midwestern American town, clean and peaceful. To the east, on the shores of Lake Michigan, the houses are very grand, elegant, and old, and the streets are lined with magnificent trees.  The library is in the middle of town next to the town sculpture and City Hall and a rose garden and a facsimile of the log cabin of the first resident.

When you ride the commuter trains up from downtown Chicago, thirty miles south, the uniformed conductors, assembled like partridges in little talkative groups beside their waiting trains, tell each other one last lie, sometimes involving women who come alive only at midnight on Saturdays. Then the train leaps from the dark, oil-reeking station and you, a passenger,  look out the window and see the lines of office and factory workers on the streets and an urban panorama of gray back porches cluttered with terracotta flower-pots and bicycles and broken washing machines. Leaning over the railings of the porches are people–not all of them poor–with the great mournful eyes of cats. The light of day falls dramatically on them, particularly at the moment the sunlight fades and becomes evening, and you find yourself wondering if it is possible these people you can see with your own eyes but will never meet are happy. Disappearing behind you, the wilderness of massive structures towers into the sky as if put there to hold up the clouds.

 

Youth’s Nights of Happiness: Night Of The College Dance

(Reprinted from my short story “The Kiss,” DuPage Valley Review.)

college town“Young couples sitting on benches held each other, kissed, and heard the melancholy saxophone through the open windows of the gymnasium. Past a grove of gray trees, out on the lagoon, among mallards drifting on the water like leaves and bull frogs hidden in the shadows like thieves, students in row boats whose oars dangled free and made little splashing sounds, lay back, their bodies warm and glowing under light blankets. Contented, they were looked down upon by a pageantry of stars that seemed so close together that a finger wouldn’t fit between them. And while laughter floated like smoke through the night, they spoke of the incredible deeds they would one day perform.”

 

The College Town Where I Lived

The night of the dance, I remember, was perfect too–that crispness of Midwest autumn, a small drowsy college set in a little town of narrow, winding cobblestone streets crowded with lovely old gnarled oaks, maples, and sycamores and wild, untrimmed hedges. Pinnacles, domes, and spires of church towers, like the great cathedrals of Europe, rose gradually and wonderfully and were visible everywhere. In the yards, along crumbling stone fences sprouting moss, lichens, and ferns, were an abundance of rose gardens that were sadly withered at that time of year. The town was surrounded on all sides by tractors and threshers left overnight in wheat fields, and the campus was split in two by a river with an Indian name.

 

Riding Freight Trains

(The day after we graduated from high school my friend Nick and I–he eighteen, I seventeen–talked it over in a corner drug store and decided to ride freight trains for a while: college could wait. We took a bus to the Chicago city limit and walked behind a billboard and across an empty lot to a little train yard. A freight train came by and we hopped it, heading due west where we hoped adventures we couldn’t tell our parents about waited.)

 

At The Welcome Inn, Wyoming

Down the wide main street and prominently visible from our freight train, the alluring green neon sign of the Welcome Inn burned brightly. It was a small, squat, one-story square log building that night and day hummed and trembled with pulsing music and in which who knew what went on. But we were curious to find out. This was our second visit. The first time through we had entered that tumult of sweat and whiskey, amidst the glow of the red bar light and clouds of floating smoke, and stood at the bar next to a tattooed woman snapping a bull whip and wearing a black satin cape with shining red lining and had seen a man with a chin scar and an eye-patch get angry and pull a pistol on another man. The second man took the gun away from the first and slugged him over the head with it. He turned to us disgusted with his friend, who lay dazed and prone on the floor, people stepping over him, and said, “He’s always doing that,” and that was the end of that.

Old cars with dented fenders and gaudy garters dangling on their rear-view mirrors and pick-up trucks with rifle racks cradling ominous shotguns and carbines were parked four deep in the lot. When the door of the Inn swung open, muscular men, their shirt sleeves rolled up above the bicep, sauntered out arrogantly, their arms tight around the waists of conspicuously made-up women, their heads thrown back in exaltation and abandon, and the chime of laughter spilled into the night like water.

 

 

My Childhood: Rag Man

(Adapted from “Edgewater” that appeared in East on Central magazine)

Keeping to no particular schedule other than it be daylight nearing early evening, the old gray nameless Rag Man came down our alley. He appeared to be a rag himself–sitting high atop a large, heavy-laden, horse-drawn, creaking wagon stacked with old lamps, washboards,  card tables, vacuum cleaners, newspapers,  pots and pans, and such. His loud gruff voice preceded him by half a block as he bellowed “Rags, old iron” as though we were all asleep in bed and needed to be woken. As the wagon approached, you heard, faintly at first, and then more purely, the rhythmic clomp, clomp, clomp, clomp of the shod hooves of the old gray horse. Its head hung low and swayed to the rhythm of its plodding gait. Passive, not straining or wrenching at the reins, it would lift its head with majesty and shake its harness chains vigorously and musically. But uncomfortably. Then you heard its snorts as it struggled futilely with its bit. You noticed its huge bulbous brown eyes, glazed with an expression of weariness and pitiful sorrow. You noticed too the sunlight shimmering off the sweat coating its flanks and the twitching muscles of its legs and rump shaking flies away. How can I forget–how could you forget were you there too–that elegant parade of a rattling wagon, Rag Man, and Rag Man’s horse?

 

My Dear Father and Me

Man and boy walking along water's edgeThere was a tenderness and manly sweetness in my father’s manner, and too, the restraint of a gentlemanly politeness and natural shyness about speaking of things that moved him most profoundly, and which I knew indisputably he felt toward me, as I did toward him.

 

The Silent Coal-Shoveler

(Appeared in Muses Gallery)

Sometime before the cruel, cold Chicago winter days came each year, the coal-shoveler would appear in the alley. I would walk past him and his pile of coal on the way to school. When I returned home, the coal was gone and the coal-shoveler–his work done–was gone too,

Behind the apartment buildings, beside a pile of coal a story high, toils the always silent, always alone, never-speaking, never-grunting, never-complaining, muscular black coal-shoveler. From chilly dawn, all day long while I am at school or at the playground, in the alley behind my house, that cadenced scrape of his shovel between coal and pavement can be heard, and the coal thumping, tumbling, like pieces of thunder down the wooden chute into a dark, cool cellar.

 

These are some of the descriptions that I first wrote in a notebook and later incorporated in longer pieces. Among other pleasures, descriptions give the writer a chance to play–to play with similes and metaphors and other  expressive  words.

 

© 2021 David J. Rogers

For my interview from the international teleconference with Ben Dean about Fighting to Win, click the following link:

Interview with David J. Rogers

 

Order Fighting to Win: Samurai Techniques for Your Work and Life eBook by David J. Rogers

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31 Prescriptions for Serious Writers

“Writing a novel is a painful and bloody process that takes up all your free time, haunts you in the darkest hours of night, and generally culminates in a lot of weeping over an ever-growing pile of rejection letters. Every novelist will have to go through this at least once and in some cases many times before they are published, and since publication itself brings no guarantee of riches or plaudits, it’s not unreasonable to ask what sort of a person would subject himself to such a thing” (Alice Adams).

Prescriptions:

Have a strong belief in and respect and enthusiasm for writing. To many serious writers writing is the central activity of their lives: no other activity compares. It is probably true that the majority of people, young or old or in between, don’t like to write. But there is just something about the act of writing that people struck by the writing bug find irresistible. Many aspiring writers wait all day for the half hour between putting a child to bed and sleep when at last they are free to pound away at a keyboard.

Be patient because all writers who reach high excellence in their craft will have done so via a long, sustained period of learning and application. P.G. Wodehouse wrote that “Success comes to a writer, as a rule, so gradually that it is always something of a shock to him to look back and realize the heights to which he has climbed.” “If the promising writer keeps on writing—writes day after day, month after month…he will begin to catch on” (John Gardner.)

Fountain pen on an open book Have a need for self-expression and self-disclosure. Good writers reveal themselves in their work. Readers want writers to reveal themselves. A novel, for example, enables authors to convey a wealth of information that expresses them.  Your writing, even the way you turn a phrase and the metaphors you use (why did you use an image of a fish then instead of a train?) and your vocabulary and points of view, tell the reader what you’re like. Writers have a need to discover exactly what they are thinking by writing it out, and then to artfully communicate it to the reader who wants to know.

Be more self-disciplined in matters concerning your work than most people in other fields .Success in writing is largely a matter of discipline.

Learn to overcome boredom and fatigue, particularly through positive self-talk and physical conditioning. .

Sacrifice for the sake of your writing. Anton Chekhov said, “It is difficult to combine the desire to live with the desire to write.” In A Moveable Feast Hemingway wrote, “On Thursday I was…feeling virtuous because I had worked well and hard on a day when I wanted to go to the races very badly.” For some writers writing is more important than their family.  The family goes to the zoo; they stay home and write. “Generally (Eugene) O’Neill elected to lead an existence completely removed from what the great majority of people would call life, It was centered on, was focused on, organized around work” (Malcolm Cowley). Toni Morrison didn’t do anything but write, to the exclusion of everything else.

Take pride in your extraordinary writer’s memory nature has equipped you with. Your writer’s imagination depends so much on remembering what you’ve heard about, read about, or seen. Whatever happens to writers they never forget it, but store it for future use. Katherine Anne Porter said, “We spend our lives making sense of the memories of the past.” Writers must have a gift to remember sensations and images that were experienced at times many years earlier and to relive them in their original freshness and vividness. Not just memories, but detailed memories: “Thus the greatest poets are those with memories so great that they extend beyond their strongest experiences to their minutest observations of people and things” (English poet Stephen Spender). A writer may not be able to remember a telephone number or to pick up a dozen eggs at the store, but will never all his life forget the expression on his mother’s face as she came in the door that particular day. He has a perfect memory for that. Memory is a writer’s workshop.

drawing of a hand with a penPossess extraordinary energy. No outstanding writing achievement has ever been produced without hard work. One of Joyce Carol Oates’ novels had 5,000 pages of notes. When writers are functioning at their best they work at white heat for an hour, a month, or years. Creative people don’t run out of steam.  Their enthusiasm doesn’t wane very long.

Don’t spend your time working on easy problems. Good serious writers work on problems that are hard for them because they’re stimulated by things that are difficult. They not only solve problems, they create them because when they solve those they make progress and become better writers. That’s how they create work that no one has seen the likes of before and expands their abilities at the same time. A major intuitive skill effective problem-solving writers have developed is being able to identify the specific point to approach the crux of the problem.

Be resilient and able to overcome obstacles and to persevere. Many writers persist however difficult the physical and mental effort of pursuing their goal might be. “Creative people are those who are more willing to redefine the ways in which they look at problems, to take risks, to seek to overcome daunting obstacles, and to tolerate ambiguity even when its existence becomes psychologically painful.” (Scott Barry Kaufman and James Kaufman)

Enjoy writing’s sweat factor and be able to produce tremendous amounts of work. Writers–creatives–love to work. Production is the writer’s main goal. Usually the greatest writers are also the most prolific.  Cynthia Ozick said, “There is a definite relationship between being major and having a profusion of work to show. You could write one exquisite thing, but you would never be considered more than a minor writer.”  Thomas Wolfe sometimes wrote 5,000 words in a night. Georges Simenon who was capable of writing 60 to 80 pages per day, produced 200 novels, 150 novellas, autobiographical works, numerous articles and scores of pulp novels under two dozen pseudonyms. Ray Bradbury took two hours to write a poem, half a day to finish a short story, and nine days to write a novel.

Strive for the fullest development of your skills. Developing skills leads to competence, then to expertise, then excellence, then greatness. If you feel you have the skills, you’re less likely to be haunted by self-doubt and your writing will flow more freely.

Young man typing on a laptopHave a strong concern for your technique and style. The reader isn’t meant to notice a writer’s technique, but other writers are aware of it immediately. The first thing you notice about writers is their style. Toni Morrison said that “getting a style is about all there is to writing fiction.” An appealing style is so important to a writer that writers joke about it:, ”If you are getting the worst of it in an argument with a literary man, always attack his style. That’ll touch him if nothing else will” (J.A. Spender).

Maintain an artistic vision and heightened perception. To writers the world is inexhaustibly rich with aesthetic potential. There are dimensions of reality they are sensitive to that other people overlook, perceptions of what might be called “hidden reality.” It’s the business of the writer, who has the creator’s faith that they are seeing a true reality, to find, collect, and communicate that reality in their work. Eugene O’Neill: “I am a dramatist…What I see everywhere in life is drama.”

Have a capacity for self-criticism and objectivity about your work and your abilities. Writers must learn to lay their egos aside as they would any other impediment.

Be sensitive to life and open to experience. Insatiably curious, writers plumb what is outside them in the world and their own thoughts, sensations, and emotions.  They are not afraid of what ogres they might discover in the world they write about or in themselves.

Be what you are: more self-confident, rebellious than the vast majority of people. Writers who lose their youthful rebelliousness are in danger of losing their talent as well.

Have a large tolerance for ambiguity–larger than the great majority of people. That’s one reason writers are generally such effective problem-solvers.

Be restless because you can’t help but be. Writers often move on to other projects just when what they’ve accomplished becomes clear. (Months may pass, years may pass, but be sure to get back to your project and finish it.) The first stanza of a poem by Wordsworth may have been written 28 years before the last stanza was written.

Strive for competence and constant improvement. Writers are never content very long. They are guided by a persistent willingness to write with more expressive power.

Value independence. Writers must be allowed to move unrestrained in their own direction under their own power. No voice should be more persuasive than the writer’s internal voice saying “X is the truth I must pursue.”

Spend a lot of your time alone. Most successful writers would agree with historian Arthur M. Schlesinger that “everything that matters in our intellectual and moral life begins with an individual confronting his own mind and conscience in a room by himself.” Writers often prefer solitude over socializing.

Have the ability to focus. Creative people often learn at an early age that they will achieve more if they focus their efforts on one area rather than dividing them among a variety of pursuits. Writers are capable of intense concentration, losing all sense of time and place, conscious only of the work before them. They will let nothing divert them from accomplishing it. Gustave Flaubert said that only writing mattered to him, and that he kept all his other passions locked up in a cage, visiting them now and then for diversion. Focusing is intense. Emily Dickinson said that if she felt physically as if the top of her head was taken off, she knew that was poetry.

Be playful and value the simple and the unaffected. Writers are in love with simplicity and bring to mind a Chinese proverb: “A truly great man never puts away the simplicity of a child.”

Computer, cup of coffee, and woman's hands writing in a notebookBe able to muster an abundance of physical strength and stamina. Often it’s the end of writers’ endurance that stops their working day. Novelist Thomas Wolfe would turn in manuscripts a million words long . He claimed that the physical demands on the writer made the writer’s life seem to him to be the hardest life man has ever known.

Adapt and make adjustments. An experienced writer has learned when to stop and begin again when something isn’t working.

Be studious in the sense of studying to develop your craft. All writers study and all are self-taught to a greater or lesser degree. Composers and fine artists are likely to have been taught by masters; writers are likely to have taught themselves.

Establish rapport with readers. Your writing is always for someone–yourself certainly. But also the audience, the reader. Skilled writers are aware of whom they are writing for and establish rapport with them within the first few sentences of the work.

Take luck, the breaks, and good or bad fortune into account. Good luck often follows persistence. A failure or wrong direction or bad luck may lead to something fruitful later on. A “wrong” word in a sentence may prove to be the perfect word.

Pencils, pens, markers and other writing toolsHave or develop a business sense. You have a career to manage and responsibilities and expenses. Study marketing and salesmanship–read. Take business classes.

Feel deeply; be emotionally rich. Writing, like music, must convey emotion–from sorrow to joy and everything between. Writers have strong feelings. For example, they often have fiery tempers.

 

If I asked you what you think are the qualities that it’s most important for writers to possess, how would you answer?

I, myself, would begin with “hard worker.”

 

© 2021 David J. Rogers

For my interview from the international teleconference with Ben Dean about Fighting to Win, click the following link:

Interview with David J. Rogers

 

Order Fighting to Win: Samurai Techniques for Your Work and Life eBook by David J. Rogers

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