Saturday, September 15, 2007

Yes, It's a Tree; WHAT ELSE Is Important?

I'm back. No, I'm not dead. Marking took over my life for a bit there, as did procrastinating and prevaricating and running with scissors. I was going to write this entry last Friday, at which point a new character leapt full-grown into my comic strip and demanded that I pay attention to her. She had better be bloody well worth it; that's all I can say.*

However, here I finally am, whether you like it or not. It's time to talk about the descriptive mode.

Unless you are stuck in a first-year essay-writing course, you may never have to write an entirely descriptive essay. First-year essay-writing courses are famous for forcing students to learn types of essay writing they are never going to use again and skimming over types of essay writing they are. However, learning how to write a good description is not a useless endeavour. There are descriptive elements in most essays. Students excel at writing extremely bad descriptions, and most of them probably have absolutely no idea why their markers are constantly scribbling "Vague," "Wordy," "Inaccurate," and "Could you elaborate...?" in their margins. The truth is that a mastery of concise, accurate description can improve both an individual paper and a writer's rhetorical skills in general.

Description is an important element of fiction, but it is also essential to non-fiction. Descriptions of processes, objects, people, and works of art are often necessary if a writer wants to give his audience background on his chosen subject; some essays do assume that the audience is familiar with the subject at hand, but those that don't can rely on description to fill the gaps in the reader's understanding. This gap-filling does not substitute adequately for first-hand knowledge; no matter how accurately a writer describes a sculpture, the image she creates in her reader's mind is probably going to differ at least slightly from the real thing. A picture is worth a great deal more than a thousand words. Nonetheless, if a thousand words is what you've got, you had better learn to use them as best you can.

Here is a picture I took myself a month or so ago. I do not know the name of the person in it, though I do know that she is 1) an astrophysicist and 2) braver than I am. Pretend, for a moment, that I have asked you to describe this picture to me:

A lot of people would describe the photograph as follows:

A person is sitting on a log between two cliffs.

Gosh. You've got me there. A person is indeed sitting on a log between two cliffs. Ta-da. End of story. Can we go home now?

No. We. Can't.

If I walked up to you and said, "Picture a person sitting on a log between two cliffs," would you imagine this exact photograph?** Would your imaginary "person" be positioned just like the real one? Would this person be male or female? Dressed or undressed? In the foreground or in the background? Clear or hard to see? How big would the log be? What would the cliffs look like? Would they be close together or far apart? Would there be anything else in the picture? Trees? Moss? Sky? Where would the light be coming from? What season would it be?

The art of description depends quite a lot on the art of seeing: of noticing not just what is there but how it appears in relation to what surrounds it. Looking and seeing are two different things entirely. We tend to take in general details and edit out specific ones; many of us*** have a hard time recognising even people we have met recently or see frequently when these people appear in unfamiliar contexts. When I go to draw a particular scene, I like to have it in front of me because I know that no matter how well I think I know it, if I try to draw it from memory, I will leave something out.

Yet to write in the descriptive mode, you have to work against the impulse to edit out details. You may have the object you are describing in front of you; your reader won't. Your objective is to create a strong, lasting, and relatively accurate impression in his mind. You actually want to show him whatever you are describing.

There are many ways to accomplish this sort of thing; different ones are called for in different situations. The two main branches of the descriptive mode are the subjective and objective forms of description. Both are useful, and both can cause the reader to form vivid impressions of the object of the description. However, they have different purposes.

An objective description of the photograph above might be:

The picture was taken by someone standing in a gorge; the camera points up between two dark grey cliffs. The cliff on the left extends about a third of the way into the photograph. It has moss growing sparsely on its lower portions. The cliff on the right also extends about a third of the way into the photograph, and the way the light is striking it makes its extreme rightmost portion appear light green. The tops of both cliffs are visible; the left-hand one is silhouetted against a white sky, but the right-hand one gives way to a canopy of bright green leaves belonging to several trees growing from the top of it. One thick branch extends from the right-hand cliff to the left-hand cliff. It forks about halfway across the gorge. In respect to the frame of the photograph, this branch appears about a third of the way from the top of the picture. Smaller branches, covered with leaves, surround this larger limb. In the distance, extending along the right-hand cliff-top, are many other trees, though they seem to blur into one another. About a third of the way from the bottom of the photograph--behind the extended tree limb but in front of the trees in the distance--is a log that bridges the gap between the cliffs. It seems to be about the breadth of the waist of the person sitting on it. She is framed against the white sky; the light is behind her, making her difficult to see clearly. However, the proportions of her body--large hips and slender arms--argue that she is female. She is straddling the log quite close to the left-hand cliff (perhaps three-quarters of the log is behind her to the right and another quarter ahead of her to the left). Her head is obscured by a clump of leaves, but she appears to be looking towards the left-hand cliff. Her legs swing free, and her left arm--the only one visible--extends slightly ahead of her and down to where her hand (hidden behind her left leg) may grip the log. She is wearing dark blue knee-length trousers and a white sleeveless shirt.

I could go on (about the cliffs, the trees, the exact position of the moss, etc.). I could describe this scene so thoroughly that you wouldn't even want to see the picture. However, I think we've got enough to work with.

Notice that the objective description relies entirely on the writer's observations: not his interpretations or speculations, but his observations. When he is not sure exactly what he sees, he explores why (for instance, note the bit in the passage above where the writer discusses the human figure's obscured head). His observations have no particular emotion behind them; they are as unbiased and neutral as possible. He is painting his word-picture through accuracy of observation. In fact, his main objective is to be as accurate as possible.

Yet the above description is pretty bloody boring. I just proofread it, and I zoned out five or six times in the process. Its relative accuracy would help someone who needed to paint the scene; it would make everybody else throw the description violently against the wall.

A subjective description provides a vivid impression of whatever is being described through the object's personal relation to the writer. A subjective description of the scene in the photograph above might be:

There were three of us in the gorge when I snapped this photo of Liane's friend crossing from one cliff to another on a log bridge. Only the friend is visible here, but there were others on either side of the cliff, egging her on and warning her back. We stood and watched apprehensively as the girl--seemingly fearlessly--scooted across to safety. She was dressed in a white shirt and blue pants, and she appeared to us outlined against a white sky and a spreading canopy of leaves. The dark, damp cliffs loomed over us, throwing us into shadow while the girl sat in the sun, her legs dangling into the empty air. My camera caught the one moment of danger; then she was gone, safe beyond our sight, and we were left hearing the others laugh above us as we gazed at the trees and the sky.

Here the writer, in describing the photograph, speaks of the experience of taking it. Many details are left out, but she still creates a version of the scene that will leave an impression on the mind of the reader: she mentions the perspective from which the photo was taken, the position of the girl on the log, the presence of the trees, the colour of the sky and the darkness of the cliffs, and so on. However, she also gives details that relate, personally, to her interpretation of the scene. She says she and the others are watching "apprehensively" and that the girl is crossing the bridge "seemingly fearlessly"; she feels that the girl is in "danger" and later "safe"; she describes the cliffs as "looming" (personification: cliffs do not, in reality, "loom"); she keeps drawing our attention to her own position down in the gorge, though she herself does not appear in the photograph. Because she is describing the original event itself, she can also access details that the writer of the objective description cannot: for instance, the sounds of her friends' words to the girl. She also focusses on the girl, giving only a brief impression of her surroundings. The objective writer starts at the edges of the photograph and works in towards the middle; he might also have chosen to start at the left and move right or at the top and move down. He does not privilege one element of the photo over another. The subjective writer does.

This passage is more vivid than the other because it offers the writer's personal connection to the scene. However, it is also less exact. Though it leaves the reader with a clear mental picture, it is a picture of the writer as much as it is of the scene. A painter who created the photograph from the above description would probably come up with something whose details differed from those of the original, though the subject--and the spirit--of the picture would remain intact.

When you are writing a description, you need to negotiate between objectivity and subjectivity. Sometimes one is more appropriate than the other. Sometimes you need a mixture of both. Circumstances dictate what sort of description you need to write. However, in an essay-writing situation, it is usually safer to err on the side of objectivity. "That girl looks almost exactly like my aunt" may be an extremely accurate description that would hold great meaning for someone who knew your aunt. Someone who didn't would find it subjective to the point of uselessness. You are not describing the girl for your own benefit. Even if you are writing a largely subjective description of her, you should go on to explain how the girl looks almost exactly like your aunt. In the process, you will cover the details of her appearance, and even people who have never met your aunt will be able to picture her.

Be aware that comparing anything to anything else can be useful but also dangerous. "A ukelele looks like a small guitar with four strings" will give many people a pretty good idea of a ukelele's appearance...but not those who have never seen a guitar. Don't get complacent and assume that others' experiences are identical to yours.

Another mistake that writers sometimes make is to forget that the good old axiom "Show, don't tell"**** does not simply apply to short stories. Take the following "description":

Robert was angry.

We all know what it means to be angry, right? When you're angry, you smash china figurines in the fireplace and rant about how much you hate your mother.

...Or you close doors very gentle and firmly behind you, and when you speak, your voice comes out in a flat, dead-sounding tone.

...Or you smile and pretend to be delighted while you clench your fists so hard that your knuckles whiten.

...Or you bottle it all up inside and let loose hours later in a profanity-laden e-mail to your sister.


"Angry" is an abstract word. It means something slightly different to every person who uses it. "Beautiful," "huge," "contemptible," "soft," "terrified," "horrible," "ridiculous": all of them are telling words, not showing words. A planet can be huge. So can a house. So, in fact, can an ant...compared to other ants. Some people see flowers or trees when they think of "beauty"; others see certain types of women; yet others see guitars or buildings or eighteenth-century shoes. If you want to describe Robert's anger, describe it. Tell your readers what he does or says or looks like. As a description, "Robert was angry" has about as much value as "The building was tall." Angry in what way? How tall? Compared to what? If you use an abstract term, follow it up with an explanation.

As well, don't forget that you actually have five senses, not one. If you describe the bleeding hell out of an alpine meadow but forget to mention the smell, you are neglecting an essential element of the scene. Such an omission is just as serious as the one a student of mine made when she described the yellow flowers in a painting but forgot to mention the human figure in the foreground. Give the reader the whole picture, not simply the portion of it you noticed when you were only looking and not seeing.

A good example of a description that successfully mixes subjective and objective elements to create a memorable picture in the reader's mind is this passage from Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White (1860):

My first glance round me, as the man opened the door, disclosed a well-furnished breakfast-table, standing in the middle of a long room, with many windows in it. I looked from the table to the window farthest from me, and saw a lady standing at it, with her back turned towards me. The instant my eyes rested on her, I was struck by the rare beauty of her form, and by the unaffected grace of her attitude. Her figure was tall, yet not too tall; comely and well-developed, yet not fat; her head set on her shoulders with an easy, pliant firmness; her waist, perfection in the eyes of a man, for it occupied its natural place, it filled out its natural circle, it was visibly and delightfully undeformed by stays. She had not heard my entrance into the room; and I allowed myself the luxury of admiring her for a few moments, before I moved one of the chairs near me, as the least embarrassing means of attracting her attention. She turned towards me immediately. The easy elegance of every movement of her limbs and body as soon as she began to advance from the far end of the room, set me in a flutter of expectation to see her face clearly. She left the window--and I said to myself, The lady is dark. She moved forward a few steps--and I said to myself, The lady is young. She approached nearer--and I said to myself (with a sense of surprise which words fail me to express), The lady is ugly!

Never was the old conventional maxim, that Nature cannot err, more flatly contradicted--never was the fair promise of a lovely figure more strangely and startlingly belied by the face and head that crowned it. The lady's complexion was almost swarthy, and the dark down on her upper lip was almost a moustache. She had a large, firm, masculine mouth and jaw; prominent, piercing, resolute brown eyes; and thick, coal-black hair, growing unusually low down on her forehead. Her expression--bright, frank, and intelligent--appeared, while she was silent, to be altogether wanting in those feminine attractions of gentleness and pliability, without which the beauty of the handsomest woman alive is beauty incomplete. To see such a face as this set on shoulders that a sculptor would have longed to model--to be charmed by the modest graces of action through which the symmetrical limbs betrayed their beauty when they moved, and then to be almost repelled by the masculine form and masculine look of the features in which the perfectly shaped figure ended--was to feel a sensation oddly akin to the helpless discomfort familiar to us all in sleep, when we recognise yet cannot reconcile the anomalies and contradictions of a dream. (58-59)*****

Collins was writing his serial novel right after--and for the same periodical in which was published--Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities,****** so the extreme length of this description is probably not surprising. What is interesting about it is how Collins creates the picture of the "ugly" woman, Marian Halcombe. He begins with a brief but clear description of her surroundings, then effectively "zooms in" (this was before film, but the effect is similar) to the woman framed against the window. The subjectivity of the description comes through in the sequence in which the narrator describes the scene; he does not move objectively from left to right or top to bottom, but starts large and then focusses on the element he views as being most important. He also doesn't describe Marian all at once. His description is limited by the angle from which he can see her, and his first impression of her is summed up both in the abstract terms "beauty," "grace," and "perfection" and in the narrator's descriptive elaborations on these abstractions. By withholding the detail of her face, he centres the reader's anticipation and attention upon it and creates a certain mild suspense, which is relieved when he finally reaches that surprising abstract word: ugly.

At this point in the description, every reader should visualise what is, to him or her, an ugly woman. The shock value lies not in Marian's actual appearance but in the unexpected introduction of a subjective word that holds a specific personal meaning for each individual. However, the narrator doesn't leave it there; he outlines Marian's looks in detail, in the process showing us what she actually looks like and what he considers ugliness to be. He ends with a subjective but memorable comparison of Marian's contradictory beauty/ugliness to a dreamer's inability to reconcile the dream world with the real world. This final comment does not add to the description, but it does contribute to the reader's overall impression of the encounter by positioning this beautiful-ugly woman as almost monstrous: an unsolvable nightmare conundrum who is trapped between categories.In other words, every word counts. It's sometimes a little too easy to regard essay writing as "functional" and believe that as long as it gets your general point across, any combination of words will do. Descriptive writing demonstrates the falsity of this idea. Word choice, word order, sentence construction, order of ideas, emphasis of words and phrases, repetition, punctuation, figurative language: everything works together to draw a picture. Different configurations create different pictures. Using more words is not always ideal, either; remember how horribly boring the huge objective description above was. Concise and evocative is often the way to go.

You think I'm talking out of my rear end when I say that "Since the dawn of time" is not an acceptable phrase with which to begin an essay? Stop thinking out of your rear end. Words are important. "Since the dawn of time" means "since the dawn of time"; it is not code for, "Don't pay attention to the first sentence of this essay, which is formula and not really important." If you use stupid words and phrases, your writing will seem stupid. If you use vague words and phrases, your writing will seem vague. If you jumble words and phrases together any old how, your writing will be confusing, and your markers will tear out their hair and eat it.

The descriptive mode is a good one in which to work on preciseness of expression because it is, in a way, the mode behind many of the other modes. A pure description is not an analysis, but it is often a jumping-off point for analysis. When my art students begin to learn to analyse works of art, their first job is to describe these works; only when they have learned to see do they move on to meaning. An incomplete description makes for an incomplete analysis. The student who missed the human figure for the flowers would have had problems analysing the painting without acknowledging that figure; if she had, her interpretation would probably have constituted a misreading. Clear and accurate description is more likely to lead to clear and accurate analysis.

Descriptive essays are often termed "expository"--they are meant to inform the reader rather than to argue a point--but the truth is that even descriptions can contain arguments. They are not, however, always as structured as the arguments in persuasive papers; a descriptive thesis is sometimes implied rather than stated outright. Some of my students have just been asked by their prof to provide descriptions of imaginary rooms that they themselves must design. These rooms must make their occupants feel safe. Each student will therefore have to create a thesis revolving around why and how her room's design conveys safety; this thesis will be stated in the introduction. However, other students with a different prof are going to have to describe significant experiences in their lives: experiences about which they felt differently years later. These students will probably embed their theses in their descriptions themselves, conveying why and how their feelings changed through subjective details about their reactions. Descriptions allow scope for creativity. Adhering to sandwich method will not help you here; you would do better to fall back on your creative-writing skills. Remember that your main objective is--for whatever reason--to create a clear, memorable picture.

The next time I somehow manage to get my butt in gear and write in this blog, I'll probably be dealing with the narrative mode, which is quite like the descriptive mode, except with more action scenes. I may take a grammatical detour first, but we'll see.

*I can't ask you if she is because I am once again months ahead of myself, and she won't be appearing until November.
**Assuming you hadn't seen it yet, of course. If you had, you would probably say, "What an amazing coincidence! I was just reading this blog that went on and on about a photo of a person sitting on a log between two cliffs. I think our minds are connected." Then I would hit you.
***Me included. I once failed to recognise my second cousin when we met accidentally on a bus perhaps two days after we had had dinner together. The poor guy talked to me for twenty minutes before I was able to discern from hints in our conversation exactly who he was.
****Writers of fiction have been bludgeoned over the head with this one almost literally since the dawn of time.
*****For the full reference, see the bibliography, which I am about to create.
******The novel with the famous opening. You know: the one that goes on and on and on and on and on and on and on about times being good and bad and wise and foolish and light and dark and all sorts of other stuff that basically adds up to absolutely nothing at all, deliberately.


Ester Macedo said...

Excellent post, as usual. I´m learning a lot. I won´t talk about everything I liked about it (it´s a long post, and I liked many things about it), but two things drew my attention especially.

1. Someone was telling be about the "Third" rule in photography. Apparently, having interesting things happen one third through your frame, either from left to right, top to bottom or vice-versa makes for a very nice visual effect.

Your photograph does that in a number of ways, as is testified by the number of times the word "third" appears in the objective description. Well-done!

2. Collins´s description is really a superb example of how to mix the subjective and objective mode, and makes for an excellent choice to make your point. The description is so vivid that got all my feminist and anti-rascist nerves pinched. (The reproach is on Collins, not on you. Not that he would have cared.)

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