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.
Writing 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:
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 picked 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.)
“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
There 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
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