“I’ve seen a million faces, and I’ve rocked them all.”

When I was in high school, Bon Jovi had song called “Wanted Dead or Alive.” I’m sure you know it: “I’m a cowboy. On a steel horse I ride…”

Even when I was seventeen years old and spang in the middle of the target demographic, that claim always struck me as odd: Jon Bon Jovi, this Jersey boy with enormous, teased hair, announces that he’s a cowboy. It seems to me a person should have to choose: you can either be the front man for New Jersey’s greatest glam rock band, or you can be a cowboy, but you can’t be both. 

But that’s not even the most remarkable claim in this remarkable song. In the last verse, Jon Bon Jovi sings,

I’ve seen a million faces,
And I’ve rocked them all.

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Five Lessons on Writing from Jerry Seinfeld

This NY Times video of Jerry Seinfeld explaining his joke-writing process has been floating around the Internet for years, so you may have seen it already. But it’s well worth revisiting, especially on Fat Tuesday, a day devoted to jollity.

Watching this (for the umpteenth time), I’m struck by how many of Seinfeld’s lessons for joke-writing apply to writing of all kinds. Here are a few: 

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Love Letters–Valentine’s Day 2019

When I was a much younger man, I found myself in the greeting card section of some store or other while my young bride was shopping. To pass the time, I started reading the greeting cards–first the funny ones, then the lovey-dovey ones. And what I saw among the lovey-dovey ones shocked and mortified me: Every idea or feeling expressed in every one of those cards was an idea or feeling that I had, at one time or another, considered putting into a poem or letter to my wife.

Somehow we get it in our heads that our emotions are unique. It was a blow to my ego to stand there in the greeting card aisle and realize that all those highly refined feelings I felt about my wife had been felt before–and by enough people that those feelings could become the basis of a mass-market product! 

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Facts and Non-Fiction

A former online student wrote with a question about facts and non-fiction:

When I write, I make it a serious aim to be truthful and honest. I don’t want to force meaning into something, but bring out what’s already there, as you taught me years ago. But in order to tell something in an interesting and compelling way, sometimes you have to bring it together in an artful way that might not be 100 percent accurate. The heart of the truth is preserved—sometimes even better than it would be if you confused the issue with useless (to the reader) information … So as long as I’m concerned for the truth and kindness toward everyone I write about, is it okay to not be totally accurate? 

This writer had written up a non-fiction account of an event involving a few friends. When she showed it to one of the friends who had been there, the friend was bothered by the fact that she had telescoped several hours’ worth of events into a short scene and changed a few other details. The writer, on the other hand, was bothered by the fact that her friend was bothered.

So, how much are you “allowed” to monkey with the facts of a piece that purports to be non-fiction? At what point have you crossed the threshold from non-fiction into fiction—or into lying? I get this kind of question relatively often.

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Write Better Description

A couple of weeks ago, I hosted my first webinar, on writing vivid description. I wanted to share an example from that webinar with those of you who weren’t there.

I try not to teach from negative example, but this one sentence manages to violate all four of my guidelines for good description, so I thought you would find it instructive. Allow me to mention that this sentence was written by a person who actually writes quite well. We all have our slip-ups; and as you are about to see, this sentence is only a slip-up, not a spectacularly bad piece of writing. Here it is:

Humble little town homes sat situated above unique cafes on these quaint roads, right where renowned scholars and thinkers and poets had once walked.

See? This isn’t flagrant. It’s the kind of writing you see all the time, and under normal circumstances you might pass right by it and not think about it one way or another. And that’s part of the problem—the reader wouldn’t think about this description one way or another, or envision anything either.

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Some Tips for Portraying People

One of my Writing with Flannery O’Connor students once asked,

Do you have any tips for describing people’s physical appearances and expressions? I’ve been trying show, not tell, their personalities and emotions, but I’d like to avoid cliches such as ‘she had a heart-shaped face’ or ‘his eyes shone.’

That’s an excellent question; it can be very hard to convey a character’s physical appearance. So I thought I’d share my answer with the rest of you.

When you are describing anything in writing–a person’s face, a room, a landscape, anything, really–it is important to ask yourself how much description you need. Your goal is to give your reader just enough to look at so that he feels that he can envision the scene. But it’s a bit of a magic trick, and a bit of a balancing act, because you are actually just giving the reader the impression that he can envision the scene. If you provide too much detail, you actually pull the reader out of the scene.

When it comes to describing a person’s physical features, one or two interesting or unusual features are worth a whole lot more than five or six forgettable physical features.

One important tip I can give is not to settle for the first description that comes to mind. “She had a heart-shaped face” and “His eyes shone” are both a little lazy. The first thing to come to mind is often (though not always) a cliche. And a cliche is something that your reader could have gotten for himself. Remember, your goal is to give your readers something they couldn’t have gotten on their own.

Flannery O’Connor often comes up with surprising similes to describe her characters. In “The Displaced Person” she describes a woman as being “shaped like a peanut.” In “Greenleaf,” instead of saying a man had drawn cheeks and protruding cheekbones, she said his face is “shaped like a rough chalice.” In Wise Blood, a character said of a woman who used to take care of him, “Her hair was so thin it looked like ham gravy trickling down her skull.”

One of my favorite physical descriptions of all time comes from the opening paragraph of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces:

A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and the fine bristles that grew in the ears themselves, stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once. Full, pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black moustache and, at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs. In the shadow under the green visor of the cap Ignatius J. Reilly’s supercilious blue and yellow eyes looked down upon the other people waiting under the clock at the D.H. Holmes department store, studying the crowd of people for signs of bad taste in dress.

I mentioned above that one or two interesting details are worth more than five or six uninteresting details. But if you’re coming up with fresh, surprising details like the ones in the passage above, feel free to keep them coming.

It takes practice and unique vision to come up with images like these from O’Connor and Toole; you’ll never get there if you settle for the first descriptions that comes to mind.

It is important to remember that a character’s “physical appearance” includes a lot more than facial features. Posture, gesture, and clothing carry a lot of weight in the way we interpret a person standing in front of us. And (good news!) it’s easier to write about posture, gesture, and clothing in ways that make them distinctive than to write about facial features.

I often talk about the importance of presenting information to your reader in the way it would come in real life. But depicting people is one area of writing in which we have to make an exception to that rule. In real life, we are incredibly tuned in to people’s facial features. Think about what tiny differences in a person’s appearance you can detect in real life. If you are friends with a set of identical twins, you can probably tell them apart. But how would you describe the difference in words (without exaggerating the difference)? That would be hard. We literally don’t have the words to express the minute facial differences that our eyes can detect. So in writing, we have to rely a little more heavily on macro-features like gesture, posture, and clothing than we might in real life.

Thinking through this question has led to other interesting questions for me. I’ve been trying to think through the relative importance of facial features on the one hand, and posture/gesture/clothing on the other, when it comes to our ability to recognize other people. And I realize that it depends on how well we know the other person. Consider these two scenarios.

Scenario A: A friend puts on a costume, starts limping, and performs some uncharacteristic gesture. Do you still recognize your friend? Probably so. We are so clued into the facial features of the people we know that, while we readily notice changes in posture, gesture, and clothing, they don’t keep us from recognizing a friend or loved one. I know my wife’s face and form and movements so well that I can hardly imagine a disguise that would keep me from recognizing her.

Scenario B: You are walking laps in the park, and you pass a stranger slumped on a bench in a yellow rain slicker. On your second lap, a different person wearing a yellow rain slicker is slumped on the same bench. Do you realize it’s a different person? There’s a good chance you would not. When it comes to people we know less well, we rely more on gesture, posture, and clothing than on facial features (unless, of course, there is something unusual about their facial features).

In reading and writing, you find yourself in a situation that is closer to Scenario B. You don’t have the benefit of the eye’s keen facial-recognition powers, so gesture, posture, and clothing take on more importance.

Maybe something like Saturday Night Live is a helpful comparison: when actors in an SNL skit portray familiar celebrities, it doesn’t matter that their facial features don’t actually match up with the celebrities they portray. Gesture, posture, and clothing carry the freight.

As I have suggested already, if a person has distinctive facial or bodily features, by all means give attention to those features. But describing a person’s heart-shaped face or shining eyes probably isn’t really where the action is.

The Eye Is an Organ of Judgment

I often tell people that Flannery O’Connor once wrote “the eye is an organ of judgment.” Turns out, she never wrote that. When I typed “the eye is an organ of judgment” into the Google machine, the only thing that came back was a picture of me, from a previous issue of The Habit in which I had misquoted Flannery O’Connor. Sorry about that.

In my defense, however, I will say that my misquotation is a pretty good distillation of something that Flannery O’Connor actually did write, in her essay “Writing Short Stories,” which you can find in Mystery and Manners

For the writer of fiction, everything has its testing point in the eye, and the eye is an organ that eventually involves the whole personality, and as much of the world as can be gotten into it. It involves judgment.

She goes on to say that the student-writer is often so interested in thoughts and emotions that he neglects the concrete and sensory details where storytelling actually happens: 

He thinks that judgment exists in once place and sense-impression in another. But for the fiction writer, judgment begins in the details he sees and how he sees them.

The eye is an organ of judgment. O’Connor is specifically talking about fiction-writing in these passages, but she could be talking about any kind of writing. In fact, she could just as easily be talking about everyday life.

A familiar scenario will demonstrate what I mean: You are at a stoplight, waiting for a left-turn arrow. You’re the fifth car in line, but you know from experience that six, sometimes seven cars usually make it through before the arrow turns, so you’ll be fine. You get your arrow. The first car starts through the intersection, then the second and the third. You take your foot off the brake to move forward. Then you put your foot back on the brake because you realize that the fourth car, the one in front of you, isn’t moving. You see that the driver in front of you is looking down at his phone. You give a little tap on your horn. Nothing. The turn-arrow turns yellow. You lean on the horn. The driver ahead of you jerks his head up as if from a deep sleep and lurches forward and through the intersection just as the light turns red again. You, meanwhile, are left to wait for the next arrow.

Consider how many judgments you make in that moment. You judge that driver’s character and his home-raising. You reach conclusions regarding his ability to consider the feelings of others. You wonder how a person with such convoluted priorities could ever hold a job or otherwise contribute to society. 

How did this cascade of judgments start? It started with your eyes. You saw an arrow turn green. You saw three cars move. You saw a fourth car not move. You saw that the driver of that fourth car was looking down rather than looking ahead (you didn’t, by the way, even see a mobile phone). Those few visual stimuli were more than enough. The eye is an organ of judgment.

This brings us to the oft-repeated writing advice, “Show, don’t tell.” What’s the difference? “Showing” is simply presenting to your reader what she would see and hear (and perhaps smell, taste, and touch) if she were present in the scene where the action is happening. “Telling” is everything else–explaining, editorializing, describing what’s going on inside a character’s head, providing backstory, summarizing action, etc. Imagine there was a video camera set up in the room where the action takes place. Anything that could appear in the video is showing. Anything you write that couldn’t appear in the video is telling.

Here are two samples describing the same event; the first is all showing, and the second is mostly telling.

Sample 1 (all showing):
When the light turned green and the cars started to move, the car in front of me didn’t go anywhere. The driver just sat there, his head pointed down toward his lap, until I honked my horn…

Sample 2 (mostly telling):
When the arrow turned green and the cars started to move, the jackass in front of me just sits there, gawping at his phone as if it’s the Holy Grail or something, as if there’s not a whole line of people behind him who might have places to be. But God forbid that he should have to wait until he gets wherever he’s going to look at his texts or update his MySpace page or watch his cat videos or whatever he’s doing up there while the rest of us sit there and wait for him to notice that the world hasn’t stopped turning.

In Sample 2, everything before the first comma is showing–what anybody at the red light would see–and everything after the first comma is telling–interpretation and commentary and speculation by the writer.

The idea behind the “Show-Don’t-Tell” principle is that showing more closely approximates the way experience comes to us in real life. We gather information through our senses, then our logic and judgment go to work making sense of those inputs. When the person in front of you holds up a line of cars because he’s looking at his phone, you don’t need a narrator to tell you that he’s a self-absorbed jackass. You take in the sensory data (green arrow, no movement, driver looking down instead of looking at road), and you reach your own conclusion. And, by the way, almost everybody presented with that sensory data would reach a similar conclusion.

When you choose to show rather than tell, you are trusting that your readers’ judgment apparatus is intact, and that she will reach the appropriate conclusions without being told what conclusions to reach. But you are also trusting your own ability to show the right things that will lead the reader to the appropriate judgments. Telling is a shortcut: Here’s what I want you to think about this.

One important thing to note about showing and telling: it is hard to resist telling when you’re really trying to make a point. You want to leave sensory language behind and instead use emotional language, or maybe do a lot of explaining to drive your point home. But as counterintuitive as it sounds, writing tends to be more emotional when, instead of telling readers what to feel, you provide them with the kind of experience that evokes the emotion you want them to feel. In the two samples above, the second, more “tell-y” sample may have been more entertaining and interesting, but if you want to evoke the righteous anger we all feel when somebody else is texting and driving (a righteous anger that we don’t feel, by the way, when we text and drive), you’re better off writing something more like Sample 1, which gives the reader more space to exercise his own judgment. 

Along the same lines, if you’re trying to persuade, readers are more easily persuaded when they think they’ve reached a conclusion on their own, by exercising their own judgment, than when you tell them what to think. In both his fiction and his essays, Wendell Berry makes the case for agrarian values and rural living. When I read his essays, in which he is being openly persuasive, I want to argue back: Well, Wendell Berry, I’m glad you like living in rural Kentucky, but I quite like living where I can get decent Vietnamese food. When I read his novels, on the other hand, I want to sell out and move to rural Kentucky.

But I digress. Let us return to showing and telling. While most of us need to do more showing and less telling, it’s not at all true that you should always show and never tell. Some of the most memorable writing you’ll ever see is very tell-y (even in the two samples above, I think the second, tell-y sample is more memorable than the first). I often tell writers, however, that the way to earn the right to tell is by showing first.

If you want to read a story that is all showing and no (or almost no) telling, check out Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.” It might leave you hankering for some good, old-fashioned telling. I will say this, though: every time I read that story, I like it a little better. For better or worse, telling tends to bring more meaning to the surface, whereas showing allows for more discovery by the reader.

For further reading: The best thing I’ve ever read about showing ann telling is the chapter, “Why You Need to Show and Tell,” in Alice LaPlante’s creative writing textbook, The Making of a Story.

A Black Hat, A Wooden Leg, and a Prison-Issue Joke Book

There was this guy who got sent to prison. On his first day, he was given some prison-issue clothes, some prison-issue shoes, a prison-issue toothbrush, a prison-issue comb, and a prison-issue joke book.

That first night, as he lay in his bunk after lights-out, he heard someone call out, “Forty-seven!” and the cell block rang with laughter. Someone else yelled, “Seventy-two!” and again everybody howled laughing.

The new prisoner asked his cell-mate what was going on, and the crusty old lifer said, “By now we’ve all memorized the prison-issue joke book, so instead of telling jokes, we just tell the numbers of the jokes as they appear in the joke book. It saves a lot of time.”

Eager to make friends, the new prisoner clicked on his prison-issue flashlight and thumbed through his prison-issue joke book looking for a joke to tell. “I’ve got one!” he called out. “Thirteen!”

Silence. From the bunk below he heard his old cell-mate sigh. “Some people just don’t know how to tell a joke,” he said.

The preceding is a joke about the misuse of symbolism. I offer it here because a couple of readers of The Habit have asked me about symbols; a reader named Teresa asked how to use symbolism “without sounding preachy or cliched.” 

I’m not going to be able to say all I have to say about symbolism in one letter, so you can expect a return to this topic in the future. But let’s start where Teresa started: with preachiness and cliche. Preachiness and cliche both shortcut the process by which we communicate meaning. If I say someone is “beaming with a smile that stretches from ear to ear,” I am simply offering you an old formula that means something like “this person was very happy.” That formula keeps both the writer and the reader from having to work (or think) to convey or receive meaning. More to the point, it keeps both writer and reader from having to experience meaning.

In much the same way, preachiness reduces meaning to a formula, or an algebra problem. I’m not up for a full discussion of preachiness this morning, but let me just say that when it comes to storytelling, making sure everybody learns their lesson is not a very good way to ensure that everybody learns their lesson. In storytelling, preachiness is often a failure of faith: I insert meaning into a story when I can’t quite believe that the meaning is already there.

The numbers from the prison-issue joke book are symbols. But they can’t do the work of the jokes they represent, because a joke is an experience. A clumsy symbol–a symbol imposed from outside the narrative experience–is about as effective as a number from a joke book. It reduces meaning rather than intensifying it. The shortcut can’t get you there; you have to go the long way around. 

A well-conceived symbol, on the other hand, is a gift to the reader. And since we’re less than a week away from Flannery O’Connor’s birthday (if she were still alive, she’d turn ninety-three next Sunday, March 25)–and since nobody has been better at symbolism than she was–let’s look to her for instruction.

A good symbol, Flannery O’Connor argued, is not imported from outside the story but rather grows from within. 

In good fiction, certain of the details will tend to accumulate meaning from the action of the story itself, and when this happens they become symbolic in the way they work. 

Notice that verb become. Details become symbolic as a result of the action of the story. That’s a very different thing from dropping symbols into a story from the outside. In “Good Country People,” the main character, Joy-Hulga, has a wooden leg. It functions first as a wooden leg, but as the story continues it accumulates meaning and by the end is clearly a symbol.

Early in the story, we’re presented with the fact that Joy-Hulga is spiritually as well as physically crippled. She believes in nothing but her own belief in nothing, and we perceive that there is a wooden part of her soul that corresponds to her wooden leg. Now of course this is never stated. The fiction writer states as little as possible. The reader makes this connection from things he is shown. He may not even know that he makes the connection, but the connection is there nevertheless and it has its effect on him.

When, at the end of the story, a satanic Bible salesman steals the wooden leg, the reader is well aware that he is carrying away not just a wooden leg, but a dead and hollow soul. And there is hope that Joy-Hulga will get a living soul in its place, for, as O’Connor says, the devil “is always accomplishing ends other than his own.”

The wooden leg works as a symbol only because it first works as a wooden leg.

In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” the serial killer known as The Misfit wears a black hat, a fact that a symbol-hunter might find pretty interesting. In one of her letters O’Connor talked about a run-in with one of these symbol-hunters at one of her readings:

There were a couple of young teachers there and one of them, an earnest type, started asking the questions. “Miss O’Connor,” he said, “why was the Misfit’s hat black?” I said most countrymen in Georgia wore black hats. He looked pretty disappointed. Then he said, “Miss O’Connor, the Misfit represents Christ, does he not?” “He does not,” I said. He looked crushed. “Well, Miss O’Connor,” he said, “what is the significance of the Misfit’s hat?” I said it was to cover his head; and after that he left me alone.

Surely O’Connor was conscious of the symbolic potential of a black hat on a bad guy, wasn’t she? I should think she was. But there are other black hats in O’Connor’s body of work that decidedly don’t signify bad guys; and no matter how good a character was (though good guys are thin on the ground in O’Connor’s stories) I couldn’t imagine her putting a white hat on one unless she had reason that such a man might wear a white hat in the world God made.

So what is the difference between Joy-Hulga’s wooden leg and the Misfit’s black hat? There is no “conventional” symbolism in a wooden leg. Any symbolism attached to Joy-Hulga’s wooden leg is earned through the narrative. The connection between black hats and bad men, on the other hand, is entirely conventional. I suspect that the conventionality of that symbol–you might say its cliched nature–explains why O’Connor was so uninterested in talking about the black hat.

I need to bring this thing in for a landing, but I do want to take just a minute to talk about the use of conventional symbols in a story. Consider the wedding ring. It is a perfectly conventional sign. Somewhere along the way, people decided that a ring on the finger next to the pinkie of the left hand (the right hand in some places) signifies that a person is married. I’ve heard preachers at weddings say that the ring is a circle, and circles have no beginning or end, and that’s why the ring is an appropriate symbol of married love. But that’s just reverse engineering on the preacher’s part. A wedding ring is an entirely arbitrary sign (and a highly useful one, I might add–at least as useful as a stop sign, another arbitrary and very useful sign). If you didn’t already know what a wedding ring was, you could stare at one for ten years and never guess that it signifies holy matrimony. (Unlike, say, smoke, which is a natural sign of fire, or red and yellow leaves, which are a natural sign of autumn).

So if a character in a story takes off his wedding ring, does that symbolize marriage trouble? Even when you’re working with a symbol as fraught with meaning as a wedding ring, the true nature of that symbol still depends on the narrative. If your character takes his ring off because he has poison ivy, that’s not a very effective symbol of marriage trouble. If, on the other hand, your character takes off his wedding ring because he’s in a hotel bar and is hoping to meet single women, that act of removing the ring has begun to accumulate meaning that can make for an effective symbol of marriage trouble. 

As I said earlier, I’ve got more to say about symbolism, but it’s time to get this letter in the mail. More later.

Let Nouns and Verbs Carry the Freight

[Letter-writer’s note: It’s important to me that I write about topics that are important to you. Would you take a minute to let me know what writing-related topics you’d like me to address in future issues of The Habit? I would appreciate it very much. Click here to send me a note.]

Recently, one of my online students asked if I could diagnose the problems that made her prose sound like the work of a “sophisticated fifth-grader.” The very fact that she used the phrase “sophisticated fifth-grader” demonstrated that she was farther along in her writing than she gave herself credit for. Nevertheless, the question got me to thinking about what exactly makes prose sound like the work of a sophisticated juvenile instead of the work of a sophisticated adult (or, better yet, the work of an adult who is freed from the need to sound sophisticated). 

The first habit to come to mind was this: good but not-quite-mature writers often pile on adjectives and adverbs in an effort to make their prose more descriptive. It seems intuitive. After all, adjectives and adverbs exist for the express purpose of description: they modify nouns and verbs. True enough. But nouns and verbs are where the real action is. Your efforts are better spent finding the right nouns and verbs than adding descriptors to less precise verbs and nouns. 

If you tell a sophisticated fifth-grader to depict a home-cooked meal as vividly as possible, he is liable to start marshalling adjectives. Delicious, savory, luscious. Hot, crispy fried chicken. Flaky, buttery biscuits with sweet, fruity jelly. Firm, steamy, succulent corn on the cob. Et cetera, et cetera. The result will be descriptive in its way, but juvenile. 

Consider, by contrast the following passage from Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow, in which the narrator Jayber marvels at the fact that so many inhabitants of Port William adhere to a religion that scorns the goodness and beauty of the world in spite of the fact that they dearly love their good and beautiful world. This passage includes a description of the same meal that our fifth-grader began describing above. You will notice that there are adjectives in this very descriptive passage, but those adjectives don’t do the heavy lifting: 

The people who listened to those sermons loved good crops, good gardens, good livestock and work animals and dogs; they loved flowers and the shade of trees, and laughter and music; some of them could make you a fair speech on the pleasures of a good drink of water or a patch of wild raspberries. While the wickedness of the flesh was preached from the pulpit, the young husbands and wives and the courting couples sat thigh to thigh, full of yearning and joy, and the old people thought of the beauty of the children. And when church was over they would go home to Heavenly dinners of fried chicken, it might be, and creamed new potatoes and creamed new peas and hot biscuits and butter and cherry pie and sweet milk and buttermilk. And the preacher and his family would always be invited to eat with somebody and they would always go, and the preacher, having just foresworn on behalf of everybody the joys of the flesh, would eat with unconsecrated relish.

Forgive the long quotation. It was too good to abridge. As I suggested before, Wendell Berry doesn’t avoid adjectives altogether, but the adjectives in this passage are very straightforward: prettiest, dark, good, fried, creamed, hot, unconsecrated. The descriptive power in this passage doesn’t come from adjectives and certainly not adverbs. Where does it come from, then? Mostly from nouns. And even the nouns aren’t exciting in themselves: crops, gardens, livestock, shade, laughter, music, thigh to thigh, yearning, joy, beauty, potatoes, peas, biscuits. They may not be exciting, but they are precise, and taken together they depict the superabundance of the world where we live and move and have our being. As the above passage shows, a simple list of nouns can have tremendous descriptive power.

I should also point out that for all my harping on the importance of sticking to the concrete, I love the way Berry places abstract nouns cheek-by-jowl with those lovely concrete nouns, reminding us that yearning and joy and beauty are just as real as livestock and wild raspberries and buttermilk.

If that passage from Jayber Crow shows how a list of nouns can carry the freight in a highly descriptive passage, I want to show you one more descriptive passage that relies more on verbs than nouns. This one is by an online student from a few years ago. Again, note that, while there are adjectives, they don’t bear the load:

My brother Tim was the only boy and a revelation to all of us. He ate tempera paint, sucking it straight from the brush. He climbed onto the dining room table and jumped off of it, as high as he could, over and over and over, while our middle sister Rachel and I tried to do schoolwork. He fell into the water feature at the Botanical Gardens. He sometimes played so hard that he threw up in the grass, and then went right back to playing.

Tim is sucking paint, jumping off the dining room table, falling into the water fountain, throwing up, going right back to his play. The relentless movement in this short passage mimics the relentless movement of the little boy. That is powerful description.

I love showing this passage to writers because it demonstrates that you don’t have to be a genius to write excellent description. The writer succeeds here because she took the time to envision her little brother Tim. Then, after she had that vision fixed, she went looking for the words (in this case, mostly verbs) that best depict that vision. This is just straight-ahead, workmanlike writing, and the result is fantastic. 

I’m not suggesting that you eliminate adjectives and adverbs from your prose. Those parts of speech exist because they are exceedingly useful [exceedingly(adv) useful (adj)]. Just don’t overestimate their value relative to nouns and verbs when you’re trying to dial up the description in your writing.

“Look in thy heart, and write.” Or, failing that, look in the refrigerator.

Valentine’s Day is tomorrow (also Ash Wednesday. I shall resist the easy joke; I recommend that you do too). If you haven’t finished your love letter(s), it is now time to hunker down and put some words on paper.

Sir Philip Sidney, the sixteenth-century poet, began his sonnet cycle Astrophil and Stella with a love poem about the difficulty of writing love poems. If you only read one Sidney poem in Survey of British Lit, it was probably “Loving in truth, and fain in truth my love to show.” After listing the various ways the poet has failed to find inspiration (mostly by reading other poems), the sonnet ends with this memorable couplet:

     Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite,
     “Fool,” said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart, and write.”

I appreciate Sidney’s reminder that looking to other writers can only get you so far. Eventually, you’ve got to stop reading and face the blank page or the blinking cursor. But I’ve got some things to say about that advice, “Look in thy heart, and write.” 

If you find that looking into your own heart yields consistently good writing, I don’t have much to say to you on this Valentine’s Eve. The Lord bless you and keep you, and make his face to shine on you. For my part, looking in my heart tends to be the cause of my love-letter writing problems, not the solution. I usually don’t know what’s going on in my heart, and the more I do know, the less I’m able to put it into words. There are plenty of heart-related cliches ready to form up and march out, but my beloved deserves better than that, and so does yours.

Here’s my advice to the love-lorn writer: stop trying to describe what’s going on inside you, and instead depict what you see when you look out from your eyes. I am forever telling my writing students to use language that is concrete and sensory instead of abstract and emotional, and that advice is just as relevant for love letters as for any other kind of writing. In fact, I would say that the more emotional your subject matter, the more important it is that you keep to the discipline of concrete, sensory writing. 

In both my online writing classes and my live writing workshops, I have my students depict a highly emotional scene without using any emotional language. You’d be amazed at what comes out of that exercise; almost without exception, the effect is more sentiment with less sentimentality.

Last week I held a couple of workshops in South Carolina. One of my attendees was an accounting professor who told us that she wasn’t a writer and didn’t quite know what she was doing there. But she proved herself to be more of a writer than she knew when she read a short piece about putting her dog to sleep. On the way to the vet, she stopped at the McDonald’s drive-thru and bought her dog a last meal of chicken nuggets. When she read that, everybody in the room gasped; the look of surprise on her face was one of the best things I’ve ever seen in a writing class. This writer hadn’t even tried to put her deep emotion into words. She didn’t have to. The emotion was all right there in that gesture of feeding chicken nuggets to a dying dog. She simply told what happened and let the emotion take care of itself.

On NPR’s Morning Edition yesterday, there was a feature about love poetry (you can listen to it or read the transcript here). Consider this beautiful bit of love poetry by Jennifer Gresham:

     “Missing You”
     The blue cheese dressing rattles
     inside the refrigerator door, half-empty.
     I thought about opening it,
     drenching each red-green leaf,
     just to fill my mouth
     with something that you loved.

You don’t write that kind of poem by looking in your heart. You write that kind of poem by paying attention to what you see when a heart like yours looks out on the world.

A Last Word of Encouragement
A love letter or love poem is a daunting task. You feel that your beloved deserves better than you can give. If you don’t feel that way, you either underestimate your beloved, or you overestimate your writing ability. But beloveds are very forgiving when it comes to these things. They’re just glad you tried. A bad love letter is a whole lot better than no love letter at all. You’d better get writing.

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