Tag Archives: Virginia Woolf

The Weakness Many Writers Don’t Know They Have: Ideas and Models for Describing Places in Your Writing

Many writers have a weakness, but are not aware of it. They fall short when they describe places. Their places don’t seem real and are not vivid Small wooden farm buildings behind a wooden fence on the side of a road with grass and autumn treesor accurate. They are not interesting. Because of an inadequate handling of places, a work that may be superb in every other respect is without convincingly-described locations, scenes, and settings. Descriptions of places are not window dressing that a writer need pay little attention to, but a feature of writing fiction, nonfiction, and drama that is indispensable. Poorly written descriptions of places detract from the quality of the written piece.

When you read a description of place by someone such as Joseph Conrad, Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, or Ernest Hemingway, who has elevated that skill to the level of art, you are impressed. You read the description more than once. You think, “This person can really write.” You realize that giving attention to skillfully composing your book’s or story’s places will enhance the works that you are striving so hard to make readable, enjoyable, salable.

Rust-colored field in front of rust-colored barn and silo with blue sky and pinkish cloudsAward-winning short story specialist Eudora Welty did more than anyone else to point out how central to effective fiction place is. She said that the story’s place affects “all currents” of the work, all of its emotions, beliefs, and moral convictions that “charge out from the story” as the author unfolds it. She said the places should always be identified, and adds that they should be described in a particular way that requires significant writing skills.

They should be described concretely.

They should be described exactly.

To describe places concretely and exactly requires the writer to be patient and take time writing about the places and not dismiss them with a few vague words. It is worthwhile to pay attention to places in works you read so you might learn from them. Don’t hurry through them. Study them. See how they are so skillfully put together.

Look at the places in writing you are working on, especially the work you are submitting to publishers or intend to publish yourself, and make sure places are both concrete and exact.

Some Writers, Poets, and Artists Are Known for Their Places

View of Chicago skyscrapers behind a bridge over the Chicago RiverPlace has been particularly important to some noted authors. You cannot imagine the story’s characters without the place where the author has put them:  Dublin  to James Joyce, small town and rural Mississippi to Eudora Welty and William Faulkner, Paris,  Spain, and Africa to Ernest Hemingway, Camden, Ohio to Sherwood Anderson, southern United States to Truman Capote, James Agee, Reynolds Price, Pat Conroy, and many other “Southern writers,“ the plains of Nebraska to Willa Cather, Chicago to Saul Bellow, the Mississippi River to Mark Twain, the English moors to Charlotte Bronte and sister Emily,  eighteenth century London to Charles Dickens, Mexico and the state of Texas to Katherine Anne Porter,  Los Angeles to mystery writer Raymond Chandler, and so on.

Places are very important to poets too: America is Walt Whitman’s subject, and Patterson, New Jersey is special to William Carlos Williams. And a place may be a favorite subject of painters: his gardens to Claude Monet, the hill visible from his window to Paul Cezanne.

Models

Below are places from my life I have described in stories I’ve written:

A Chicago Alley Late On a Rainy Night When I Was Five

Bungalows on a neighbborhood street with lawns and a sidewalk(My father was an air raid warden during World War II, and once he took me with him during an air raid practice when the lights of the city were turned off and the skies were filled with search lights) “My father and I turned and came up behind the church where a delivery truck was parked. We walked down the alley, keeping our eyes trained on the apartment buildings’ windows, past the empty lot overgrown with weeds and covered with tin cans and newspapers, and past the bent-in-half, arthritic and reclusive witch’s bleak house. Her ferociously unfriendly German shepherds were oddly quiet. We passed the drowsy homes and apartment buildings of neighbors, only some of whose names we knew. Behind the walls of those buildings were people not unlike us, simple people, all with the stories of their lives never to be written.  All shades were drawn, and so the night was perfect, with no more reminders necessary.

My father stopped to look straight up through the drizzle again and then so did I. Between the sweeping beams of the search lights, white stars Wet road with starry-looking street lamps at nightand a full moon dangled in the sky. On the back porches in neat array, like miniature glass sentinels, stood the empty bottles left out for the milk man.  Branches of trees laden with rain bent low over back fences like old women on canes. When the wind blew, the leaves showered the two of us with water, and we laughed. On the ground lay deep puddles that we had no choice but to step through, which was fine with me because I was wearing boots. My father’s shoes made squishing sounds and he said,” Another pair down the drain” and we laughed at that, and I splashed through, heavy-footed.”

Chicago on a Summer Night

“It was a typical August night in the city, a moonlit night that if you lived in that part of the country you knew intuitively would witness a drop in temperature that would turn a blistering hot day cold almost precisely one minute after the stroke of twelve. In the air circulating on a breeze were fish smells from the beaches of Lake Michigan that were coming into view as we walked through a park that had a merry-go-round and Park bench between two trees and sunsetswings. The night had taken on an indefinable splendor and given me a feeling of exquisite peace that I hadn’t felt since childhood. I saw a white yacht that was illuminated by deck lights out on the lake.  Small waves rocked a rowboat that was not very far from me. With a whoosh, waves tumbled over themselves onto a beach.  A bell chimed somewhere on the water. There was a splash and then another. The vivacious woman I was with took off her shirt and bra and swung them over her head like a lasso. She said, “Guess what I do for a living.” I said, “I’ll bet you four million dollars that you are an actress.”

A Bar in a Town in Montana, United States

After we graduated from high school my good friend Nick and I–he eighteen, I seventeen–decided to ride freight trains for a while.  A train heading west came along and we hopped it.

“Down the wide main street and prominently visible from our freight train that had just pulled in, 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. We entered that tumult of sweat and whiskey, amidst the glow of the red bar lights and clouds of floating cigarette 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 saw 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. He turned to us disgusted with his friend, who lay dazed and prone on the floor, people stepping over him, and said, not in any way angry, “He’s always doing that,” and that was the end of that.

Pale blue and brown old cars lined up on grassOld 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 flowing wine.”

The College Town Where I Lived

“… 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 by farmers in wheat fields, and the campus was split in two by a river with an Indian name.”

 

A street with shopsExcellent writers should be able to describe places that they have experienced or have heard or read about and can clearly envision as they compose. They should be able to create vivid descriptions that enliven the text and appeal to the reader’s senses.

 

© 2022 David J. Rogers

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

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Filed under Descriptive Writing, Developing Talent, Human Potential and Achievement, Place, Writing, Writing improvement, Writing models

Pursuit of Perfection in the Arts

Masks representing theater (blue and redActor Lord Laurence Olivier aimed at perfect performances, as did Peter O’Toole, Olivier’s successor as the world’s greatest actor–the perfect performances in the perfect tragedies as the perfect characters–as Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, or Iago. One night Olivier felt that he had achieved perfection in a performance. Others in the cast also told him he had.  He said, “What I’m thinking is I’ve done it, but will I be able to do it again?” Perfection is difficult and rare. It is hard to repeat. It is a concept that grows in importance to artists as their skills and accomplishments ascend to high levels.

In her essay “Dancers and the Dance” Susan Sontag states that dance differs from the other performing arts. The standards which dancers measure their performance against is not that of the highest excellence as it Is with actors, singers, and musicians. Sontag believes that the dancer’s standard is perfection. She says, “Every serious dancer is driven by notions of perfection–perfect expression, perfect technique.”

Sontag says that dance demands more of the dancer than any other art or any sport demands.  She writes, “While the daily life of every dancer is a full-time struggle against fatigue, strain, natural physical limitations and those due to injuries (Which are inevitable) dance itself is an enactment of an energy which must seem, in all respects, untrammeled, effortless, at every moment fully mastered.” When performing, dancers must hide their pain behind a performing smile. Injuries must be hidden. The dancer’s performance smile is “a categorical denial of what he or she is actually experiencing.” Behind the grace of the dancers is much discomfort and pain they endure while training themselves for such performances and while performing.

A male and a female ballet dancersIt is true that serious dancers currently and throughout history have aimed at perfection, but other artists–usually the best in the art, those that are aware that they have a significant talent–also aim for perfection in their work, I believe. Those who do aim for perfection in their novels, musical composition, and paintings and other art works let it be known through their obsessions with their work that they are extremely serious about their art, and are willing to face its challenges with drive and commitment.

The urge for perfection begins, I think, with a niggling, Then the artists become increasingly aware after a number of works have been produced and (usually  but not always) thousands of hours have been put in,  that perfection is within their reach and not merely a remote fantasy–that THEY–Faulkner, Picasso, Stravinsky, Cassatt, Proust, Cezanne, and Virginia Woolf–have  what it takes.

To be an artist seeking perfection you have to possess art-relevant traits that will equip you for a creative life. If your ambition is perfection, and you are not self-critical and self-demanding, you will have problems. The artist aiming to produce perfect works has to be self-critical, always looking for faults in the works and in themselves that will have to be corrected. When Sontag had praised a dancer for a superb performance she heard “a disconsolate litany of mistakes that were made–a beat missed, a foot not pointed in the right way.” Sontag adds: “In no other art can one find a comparable gap between what the world thinks of a star and what the star thinks about himself or herself, between the adulation that pours in from the outside and the relentless dissatisfaction that goads one from within….Part of being a dancer is this cruelly self-punishing objectivity about one’s shortcomings, as viewed from the perspective of an ideal observer, one more exacting than any real spectator could ever be.”

Intense concentration is necessary too if you hope to produce a perfect artistic performance; this is true of every art. All you need do is look at the intensity of the eyes of an artist painting, or a writer at the keyboard to realize that. Everything in the artist’s mind that is not needed for the artistic performance is ignored, and only what the performance requires is brought into attention.  Anyone who produces great works that are the result of the mind in action such as archers, mathematicians, and artists of unrivaled talent like dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov project a state of extreme (yet also relaxed) focus. Sontag says that state is not just something that is necessary for a great performance, but, “It is the performance, the very center of it.”

Painting of Frank SinatraWhen they are watching the performance of a play what the audience hopes to see more than anything else is a virtuoso performance they will not be able to forget however long they live and how many plays they see. The virtuoso performance is the single most exciting and popular feature not only of drama but of any art, and the most thrilling feature of a virtuoso performance is not the possibility that the artist may fail. Rather, it is the spectacle of succeeding in an extraordinary way–a performance that is perfect because it has no errors. All the time I am listening to music as I do all day long or reading a narrative I think is great such as James Joyce’s short story “Araby,” and Frank Sinatra’s rendition of “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” I am thinking, “Keep it up James and Frank. Don’t fail. Continue being great until the story or the song is finished and perfect from the beginning to the end”

Playwright Eugene O’Neill, America’s greatest and most innovative dramatist, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1936.  Long Day’s Journey into Night was his masterpiece. One of his experiments was revealing the characters’ interior  monologue. Another was making the speech of poor, uneducated characters a part of the drama. Another Nobel Prize winner–Saul Bellow–who said that writing was more important than his wife and children–aimed to write perfectly. A third Nobel Prize winner–Ernest Hemingway–made no secret that his aim was to produce perfect works and be the greatest writer in the world. Many critics believe he accomplished that goal. Writer Joan Didion thought his every sentence was written with such craftsmanship that it was perfect.  Many critics, teachers, and writers consider the short stories and plays of Anton Chekhov, the founding father of modern theatre, and the leading prose writer of his era, perfect. It is hard to tell what a Chekhov story or play “means” because he does not judge or clarify meanings; meanings are left to the reader or audience.

Perfection in the arts is always attributable to the personality of the artists that filters through their talent. The artist aiming to produce perfect works must keep the audience clearly in mind. Critic Gilbert Murray said that writers who have the powers of revelation are the ones who have experienced–seen or felt–more than the average run of intelligent beings. Behind every work, whether poor or great, are the tastes and the disposition of the person who created it, as well as a sensitivity to the audience. In the theatre the actor’s aim is through the performance to jolt the members of the audience–to please in a powerful way, to be accepted as though a friend, to lodge securely and permanently in their memory, displacing less important things.

The days and nights of everyday living of the artist seeking perfection must be filled to the brim with their art. More than likely, the artist has grown up with it, seen it mature, and watched it take over a good part of his or her being. Short story master Raymond Carver reflecting on his career put it this way: “conversation was fine, camaraderie was fine, making love was fine, raising a family was okay, but interfered with writing.”

 

© 2019 David J. Rogers

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

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Filed under Actors and Directors, Artistic Perfection, Artists, Composers, concentration, Creativity Self-Improvement, Dancers, Developing Talent, Human Potential and Achievement, Drive, Laurence Olivier, Susan Sontag, Writers